Jacques Derrida was transfixed by the way his cat was apparently transfixed by the sight of his naked body in the bathroom. The scene has a hold on Jenny Diski too. It's one of those images which, once even sketchily formed, will keep reappearing on one's inner screen. Perhaps that's why the cat kept coming back to stare.
The situation filled the philosopher with a sense of "an existence that refuses to be conceptualised". Diski is more inclined to see it as a consequence of the prime directive for pet cats: if a human closes a door, the cat must insist on being let through it. Alternatively, she suggests, what's holding the cat's gaze is an object tantalisingly similar in size and form to those nature has wired it to stalk and pounce upon.
That's a scientist's way of looking at a cat: don't worry about what kind of being it is, but consider what it does. The result is a sensible and persuasive hypothesis. But Diski would not be dallying with Derrida if she was trying to concentrate on what we can know, or reasonably believe, about animals. She is repeatedly drawn to the scent of enigma and to thinkers who keep her away from conclusions. She describes this as a travel book with animals instead of travel: it's not supposed to arrive anywhere, but to come back to where it started.
There's actually a fair amount of travel, including research tourism in a Kenyan wildlife park, making observations on elephants, a reindeer-hauled jaunt in Norway, and a stay on a Somerset farm at lambing time. The main setting, however, is the author's life. She begins by reflecting upon her childhood and its uneasy connections with animals. There were chickens in pieces in the kitchen, gorillas slumped in zoo cages, soft toys and monochrome but glamorous television naturalists. It's remarkable how little she needs by way of adjective or detail to draw the reader into the confines of 1950s London.
This economy is possible because her voice is level. She is measured even when recalling periods of personal crisis, such as the delusions she suffered as a young woman that she was infested with lice; she is able to integrate these recollections quite seamlessly with abstract discussions and scenes from her recent excursions. She actually takes her inner turmoil into the field, or at any rate to London Zoo, where she is cured of a lifetime's arachnophobia in a single four-hour session of suggestion and exposure to spiders.
For a moment, it looks as though a neat ending is in prospect, but Diski starts to worry that the phobia might have been keeping some still more terrible "dark, repressed beast" out of her consciousness. Containing and managing such threats, Diski's prose affirms that writing can create dignity and elegance out of fracture and weakness. The same level tone can suggest melancholy and isolation, serenity and control, all at the same time.
She doesn't carry it off throughout. Her discussion of animals and scientists is odd in emphasis, referring frequently to behaviourism, a school of thought with its heyday long behind it; she seems to use the term to denote various kinds of science that are mechanistic and seem unsympathetic. "What scientists like to assume is that they don't exist, that they are not part of the experiment," she declares, as if it had never occurred to scientists that they frequently need to use "blind" procedures to avoid unconsciously influencing the results of experiments. Forty-odd years of observing their primate relatives in the wild have made primatologists especially self-conscious.
She has reservations about talk of "our primate relatives", italicising the phrase in a passage she quotes from the primatologist Frans de Waal. It isn't that she thinks he is "necessarily wrong about either primates or people", but that she feels uncomfortable about the place of humans in the relationships scientists create with animals. Even sympathetic ones like de Waal, she feels, are always using animals to tell stories we want to hear about people. But the theory of evolution tells us that primates are indeed our relatives: if we contemplate them we cannot help but realise things about ourselves.
We can never know what it is like to be a baboon, though, or be sure what cats really want. Having approached the problem from so many angles, and having realised that her study has been of what she doesn't know, Diski is left with the sense that our use of animals "should never be comfortable or clear-cut, never straightforward". She sums the matter up with an epigram gracefully poised above fundamental uncertainty: "Our existence on this planet is a problem, but it isn't a problem to be solved."
Marek Kohn's latest book is 'Turned Out Nice' (Faber)Reuse content