Book Review: Sickness and the Snail in Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s ‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’


By Paromita Patranobish

“Primordial soup”:  Towards a Multispecies Ecology

Towards the close of her fascinating memoir of illness and convalescence, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey offers a glimpse into the double role of pathogens in the evolutionary process: as microbial data, what she calls “primordial soup,” from the interaction of which all forms of complex life germinated on our planet, and as deadly parasites that can deploy the same biosemiotic capacity to rewrite the genetic codes of the host bodies that they colonise. Viruses and other microorganisms serve as valuable examples of the fundamental schema of evolutionary processes, and in effect of planetary life-forms as mutually entangled, co-creative, and heterogeneous: a perspective that debunks the notion of rigid boundaries between species, and complicates the hubristic image of the human subject as singular, exceptional, and markedly distinct from other creatures that it shares the earth with.

The virus that inhabits and rewrites the internal script of the human body, along with myriad other instances of what Donna Haraway (2016) has called “sympoiesis,” or “making-with”: from gut bacteria and fleas to the sympathetic nervous system and vestigial anatomical parts testifying to the preservation within the present ‘self,’ of earlier temporal junctures of the hominid evolutionary narrative. Such phenomena not only demonstrate the cohabitation of multiple life-forms, agencies, and temporalities, but also establish the status of so-called ‘individuals’ as “multispecies knots” (Rose, 2012): dynamic ecological networks comprising multiple, overlaid, and coexisting time scales, information, and relational patterns. In Haraway’s words: “Critters interpenetrate one another, loop around and through one another, eat each another, get indigestion, and partially digest and partially assimilate one another, and thereby establish sympoietic arrangements that are otherwise known as cells, organisms, and ecological assemblages” (2016: 59).[1]

Thus even as the pathogen becomes the catalyst for a major illness that provides Bailey’s memoir with its narrative vantage, the presence of this mysterious microorganism also serves as an occasion to challenge the concept of the biographical self and the anthropological person as a singular and bounded object in a fixed space and time. The infected body is at once, a porous and shared space, as well as the site for an altered embodiment consisting of new states of consciousness, radically divergent perceptual modes, new ways of experiencing time and space, and alternative, expanded, more inclusive forms of attention, attunement, and sensation that orient the self towards those forms of existence and styles of being in the world that are considered or rendered small, precarious, marginal, and obsolete with reference to the horizon of an anthropocentric world. The pathogen then unwittingly becomes a link between the ecology of the ailing body and the complex umwelt or life-world of Bailey’s companion during her period of convalescence, a Neohelix albolabris or forest snail. It captures, transforms, de-centres and descales the human body to bring it into proximity with the pace and life cycle of another species, a proximity that is rich with possibilities for a new non-anthropocentric ethics.

“Time Becomes Strange”: Pathological Embodiment and Forms of Estrangement

“At the age of thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms” (4). This ambiguously diagnosed pathogen, later understood to be tick-borne encephalitis, attacks Bailey’s autonomic nervous system and rewrites her cells’ mitochondrial code, leading to two decades of near paralysis, muscular atrophy, a collapsed immune system, chronic fatigue, and a lifetime of relapses and debilitating symptoms.

As the symptoms of her illness multiply the author chronicles the initial transformations it produces in the quality of her everyday life. Unable to move unaided, she is confined to her sickbed in a farmhouse in the care of a friend, experiencing the progressive loss of her motor capacities and the radical diminishment of the range and complexity of her physical activities. Bailey’s memoir begins by describing in detail the phenomenology of bodily existence in a situation where the body has been dramatically altered by disease, leading to changes in modes of occupying interior spaces and built environments, ways of using one’s body as a means of navigating and utilising the material world, in the very repertoire of pleasures and potentialities that the condition of being embodied makes available, and most importantly in a particular ontological conception of ‘human’ existence premised on the possession of a normative and, by implication, healthy body: upright, bipedal, mobile, and capable of functioning within the grids of chronological time and Euclidean space.

