P26 – Paulina Szymonek

Paulina Szymonek is a PhD student of English Literature at the University of Silesia, Katowice. Her research interests include animal studies, American and British nature writing, and ecofeminism. Fascinated with the relationship between women and wilderness, her studies focus on their shared history in the American West. Privately an artist, she spends her free time sketching with a rescue parakeet and a herd of horses.

Wolves in the City of Domesticated Women: The Queer Wild of Olivia Rosenthal

Urban wolves

In 2009, in the city of Nantes, a pack of six captive wolves was released in the park near the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, as a part of Stéphane Thidet’s artistic installation. Six authors[1] were invited to write short stories that were included in La Meute,[2] a book which accompanied the event.[3] The equal number of wolves and authors suggests a balance between human and animal world. In fact, it is a gesture: man has to give up his space, at least for the duration of the event, to the wild animal who has been hunted to extinction within this very territory. Wolves are inextricably linked to human unconscious, to the myths, fears and misconceptions carried from the past and into the present. To watch them roam the heart of modern urban life must have stirred something primal within those who yielded space to the predators. And yet they remained captives while the onlookers watched from a safe distance. The boundary between wild and tame was explored further by one author in particular.

Olivia Rosenthal’s research for her story in La Meute has inspired her to write Que font les rennes après Noël? (2010),[4] a novel in which captive wolves are introduced to a city. In this post-natural environment, the animals are to provide a semblance of the wilderness for the residents, yet they remain enclosed in an extended zoo designed by man—an act that domesticates both sides of the fence which separates humans from wolves. Rosenthal’s protagonist is one of such captives. She is denied any meaningful contact with animals and wildness, including her inner one, and yet her life runs parallel to that of an animal. Growing up in a strictly controlled environment, she slowly breaks out of the social standards that were imposed on her as she realizes her attraction to women and her relationship with wilderness and civilization.[5] In a semi-autobiographical vein, Rosenthal explores the issues of queer and gender marginalization, as well as emancipation. At the same time, she seeks to dismantle the binary oppositions that put animals, women and queers on the other side of the fence—but she is not the first to put forth the idea.

The queer wild

In her article “Towards a Queer Ecofeminism” (1997), Greta Gaard argued for the importance of feminist and queer liberation movements in environmental efforts. They are mutually dependent, as various ecofeminists have demonstrated. But while others have focused mostly on connections between women and nature, sexism and speciesism, Gaard sought to link ecofeminist and queer theories together.[6] Building on Val Plumwood’s[7] and Karen Warren’s[8] critique of dualistic thinking and the hierarchies associated with it, Gaard saw the inferiority of nature to culture, of women to men and of animals to humans as a mutually reinforcing cycle of depreciation that is present in Western society. In order to dismantle one, the other has to be dismantled as well. Nature, women and queers are defined through the dominant parts of dualisms: that of maleness, heterosexuality and reason, as opposed to femininity, queer sexuality and nature. Femininity and nature are also linked with body, emotion and freedom, among other terms, which are also subject to exclusion.[9]

While ecofeminism seeks gender equality, Gaard notes that queer ecofeminism should focus on the heterosexual/queer and reason/erotic dualities, or how “queers are feminized, animalized, eroticized, and naturalized in a culture that devalues women, animals, nature, and sexuality.”[10] The contradictory understanding of what is ‘natural’ dictates that women have to obey their feminine ‘nature’ (procreation and motherhood), and that queers are acting against that natural order, implying that nature itself is respected—but it is not.[11] Sexuality is a social construct, and as such, it cannot be ‘against nature.’ Moreover, same-sex behaviors have long been observed in non-human animals, and sexual behavior in general is not always connected with reproduction.[12] The assertion that queers are unnatural, that a woman’s role is to bear children, and that animals are governed by baser instincts, effectively puts all three groups deep in a cultural closet. While the dualism of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the closet refers mostly to queer community, it nevertheless applies to women stuck in their social-enforced roles, too. Both wild and domesticated animals are being shut in their cultural roles as well, and whenever they leave the confines that exist solely in human minds, chaos and anxiety ensues.

Wild lesbians and wolves in the closet

The normative dualisms such as rationality/animality, civilized/primitive, and self/other are explored and dismantled in Olivia Rosenthal’s novel. Both the woman and the animals are central to the narrative, and neither is subordinate to the other. The form itself allows for such equality, as passages devoted to the nameless protagonist are intertwined with those about animals held in zoological gardens, laboratories, and on farms. Rosenthal has conducted interviews with animal trainers, breeders, laboratory researchers, a butcher and a veterinarian, and integrated reality into fiction. Through these testimonies, the parallels between human and animal life are drawn. The protagonist’s passages are written in the second person (formal “vous”), allowing the reader to both relate and identify with the narrator.[13]

The animals themselves are not given a voice; instead, they are described as seen through the eyes of those who care for, work with, and kill them. In a way, the reader can observe the heroine as if she were another captive animal, for her freedom is illusory. She, too, is submissive, first to her mother, and then to her husband.[14] The emancipation she seeks is realized both through animals and her sexuality. Although Olivia Rosenthal does not see lesbians as any more wild or free than other women—which would imply the connection of being queer to marginalization—she nevertheless thinks that their unique relation to society offers certain freedom in regards to motherhood, for example.[15] In the novel, the girl learns that animal and human sexuality is connected not with pleasure, but with pain. The act is “limited to penetration,” silencing and subduing the woman.[16] The child’s wildness is domesticated through education—synonymous with breeding—and society as she grows up.[17]

