Lydia Davis’s chapbook, The Cows, is an impressionistic and exploratory work in which she examines her neighbor’s cows with loving detail, humor and empathy. The three main subjects are, as Thornburg calls them, “stubbornly languid” and definitively “bovine” in terms of plot and physical action; almost indistinguishably similar is size, shape, color, and demeanor, the cows fuse with the rural upstate New York scenery as year round stark foliage (1). Davis admits in an interview with Eleanor Watchel that she has long been disheartened with the novel, “rarely” finishing those that interest her the most (12). Instead she pursues with The Cows a curious stylistic journey into a realm devoid of “lyricism or flowery language”, consisting instead of a “plain” and “narrow focus” (Watchel 12). With systematic and lovingly frequent observations, Davis attempts to create a work of “literary landscape art” as a lesson to herself in polishing the skills of simplicity and objectivity (Thornburg 3). Her attempt to observe without judgement to try to make sense of the enigmatic “lumps” across the road reveals less about the cows than it does about herself, the society in which she resides, and perception as it relates to consciousness. Her examinations of the cows presents a raw depiction of human nature, tinged with a gluttonous desire to categorize, understand and inject meaning into the natural world, all of which can be seen through her descriptions of the cows relative to physical motion, spatial landscape, mathematical and scientific reasoning, simile and metaphor and personification.
As Davis discusses the cows and their physical motion, the inherent for desire for action becomes present. Initially, she sees the cows as performers, each day is “the start of an entirely new play”, each moment “the next act” (Davis 7). The first line in the chapbook, it is evident that she expects great things from these animals, as if they exist not on their own, but rather to specifically facilitate and inspire her work. She uses repetitive language such as “next”, “start”, and “new”, amplified by the reader’s anticipation of opening to the first page to create an overwhelming tone of excitement (Davis 7). However, her excitement lasts only until the next page, where her disappointment dominates. They move in spontaneous and haphazard ways, “as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens” (Davis 9). Here, rather than graceful dancers moving under “the instructions of a choreographer” (Davis 17), she grapples with the dismaying realization that their motion is aimless, simple and without direction, “motionless until they move again” (Davis 9). Their dance is free of human influence and of their own accord. In fact, after prolonged observation, Davis admits her oblivion to the majority of their motion, as they seem to appear and disappear in increments of time determined by her “ten minute” attention span (Davis 11). Her enthusiasm at the beginning of her observation is followed by nearly immediate dissatisfaction because she sees the cows as sources of entertainment before she sees them as cows, speaking to the human tendency of egocentrism, in which expectation generates conditioned judgement.
Dismayed by their astonishing lack of physical activity, Davis attempts to accept them as objects and shifts her perspective and begins to view the cows in terms of spatial distinctions in regard to the landscape. She describes their size in the field as if she were discussing the subjects of painting, forever frozen in the permanence of the “foreground” and the “middle ground” of the pasture (Davis 23). This categorization of their description suggests that ultimately she is unable to see them as they are, but instead must justify their positions as though they are a painting, an artistic rendering of how they are. Through her use of language, she finds herself even farther from realistic observation, stuck inside the boundaries of a representation of a representation of the truth. Her self-centered perspective again obscures the accuracy of her vision once she abandons her former idea. As she looks at them from the comfort of her home, she muses “the field of my vision in which they are grazing is only the length of half my finger” (Davis 12). Here, Davis describes cows as they are from her inescapably human perspective. The views she holds shrinks the image of the massive cow down to her fingertip, serving as an imposition of her human superiority.
As her observations wear on, Davis grows increasingly captivated by the seemingly unexplainable nature of the cows. Seeking to understand their nature, she vainly attempts to categorize their behavior in terms of logic, basic mathematics, and scientific reasoning. Many times when she peers over her hedge in observation, the cows are huddled together in the shape of an indistinguishable, “irregular mass” (Davis 11). This description emphasis her disdain of the enigmatic. The irregularity of uneven and lumpy cows when standing in this formation is a inconvenience because it lacks the ordered boundaries that she craves as a human; she finds comfort in the justification of “twelve legs” (Davis 11). As an explanation of their strange positions one day, she states that together” they face three of the four cardinal points of the compass” (21). An authoritative “the” marks the dominion of the logical above the whimsical. Superior reason dominates again on page 20 when she employs a colon and list to describe their “forms of play” in a way that is, in all intents and purposes, robotic (Davis 20). This strategy of description demands order and completely undermines the nature of the unconventional and free-spirited play that she is trying to describe, providing a strong instance in which her desire to understand the cows in ordered, human ways overpowers her venture in trying to understand them solely as cows. Furthermore, she compares her experience of observing to cows to that of a math problem: “1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows” (Davis 28). It is evident that she feels a great deal of affection for these animals and knowing that all three are present in her observation is a certain kind of solace. Thus she arranges and sorts the cows in coherent and systematic ways as a source of her own contentment in another loss to her ever-present subjectivity.