What kind of environment is a room for instance when the occupant is unable to explore it kinetically but has to rely on her sensory faculties to experience its spatial possibilities? What does this passive sensory exploration do to the nature of intimate spaces? How does the disabled body reconfigure the architectures of habitual settings, allowing certain otherwise overlooked objects, nooks, corners, and dimensions to acquire new functions and significations? Lying in bed, often in states of discomfort, the author is compelled to enter into a new relationship with the familiar markers of her environment, now estranged by the effects of her disease. She thus spends hours observing the patterns on the ceiling, engaging in redecorating the interior in her imagination, or fixing her focus on individual shapes or pieces of furniture, discovering in the process, an entire universe of details that captivate and absorb her attention, but which had been overlooked in the organised rhythms and accelerated pace of regular existence. Unable to make the physical journey, she conjures detailed mental images of her half visible bathroom, completing the invisible corners and supplementing the forgotten sensations of bathing.

This peculiar and transformed relationship with the materiality of her habitation produced by the bodily constraints of her illness, is experienced as new styles of noticing and attention, a heightened sensitivity to forms of slowness and stasis, an affinity engendered by the availability of solitary, uncalibrated, supplementary time, towards reduced scales of being and expanded temporalities. Illness brings a diminution of the physical world, and an expansion of time, together leading to an almost psychedelic, macroscopic, slow-motion enlargement and distension of the coordinates of time and space. This focus on the altered landscape of illness offers a useful prelude to the book’s concern with interspecies dwelling and a revised understanding of environment, both private and shared. Through the progress of her illness, Bailey becomes aware of her alienation from human society whose ways of operating, activities, and forms of social communication she feels gradually dissociated from. Social alienation also highlights the author’s growing estrangement from both her own ailing body as it becomes unfamiliar in the shadow of its pathological reconstitution as a site of contagion and disability, as well as from its earlier uses and association with the domain of health and productivity.

This pathological re-conceptualisation of the body as a form of estrangement, a mode of becoming strange of the ordinary, familiar world through renewed styles of attention and attunement, ones that both secure and are in turn sustained by an ethically and sensorially charged contact with the unique life-world of another species, its specific mode of existence, the spatiotemporal scale of its daily operations, and the points of overlap and departure between the two, is what creates a fertile epistemological ground for the interspecies encounter.

“One has to respect the preferences of another creature”: Rewilding Ethics

The snail, as the gastropod is referred throughout the book, is a gift from the author’s caregiver who brings it as an addition to a terracotta pot of wild violets for the sickroom. Transplanted from the nearby woods, the snail is intended to provide unobtrusive and gentle company to the author during long periods of isolation and solitude. Bailey goes on to describe the ways in which the snail’s presence enters into her consciousness, the shift it brings about in the orientation of her attention from being rooted in the contingencies of her own situation to reviewing these contingencies of illness, isolation, and the fragmentation of space and time, in relation to the snail’s negotiation of a similar set of external conditions.

As Bailey realises, like herself the snail is a creature forcibly displaced to an artificially built habitat that is remarkably different from its own native wilderness. She observes the ways in which the snail adjusts to this sudden narrowing of its world to the circumference of a flowerpot by exploring the surroundings and feasting on the cellulose, one of its staple foods, available in the paper left unsuspectingly nearby – envelops, paintings, even the India ink labels on the author’s heirloom trunk – an activity that she refers to as the snail’s nocturnal adventures. A quiet absorption in the snail’s daily routine, its responses to the stimuli of new food in the form of dried leaves from the author’s bedside flower vase, its movements down the slope of the pot where it lives, its manner of sleeping in positions that challenge gravity, become the focus of the author’s everyday life.

The snail’s non-anthropoid body serves as a locus of identification for the author’s own reduced functionality, but one that also simultaneously allows her to resignify her disabled existence not in terms of invalidity but rather as an ongoing, unpredictable, creative process of alternative, multiple modes of embodiment that destabilise the exclusionary biopolitical matrix of bodily life conceived around a normative model of ‘human’ existence. Thus a close engagement with the snail’s functions and capacities not only fulfils scientific curiosity but allows the author to reclaim her illness as a productive zone that both contests the limited horizon in relation to which the value of life is measured, as well as provides the affective tools of empathy, exchange, respect, and wonder through which an interspecies bond can flourish and challenge the epistemic and political violence of human exceptionalism.

