Interview. The French philosopher and poet talks about his book ‘The Animal Side.’ ‘The strong arm of anthropocentric arrogance has no other aim than to continue its reign.’

Jean-Christophe Bailly on furtive encounters with another (non-human) world

The French philosopher, writer and poet Jean-Christophe Bailly has had a long career as a professor of Landscape History at the École Nationale Supérieure de la Nature et du Paysage in Blois. His genre-bending books allow the reader to venture into solemn musings and at the same time immerse oneself in sophisticated detail. He began to be published in Italy in translation a few years ago; among others, some of his published works in Italian include L’apostrofe muta. Saggio sui ritratti del Fayum (Quodlibet, 1998), L’istante e la sua ombra (Bruno Mondadori, 2010), Il tempo fermato. Piccola conferenza sulle immagini (BookTime, 2012), Il partito preso degli animali (Nottetempo, 2015), La frase urbana (Bollati Boringhieri, 2016).

English titles can be found here.

He has also written plays, notable for their speculative elegance: for instance, Pandora (Christian Bourgous Éditeur, 1992), in which he tells two “unfinished” stories, one of the painter Piero della Francesca, a clear and linear tale, and another, starting from the titular Greek myth, which is a complex and detailed examination of the very human question “What have you done?” which cannot be answered except in an imperfect and uncertain manner.

Paths, shadows, vanishing points, journeys, hands—these are just some of the conceptual shadings that Bailly plays with in his literary experiments, carefully crafted inlays of images and words.

Now, Edizioni Contrasto has published his The Animal Side (Il versante animale, 94 pages, €18.90, translation by Matteo Martelli), once again a work at the intersection of literature, philosophy and visual arts, which condenses in a striking manner the dedication that the French intellectual has shown over the years towards living beings. The edition is adorned by cover photos by Georges Shiras, a 19th-century photographer from Pennsylvania who pioneered nighttime flash photography to take pictures of animals.

The aesthetic audacity of Bailly, for whom thought is synonymous with “spontaneous assembly,” together with his passion for art history, are most recognizable in the theoretical background of this latest translation, which is in recurring dialogue with the works of Jacques Derrida and those of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

On Sunday, he was a guest speaker at the “Più libri più liberi” fair in Rome, together with Andrea Cortellessa.

The Animal Side is a work first published in France in 2007 (then republished in 2018 by Bayard Editions). One of its striking aspects is that it is an evocative and poetic text that recounts a special epiphany involving non-human beings: the emergence of a deer from the night, in all its trembling presence. What moved you to write it?

This nocturnal encounter with a deer on a country road happened when I had already written most of the book, but for the reader it plays out at the beginning, like an opening. And that’s what it was for me, in its living reality: although I’ve had the opportunity to see plenty of animals, in Africa for example, the apparition of this roe deer on that night moved me in a particular way, and I try to explain what I felt and why I had the impression that I was cast, thanks to her, on the threshold of another world, or another version of the world. I experienced this subtle crack in time as a valued conquest.

You write that “there are only passages, furtive sovereignties, opportunities, escapes and encounters.” Does the concept of “open” that is tied to the animal also signify the freedom of that sovereign passage? 

Most of our encounters with wild animals are furtive, although sometimes, as is of course the case with domestic animals, rapport can be established with them. However, what we have before us is always an absolute difference. Even if we forget it, the cat, the dog, the horse come to remind us. To encounter animals, to see them exist and, even more, to meet their gaze, is to enter a plane of existence in which we find ourselves in front of a sort of immediacy of the unknown, as on a threshold that we cannot but cross. And in this unknown dimension, the animal, whatever it may be, always seems to be at home. In any case, it is on the other side, within that “open” that Rilke spoke about. And there, for us, it is free.

From Piero di Cosimo to Caravaggio, there are numerous aesthetic references you use to describe the intensity of the gaze: seeing, observing, piercing and embracing. In how many ways can the visible be recounted?

There is an unrest, a haste in the animal gaze, and the eye of the donkey in Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (but I could have also mentioned the donkey behind Watteau’s Pierrot) looks out with paradigmatic force. What happens between this gaze and our own? What happens to the visible when we know it is observed by others besides ourselves? What do they see? We do not understand it well, but the mere thought of this extension of the gaze broadens the visible, emancipates it.

Your work on imagery is also present in the way in which you find connections. Is the movement of thought always an open conversation? 

The thought that is born in forward movement, that is born in contact with things or that unfolds in writing is always solitary, but this solitude is not a lonely one—it is rather overfilled, as the thought bounces from connection to connection. “Connecting to infinity,” as Hölderlin put it: this is, or should be, its movement. Thus, along the way, we cross paths with many images and names that arise spontaneously: the doors are thrown wide open.

Between nature reserves and factory farms, there are many ways in which anthropocentric arrogance manifests itself. How does one reckon politically with this suffering of the animal?

Intensive farming, on the one hand, and the destruction of the land that makes life possible for wild animals on the other are both outrageous. It is insane to witness the end of certain species, whether they are appreciated (like the tiger) or not (like many insects). It is absurd that in the face of this threat, which, over time, brings with it the specter of the annihilation of whole biotopes and the generalized extinction of wildlife, human beings are doing nothing, or almost nothing. Those who are aware of the danger and are talking about it are only listened to perfunctorily by those in power, and this is a tragedy. It’s clear that people’s behaviors and habits should completely change, but this can’t be done within the framework of capitalism: whether liberal or state-run, it’s the strong arm of anthropocentric arrogance and has no other aim than to continue its reign.

Your interest in non-humans comes from a faraway starting point, which begins with the enigma of the living. In the essays contained in your collection Le parti-pris des animaux, we can follow what you were investigating between 2003 and 2011, in the period when you published The Animal Side. What has changed in your vision today?

Between those years and today, the difference is that the situation has worsened and awareness of the ecological disaster has increased. As a result, there is a wave of publications dedicated to animals (and plants) and the forms they give to life, something that wasn’t there before, even just 10 or 15 years ago. I still think about seeing each of these life forms as a point of intensity and each intensity as resistance—but under a more darkened sky.

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