The story of the urban wolves is narrated along with the girl’s childhood. She does not care for toys, asking for a pet instead, which she is denied. She is soon silenced; she cannot leave with the reindeer after Christmas, just as the tame wolves in the city cannot return to the wilderness. The heroine comes to accept it, in the end. Upon reaching the state of sexual emancipation, she is free of her old constraints. No longer detached from her body, she assumes almost a predatory role: craving the body of a young woman she has a romance with, as well as craving veal, which she chooses before the animal is slaughtered. In a way, she has more connection to wildness and freedom than the wolves running in the city and fed on frozen chicken.[18]

Were Thidet’s wolves any less wild due to their captivity, or any more free than the ones in a zoo? The title of Rosenthal’s Que font les rennes après Noël? asks a childish question: what do reindeer do after Christmas? The question becomes more serious as the child nears adulthood: how do reindeer in the wild fare today?[19] And what do wolves do if they are not busy eating little girls and their grandmothers? France has exterminated its wolves by 1930s, but the turn of the century saw their comeback—not a grand entrance, but a slow trickling across the invisible borders from around Europe. By 2020, solitary wolves were roaming the outskirts of Paris.[20] Close to the cities, yet still wild. The human/animal division may still stand in the world described by Rosenthal—a choice which reflects the state of our culture today. It is up to us to redefine that relationship.


[1] Georgina Tacou, Olivia Rosenthal, Claire Guezengar, Joseph Confavreux, Thibault Capéran and Emmanuel Adely.

[2] The Pack.

[3] Stéphane Thidet, “La Meute,” accessed September 16, 2020, http://www.stephanethidet.com/selected-works/article/la-meute.

[4] Philippine Cruse, “Sous le règne animal d’Olivia Rosenthal,” Viabooks, accessed September 16, 2020, http://www.viabooks.fr/interview/olivia-rosenthal-sous-le-regne-animal-18775.

[5] Olivia Rosenthal, To Leave with the Reindeer, transl. Sophie Lewis (London: And Other Stories, 2019).

[6] Greta Gaard, “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism,” Hypatia 12:1 (Winter 1997), 114-115.

[7] Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).

[8] Karen Warren, “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Environmental Ethics 12 (Summer 1990), 125-146.

[9] Gaard, “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism,” 116-118.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Ibid., 120.

[12] Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (New York: Stonewall Inn Editions, 2000).

[13] Joseph Mai, “Un tissu de mots”: Writing Human and Animal Life in Olivia Rosenthal’s “Que font les rennes après Noël?” Mosaic, vol. 49, no. 3 (September 2016), 56-62.

[14] Cruse, “Sous le règne animal d’Olivia Rosenthal.”

[15] Romain Vallet, “Olivia Rosenthal: c’est important, le multiple,” Hétéroclite, accessed September 16, 2020, http://www.heteroclite.org/2011/05/olivia-rosenthal-assises-du-roman-2011-1937.

[16] Rosenthal, To Leave with the Reindeer, 75-76.

[17] Cruse, “Sous le règne animal d’Olivia Rosenthal.”

[18] Rosenthal, To Leave with the Reindeer.

[19] Cruse, “Sous le règne animal d’Olivia Rosenthal.”

[20] Rory Mulholland, “Wolves are living on the outskirts of Paris, wildlife groups claim,” The Telegraph, accessed September 16, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/17/wolves-living-outskirts-paris-wildlife-groups-claim/.


Bibliography
Thidet, Stéphane. “La Meute,” accessed September 16, 2020, http://www.stephanethidet.com/selected-works/article/la-meute.
Cruse, Philippine. “Sous le règne animal d’Olivia Rosenthal,” Viabooks, accessed September 16,2020, http://www.viabooks.fr/interview/olivia-rosenthal-sous-le-regne-animal-18775.
Rosenthal, Olivia. To Leave with the Reindeer, transl. Sophie Lewis (London: And Other Stories, 2019).
Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism,” Hypatia 12:1 (Winter 1997), 114-137.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).
Warren, Karen. “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Environmental Ethics 12 (Summer 1990), 125-146.
Bagemihl, Bruce. Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (New York: Stonewall Inn Editions, 2000).
Mai, Joseph. “Un tissu de mots”: Writing Human and Animal Life in Olivia Rosenthal’s “Que font les rennes après Noël?” Mosaic, vol. 49, no. 3 (September 2016), 55-70.
Vallet, Romain. “Olivia Rosenthal: c’est important, le multiple,” Hétéroclite, accessed September 16, 2020, http://www.heteroclite.org/2011/05/olivia-rosenthal-assises-du-roman-2011-1937.
Mulholland, Rory. “Wolves are living on the outskirts of Paris, wildlife groups claim,” The Telegraph, accessed September 16, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/17/wolves-living-outskirts-paris-wildlife-groups-claim/.


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