Sy Montgomery, “The Soul Of An Octopus” (2015) & Italo Calvino (Trans: Jonathan Cape, Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin , “The Complete Cosmicomics” (2002, 2009)

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The danger in anthropomorphism is that it not only removes the unique beauty of many non-human animals by simply turning them into a different version of us, with all the same foibles and none of their own, but also because the same effect hinders our ability to understand their own behaviour – the way certain species view the world would be very different, guided by the specifics of their evolution in the same way we were. So, expecting them to operate and react in a similar way to us in certain situations is wrongheaded, and in some ways is even dangerous to both human and non-human.

The Soul Of An Octopus tightly walks the line between degrees of anthropomorphism – the journey Montgomery has in the book is not simply to “humanize” octopuses, but rather to show the commonalities in our separate forms of intelligence. She never denies that the octopus’s mind works on a very different level than our own (she regularly reminds us that it is an “alien” entity with a heightened capability of taste and limbs that may well operate independently), but from her own experiences and further research sees so much evidence of certain things – curiosity, memory, personality, stresses (also mentioned in one of David Quammen’s columns in Natural Acts), and possibly even a sense of humour – the driving force of the book becomes finding how a very different sort of animal could seem to share so many things in common with humans. Over the course of the book, we see how many of those similarities come from differences – an octopus needs to be as clever as many of the more highly-developed mammals because of how vulnerable it is physically – but there remains as many questions about how their brains work as there are for the rest of us.

Of course, the scientific and philosophical inquiries are only part of the book – the rest, and maybe the majority, of it is a recounting of the author’s interactions with several octopuses, in captivity and in the wild, which is what spurs her interest in octopus intelligence in the first place. She also becomes friends with the people who are involved with octopus keeping – the staff members of the New England Aquarium (both veterans of the trade and younger volunteers), partners in diving expeditions, and cephalopod-focused scientists – who help Montgomery become increasingly integrated into the going on of the octopus realm, all of them sharing in the same enthusiasm and awe of these animals. The author documents the lives and personalities of the staff as thoroughly as the octopuses themselves (each of whom have their own distinctive personalities, as Montgomery always tries to demonstrate), and the relationship with all the animals they look after are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Whether or not they go a little too far in making their fish and invertebrate and reptile charges seem more “human”, the idea that these people can identify the distinctiveness of each animal is both practical for the daily goings-on in an aquarium and fascinating – even if our species isn’t exactly the same as all the others, there still seems to be a possibility for some kind of understanding, especially in these close, regular encounters.

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Speaking of anthropomorphism, Calvino’s Cosmicomics engage in that in a different way – characterizing processes both macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, as a series of fables driven by desire, an endless pursuit of perfection, and a tragicomic relationship with change. Vast, unknowable processes – the expansion of the universe, the creation of the moon, evolution, light speed travel – become a series of adventures of one character, who is almost always in the pursuit of the same goals (i.e. The love of a specific woman or female-coded abstract concept) and is usually prevented from achieving them (An interesting contrast are the stories in the “t zero” section, where the process is almost reversed – a human situation is written as a complex scientific algorithm offering alternate theories of time and probability.) The inevitable course of history is driven by the travails of often highly abstracted characters, who in their lives mix the everyday and the grandiose.

In including all of Calvino’s stories in chronological order, you also see how these themes recur and change over time – and specifically through his series of stories that follow the structure and theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most direct being the trilogy of “Without Colours”, “The Stone Sky”, and of course “The Other Eurydice”, a revised take on “The Stone Sky” which even includes slightly different versions of the same sentences. These three in particular feature the previously-mentioned theme of seeking a state of perfection only to be stymied by the development of our world – a world above the surface of the world, a world with endless colour – with the narrator Qfwfq railing against the new world that ruins his static one (which occurs in other stories such as “Nothing and Not Much”) and robs him of his endless, unchanging life with his one true love, who either is left behind (in “Without Colours”) or leaves him behind (“Stone Sky”/”Other Eurydice” – as well as more in a sillier fashion in stories like “The Aquatic Uncle”). The presence of a world beyond himself and his chosen love is the recurring bane of Qfwfq’s existence in many stories, whether it is other characters like Lieutenant Fenimore in “The Form of Space”, or against a generalized mass of noise in the far more angry and cynical “Other Eurydice” (modern life seems to be a pestilence that is destined for eradication) – the whole of existence outside the pair is an affront to the perfection the narrator seeks in many stories, a compromise to his closed loop. But of course, very rarely does Qfwfq ever consider what others, his chosen partner especially (who often, in his mind, end up as some prize for his self-selected battles and rivalries), seeks in their own lives – so he is baffled when in stories like “Stone Sky”, they seem unwilling to simply follow him back tho their old world, to regress with him – they are lost and he is now alone, no longer having to worry about being overcrowded.

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