Im/mortal Perspectives: The “Useful Dead” in Contemporary Fiction
This paper explores how contemporary novelists incorporate a range of im/mortal characters to confront conditions marked by what Deborah Bird Rose terms “double death,” and more specifically, to figure the future of traditional human-animal relationships at the crux of histories of genocide and extinction. It focuses on two contemporary novels, Linda Hogan's People of the Whale (2009) and Robert Barclay's Meļal: A Novel of the Pacific, (2002) both of which place indigenous hunters in scenes where a traditional chase of a whale and a dolphin, respectively, is botched. Within the narratives, the hunts are critiqued by not only people seeking protection for animal “victims.” The hunters’ long-dead ancestors and their gods also enter these scenes, and instead see ill-equipped people from tribal communities devastated by the colonial legacy injured or killed, and members of species whose future is likewise threatened and suffering prolonged, painful deaths, all as a result of radical ruptures to patterns of cross-species intimacy via massive-scale resource extractions and nuclear weapons testing.
To consider how the stories depict the influence of these supernatural – or, more appropriately, multi-natural – characters as highly contingent on the responsiveness of mortals to indigenous knowledges, I adapt Vinciane Déspret’s concept of “the useful dead” to literary analysis. As both immaterial specters and the stuff of history – things with a distinctly disembodied presence -- the useful dead people a category of thinginess that is distinct from all other things by nature of the response they inspire among the living. Their particular figurations in these novels suggests further a way of understanding how fiction itself participates in forming the response that is the thing that reanimates the useful dead in social life – that is, how it creates more hopeful ways of caring and knowing through what Steve Baker characterizes as “language that is somehow closer to its objects, enlivened by its objects,” especially “its dead objects.”
Susan McHugh, Professor and Chair of English at the University of New England, USA, is the author of Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines (Minnesota, 2011) – which was awarded the Michelle Kendrick Book Prize by the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts in 2012 -- as well as Dog (Reaktion, 2004). She coedited Literary Animals Look, a special issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture (2013) with Robert McKay, and The Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies (Routledge, 2014) with Garry Marvin. McHugh serves as Managing Editor of the Humanities for Society & Animals, and she is a member of the editorial boards of Antennae, Animal Studies Journal, Environment and History, H-Animal Discussion Network, and Humanimalia: A Journal of Human-Animal Interface Studies.