Jessica Hahne, Mortality and the Nonhuman

ENGL 433

Prof. Dimock

Human Life and Relation to the Nonhuman in Light of Mortality:

“All is Vanity,” “All is Fear,” or “All is Whole”?

By: Jessica Hahne

“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the

children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put

eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the

beginning to the end. […] I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is

testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the

children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.

They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All

go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of

man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”

–Ecclesiastes 3:9-11,18-21 (English Standard Version)

In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the writer (often cited as Solomon, the king of

God-given wisdom) searches for meaning in human life in the face of inevitable mortality.

He contemplates possible paths to purpose and fulfillment in life—working hard, living

wisely, chasing ambition, seeking wealth—but reaches the same inevitable conclusion

every time: because human beings will eventually die, everything they do in this life is

“vanity.” He meditates ethereally in verse 3:11 that God “has made everything beautiful in

its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God

has done from the beginning to the end.” Although Solomon is convinced that God has

made human beings with the intuition that there is a great, overriding purpose to reality,

he also sees that actually grasping that purpose seems to be beyond humanity’s reach.

At the end of Chapter 3, Solomon questions whether humanity is really even unique

as one of the animals of God’s creation. Despite his earlier conviction that God created

humanity with a special intuition for an eternal reality, humans find themselves in a state of

temporary toil (3:9) and humbling mortality (3:19) that frustrates their ability to fulfill that

intuition. Solomon ends the chapter by concluding that the unknown outcome of human

mortality (“whether the spirit of man goes upward” or whether he simply “return[s]…to

dust” (3:21)) and the inevitability of its occurrence puts man on the same plane as any

other “beast”—a state that leads Solomon once again to lament, “all is vanity” (3:19).

The question of how to view life in light of mortality is a central driving force behind

much of human creativity and philosophy, with conclusions varying widely from Solomon’s

“all is vanity,” to today’s postmodern prophecies of technology that could redefine human

life and death as we know it. Ecclesiastes is one renowned example of a work of literature

that grapples with the question of human mortality. Today many modern writers and their

readers continue to search for answers to the same question through the medium of

literature. Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, selected poems by

Emily Dickinson, and Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness all present

awareness of death as a driving, defining force for human life. Yet there are differences

among these works regarding the extent to which death unifies or distinguishes humans

from nonhuman beings and the consistency with which these species boundaries are

drawn. Dickinson portrays death as a common enemy of human and nonhuman life—and

although this creates somewhat of a sense of solidarity among species, that solidarity is

necessarily limited by the competitive struggle to survive. Dick portrays fear of death as a

metric for genuine living organisms with intrinsic worth, versus artificial imitations

(namely, androids) that lack the dignity imbued by opposition to death. Le Guin portrays

death simultaneously as the only real certainty in life and as the central source of all of life’s

uncertainties, in a dualistic framework that collapses distinctions both between life and

death and between human and nonhuman life.

Dickinson, Dick and Le Guin each explore comparisons, interactions, or dialogues

between human and nonhuman characters that draw out whether the experience of death

distinguishes humans from nonhumans, or places them in solidarity with nonhumans. In

one of her opening stanzas, Dickinson introduces Death as an equalizing force between

humans and nonhumans: “A Toad, can die of Light—/Death is the Common Right/Of Toads

and Men—/Of Earl and Midge/The privilege—” (148). Presented ironically as a “Right” and

a “privilege” of all living creatures, the speaker suggests how easily death can strike,

through something as simple as exposure to light, and how drastically it can collapse

distinctions—even between life forms as disparate as men and toads. Taking this

equalizing effect one step further, the speaker goes on to compare a human of high status,

an Earl, to one of the most diminutive nonhumans imaginable: a Midge. As if to further

emphasize the collapse of species distinctions, the speaker reverses the order of the pairing

of creatures this time from “nonhuman, human” to “human, nonhuman.” And by portraying

death as a right and a privilege, the speaker takes an implicit jab at the status conferred by

human social ranks: an earl may have many special rights and privileges, but his ultimate

right and privilege, death, is “Common,” placing him in the same category as flies and toads.

