Language and Pastoral Fantasies

I enjoyed reading Goat Song.  Kessler is a gifted writer who made his story engaging and interesting.  While reading I was struck by certain tensions in how I felt about goats and Kessler’s experience.  On one hand, I found myself wanting to do something similar, go out and herd goats and farm or something.  On the other was the realization that Kessler’s experience couldn’t possibly be how farming really is because at the end of the day, he’s a successful writer who is not relying solely on the fruits of his labors with his goats.  I feel like Kessler romanticizes goat herding and pastoralism very much in ways similar to paleofantasies.  He has an idea of what herding goats is and was, an idea full of spiritual fulfillment and happy, almost carefree living, and wanted to recreate this pastoral ideal in rural Vermont.

I don’t really fault Kessler for romanticizing animal herding like this.  Romanticizing shepherds (and shepherdess, there is plenty of that) has been an institution in literature since there have been writers and shepherds.  Writers romanticized most people who worked with animals or farmed as people who had a strong connection with nature and lived better in general than city-bound intellectuals.  This romanticized view shows up in all shorts of literature, the only specific examples I know are from Russian literature, but I’m fairly certain it was a common trope in 18th and 19th century literature from all over.

So, Kessler is just continuing a long tradition of idealizing pastoral life.  I don’t think this is a bad thing to do, since I think to some degree, everyone who isn’t a farmer or herder idealizes it to some extent.  It just means that Kessler created a way of living that is further from real life pastoralism than he would care to admit.  I highly doubt pastoral people in the past or present named all their animals or formed the close emotional contacts that Kessler and his wife did with their goats.

I found Kessler’s discussion on language to be incredibly interesting.  Other things I’ve read showed how much words and their origins can tell about societies.  I had no idea so many words came from goats.  The way the words arose from how one culture viewed goats but also showed how important goats were to that culture is very telling.  A few other people mentioned “scapegoat” in their posts, and I am just as amazed as everyone else at the origins.  The fact that “capricious” came from the word for goat was also interesting because it uses a facet of goat behavior to describe humans.  I found myself wondering, when the word was coined, did people use it in the same way that we use it today, or did they mean something different when they called someone capricious?

Overall, I liked Kessler’s book.  He had a pastoral fantasy in his head and he made it come true.  I don’t think he got an authentic pastoral experience, but it seemed like he enjoyed doing what he did.

4 thoughts on “Language and Pastoral Fantasies

  1. Maybe I was too hard on Kessler for his Biblical imagery (Though I do still think it’s ridiculous). Now that you mention it, people have tried to give apotheosis to things much more eccentric than goats.

    I also found the language angle of this reading to be very cool. Specifically, I liked the name for the goat cheese product –chèvre (Actually translates to “goat” if you plug it into google translate). It reminds me of a word in Spanish, chévere, which means “cool” or “great”. They are pronounced the same way; I can’t imagine that the two words could be totally unrelated seeing as both languages share Latin roots. I wonder how that came to be.

    That was a tangent, but what I’m trying to say is that I think it’d be really cool to see a list of words that have pastoral roots. I’m sure there would be a few surprises on that list.

  2. I found Kessler’s discussion of the pastoral roots of language incredibly interesting as well. As for “romanticizing” goat herding and cheese making, I’m not sure why this is a bad thing? I’m also not sure that’s a major aspect of the book, but I’m sure you all will enlighten me during class! I’m thinking about Reindeer People and remembering how the Eveni do indeed name and form relationships with individual reindeer.

  3. Good point, I feel as well that the goat farming was not his main focus those years of his life, though the book may seem otherwise. I think in some of his descriptions of his life during this time were fantasized a bit, for dramatic effect, as his writing career was certainly one of his priorities. However, he did make you feel how committed he was to his goats, and that he never showed signs of grief. (I knew when Hannah was kicking during milking he was not a happy goat farmer)

  4. I agree with your suspicion that goat farming is actually much harder than Kessler makes it out to be. Maybe some of our classmates who’ve lived around animals can present a clearer picture. However, as you said, Kessler is a successful writer, and knows how to make a story more interesting than the truth. Besides, I’d much rather read about the quiet little life he wrote about than the real one he experienced.

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