'This You'll Call Sentimental, Perhaps': Animal Death and the Propriety of Mourning
Contributor(s)University of New England
KeywordsBritish and Irish Literature
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AbstractIn recent decades literary historians, particularly in the field of American studies, have argued that sentimental texts are atypically self-conscious about their ambition to radically reconceive civil relationships and collective obligations by disclosing the voices and interests of marginalized social subjects (Menely 246; Tompkins xi; see also Dillon 495-523, as well as extended discussions in Cohen and Berlant). This argument can be extended by examining several situated accounts of the way in which the expression, analysis and experience of intense attachment, love, gratitude, disappointment, grief and despair over the loss of pet dogs reinforces and disrupts the cultural work attributed to sentimentality and sentimental texts. The writings of Jane Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Michael Field suggest that the loss of pet animals was a profoundly conflicting experience for the authors. Yet these experiences were not only routinely dismissed by their contemporaries as sentimental, but were also perceived to be a threat to 'legitimate' emotional, ethical, and political attachments, that is to say, to family, God and other human animals. While it is commonplace to dismiss loving animals, especially pets, as inherently sentimental, this essay is premised on the argument that in this era of the Anthropocene the question of grieving for animal deaths is a political act because, as Judith Butler points out, it is about which lives get to count as life. Butler's recent work has insisted that questions about who is entitled to mourn, and who is mournable, are at the heart of social intelligibility. To deny the right to mourn, or to make a human unmournable, is to deny them social tangibility. Butler's argument is that disavowing the life of another and being unable to mourn always disavows the life as such - it does not just cede the one you care for into social unintelligibility, but also cedes part of yourself into the same social unintelligibility (Stanescu 568). This important insight can be brought to bear on animal lives and the way in which an uncritical discourse of sentimentality has functioned to disavow mourning for animals: the beloved pet, a subject deemed to lead a trivial life, is definitionally considered less mournable than that of a human animal.