Human characters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also see death as a force

that defines boundaries between species—but unlike Dickinson’s speaker, Dick’s

characters use some discretion as to which boundaries death blurs and which ones it

strengthens. In the scene where the Pilsens’ cat Horace has died and Isidore offers over the

phone to sell them an artificial cat as a replacement, Mrs. Pilsen initially turns down the

offer, reflecting nostalgically:

“There is only one cat like Horace. He used to — when he was just a

kitten — stand and stare up at us as if asking a question. We never

understood what the question was. Maybe now he knows the answer.”

Fresh tears appeared. “I guess we all will eventually” (80).

Whether Horace truly did have the depth of consciousness to ask questions with his eyes or

Mrs. Pilsen is merely projecting human characteristics onto her deceased cat, she implies

that the “question” Horace asked was existential, one that could only be answered by the

experience of death, with the qualification of “maybe” emphasizing the mystery

surrounding what really happens when living creatures die. Like Dickinson’s speaker, Mrs.

Pilsen meditates on the idea that death is the common destination of humans and

nonhumans, but her conception of this common end puts forth a more romantic

perspective than Dickinson’s legalistic language of rights and privileges: she imagines that

Horace now knows the answer, for better or worse, regarding what happens after death.

She is provoked to meditate on her own mortality with the statement, “I guess we all will

eventually.” Mrs. Pilsen perceived the gazes that the Pilsens shared with Horace when he

was alive as moments of solidarity in mortal life—a shared, silent questioning of “What

happens when we die? What is the meaning of life?” that shapes the experience of humans

and nonhuman animals alike, on varying levels of conscious thought. Unlike Dickinson’s

speaker’s negative approach that strips away the status of high-ranking humans like earls

to put them on an equal plane with nonhumans, Mrs. Pilsen elevates Horace to a common

plane with humans by imagining that he contemplated death to some extent. Given that

empathy arises recurrently throughout the novel as a characteristic that could uniquely

define humanity, this instance of shared understanding between humans and animals

suggests an explanation for why humans in the novel so value living animals as objects of

empathy: humans can empathize naturally with other living creatures who share the

common end and fearful awareness of death.

Other nonhuman agents in Dick’s novel, namely androids, are not so readily

relatable to human characters, with differing dispositions toward death acting to

distinguish the two species rather than to equalize them. Rick’s strongest moments of

revulsion toward androids are triggered by their tendency to submit easily to death.

Finding himself alone with Rachel, Rick threatens to kill her, but pauses in disgust when

she reacts with unnerving acceptance:

She seemed more externally composed now. But still

fundamentally frantic and tense. Yet, the dark fire waned; ‘the life force

oozed out of her, as he had so often witnessed before with other

androids. The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance

of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the

pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled

itself to.

“I can’t stand it the way you androids give up,” he said savagely. (200)

Rick seems to pride himself on being able to recognize and identify as foreign the android

tendency to exhibit apathy in the face of death. As a bounty hunter, he sees androids as

false imitations of humans, with their attitude toward death as a signal for detecting the

artificiality of their life. Yet Rick goes beyond rational awareness of this android

characteristic, not only using it to identify Rachel as an android in this scene, but also

experiencing a “savage” hatred toward something so fundamentally other. The same

background of “two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve” that Rachel lacks,

seems to create in Rick an instinct against any organism that does not function according to

the drive of natural selection. Rick does not define the struggle for life as a uniquely human

characteristic, but sees it as a facet of nature that binds humans to the rest of the natural

world and conversely sets androids apart from all that is natural. Thus, the humans of

Dick’s novel find themselves in solidarity with pet cats but not with their android look-

alikes.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Faxe also regards uncertainty about death as a defining

aspect of life—but unlike Rick, he portrays this uncertainty as a unifying force between

different humanoid species in the novel rather than being a litmus test to distinguish

between them. Although Genly is a native of Terran and Faxe is Gethenian, Faxe leads Genly

to agree that the uncertainty of when and how death will come is something that unifies the

two of them:

“Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable,

inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future,

and mine?”

