An Interview with Anne Benvenuti about Spirit Unleashed

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Who did you imagine reading Spirit Unleashed and what did you think they’d take from it?

I wrote it for people who like to do their own thinking and, especially those among them who love animals. I want people to realize they can bring their love of animals out of the intellectual closet and into a smart conversation.

In the back of my mind, I had my experiences with Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin’s wonderful book. It’s an academically grounded but readable book rooted in several fields of science integrated in a discussion of evolutionary continuity. It’s a book that educated me and made me feel smart at the same time; it did the same thing for the students to whom I assigned it. That’s what I hoped my book might do, both educate people and help them feel their own smarts at the same time. And, of course, it’s also emotionally satisfying for most of us to understand that all life is related.

Why this book, Spirit Unleashed?

The approach that I took to writing about human-animal relations is as important to me as the topic itself. I wanted to write a beautiful book, and a book that was what I call “integral.” That means approaching the topic from several academic disciplines, but also with emotion integrated into the thinking process, rather than continuing with the false assumption that feeling clouds rationality. Thinking and feeling are both necessary to correct understanding of the world and ourselves in the world, and so are necessary to living well. I wanted to think clearly and I wanted to feel clearly, and to have these two work together to produce something beautiful. All of that came together in Spirit Unleashed.

Why now?

Before I began writing the book, I was participating in an interdisciplinary seminar on the topic of human-animal relations. I realized that these smart scientists and theologians and philosophers simply were not very familiar with the strong trends that have been established in research findings from animal behavior and cognition, and in comparative cognitive science, and that their questions and opinions reflected that lack of knowledge. So I did a presentation called Spirit Unleashed in which I showed video footage of animal reasoning, feeling, social connections, language, and even suggested that animals may well participate in what is spiritual for humans. My colleagues received the information, and even my suggestion that the relationship of humans and other animals has a spiritual dimension, with enthusiasm. Some of them had never thought about it; others felt affirmed in what they had long thought might be true.  Spirituality in non human animals seemed like a bold and provocative claim when I started, but it’s really not so radical now because the scientific evidence keeps going in the same direction, the direction of evolutionary continuity.

What’s the take home message of Spirit Unleashed? If I couldn’t read all those great stories and just had to take away a single idea, what would it be?

The take home message is to look squarely at your love for non-human animals, own up to it, be curious about it, let it satisfy you and don’t think you have to hide the fact that it does. Not only is it legitimate to love other animals, but it supports and guides us in the urgent work of addressing ecological issues. We’ve been buzzing along on a market model, understanding the world in terms of economies, but as we are now recognizing, economies are dependent entirely upon ecologies. You can't produce and consume as though it were not all dependent on a set of relationships; what is perhaps less obvious for many of us is that the set of relationships itself may be what we crave more than we crave more "stuff."

Our greatest satisfactions are not consumption—satisfying as that can be—but companionship and beauty. We hunger for these at least as much as we do for food and other consumables. So open the door and let your cat come in! And let that cat lead the parade of all the animals, and ultimately all of nature; these animals are family, nature is home.

You speak very confidently. Are you satisfied with Spirit Unleashed? Is it what you hoped?

Yes! My confidence was certainly helped by strong expressions of delight and approval from people I respect, like Richard Rohr, and Jaak Panksepp, and Marc Bekoff, and my editor, Rodney Clapp, the Spinoza scholars to whom I took this work in Amsterdam. So I’m very confident about this book.

I also recognize that the book is hard to categorize, except to say that it’s non-fiction. I set out to break the bounds of convention. That leaves booksellers with the practical problem of knowing where to put the book so that people can find it. I experienced this first hand at Blackwell’s in Oxford. In the end, they placed it in both philosophy and psychology, both of which are good places for it. I think, though, that it might find its truest readership under the heading of “Animals.”

Do you have a favorite line or idea or story?

Yes, one of each in fact! My favorite line is “the price of not kissing is your miserable unkissed life.” My favorite idea is that all of life is literally family and that it’s natural for that to be satisfying emotionally. My favorite story is probably still the one about the bat because it was so surprising!