SUPERCONVERSATIONS DAY 30: SAM SACKEROFF RESPONDS TO JEAN-LUC NANCY, “OH THE ANIMALS OF LANGUAGE”.
Claude Monet, Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What makes a poem beastly? Not the presence of animals. Robert Burns’s “cowran, tim’rous beastie” invites a species of sympathy that strikes us as deeply humane, and we know all too well that the mere presence of people is no guarantee against savagery.
No, what makes a poem beastly is the place from which it is written. A beastly poem is one that is written from a place where language is stripped of its intrinsic value and submitted to either a lower or higher law—whether that be the law of the jungle, the law of the book, or the law of logic. It is a lonely place where there is no use for company and a turn of phrase is considered artful depending on how closely it resembles a tooth or spear, getting to the point by piercing through to something or somewhere else, either below or above.
There have been many beastly poems and many non-beastly ones, and most poems can move back and forth across that border depending on how they are taken. A non-beastly poem is one that allows us to do away with tooth and spear, making ourselves at home in what Michael Oakeshott called the inconclusive language of conversation.
For Oakeshott, the language of conversation is a human one, the development of which marked our graduation to the status of men and women. He writes:
“Indeed it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long that they wore out their tales.” 1
It is a delightful image and one which, insofar as it is designed to provoke and charm rather than to prove, is itself offered as a bit of poetry in prose. Though never arriving at an endpoint, the conversation Oakeshott describes is not itself pointless. It’s point is to develop the skill of conversation as such, the skill of identifying the idioms that each conversant uses and of valuing those idioms as idiomatic—ungrounded, surprising, strange. Those idioms might well be made practical, called upon to bolster this or that immediate end, but in Oakeshott’s view the ultimate end will remain the conversation itself.
I don’t know whether Jean-Luc Nancy’s poem is beastly or not because I can’t tell where it was written. I can’t tell whether the clearing he carves out between the animals below and the gods above is one where he himself feels at home, and I have no idea how much that clearing resembles Ming’s Drew-Hamilton apartment.
But I have my suspicions. There seems to be quite a lot of reverence for indifferent necessity, for the animals and gods that “live outside the languages that name them.” Can we see here the philosopher peeking out from beneath the poet’s ill-fitting tunic? Or are Nancy’s stanzas so many stages on which the philosopher performs a tragic-comic drama in which he comes to terms with the fact that he must part ways with both animals and gods, reconciling himself to the fact that he, like the poet, must make do with a language that, though it is estranged from truth—or perhaps because it is estranged from truth—might still furnish a life. Again, I don’t know.
But that’s fine. I’m interested enough in conversation to let the question hang.
Sam Sackeroff is a PhD candidate and SSHRC doctoral fellow in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University. During the 2014-2015 academic year he held a Mellon MRC Fellowship at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
 Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind: An Essay (London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959), p. 11.