“That we shall die.”

“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry,

and we already know the answer….The only thing that makes life

possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what

comes next.” (70)

Although Faxe’s identification of anticipation of death as a driving force of life is similar to

Dickinson’s speaker’s and Rick’s definition of life as driven by the struggle to survive, Faxe

speaks in a more calm, contemplative tone than do Dickinson’s and Dick’s characters.

Unlike Rick’s “savage” instinct, Faxe’s variation on the theme of death as a driving force of

life elevates the connection to one of higher-order thinking: a philosophical perspective

that the certainty of death and the uncertainty of how it will come about is not necessarily a

cause for fear and is certainly not a dividing force. Death drives life forward in a manner

that unifies species. Although Faxe and Genly are both humans, Faxe’s addressing of Genly

as “Genry” in this scene reminds the reader that they come from two very different cultures

and worlds. Yet Faxe and Genly both use phrases that unify themselves based on the

common fate of death and even speak in a back-and-forth that constructs the main ideas of

the scene in a smooth unison. When Genly does break out of this united stream of thought

to narrate his perspective on Faxe, he marvels at his wisdom:

When he looked at me with his clear, kind, candid eyes, he looked at

me out of a tradition thirteen thousand years old: a way of thought

and way of life so old, so well established, so integral and coherent as

to give a human being the unself-consciousness, the authority, the

completeness of a wild animal, a great strange creature who looks

straight at you out of his eternal present…. (70)

While Faxe’s statement, like Rick’s, is associated with a nonhuman natural world, it is one

of mystical insight rather than pure evolutionary instinct. Genly senses some fundamental

connection with the natural world as the source of Faxe’s wisdom, suggesting that the state

of being in touch with the ancient tradition of nature elevates humans to a “kind,

candid…[unself-conscious]” state of being. Unlike Dickinson’s speaker who seems to place

humans and nonhumans on the same plane by knocking down human pride, and unlike

Mrs. Pilsen who elevates a nonhuman to a human level of consciousness to place humans

and nonhumans on the same plane, Genly portrays the state of being on the same plane

with the nonhuman world as one that elevates the state of humanity. Although all three

writers suggest death as the force that moves humans and nonhumans onto an equal plane,

the directions in which they maneuver the status of humans and nonhumans to achieve this

equalization are markedly different.

Dickinson, Dick and Le Guin also differ in the consistency with which they draw

distinctions between humans and nonhumans with regard to death. In another poem that

compares humans to nonhumans with regard to death, “A Dying Tiger—moaned for Drink,”

Dickinson complicates the solidarity that humans and nonhumans share in their mortality

by imagining an even more direct interaction between human and nonhuman characters.

While “A Toad, can die of Light—” simply highlights the common end of humans and

nonhumans with abstract comparisons, Dickinson’s human speaker in “A Dying Tiger”

directly confronts the reality of a nonhuman creature’s death, revealing a deeper

complexity to the effect of death on distinctions between humans and nonhumans:

A Dying Tiger—moaned for Drink—

I hunted all the Sand—

I caught the Dripping of a Rock

And bore it in my Hand—

His Mighty Balls—in death were thick—

But searching—I could see

A Vision on the Retina

Of Water—and of me—

‘Twas not my blame—who sped too slow—

‘Twas not his blame—who died

While I was reaching him—

But ‘twas—the fact that He was dead— (142-143)

Like Mrs. Pilsen, Dickinson’s speaker shares a moment of intimate eye contact with a cat

due to the shared human and nonhuman fate of mortality. However, unlike the docile pet