As her convalescence progresses, with uncertain diagnoses and frustrating relapses, Bailey begins a serious study of the snail as a prominent figure in scientific, literary, and naturalist writing, from 19th century naturalists like Earnest Ingersoll, Charles Darwin, Giovanni Francesco Angelita, to the works of philosophers and writers like Aristotle, Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe, and Patricia Highsmith. Her interest in discovering more about her gastropod companion compels her to undertake the physically daunting task of reading the heavy books of a twelve volume 19th century compendium dedicated to the study of molluscs. Bailey doesn’t merely reproduce cold scientific facts about the snail’s biology or ethology; the meticulously and attentively chronicled details about gastropod life from their fascinating dental structure, the biochemical and behavioural peculiarities of slime accounting for athletic suppleness, clever subterfuge, or powerful self-defence, their elaborate mating rituals and modes of communication, their perfectly engineered ecosystem of hermetic colonies, the unanticipated amplitude and versatility of their olfactory abilities, their heightened tactile sensitivity to atmospheric vibration, to the logarithmic or equiangular geometry of their shells: expertise in molluscan life is combined with imaginative attempts to experience the human world through these non-human capacities, a rewilding and becoming-animal of anthropocentric existence, an imaginative boundary crossing into realms of radical alterity enabled by the changes wrought at the level of the author’s corporeality and embodied experience by her illness.

Accustomed now to live in a state of near permanent horizontality, with her bones losing density and strength: “My status as a vertebrate was literally dissolving. I would eventually become a spineless, soft-bodied creature, more like a gastropod than a mammal,” she remarks on the fragility of her endoskeleton, imagining her body in terms of the physical structure of invertebrates, while contrasting the supposed superiority of anthropoid uprightness with the structural ingenuity and strength of the mollusc’s outer shell. She draws on insights from design and architecture, the spiral staircase at the Guggenheim museum, or a traveller’s rolled up sleeping bag, to create physical parallels for molluscan corporeality at the human scale. In describing the apparent sensory deprivation of the snail’s universe, Bailey reconceptualises human socialisation through the lens of smell and touch, finding a model in Helen Keller’s autobiographical writings on experiencing the world without sight and hearing. What could appear as an extreme limitation is rethought by the author as an alternative form of being in the world with its own possibilities and experiential richness ultimately incomprehensible to humans because of embodied difference.

In discovering the snail’s extreme sensitivity to toxic substances, Bailey finds a parallel with her own acquired hypersensitivity to stimuli and shifts in her environment, as she humorously imagines her own altered aesthetic tastes as her progressive transformation into a gastropod subject: “I could only listen to music that was slow and continuous; anything with individually punctuated notes was too jarring. This restricted my entertainment to the calm of Gregorian chants at a barely audible level. I wondered if the snail could sense the vibrations through the air, and what the Benedictine monks would think of singing to a gastropod.”

“A sort of vanishing”: The Lost Art of Slowness

Some of the most brilliant and compelling passages in Bailey’s narrative are those dealing with the subtlest, near invisible aspects of molluscan life: defence and dormancy. In describing the snail’s unique modalities of slime manufacture, building appendages such as a screen-like epiphragm to secure the orifices at which it might be most vulnerable to attack, or its patterns of aestivation and hibernation as forms of energy regulation, conservation of resources, and self-preservation, Bailey also highlights the existential value of passivity, invisibility, and withdrawal as evolutionary mechanisms ensuring the survival of molluscs longer than most ‘higher’ animals. What sort of ‘lessons’ might these arts of slowness and stasis offer to the fast paced ethos of capitalist modernity and the overweening premium it places on notions of productivity, aggrandisement, and self-promotion? What kind of social and cultural tactic is becoming-snail, of taking the snail’s physical, cognitive, and behavioural traits, its specific ways of responding to the environment: its modalities of relating to the existential horizon of the challenges, pressures, and opportunities of its environment, its participation in complex processes of meaning making and cohabitation – and transforming these into heuristic frameworks with which to re-examine existing anthropocentric systems of knowledge and meaning, including knowledge about ourselves and other species?

As the author gets a terrarium with a variety of ferns, compost, shells, mosses, and grasses built for her companion, and the snail goes through the different stages of its life-cycle, from phases of prolonged slumber in different manners of acrobatic suspension, discovering new sources of nutrition, hermaphroditic self-fertilisation and tending of its vast colony of eggs and subsequently sharing space with its offspring, a remarkable intimacy of distant but immersive observation develops along with a mutual awareness of co-presence and a sharing of common territory that is intersecting but noninvasive, affectively and empathetically connected but separated by different modes of occupying time, space, and material resources.

