‘The hyena is my favourite – my totem – animal’

‘The hyena is my favourite – my totem – animal’
The Guardian, by John Burnside

We need to be attuned to the shifting and transformative mystery of everyday life.

For some time, I have been suffering from a condition that, for want of a better term, I shall call "critical nostalgia". Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: what ails me is a whole set of different, though intimately related nostalgias that, like the various symptoms of a rare disease, point to what is lacking in my day-to-day subsistence as a slightly askew inhabitant of the social realm. One of these symptoms is nostalgia for the present: the feeling that, as I experience the moments of the day, I am always being distracted, or interrupted – as with Muzak or traffic noise or celebrity gossip – so that the majority of those moments never entirely unfold or cohere, sliding quietly from anticipation to memory, without ever being properly savoured. Alongside this loss of the here and now, which I experience as a form of actual and often deliberate theft, there is also a nostalgia for a lost or hidden self, for the unsocialised not-person whose dreamlife – both sleeping and waking – forms the lyrical ground of my being. That I cannot speak about this creaturely dreamlife life in everyday discourse – because it is close to inexpressible, in everyday terms, perhaps, but also because societal convention dismisses that life – is a source of frustration, and even pain to me. Every day, as I perform the prescribed rites of personhood, I feel that I am simultaneously betraying that dreamlife, and so collaborating with those powers and principalities whose job it is to keep me more or less tame.

As the human ecologist, Paul Shepard, showed, what underlies these nostalgias for the here and now and the creaturely self, is a nostalgia for the animals. That animals live more fully in the present I do not doubt, and I have every reason to believe that my creaturely self is kin to the creaturely everywhere; but the terrain I occupy, the landscape through which I make my mostly virtual way, is, as Shepard pointed out, remarkably sparse when it comes to animal life. We are, most of the time, painfully remote from the wild; the few animals we encounter are domesticated and so denatured and, because we have mostly forfeited the wild creatures that surround us, we have forgotten the sensation of the creaturely in ourselves. Yet many of us feel a vivid nostalgia for that creaturely condition – and this nostalgia, I would argue, is a form of critical thinking, the diagnosis of a real lack, and of a theft that a whole society perpetuated upon itself as it slid into what Shepard saw as our current infantilised condition.

The creaturely, the wild, the soulful animality of live being – how we lost it is one thing (and Shepard describes that history better than anyone), but how we recover it, and what we do to protect and respect it in ourselves and in the world about us, is another. This is not a question of conservation now; it’s the urgent matter of self-preservation: to live, to fully be, we have to renew our kinship with the creaturely world (not with some other, like "Nature", or "the biosphere", but with the inclusive and continuous realm of animate being) and one approach to this is to become a kind of amateur shapeshifter, assuming the identity of a chosen animal and so renewing one’s own creatureliness by a process of affinity and rehearsal, as a shaman or a masked dancer might do in some so-called "primitive" society. Of course, it’s an imaginative act that I propose here, nothing more. To become, to partake, to rediscover a sympathy with a totem animal in order to reveal the hidden self’s full creatureliness. A serious game to combat all the virtual diversions and mere entertainments: to wrap oneself imaginatively in the skin of a jaguar, or a mouse, or a red deer. Or in my case, a hyena.

The hyena is my favourite – my totem – animal. For me, there is no special mystery to the lion: he’s a smug fatcat, the "king of the jungle" only because he looks the part (to us), but the hyena is the king of nothing. The hyena comes and goes, it is indeterminate and truly mysterious; mistaken for some bizarre sub-class of the dog family, hyenas are actually a breed apart, a wayward strand of the world’s DNA like the fanalouc, or the civet and, even when encountered face to face, (sadly, in my case, at zoos or through a lens) there is an elusiveness, a near-divine secrecy in its gaze that is both beautiful and unnerving. Most of all – and I am wholly aware of how bizarre this will sound – there is something erotic about hyenas, about the way they move, about their smell, about the fact that they seem to flit back and forth between our world and the nothingness that haunts all being. If I could be transformed into any other creature, I would choose to be a hyena, for one night at least; if I could taste that otherworld, even for only a few hours, I would be profoundly grateful. Yet when I remember that one of the oldest tasks of art is to enact ritual, I see that this crossing is, in a real sense, possible to the imagination and, at times, writing or dreaming about the hyena, I feel I have spent a few fleeting moments in another place, as my creaturely self, wholly in the present – and that has changed something, not just in me, but in my relationships with other creatures and in the sense I have that making a poem can make a difference, in any number of surprising and apparently fanciful ways: to how the world unfolds, to what art and ritual dramatically enact and, most of all, to how rich or impoverished I feel in what the powers-that-be would reduce to subsistence consumerism. Dreaming the hyena, I begin to be attuned to what every cell of my inner creature tells me is, in fact, the one Magnum Mysterium: the constantly shifting and transformative mystery of everyday life.