Horace, the cat in Dickinson’s poem is a Tiger—typically thought of as a fearsome predator

of humans. Although Dickinson’s speaker starts off the poem with a search that seems to

involve a great deal of effort to save the dying tiger, “hunt[ing] all the Sand” for water, the

reader discovers in the last stanza that the speaker “sped too slow” to save the creature

from its death. In combination with the abrupt, almost comical ending to the poem—where

the speaker states that no one is to blame but the tiger is simply dead—the reader might be

provoked to wonder after the moment of interaction in the second stanza whether the

speaker’s search for water was really as fervent as it initially appeared to be. While the

moment in which the speaker sees herself in the eye of the tiger could be interpreted as

one of deep empathy akin to the connection between Mrs. Pilsen and Horace, it is also

possible, given the danger that the tiger poses and given the outcome of the poem, that the

speaker sees herself reflected as an object of prey in the tiger’s eye. In the case of this

reading, “A Dying Tiger” complicates the inter-species equality that was posed in light of

mortality in “A Toad, can die of Light—” by adding the consideration of inter-species

competition to survive. Although Dickinson’s speaker seems to be moved to search for

water out of empathy, the same common mortality that moves her to empathy also

necessarily limits her empathy and introduces an element of self-preservation in her

actions. She can empathize with the tiger’s desire not to die, but cannot bring herself to put

her full effort forward to save the tiger given that he poses a threat to her own life. Thus, if

her two poems are read side-by-side, Dickinson suggests that mortality places humans and

nonhumans on an equal plane in terms of power and worth, but also paradoxically creates

an insurmountable barrier to inter-species solidarity in the struggle to survive; in fighting

death, both human and nonhuman species must also necessarily struggle against one

another.

A fuller examination of Dick’s novel also introduces deeper complexity to the

boundaries his characters seem at first to draw between humans and nonhumans based on

mortality. While the attitudes of Mrs. Pilsen and Rick seem to suggest solidarity with

animals and distinction from androids based on the metric of all genuine organisms

naturally fearing death, the human character Phil Resch seems to pose an unexplained

exception to this model. Although he proves to be human when Rick tests him, Resch treats

the idea of his own death with the same cool indifference that Rachel and other android

characters exhibit. The moment when this comes through most clearly is when Resch

agrees to allow Rick to test whether he is human or android, giving up his laser tube to

grant Rick an assurance of his safety. The two men have the following exchange:

“How’ll you kill yourself without it?” Rick asked. “If you fail the test?”

“I’ll hold my breath.”

“Chrissake,” Rick said. “It can’t be done.”

“There’s no automatic cut-in of the vagus nerve,” Phil Resch said, “in an android. As

there is in a human. Weren’t you taught that when they trained you? I got taught

that years ago.”

“But to die that way,” Rick protested.

“There’s no pain. What’s the matter with it?”

“It’s—“ He gestured. Unable to find the right words. (138)

Although Resch himself is unsure at this point whether he is human or android, Rick finds it

unthinkable that Resch could even imagine having the will to kill himself by holding his

breath. His inability to express why he finds this scenario so shocking suggests, as in his

conversation with Rachel, a more visceral than rational instinct against death—once again

emerging at a moment when Rick is trying to distinguish between human and android. The

tone of the narration that follows seems to suggest that Resch’s indifferent imaginings of

suffocating himself increase Rick’s confidence that he will test to be an android; for

example, in response to Resch’s nervous prattling, Rick reacts with silent resolve: “Talk all

the way to the tomb, he said to himself. If you feel like it. It didn’t matter to him” (140). And

yet, despite both his apparent lack of instinct against death and his lack of empathy that

seems to trouble Rick even more, Resch proves to be a human—forcing both Rick and

Dick’s readers to reframe their understanding of humans versus androids, or as Resch

himself puts it, to “[frame] an ideology…that would explain me as part of the human race”

(140).