There are moments when this intimacy as the basis for understanding and translating the snail into the language of humans, runs into the risk of sentimental anthropomorphism, for instance when the epiphragm, a layer of mucous that the snail uses to secure the entrance of its shell when it is under threat or during hibernation, is compared to “little doors…its statement is definitive: the snail is home but not accepting visitors,” but often this is avoided by the sensitivity and gentle humour with which these domains of alterity are approached as something that can be observed and studied but only partially translated. For Bailey it is thus equally important that along with providing factual, empirical, and interpretive details about the snail’s activities, a sense of mystery, ambiguity, and ultimately loss is retained – the snail can be known but not co-opted into systems of knowledge. The threshold of interspecies intimacy is also a gap and a rupture marking the impossibility of perfect correspondence: the snail must eventually be returned to its natural habitat and the author and reader learn to make peace with its trace in language.

It is only apt then that the snail’s distinguishing characteristics, its agility and elegance, its passive modes of defence through subterfuge, chemical secretions, evasion, isolation, camouflage, and secrecy, the aesthetics of its pleasure seeking, and the finesse and sophistication of its sensory receptors, become metaphors for the lost arts of slowness, rest, and suspension that the author’s own illness retrieves into the texture of everyday existence, reframing and elevating these deprecated states as necessary, dignified, and generative of new forms of aesthetic and intellectual experience. Indeed as she recovers and is reintegrated into social life and activities, the snail begins to slip from attention, with each species returning to its own habitual pace. But long after the snail and its offspring have been released into the wild, Bailey writes to her doctor describing the snail as a “true mentor”, its life a provocation to value the necessity and meaningfulness of immersion in and attunement to one’s immediate situation, of the slow and contemplative way. This refocusing on the cryptic and the invisible as desirable modes of living also highlights the negative connotations of these states of being. In fact, Bailey’s memoir provides a powerful critique of how able-bodied and normatively functioning society manages to regularly and systemically marginalise, invisibilise, and diminish sick and disabled bodies that cannot participate in spaces and structures designed for particular kinds of bodies, capacities, and dispositions: “being home-bound in the human world is a sort of vanishing.”

The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating, although written a decade ago, appears to be particularly relevant in terms of the concerns and perspectives it raises for the altered landscape of the pandemic-inflected present. Bailey’s phenomenological approach to illness that reframes the ailing body as a particular mode of embodiment liberating a different, non-hegemonic set of cognitive and sensory capacities, provides a useful critique of medicalised and pathologised conceptions that categorise the ailing body as dangerous, unproductive, and dysfunctional, and collude in its marginalisation or social invisibilisation. Secondly, Bailey’s retrospective narrative framing of her disability in relation to her proximity with a snail, an animal that is at once wild and thus resistant to interpretations that reduce animals to anthropomorphic projections, as well as radically alien to its human interlocutor in terms of its physiology, habits, and relationship to its environment, draws a parallel between the altered embodiment that illness produces and the otherness of non-human life. This parallel suggests the uses of illness as a condition that might provide an expanded epistemic access to the possibility of an ecological model of interspecies existence with its attendant implications for rethinking human social and political responsibility, obligation, and ethics vis-à-vis the non-human world in an era of anthropogenic climate change and ecocide. Bailey’s use of the autobiographical form, the fluid interpenetration of genres and styles along with the narrative’s rich intertextual field, her interspersing of accounts of her daily life under duress with Kathy Bray’s delicate botanical and zoological line drawings create a fascinating dialogue between art and science as tentative forays into a world that is only partially knowable in its fundamental tendency to withdraw. This book is a valuable addition to the shelves of readers interested in literatures of illness, disability narratives, and quarantine writing, as well as an important intervention into the expanding canon of contemporary Ecocritical and Anthropocene literatures.

[1]  Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016

Paromita Patranobish is an academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist literature with a focus on nonhuman embodiment in works of Virginia Woolf where she first encountered the fascinating world of snails. She has taught at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University Delhi.


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