Becoming-Animal Debate – Part Two


Another topic of conversation for Saturday’s panel was the relationship between our fantasies and our reality. Our myths, stories and images are imbued with and saturated by becoming-animal images, from the horned Sorcerer cave painting at Trois-Frères to our myths and fairytales, from Actaeon and Arachne to Beauty and the Beast and the Frog Prince. But do these stories, which seem to either romanticise or revile the possibility of becoming-other, really have anything to do with the reality of encountering the animal; with the language, dialogue or being of the frog or spider in our back garden?

And what about the “prejudice” of our fantasies? Why do we tell stories – and choose inspiration from – wolves and bears, stags and otters, but find it harder, perhaps, to engage with – and wonder about – slugs and snails, woodlice and worms. Even those larger animals who we encounter regularly – cows and horses and chickens – seem less often to be the subject of our animal-encounter imaginings than do those exotic creatures whom we no longer often have the opportunity to really meet.

As Sophie Renouf, today’s featured writer, puts it, can our stories – and our art – connect us back to the simple “mundaneness of becoming or being animal”; even those animals we find it near impossible to connect to via the tales we tell?

Today’s story works with all of these issues, taking a figure “whose literary heritage…is one of transformation, otherness, and the destabilisation of all her known structures” to explore the possibility of “finding an appreciation for the existence and experience of even the most abject of beings.” Enjoy.

The Slug and/is Alice

Alice saw clearly neither the conversation nor the leaves; they belonged to the same bush of pointless mind-noise. She saw clearly nothing. Annoyingly, the clear brilliant anger that resulted after the exchange with her father was losing its clarity with so much out here invading her senses. So resilient was she to invasions – by fathers, by silly suburban gardens – she barely acknowledged the gentle tapping of the leaves at the door of her perception: the wet green, the gentle wind, the jarringly imperfect paving stones that edged the garden with their blunted corners and risen edges, and the soft, near-silent chant of the grass; without realising it herself, these were all having an apocalyptic affect on the reconstruction of her conversation, and the reclaiming of the anger that she had earned.

Eyes closed, head full of words, words that were supposed to define feelings,mine, mine, then, before, forever, words now muddled by the new atmosphere of outsideness, of crisp autumn morningness, she leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette, exhaled slowly gently tearing the taste of the trout she had for breakfast off her tongue. She opened her eyes, which fell upon a large slug that was right next to the toe of her shoe. Immediately, instinctively, she drew her foot up to her chair.

Something in the slug’s slow, generous, near non-movement, caused her to stare at it. She despised it. She was fascinated by it. Gratefully, albeit with repulsion, she was transfixed. Exhaling, she wondered what would happen if she put her cigarette out on the thing. She would never do that of course, yet what if… or salt? People say that if you put salt on a slug it shrivels and dies.

But she did not move, she stared, somewhat paralysed with disgust, somehow moved by its minute focus, a focus becoming her own. Salt. Slug. Trout. A tremor fell upon her and a need to curl into a ball, to fix herself still, make herself immovable. And in the kitchen her father put the kettle on and the sound of his clattering in the cupboard, in the fridge, did not reach her. Just before all the sounds of the garden dropped away, she heard them truly, clearly, like delicate threads of music for the first and last time.

She chose… she wanted… a new mortal coil… With a feeling of falling, Alice descended to be the slug.

With a feeling of falling the world she knew as hers dropped away.

She was the slug.

She had disappeared from her chair.

She was now between the cracks, in the deft white lines ignored by the reader. Down, in the paving stones, she was. She now did not know that she did not know that she knew nothing about that world that had recently been hers.

And it is here we have lost her to a world of sheer imagination, which makes it no less real. One which we perpetually circle, only occasionally nudging with the toe of our shoe before retreating to the safety of its outskirts, retreating to Alice’s world when all the while we have unwittingly been sharing the same wonderland as the slug.

So we try to see this union of beings now, to enter the narrative of the slug…She is… He is… It is… Just I now. Not I… How can there… I?

Just slug slither forward across pavement.

Oh to be what?

Since we cannot possibly know what makes up the slug’s being, we have the imperfectly imagined garden slug as mysterious and distant, as ignored and scoffed at, as the unicorn.

Something that human’s call peace or calm we might imagine the slug possessing, as we try to imagine the slug.

‘Slow who? Slow what? What is slow? I be, I be, I be’ it does not think as it be, it be, it be.

He/she must produce mucus in order to survive.

Wrapped in an almost metallic shimmer of slime the slug progressed, moving out of time, leaving time, from where and when Alice had first seen it.

The slug continued passage. Soon it might reach the potted plant.