Davis’s inability to shake her subjectivity as an observer becomes most prominent through her recurrent use of simile. Throughout her writing, she describes the shape, action and behaviors of the cows in relation to human objects which apply to her, her readers, and the modern society in which both reside. Standing together they form a “locomotive”, apart and from a distance they take the shape of “wide black strokes of a pen” (Davis 14, 27). Individually, they “look like black staples” with legs that form sharp angles with the earth like “prongs” of a fork (Davis 28). Rather than the subtler metaphor, her use of the word “like” pervades the various descriptions of the cows with a sense of synthetic imitation. Each object to which she compares the cows heightens her inability to separate herself from the heavily objectified and industrialized society that overwhelms her. Aware of this detriment to her perception, she shows significant insight with the solitary appreciation of the graceful nature of “the position, or form, itself” of the grazing cow (Davis 30). Only when she is able to step back and see the cow as a cow does she express genuine understanding of her surrounding natural environment.
Perhaps the most flagrant expression of Davis’s lack of objectivity is her frequent imposition of human emotions onto the cow’s behaviors. As Thornburg points out, Davis does indeed go to great lengths to allow the cows to stand on their own: physical human presence outside herself is “virtually absent” from the observations, allowing the cows “the chance to occupy our attention more fully” (5). However, she feels the need to see the cows as more than cows is evident through over twenty separate instances of personification throughout the chapbook. Davis is forced to inject her own emotions and drives as justifications and explanations of the cows’s inscrutable behavior. She supposes that a cow’s day spent standing perfectly still is motivated by a “philosophical attitude”, unable to accept the cows as foreign objects to her limited understanding of them (Davis 12). She goes on to imagine their various “wants” and “likes” as she depicts the cows in scenarios in which they feel “concentration” “jealousy” “discouragement” “embarrassment” and “shame”, even if their physical actions are the simple lowering of the head, the quiet stare, or an unmotivated meander to the far side of the field (Davis 16, 22). It is not to say the cows are incapable of these emotions, but instead, that as an onlooker, one has no way of knowing. Davis is very much aware of this and admits that her suggestions of bovine emotions are “false”, understanding that the cows exist in peaceful oblivion from the human world and “do not know the words ‘person’, ‘watch’ or even ‘cow’”, yet she is unable to cease their production as her descriptions continue, and therefore finds herself continuously farther away from an objective truth (Davis 22, 37). As Through these musings, she demonstrates her desire to give everything meaning, even a concepts as enigmatic and alien as the humble cow, strengthening the inexplicably human aversion to utterly simplistic blankness.
Much in the way that Stevens decided there are only thirteen ways to observe a blackbird, patterns emerge in Davis’s descriptions of the neighboring cows. In a search for order, logic, and sentience in the cow’s actions, she looks at them from varying perspectives including, physical motion and position, where she gets her bearings, mathematical reasoning, where she tries to find logical explanations for the unexplainable ‘cow-ness’, and finally through personification and comparison, where she applies the emotions and objects of a world undeniably human in an attempt to gain a relatable familiarity. Greater trends emerge in her writing with the progression of the work such as a tone of uncertainty captured by repetitive uses of words like “sometimes”, “probably” and “or” and a shift to descriptions characterized by adjectives as basic as “so” (Davis 25, 29). This shift is a result of her growing awareness that true objectivity is ultimately futile. After having carefully watched the cows for many seasons, she concludes her project with the observation that they disappear at dusk (Davis 37). Here, Davis highlights the critical flaw in her experiment in objectivity—that an encompassing and totally unvarnished perspective is ultimately impossible as a result of the decomposition of human omniscience during the night. All superiority and domain is lost in the realization of the inadequacy of the narrative and its inability to envision anything outside of the egocentric human perspective. The pixels and print of Davis’s The Cows do not come close to demonstrating an unbiased depiction of the natural world. This does not suggest that the narrative should be abandoned and that all hope is lost in the search for truth, but rather that we see more of ourselves in observations of the foreign world, and that the truths of this foreign world, embodied by the basic cow, will forever remain a mystery.
Thornburg, Ann Marie. “The Cows, by Lydia Davis.” MAKE Literary Productions. Make Literary Magazine, 9 Feb. 2012. Web. 03 May 2014. <http://makemag.com/eview-the-cows-by-lydia-davis_new/>.
Ulin, David L. “Lydia Davis Talks to Animals.” The Reading Life: Books and All Things Bookish. The Los Angeles Times, 30 June 2011. Web. 06 May 2014. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2011/06/the-reading-life-lydia-davis-talks-to-the-animals.html>.
Watchel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Lydia Davis.” BrickMag.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2014. <http://brickmag.com/interview-lydia-davis>.