It’s curious that about the same time Thomas Thwaites was figuring out how to be a goat — finding human personhood stressful and narcissistic — Charles Foster was trying his own experiments “becoming” various animals, including a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer and a swift.
Like Thwaites, he seemed to have hit an existential crossroads while walking home from a dinner at a London pub one warm evening in the nineteen-eighties, which he recounts in Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide:
“…he noticed two foxes in a park. Crouched in the grass, they were turning their heads from side to side, like sphinxes nodding “no.” Foster crept closer and, in his business suit, lay down to see the park at fox level. The foxes were harvesting dew-laden crane flies from the grass with their tongues. Foster extended his own tongue. He found that the flies were fuzzy, then slimy, and tasted of vanilla.
Foster found the lives of animals far more vivid and open than personhood. He writes:
I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.
Thwaites, a kind of artist engineer, took a more physical approach, devising exoskeletons and goat prosthesis…which he recounts in GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.
In The Metamophosis in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman’s accounting of the two men’s strange transformation is astonishing:
There is an irony to these books: the more Thwaites and Foster try to change into animals, the more fully they become Thwaites and Foster. That’s not to say they never transform themselves. …’Real, lasting change is possible,’ Foster writes, ‘to our appetites, our fears, and our views,’ and despite that change the self persists. This ability to endure through change is the miracle and mystery of selfhood. Rethinking who we are; dreaming up new ways of living; taking ourselves apart to build ourselves back up—for human beings, these activities are natural. They are our never-ending hunt.
The two books seem like they might make for compelling summer reading. At the very least, we might observe the creatures around us more closely, and try imagining what it might be like to be one —other —very different from the self we take for granted.