The notion of rearing captive octopuses for food, as announced this week by a Spanish company poised to open the world’s first octopus farm, has stirred up all sorts of sediment. Why should we object? Octopuses are intelligent, we are told, they need stimulation and play as expressions of their culture. Well, so do pigs and cows. And dolphins. And, in varying and dubious ethical degrees, we keep all of those in unnatural environments. Yet with British legislation looming that will require the killing of lobsters and crabs to be humane, our attention is turned to other denizens of the marine ecosphere.
It may be a difficult if not slippery step for some. The octopus is the eldritch other, so utterly unlike us that we look on in wonder and repulsion. All those extra limbs. It’s not natural. Perhaps we’re jealous. As we become aware of the sentience of these short-lived, rubbery, outstretched cephalopods, we also become aware of eating another organism’s brains. An alien brain, in a tank.
As the Australian scientist and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith explored in his groundbreaking book, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, octopus arms (not tentacles, note) have their own individual nerve clusters, constituting something akin to separate brains for each limb; as if the one might have a disagreement with the other. We set this against childhood natures, dreams and nightmares. Visions, for those of a certain age, of a cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas doing battle with a giant (mocked-up) octopus in the Disney film version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
The art-historically aware will think of the 1814 woodcut by Hokusai in which an octopus lodged between the legs of a geisha is seen to pleasure or even inseminate her, like the snake-necked swan in the classical myth of Leda. The slithery shape-shifting quality of the octopus also equals a more modern sensibility of what we find acceptable and what we decide is not. In her astonishing image, Bird in Hand (2006), the American artist Ellen Gallagher subtly interrogates the black experience by turning Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab into an eerie afro-futurist pirate alien with an afro hairdo of fishes, a green parrot in his hand and an artificial leg morphing into cephalopodic limbs intertwining and penetrating it. As the academic Caoimhin Mac Giolla Léith notes in his brilliant new monograph on the artist, Gallagher’s image evokes the notion “that bodies in the African American diaspora are forever on the brink of virtuosity or despair”.
Aesthetically, the octopus has an advantage when it comes to self-expression. It can not only change the colour of its skin according to its local environment – the sandy floor, a barnacled rock – it can change actual shape and texture to replicate those surfaces. In 1924 the radical American modernist poet Marianne Moore, fascinated by the fugitive quality of these creatures, wrote her poem, An Octopus – seen as Moore’s response to TS Eliot’s Waste Land – in which the animal’s “ghostly pallor” turns into the green metallic tinge of an anemone pool, then turns into a glacier, into glass, and then back to an octopus again. Moore is looking into a distorted mirror, seeing a reflection of human dissatisfaction with our own selves.
The octopus’ physical space in our world changes too. It can escape through holes that seem impossibly small; it only needs an opening large enough to admit its parrot-like beak. Anyone looking at a live octopus underwater will bear witness to this almost magical ability of the animal to be there one moment, gone the next, as if it had transported itself or beamed itself up into some inner space of the ocean, another dimension.
We cannot consider these uncanny creatures as anything than other because, as recent studies have shown, octopuses are evolutionarily separate from us, having had the temerity to branch off into an order of their own 560 million years ago. The idea of their being farmed in some installation speaks exactly to that sense of disconnection from us, in morphology, space and time. Some find octopuses delicious, others repulsive, others sublime. To rear them under our control, rather than allowing them security under a stone on the sea bed, is a final primordial offence, it seems; as if we had snatched our own antediluvian origins and stuffed them in a goldfish bowl, prior to battering and frying them.
From whales to shrimps, all sea creatures suffer this sense of our hegemony, our hierarchy, our dominion, by virtue of their hubris in deciding not to share our landbound exile. We punish them with captivity and consumption. We consume them into our consuming society. We peg them out on lines to dry like so much slimy washing. We ask them to pick the winners of football tournaments, or we poke our fingers at them in the aquarium. They look back, thinking at our unthinking.
In her book, The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery attests to the fact captive octopuses in the New England Aquarium in Boston cannot bear the stink of some humans. They especially dislike smokers, whose tarry residue the cephalopods can taste with their arms. While octopuses sit in judgement at our follies, we watch them in a state of confusion. We cannot admit any rivals, no matter how many extra legs they may possess.