Polyphony Beyond the Human
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This chapter examines the ties between animal cries, musical images, and the cultural work of sympathy. It begins by reviewing recent as well as classic insights about the novel and recalibrates Mikhail Bakthin’s famous account of the genre’s polyphonic discourse in a way that makes room for its animal component. After nuancing anthropocentric views of polyphony, I revisit the eighteenth-century discourse of sensibility to consider the emotional appeal of the animal cry, which has traditionally functioned as a moral plea for more just and inclusive communities of similarly suffering creatures, and has occasionally been linked to music too. These insights are subsequently applied to relevant novels by two canonical writers, J.M. Coetzee and Richard Powers, both of whom have redeployed the motif of animal music in ways that stretch orthodox views of community while steering clear of the overt sentimentalism often associated with the nonhuman cry. In the case of Disgrace, a soon-to-be-euthanized dog is tentatively included in a hypothetical opera, and in the case of Orfeo, the recurring image of animal music points in the direction of an unusually inclusive multispecies democracy, even if the suspicion lingers that the novel’s human composer finally receives more attention than this nonhuman audio, and the introduction of topics like extinction and media like iPods complicates the situation considerably.
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