Animals in Slovak Poetry – Conference Report
The dogs’ gaze vigilantly wanders. He who
is forsaken becomes step by step
invisible in his track.
Ivan Štrpka, “Secret Report of an Invisible Spy.” Translated by John Minahane.
I often ask myself, just to see, who I am – and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment.
Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Translated by David Wills.
On 9th September 2022, the Institute of Slovak Literature of the SAS hosted a conference on the portrayal and functions of animals in the Slovak poetry over the ages. Literary critics and historians from eight academic institutions in Slovakia and the Czech Republic joined in discussions on diverse roles animals as figures of speech, symbols, and Others have taken in the Slovak poetry since Romanticism to the present day. The event brought together a host of various approaches and sparked fruitful discussions of such issues as plagiarism and inter-literary influence, cultural hierarchies of birds of prey, modelling of the conventional gender roles, pantheism, feral and pastoral images of nature, or nonsense poetry. Selected talks are to be published in the Institute’s journal Slovenská literatúra in 2023.
In Literature and Animal Studies (Routledge, 2016), a pioneering publication bringing together animal and literary studies, Mario Ortiz-Robles makes a provocative claim about animals being a human invention. As he continues to explain, “[t]o suggest that the category ‘animals’ is a human invention is […] not to deny the variety and diversity of life. On the contrary: it is to remark that the categorical distinction made between humans, on one side, and non-humans, on the other, is a figment of our imagination, a conceit that, by creating a rigid binary, in fact denies difference on a larger scale.” (3-4).
Slovak poets have naturally been using/inviting animals in(to) their verse since one can even talk of Slovak literature in any of its senses. Animal elements in the folk ballad “Ta dala matka [The mother gave]” can be seen as remnants of the animistic vision of the world, thrushes and finches nest in the crowns of the noble oaks in the poetry of Bohuslav Tablic (1769 – 1832), grey eagles cast bold looks in Janko Kráľ’s (1822 – 1876) verse. On the threshold of the Second World War, Janko Jesenský (1874 – 1945) let his furry companion Hector express his pacifist ideals, textual variants of Ján Ondruš’s (1932 – 2000) poem “Two-headed cat”/“Two-headed dummy” open up possibilities for thinking the animal-human divide. Sheep, pigeons, snakes, rats, deer, badgers have been used as tools through which authors have expressed their political and aesthetic views, but also as Others against which the human is defined. The talks held at the conference helped uncover controversies and previously unknown tackling of the motif in the poetry of several key periods and poets in the Slovak literature.