Animal Gaze

When I arrive home after some time away I sometimes notice the fact that my house has its own particular smell, a smell that has nothing to do with me — it was there when I arrived and it has remained the same through the decades that I have lived in the house. I do not notice it when I am living in it any more than I notice my cat looking at things until the cat turns to look at me. When the cat turns to stare at me I realise that the animal can see me. The moment feels charged. The animal hunts me down. It is not a comfortable feeling. I realise that I do not know the terms of engagement between myself and the animal and it occurs to me that the animal knows.

Many writers have written about the gaze of the animal – in particular I love John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ and Jacques Derrida’s passage about standing naked in front of his cat and feeling ashamed of his nakedness, and feeling ashamed of his shame.

Humans have to rely on what they see. Our eyes are usually our most acute sense. To put it differently, the human is a more visual animal than almost all other animals. It is likely that many if not most other animals are aware of the way their environment feels or smells or sounds much more than they are aware of its looks. Before a cat turns a sharp corner in a road, for example, she won’t attempt to find another viewpoint but will try to position herself downwind – to catch wind coming down on her nose. She will create a more accurate impression of the unknown geography on the other side of the bend by smelling rather than by seeing. She can map the territory by its smell better than by sight.

And so there is a kind of humour to the way an animal gaze gives a kind of thrill and that it is this gaze which makes us consider the animal mind as if it were present behind its eyes. This gaze looks like a projection or reflection – it belongs to the human onlooker. Is it possible that the cat was conscious of the sight of naked Jacques Derrida only as much as Derrida was thinking consciously about the smell of the cat? He doesn’t mention any smell in his writing. He was thinking about what he saw – what he saw was the cat looking at him. When a tiger turns her face towards people standing on the other side of the wall at the zoo, it is natural for the humans to notice her small eyes pointed towards their colourful clothing. But her gaze has a different nature. She can make out out discrete, small, heavy, moving bodies that define themselves by where they block out the wind or leak warmth. Each human body leaves an impression in her air.