Éric Baratay and the Animal Point of View

Today I would like to share with you a review of a book that I have recently read. The original has been written by a French author – Éric Baratay and the author of its Polish translation is Paulina Tarasewicz.

I can recommend it to all Polish speaking readers and to all of you who know French and feel comfortable reading in this language. Unfortunately, I have not found anything about an English translation – it seems that this book has not been translated into English so far which is a great pity, as I perceive it as a very important and valuable publication.

Reading this book took me quite a lot of time (about 1.5 months). Usually, I need much less time to finish reading a book, but this one has been exceptionally difficult to go through. Not because it is badly written – but because of the situations it describes.

Éric Baratay and his history from animal perspective

Anyone who has ever studied history of the human kind is certainly aware of the fact that it is mostly very depressing. Conflicts, wars, exploitation of certain social or ethnic groups, murders, genocide and other crimes… these events have ocurred at all stages of human history. Such circumstances are usually well documented, analysed and commented widely by historians in the following epochs. However, hardly anyone notices that people have not been the only participants of the historical turmoil. We tend to forget that since the very beginning and at all stages of their history, humans have been accompanied by animals.

The animal perspective

Éric Baratay is a professor of history at the Jean Moulin University in Lyon. He’s an author of many books in the field of animal studies. In the book “Le point de vue animal. Une autre version de l’histoire” he undertakes a challenging task of presenting the last few centuries from animals’ perspective. He attempts to depict, in a possibly impartial manner, the feelings and experiences of animals resulting from the roles imposed on them by humans.

How can you possibly document the point of view of creatures that have not left any written sources? It obviously constitutes a huge challenge. Therefore, there is no other option than to use the testimonies left by humans. Baratay’s book is based on scientific works of veterinary doctors and memories of soldiers, miners, farmers and other people who worked with animals on a daily basis. He also frequently quotes literature describing the reality in the analysed time periods.

It is not difficult to guess that animal history is mostly a chronicle of pain and suffering inflicted on them by humans. In his book, Baratay analyses stories of animals raised for meat, milk or skins, but also coal mining horses, bulls forced to fight in Spanish corridas, dogs (both domestic and working) and even carrier pigeons. A considerable part of the publication is dedicated the selective breeding of animals – which is a process used by humans to satisfy their current needs or simply to follow the fashion.

In the beginning of this post I mentioned that the book was a very difficult piece of reading for me. Why? Because of the very detailed and drastic descriptions of animal suffering: diseases, wounds, hunger or emotions such as fear or longing of their lost companions or their children that have been taken away from them. The most disturbing is the long chapter “Le Fardeau de violences” – which in English stands for “The burden of suffering”. However, I felt that I should read carefully the entire book out of respect for the author who has done a huge amount of work preparing this publication (the list of sources he has used is over 30 pages long!) in an attempt to present the animals’ perspective in a thourough anf fair-minded way.

To cheer you up a little bit I can tell you that the book is not only about suffering. It also contains a chapter (La chaleur des connivences) describing a brighter side of human-animal relations. The author shares some heartwarming stories of friendships between people and animals and describes cases of people showing exceptional care and empathy towards their four-legged companions.

Animals as subjects

The book is written in a spare, dry language which sometimes might seem as completely dispassionate. It may make you think of a history textbook, a master or a PhD thesis. This is not a piece of reading that you would choose for fun or pleasure but to gain some knowledge and broaden your perspective. This is why I’m a bit worried – for many people it might be a discouraging factor. We seem to be living in an image culture and in a world of quick, easily digestible information. Books are more and more often pushed aside as too heavy and time-consuming, especially the ones that are not pleasant but require a very focused reading. Nevertheless, I hope that some people will be interested in reading the book by the French historian. I believe publications like this one are extremely important as they appeal to people to recognize the animal subjectivity, with the entire spectrum of emotions the non-human beings are capable of feeling – which, even today, many people are trying to deny in an attempt to justify the animal exploitation by humans.

Baratay highlights that every animal – as every human being – is a unique creature, with the whole range of individual character traits. The book is an important contribution to the debate about animal rights and human-animal relations, hence it is definitely worth reading because it helps us to better understand the animal point of view.

Le Point de vue animal. Une autre version de l’histoire, Éric Baratay, Le Seuil, 15th March 2012

Polish translation Zwierzęcy punt widzenia. Inna wersja historii by Paulina Tarasewicz, Gdańsk 2014, Wydawnictwo w Podwórku

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