05 October 2018

Book Review: Being a Beast by Charles Foster

This book was given to us by a friend. Perhaps that is the only reason why I have read it, because I must say that after spending a few days reading it, I find the book weird, unsatisfactory, and definitely not my taste.

How do I begin?

Let me talk about the author first. According to Wikipedia, Charles Foster is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. So he loves animals and loves to write. Given that premise, I am not surprised this book was written. Additionally, apparently he characterises his books as his "presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions 'who or what are we?', and 'what on earth are we doing here?'"

This book is no different. He writes about his experiences on trying to be five different animals: badger, otter, fox, red deer, and swift. And I must say, for the most part, I was asking myself and thinking: what is this guy smoking?

Method acting is what comes to mind. Yes, this guy goes to great lengths in order to experience how it is like being a badger. He doesn't believe in pure observation. Rather, he builds a hole in the ground, like badgers do, and lives like a badger, naked, eating earthworms, marking his territory with faeces, and many other things. I have to admit, I learned a lot about these five animals after reading about Foster's experiences, but I also question Foster's mental health.

Maybe I am just an arrogant bastard who doesn't see the point since for all I know I am at the very top of the food chain. Or maybe my attention got lost because Foster seems to fluidly shift between zoology and philosophy, which I find confusing at times. This talk of animals and emotion reminds me of a previous book I have read by Yuval Harari, who argued (if I remember correctly) that humans really have no idea about animal cognition, especially when it comes to emotion. Both authors (if I understand correctly) would like to claim that animals have the same emotional abilities that we humans have: Harari uses that argument to argue against the idea that humans are special, that humans have a soul, etc, but Foster uses that argument in a less clear way.

In any case, at times I found Foster simply blabbering, instead of being coherent. Perhaps he just wants to have an out-of-human-body experience, but without the drugs. I absolutely didn't appreciate this whole discussion about shamanism. And what is this connection about the base elements, such as earth, water, fire, and are? Oh, and speaking of fire, he has foxes as the animal for the fire chapter, but nowhere in that chapter does he mention the word "fire" at all!

So yeah, I don't think I like this book. See, I don't know what to do with it. If I want to categorise it as non-fiction, then I find it lacking in so many ways. If I categorise it as a memoir of a man whose psychological stability is questionable, then perhaps it would fare better. I give it 2 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.

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