‘Becoming-Animal’: Idle Bodies in Marie Darrieussecq and Lucien Freud – Susie J Farrell

Marie Darrieussecq’s (b.1969) novel Pig Tales (1997) unfolds the slow, nightmarish transformation of a beautiful young woman, working as a beautician and prostitute, into a sow. With Kafka-esque imagery the world which Darrieussecq creates is that of a dystopic fairy-tale. There are no happy endings but instead an undercurrent of consciousness-raising which unearths the deft horror latent in society. In this essay I will be discussing the theme of metamorphosis and its relationship to sleep in the novel . The narrative focuses on the theme of consciousness throughout, specifically that of the animal/human consciousness interaction. As Darrieussecq explains in an interview with Jean-Marc Terrasse, the story’s narrator ‘is compelled [as a result of her transformation] to think for the first time […] she becomes a person; it is the metamorphosis of a female object into a conscious woman.’

It is in this world where beauty is deformed and the animal self takes over the human subject. With reference to Lucian Freud’s (1922-2011) oil painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995 pictured, above), I will also be discussing how in each representation of women both artist and writer question the perception of the female body; specifically that of the large, the heavy and the cumbersome. The nude figure in Freud shares the humbling qualities of Darrieussecq’s pig: how she curls up her soft pink folds of skin and tucks herself onto the collapsing sofa. The question remains, however: is she beautiful? The large body has long signified the grotesque and the monstrous, especially for Mikhail Bakhtin and his discussion of the physical carnivalesque, and remains so in our own time. Darrieussecq focuses on the issue of the female narrator psychological identity alongside the traumatic physical transformation of bodies. The female narrator’s body is violated by grotesque clients who soon shown themselves to be truer beasts than her piggish self. Later, abandoned in a mental asylum on the outskirts of the city, her only choice of food is the decaying, worm-ridden bodies of dead patients and doctors. The tale of pig and woman perhaps becomes, as the author herself comments, a modern day ‘sensual fable.’

Alongside Darrieussecq, I will also make reference to French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Félix Guattari (1930-1992). From their influential, two volume work Capitalism and Schizophrenia [Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980)]  I will utilise the concept of the “becoming-animal”. Simply put, this is considered to be a movement in which the subject no longer occupies a state of stability. Instead, that stability is replaced with a “nomadic mode of existence”, something which is inaccessible to any form of definition. Thus, it is not animal metamorphosis but an achievement of non-identity which, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the condition of freedom – for both animals and humans:

We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away. [A Thousand Plateaus, p.237]

Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales is a thought provoking exploration of the animal as “being” in this Deleuzian sense.  The term being here refers to the concept of the animal as self, an idea constructed by Deleuze and Guattari, who analyse the significance of animals’ ‘otherness[1]’. It is the nameless female narrator who undergoes a metamorphosis, with her mind and body slowly beginning to morph from human to pig, a surreal state of change in which her human self cannot comprehend her new animal self. It is interesting to note that during sleep (an intrinsic part of the metamorphosis) the character finds herself to be human again, perhaps alluding to how her dehumanization can be counter-acted from something as simple as a bed in order to feel human again.

One can actually question whether the transformation from human to pig-self is really all that drastic a change. It is possible that it is simply the body’s reaction to the environment – a society in which humans are beginning to take on more abhorrent qualities. Perhaps it is her subconscious response to the dystopian culture she wallows in; the primal, inert, human desires to be lazy and eat are ultimately her only chance of survival in such a detestable world. That Kafka-esque, nightmarish metamorphosis could be read simply as a macabre representation of determinism, cultural and environmental. This in turn results in her metamorphosis into her ‘true’ self, an ‘otherness’ which only the inner animal knows how to respond and survive: ‘if all men are pigs, then what can a woman do but turn into a sow?[2]

The transformation is considered alien and abject to the human “being” – with the narrator’s body rebelling against the thriving impulses from deep inside of her and flooding her brain, as she says, ‘you should have seen me eat those apples (…) My mouth would be bursting with juice, my teeth crunching up the flesh! My few moments of pleasure, off in the little park with my apples.[3]

The reference to food as pleasure suggests the female narrator’s new state of mind. She has developed an ‘eatingmagination[4],’ a term coined by French New Wave film-maker Agnes Varda (b.1928) in her film Ulysses (1986). This conceptualisation of eating, paired with the animal imagination, is portrayed by Varda with the example of a goat, who is offered a crumpled photograph of a deceased limp goat. Even to this morbid image, to which a human would refuse, the animal eats – it is developed a ‘self-predatory imagination[5].’ This is simply, as Varda comments (with a Deleuzian undertone) part of the animal self.

The act of eating becomes leisure for Darrieussecq’s narrator:  ‘I must admit that my new way of life, the frugal diet I follow, these rustic accommodations that suit me perfectly (…) are good reasons why I don’t miss the more painful aspects of my former life.[6]’ The narrator calls her snuffling for truffles and apple cores a, ‘frugal diet,’ a quiet phrase which registers the human obsessions – particularly in women’s magazines – about diets and detoxes. Darrieussecq playfully sets up these ironies to assert something more serious, suggesting that it is better to be pig than under patriarchy. The idea also inverts Socrates’ maxim ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’.  In her new life as a pig the narrator can ‘dare to be lazy[7]’ – she is free, with her memory no longer a ‘rumination of mental images’[8] or an endless repetition of negative emotional experience. Through this disintegration, idle thoughts and sleep unfold freely.

