Anymals, Poems, Empathy. A Zoopoetical Study

Tirza Henrike Gerarda Brüggemann

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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Summary A vast body of research addresses the relationships between empathy and novels figuring human protagonists, and the notion that novel reading as a kind of ‘empathy training’ meets little skepticism. As the saying goes, readers can live a thousand lives in the minds of the characters in the novels they read. How different the case when the protagonists are anymals instead of humans. This study focuses on zoopoetry to explore the intricate relation between anymals, poems, and empathy. It addresses the abyss between the anymal and the human, whether an abyss of knowledge or of phenomenal experience, to argue that poets who write about anymals employ ‘zoopoetical tools’ to bridge the gap between the two worlds. They employ an array of traditional poetic tools such as rhythm and metaphor, but they also draw from a previously unnamed zoopoetical lexicon to illustrate how the assumed abyss between the anymal and the human is in fact based on speciesism and Cartesian dualism. In his article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), the philosopher Thomas Nagel provocatively argues that we are unable to know what it is to feel bat-like. We might be able to imagine to a certain extent what it is to fly around and catch insects in our mouths, he writes, but then we only know what it is like for us to behave like a bat, whereas we can never know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. In trying to imagine what a bat experiences, we stumble on a line we can never cross, between our own subjective worlds and the phenomenal experience of the bat. Researchers in both literary studies and biology often invoke Nagel’s example and presume a skeptical stance concerning the knowability and envisionability of the phenomenal experience of anymal others. In this vein, Jenny Diski writes that there is “an abyss of knowledge that we simply can’t cross” (73). Three central oppositions emerge from speciecism and Cartesian dualism to complicate explorations of zoopoetical anymals: anthropocentrism versus anymals as themselves; projectivism versus empathy or sympathetic identification; and anymals inside a text versus anymals outside a text. Note that the tension in these oppositions is less felt when human subjects receive poetic attention. Zoopoetical anymals, however, seem to be inevitably anthropomorphised by poets and readers alike. As a result, empathy seems to become an unattainable ideal; with whom would we be empathising? In this study I argue, however, that many of these assumptions about anymal minds are based upon Cartesian dualism. This study, therefore, is driven by two central questions that counter these assumptions. In what ways does zoopoetry confront and unsettle Cartesian dualism? How do instances of perspective shift and empathy evoked through zoopoetry contribute to the empathy debate? These questions are not straightforwardly answered. Instead, the chapters show a hermeneutical to-and-fro movement between the poems, philosophical ideas, and the topic of empathy.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Oostdijk, Diederik, Supervisor
  • Siertsema, Bettine, Co-supervisor
  • Steenbergh, K, Co-supervisor
Award date17 Sep 2021
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
Print ISBNs9789086598540
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sep 2021


  • Anymals, Poems, Empathy, Other minds


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