An un-watered bunch of forget-me-nots bowed without sorrow over the ceramic edge. The slug’s tentacles outstretched to the curious phenomenon of daylight.

Meanwhile the crisp garden continued to flutter. To look at it would be to see nothing of the undoing, the remaking, the becoming of Alice.

It is not peace, not relief, not calm, just being. Just being. Traces of Alice have remained in the transformation. But she is no longer important. She is no longer she. Made up mostly of water and water is a body, a body of water on stone with flesh and she/he entangled in the earth closer than ever to the soft slow pulsing constant, change, slow and free. Now. From the need for still. Alice renewed herself without ever knowing how lucky she was to do so. Slugs may not believe in luck.

No more Alice-as-she-were, she is swallowed into shell-less-ness. No human voice to whisper forget-me-not, but a slug’s voice that is heard only on another plane of being that is so eternal – and so too terrifying – for human to dare hear.

(Yet every now and then a wise child turns over a log and looking at the garden slug sees herself. Unaware of the arbitrary nature of her own physiology, her own biology, her ‘me’, she finds perfect, wordless, harmony. Like the slug she does not labour with fruitless analysis or poetics. Instead she sees the true difference and sameness of herself with all else, a sense as yet unrestricted by the labels she will be taught at school.)

The slug now hungry begins to move towards the few plants, messily protruding from beneath the bush. Indeed, it is unaware of the slug pellets planted by Alice’s father. Could it be considered a tragedy, if Alice had already dissolved once, for what remained of her in the slug to dissolve again? Her father would never know that the tears for his daughter ought to be shed at a very specific area at the end of the garden. Pesticide-infanticide. More importantly how does it feel for a slug to perish? The slug is now shuddering, quivering; all tentacles stretched rigid, senses drained opaque. The slug did not know what was happening to the slug except something foreign was invading its body and naturally needed to be rejected. It was something predatory, something trying to steal the water, the elixir of life.

Like all other beings the slug experiences the encroaching un-being and fights – if it has time – denies, rejects… before accepting, through the body alone, the moment of expiration. As we all must, as we all will.

Though this is not the moment of the death of the slug.

Distractingly, another slug was moving towards her/him. A different kind of urge now motivated; death narrowly escaped for the necessity of life. The slug was only a little damaged. One tentacle had fallen off, but these things grow back.

Through a combination of muscle contraction and slime the slug moves. Upon its own lubricant the slug gets around. The two slugs circle one another. And now. Entrance. The penis of the other slug becomes stuck and she/he generously chews it off. The new mate becomes she. Both slugs move off to lay their eggs. This is their only encounter.

It was an eventful day for our particular slug, aided by the damp weather.

It lay low for a while, safely.

There must be more than one reality. There must be myriad ways of seeing. There must be dimensions we have not learnt to access. But myths are dispelled and séances ridiculed… with good reason: in order to operate on another level we merely need to be open to a spiritual encounter with a slug. To catch an animal, to catch yourself, the animal, debunk your own myth.

But the everyday, the most feasible, the most probable of meetings is too remote for us. The garden slug is beyond the realms of our imagination.

Alice, of course, has not gone entirely. She is now a ghost, on our peripheral, on the edge of the story, but certainly not known to the rest of her mollusc-self. Because she is a human ghost she asks to be remembered; she cannot fully relinquish the sigh of forget-me-not. But the slug will leave no permanent trail. Embodying the fearless space of the temporary, the slug has no sense of the temporal; who could not envy the slug?

The slug has been more than a host. She/he has been Alice and Alice has been she/he. As close to the warm heartbeat of the earth as she will ever be, as close to the legendary flow beneath its surface, as close to the real, pulsating, alive, true meaning- Ah, there is that word, meaning…

Alice of the human world, Alice of words and patterns and meanings, Alice who must articulate desires, Alice who argues with her father, is re-emerging from the undergrowth. She is reluctantly, as though asleep, peeling her sticky body from the warm safe earth behind the paving stones. She is briefly in the cracks, between the two worlds that are one world, neither being slug nor being human, and finally no longer being. The moment has passed. Rubbery, covered in dirt, the sound of her father in the kitchen returns but the sound of the garden never will, unless she again chooses… But there are arguments to be had, thoughts to think, and books to read.

We do not know what happened to the slug next. We might imagine that one of the large frogs from next door’s garden hopped into Alice’s and gobbled the slug, whose protest was to harden, contract, form a ball and self-lubricate to the point of becoming liquid before finally yielding to the frog, who has his own story to tell. Alice knows one chapter of the slug’s story but she cannot retell it because it was not learnt in language.

Alice re-entered her house, a little damp.

—  Sophie Renouf