Sleep plays a pivotal role in the narrator’s metamorphosis in its demonstration of the effect on the human-animal self. In one scene she describes herself as she wades in:

a lovely puddle with nice sun-warmed mud […] I lay down in the puddle and stretched out my limbs, which eased my joints no end […]. It was delightful, refreshingly cool on my irritated skin and relaxing for my muscles, like a massage.[9]

The passage registers the desire to be lazy, to sprawl out stretching every inch of one’s being, with only the sky, grass and birds to witness that act of not-doing. This image of piggish idyll and human laziness takes us to Freud’s painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), a depiction of the female nude which render’s visually Darrieussecq’s narrator.

Freud depicts the nude slumped onto an old tattered sofa, which appears to be on the cusp of collapsing. The sofa’s murky leaf green colour is decorated with a myriad of swirling white flowers, echoing the delectable flower buds Darrieussecq’s pig would, ‘eat, […] nature outside coming inside (…) and it stirred something in me.[10]’ Freud’s nude could easily open her pursed mouth to nibble at the white fabric flowers on tatty couch. Her large cumbersome body encapsulates the tiresome nature of the woman-pig’s undertakings and how she would have managed with such weight to carry. The nude’s squashed features include a set of small tightly puckered pinkish lips, as though hiding behind them a set of sharp teeth perfect to devour small, ‘mice (…) and earth worms’[11] just as Darrieussecq’s narrator does. The ambiguous mouth Freud depicts leads up to a precious looking rounded nose, sculpted from curved lines in pinks and peaches; avowedly porcine and ready to sniff out any approaching humans.

The neck is neatly tucked under the face, layers of soft, smooth delicate skin attached to a body with arms that clutch the sofa and support the bosom. The breasts are reminiscent of the ‘pinkish dugs[12]’ which the narrator develops, an intrinsic defining feature of her female self- both human and animal. This physicality is not only part of her aesthetic design but is also part of the almost maternal affection she begins to show to her ‘piglet’ and the baby she spies out in the park[13]. They are a source of life but are treated violently; her breasts become a source of pain, a mere commodity to her clients.

Furthermore, in Darrieussecq’s narrator, sleep is the catalyst which fluctuates metamorphosis. As she wanders around the city she discovers a near-abandoned hotel, deciding that perhaps if she can find a room this may aid in returning to her human self, ‘I stayed on my bed (…) I rested (…) My face was less puffy. I tried to look human again.[14]’ This suggests that by temporarily abandoning her animalistic urges, she is able to re-condition herself back to her human self. Perhaps it is through her indulgence of sleep and being blatantly lazy which cures her from her pig disposition. This notion of laziness is discussed by the French philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980). Barthes comments that laziness is not a concept, but ‘fundamental and quasi-natural,’ something which can be both ‘a painful experience of the will […] [or] euphoric idleness.[15]

With regards to the pig there is an emphasis on the nurturing qualities of laziness, which Barthes  calls  a way of ‘marinade[-ing]’ oneself; when ‘you don’t do anything, your thoughts whirl around,’ a true laziness which the ‘Western World[16]’ avoids. It is clear in Pig Tales that there is a divide between the pigs and humans of society. The narrator has undergone the tiring and violent undertakings as a human, but through her re-birth as pig she has become at one with her body’s real needs; she has reached a nirvana-like state, as her ‘idleness takes on a dimension of annihilation[17]’:

The rising sun caressed my snout. I inhaled the passing of the moon as it dropped down to the other side of the Earth […] It was easier to let myself go: eating and sleeping didn’t require much effort, just a little vital force […] I flexed my muscles in communion with the trees, odours, mosses, ferns and rotting leaves.[18]

In this passage a Taoist perception of idleness is expressed, to think ‘on doing nothing,’ to ‘determine nothing.[19]’ That stillness inheres in Freud’s painting, as the supervisor is idly dozing, frozen in sleep. Barthes’ idea of ‘marinade[-ing]’ oneself hints at a process, even in laziness, and that process returns us to the Deleuzian notion of perpetual ‘becoming’. In Darrieussecq and Freud, that possibility of becoming is tied to the in-human, and to nothingness, so that idleness, nothingness and animality become affirmative, not nihilistic, opening up the potential for forms of being not circumscribed by western philosophy, patriarchy – or even the human body itself.

About the author:

Susannah Farrell completed an Art Foundation Degree at the University of Arts London in 2014, and is currently studying for degree in Art History at the University of Manchester , UK. Her interest in Old Testament texts has seen her write papers examining the biblical imagination and the relationship between Jewish religious praxis and representations of God in visual art. Susannah’s creative work focusses on the human body, particularly in life drawings. Alongside her studies she sells her art and photographs in the Greater Manchester area.


[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Continuum Impacts No. 21), International Publishing Group, New Ed edition, 2004, 237.

[2] Sarah Dunant, The Observer, 6th July 1997.

[3] Marie Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, France, 1996, 12

[4] Agnes Varda, Ulysses, 1982.

[5] Varda, Ulysses, 1982.

[6] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 1

[7] Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice Interviews 1962-1980,  September 16th 1979 Interview conducted by Christine Eff, California, 1985, 338-345

[8] Varda, Ulysses, 1982

[9] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 73

[10] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 25

[11] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 30

[12] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 33

[13] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 45, 58

[14] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 76

[15] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 339

[16] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 339

[17] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 343

[18] Darrieussecq, Pig Tales, 127

[19] Barthes, Dare to Be Lazy, Interview 1979 conducted by Christine Eff, 339

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