Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

A lesson in loving the bear that attacked you

Being mauled by a bear is about as extreme as it gets when it comes to radical interventions. There are few events that are so blatantly obvious, so borderline cheesy; metaphors are embarrased by lack of subtlety and remain at a distance. It adds insult to (devastating) injury according to French anthropologist Nastassja Martin. Her head was crushed in its mouth, a piece of her jaw was ripped off, and the beast fled when she jabbed it with an ice axe in August of 2015, when Martin was hiking down a glacier in Siberian mountains. After the encounter, she suffered facial mutilation and a ruptured sense of reality. A woman and a bear is too big a deal, Martin writes in In the Eye of the Wild, translated by Sophie R. Lewis. As big as it is, it can never be assimilated into any theory or system of thought; too big not to be . . . consumed and then digested in order to make sense.” But what the book actually suggests is that such an event can never be assimilated; it can only be accepted. With the bones of an essay and the lift of a prose poem, Martin’s narrative reciprocates the creature’s failed attempt at incorporation, and searches for beauty where it remains unseen and unconnected.

What follows is heady and obsessive, as Martin points out again and again the limits of what people can know about themselves: Who am I? What does the other mean to me? The scars on her face, her jaw now fitted with metal. As a narrator, Martin can be humorless (understandably), frustrated, angry, and lost. “The figure,” Martin says, is her body, which is reconstituted according to its own pattern but with external elements. When she studied animist beliefs in Alaska, she predicted an “unlivable frontier,” which she believed could be understood as an encounter between beings of different realms. Now that she lives on that frontier, she believes she is triggered by a “cycle of metamorphoses” that usually ends in death. ) (She refers to hunters who wear their prey’s scent, wear its pelt, and return to themselves and their people after killing its prey-or being swallowed up by it.) Both bears and Martin have survived. Metamorphosis continues, and so does loneliness.

“Strength” is what Martin thinks the bear might represent as he draws near to him. Bravery. Conviction. therapist tells Martin, whose father died fourteen years before, that “the bear event” demands she let go of her lingering hostility towards the world. However, she does not believe this. “Why,” she wonders, “must I bring everything back to myself?myself?myself?’” Scrutinizing “the other,” she isn’t sure if she is beholding a mystery or augmenting it with her own imagination, as if the bear were scrawling his signature across her forehead. The folklore of Petropavlovsk helps her when she is recovering in the hospital there. A woman seeks her beloved after being cursed and turned into an animal in a movie. The “resonance” weeps Martin, too: she had a lover, “a bear,” who was no longer able to speak to her, but she was saved by the kiss on the lips. It appears throughout the book that twinned souls are present in some form, one of them encased in fur. “Why did we choose one another?””another?””another?”” he asks at one point. This encounter seems to have been planned, but I have no idea how to explain it.”

Martin may be seduced by metaphors of art or Eros, but political analogies don’t pique her interest. Still, she has written a book that is intensely geopolitical. In the background, native Even villagers chafe against the Russian state as the story is told in Paris, the Hautes-Alpes, the Yukon Flats, and Kamchatka. Martin’s French doctors disparage the Siberian doctors’ work when they take on her case. The Russian secret police believe she has trained the bear with special combat skills, a shady Westerner. Attempting to draw attention to these tensions, Martin tries out the language of statecraft: she worries that her jawbone will be the next to be colonized by microbes after an infection occurs on the operating table. Nonetheless, the novel mocks those who would mistake political out-groups for more profound types of other, never losing sight of its essential encounter. “Because it is a bear that has landed at the Salpêtrière,” Martin quips drily, “and a Russian bear at that. Unfortunately, all safety- and security-related procedures in the hospital have been activated.” This critique of intersectionality and oppression of post-Soviet bears in France reads as firmly tongue-in-cheek.

Martin’s anthropological methods cannot keep up with the bear. Martin keeps a “diurnal” journal, in which she records “detailed descriptions” and “retranslations of dialogues and speeches.” On the other hand, she maintains a “nocturnal” journal, in which she records fragments and memos. . . a writing that comes unbidden . . . without purpose aside from revealing what passes through her. In the nighttime journal, with its black covers, she records her dreams, which are thick with bears. As Daria, an Even woman who guides and befriends Martin, explains, research papers do not provide them with the same kind of connection to the outside world as dreams do. This Indigenous insight feels in keeping with the memoir’s skepticism about knowledge, which it frames as an act of ownership. The power of a dream, like the power of a bear, is that it simply passes through.

By bringing up Daria, I hope to clear up some of the book’s weaknesses. Martin’s biggest sin relates to storytelling: she excels at experimenting with ideas, but she has trouble writing action or animating a scene, and she can overdo details that obscure a memory’s importance. However, the book’s inflated sense of self-importance is more oppressive, although it appears churlish to focus on what they reveal-the need to justify trauma, to infuse it with meaning. She seems to be relishing her incongruity on the steppe with her long blond hair and French accent before the attack. It appears that the pleasure she appears to take in the honor of medka, the one who lives between the worlds, has a queasy quality to it. She feels even more uncomfortable when she leaves her mother’s house and sets out to the village where her mother lives, having seen “the intensely other world of the beast and the fearfully human world of the hospitals.”. This time, however, Martin gets a dose of perspective instead of an affirmation of her hybrid spirit.

The semidarkness is filled with a smile that emanates from Daria, a sweet smile full of love. She whispers: Animals can give us gifts sometimes. A human who has done well will have listened carefully throughout their lives, will have not sown many bad thoughts. As she gazes at me, she sighs gently. We are given a gift by the bears. They leave you alive as a gift.

Martin’s rebirth is portrayed as a gesture of ursine goodwill towards the Evens in this moment, which I thought was included to correct Martin’s own mythologizing. Furthermore, I assumed that such gentle reprimand would be the end of the Siberian characters’ instrumentalization in the novel. The props aren’t part of Martin’s journey of self-transformation; she’s part of their journey! But my expectations were unrealistic. In spite of her whole book about finding acceptable or even pleasing interpretations, Martin bristles at her experience, which “challenges and unnerves all categories.”

In spite of Martin’s rage, it reveals a poignant question: Just how precious or sacred are you, really, if a bear has the power to tear a chunk from your head in an instant? With ecological precarity, her crisis assumes new dimensions. “Everything you have known will disintegrate and shift around,” she writes, and reality will change into something impossible to grasp. Martin, who is concerned about the melting of the ice caps, views the entire planet as a precious but desperately fragile thing. She feels an alarm ringing inside her due to climate change. “It is the world that creates the misery within me,” she realizes.

At this point, one deduces that Martin’s theme might not be actually the other after all. It seems to her that what she really cares about is finding value in something that can so easily be lost. This translates into redefining loss as something less permanent and less total, which is her solution. Thus, her solipsism is also overcome through this route. The body, Martin writes, serves as a “place of convergence”, a place where multiple lives meet. If the bear is Martin’s mirror, then the bear also contains traces of Martin; her task is to negotiate a peace between the two. Individuals are considered a waystation: they are formed as a result of what flows through them. At the end of the book, Martin vividly illustrates this concept. Volodya, a Siberian officer, is her host. She is journaling on his porch. Do you intend to write about the bear, about yourself, or about us?us?us? he inquires. “All of them,” she replies. Volumedya recommends that Martin call his masterwork “War and Peace” and then, turning to the poem that he has been reading, recites an apropos line: Each man in his night walks towards his light. Frenchwoman reads a Russian novel, Russian man speaks French poetry, and, somehow, both speakers seem to be saying the same thing at the same time.

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