LeGuin complicates her paradigm for interspecies solidarity in light of mortality by

introducing humans as more than passive players in the phenomenon of death driving life

that was outlined in the aforementioned scene between Faxe and Genly. In a scene later on

in the novel, Genly reflects in conversation with Estraven on the way that human “cults of

dynamic, aggressive, ecology-breaking cultures” in various worlds have distinguished

humans as “Lords of the Earth” because of their singular intelligence, leading them to be

“bent on pushing things around” (233). Given that his words connote destruction and

antagonism, Genly seems to describe this common human tendency with disapproval.

Consequently searching for an alternative way of seeing humans’ role in the nonhuman

world, Genly asks Estraven for the perspective of the Handdarata, to which he replies:

“Well, in the Handdara … you know, there’s no theory, no dogma …

Maybe they are less aware of the gap between men and beasts, being

more occupied with the likenesses, the links, the whole of which living

things are a part.” (233)

Estraven suggests that the relationship between humans and the nonhuman world is a

matter of perspective. While many human cultures collectively choose to fixate on the

differences between humans and nonhumans, the Handdarata view reality from the

opposite angle, as a collective whole. By way of further explanation, Estraven sings the

Handdarata song “Tormer’s Lay”:

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together,

like the end and the way. (233)

As a song whose lyrics lend themselves to the title of the novel, “Tormer’s Lay”

encompasses much of the Handdarata philosophy of duality between opposite forces,

including life and death. The song unites life and death with back-to-back metaphors

connoting union: “lovers” and “hands joined together.” Unlike Dickinson’s speakers and

Rick, the Handdarata do not see death as a menacing force, using metaphor in their

tradition to lend it a connotation of intimacy in relation to life. These metaphors of union

also reinforce Estraven’s description of the Handdarata’s tendency not to see “the gap

between men and beasts,” with their perspective on death in union with life shaping their

perspective on the union between humans and nonhumans. By presenting Genly’s

commentary on other human races and Estraven’s explanation of the Handdarata

perspective side-by-side, Le Guin seems to imply that the manner in which human cultures

view death and the manner in which they position themselves toward the nonhuman world

are intimately related. While Faxe suggests earlier in the novel that human life is driven by

uncertainty about death, this later passage suggests that drive can be either a destructive

or a uniting force between humans and the nonhuman world, depending on how humans

choose to see life in light of mortality.

Dickinson, Dick, and LeGuin contribute to a long tradition of human questioning of

the ideal way to live in light of mortality. As with many writers through history, such as the

writer of Ecclesiastes, much of the question involves, for these writers, speculating on how

humans relate to the nonhuman world. For Dickinson, awareness of mortality places a

limitation on human importance relative to other species—but the universal struggle

against death also keeps life divided between species lines, as humans and nonhumans

keep a safe distance from one another in order to survive. Assuming that he agrees with his

protagonist Rick, Dick presents fear and uncertainty toward death as a more unifying force

among all living creatures, placing androids into his plotline as foils that exhibit an

“artificial” kind of life lacking that defining fear of death. Le Guin presents the most unified

picture of the three, with death as a dual force to life, unifying not only all humans, but all

living creatures as a collective whole. By presenting both the common perspective of

humans being “Lords of the Earth” that exploit the nonhuman world and the more

transcendent Handdarata perspective, Le Guin seems also to place the most emphasis of

the three writers on the idea that humans have the agency to choose how they will relate to

the nonhuman world. She suggests that these choices are driven by the philosophical

perspective humans abide by, including their view on life in light of mortality, and that

their choices as a result of their philosophical perspectives are in large part what shapes

the reality of how humans and nonhumans relate. Like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, all three

writers are driven by the fact of mortality to question just how different humans are from

any other living creatures. But while Solomon reaches the conclusion that human life is

lived in vain if it searches for purpose in anything other than God, Dickinson and Dick both

suggest that life is defined by struggle against the fear of death, while Le Guin proposes

death as a dual force to life, and life as a unified collective of human and nonhuman.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest. Comp. Thomas H. Johnson. London: Little, Brown, 1998.

Print.

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