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.
My daughter is one. She can’t yet talk in human words but she has a small range of sounds and acts that correspond in her mind to a particular animal. She can make a strained noise that does sound like a cow – she has to extend her neck and tip her head up to raise the sound from her belly – this is what the cow does when it makes its sound too. She can run her breath through her teeth to do an impression of a snake hissing and she has a similar noise that is supposed to sound like a bee. She can pop her mouth in a way that is supposed to be like a rabbit nibbling. I helped her learn it but it isn’t something I’ve seen rabbits do – they tend to be quiet animals and only give off a peal of high-pitched bubbling sounds when fighting or under attack.
Prospero’s books shared with the animal the capacity to drown. In a lecture on Samuel Beckett, J.M. Coetzee suggests a similarity between Moby Dick the white whale, and the physical object in which the whale swims: the book Moby Dick. The whale’s body is described as a white wall – a page. Coetzee says that Samuel Beckett’s characters do not have the imagination to dream up something as huge and unknown as Moby Dick – they ‘do not have harpoons’ to assail the white wall – ‘only pencils at most’.