Monday, October 11, 2010

It's a Zoo in Here: Animals in Fiction

When I was a child, one of my earliest lessons about fiction was on the component parts of a story: the primary ones hit upon were conflict, setting, theme, and characters.  Our teacher explained that "characters" were the "people" in a story, the actors who either caused the action or suffered the consequences of it.  I immediately raised my hand to ask if stories that featured only animals were then in fact stories at all.

Obviously, as my second grade teacher explained to me then and as I am well aware now, personified animals or even inanimate objects (from Toy Story's Woody to Asimov's robots to Pynchon's Byron the Bulb) can just as easily function as the protagonists and antagonists in fiction as actual living humans can, and many great stories, especially for kids, feature relationships between humans and non-humans front and center.  In stories of this kind, the enchanted creatures become the child's imagination externalized, made flesh, and tend to either mirror the child's thoughts about the adult world (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth), provide fantastical tests for real-life moral quandaries (The Chronicles of Narnia, the film The Labyrinth), give the child the opportunity to reverse roles and take on the duties of protector or parent (The Indian in the Cupboard, the films The Iron Giant or ET), or supply reliable friendship and comfort while allowing the child to explore his identity outside of the confines of family (Winnie the Pooh, the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes).  In all of these cases, though the creatures themselves certainly have independent goals and motivations, we see them through the child's eyes, and ultimately, we judge them in terms of the effect they have on the child in question.  As much as a reader may like a talking faun or a lovable robot, it's clear she's not meant to locate herself in those characters.  By definition, they are the Other.

We're aware that we see this character through the child-character's eyes.

For that reason, something odd tends to happen in stories where people and their civilization are conspicuously absent: we are forced to identify with someone inherently dissimilar to ourselves.  As a kid, my first exposure to stories of this kind was in Aesop's fables.  Interactions between a fox and a raven or a cat and the mice it pursues were unsettling, not just because of the unmitigated cruelty and violence (no second chances here), but because these animals, unmoored from the context of my world, were deeply unpredictable to me.  One story in particular, the fable of the scorpion and the frog, was especially creepy: a scorpion hitches a ride on a frog's back to cross a fast-flowing river.  The frog is uncertain if it should trust the scorpion not to sting it, but as the scorpion points out, if it stings the frog mid-journey, they will both sink and drown.  Still, in the middle of the river, the scorpion stings his companion anyway.  Why?  "It's in my nature."

What does this mean, "It's in my nature"?  Is the scorpion good or bad, active or passive?  Does a scorpion have free will?  Even as a young child, I knew that humans are sometimes slaves to their own biological imperatives: the need for a bathroom on a road trip, the need for a puke bucket during flu season.  Was the scorpion's need to sting akin to these exigencies?  Or was its need to sting more like the other, less uncontrollable urges I experienced: the temptation to palm a roll of Lifesavers from a convenience store or to break my toys in the midst of a tantrum?  If the scorpion had been placed in a story with a little girl, it would have been clear where my sympathies should fall -- the scorpion would be a villain, or, simpler than that, a mere danger, like a lit stove.  But in Aesop (whatever he may have intended), this clarity was lost to me; try as I might, I couldn't locate myself in either character.  Although the altruistic frog was certainly more lovable within the context of the story, the scorpion's needless cruelty raised questions about him too.  If a scorpion's nature was to sting, then what was a frog's nature?  And if that nature was just a matter of instinct, genetics, not something chosen, then wouldn't his potential for goodness or badness entirely depend on whose perspective the reader chose to adopt?  After all, if a story were told about the frog from the point of view of a fly, the frog would seem inherently evil too.

One of the big complicatons in stories entirely about animals comes with personifying more than one species of animal at a time.  I call this the Animal Farm effect.  In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell (which does, in fact, briefly feature humans as well, though not in the same way as the kids' stories I described above), a mass revolt against an unjust farmer leaves the animals in charge.  Yet, over the course of the story, the pigs -- originally placed in a management role because they are the smartest of the animals -- take on more and more of the qualities of humans in their interactions with the other barnyard creatures, until finally they are living almost exactly as their human masters once did, inhabiting the farmhouse and walking on two legs while others serve them.  The rules of the farm, which once represented the interests of all, are now reduced to one simple credo: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. 

Orwell, who was using the story to make a statement about Stalinist Russia, clearly meant for us to reject this maxim: the barnyard animals are all sentient, all capable of speech, and thus all equal on the novel's terms.  But I think that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" does reflect something that's frequently true about the use of animals in fiction.  When creating a world dominated by animals, something must still be regarded as the Other in order for the animals' social order to be comprehensible to us -- in order for their life to at all resemble the relationship of human society to the natural world.  Even in Animal Farm, rats, songbirds, and rabbits play this role: the other animals attempt to "tame" them (signalling to the reader that "tameness" is the "humanity" of animals in this scenario) but without success.

The mid-90's Disney film The Lion King, for all its many embarrassing faults (if I never hear the saccharine song "Hakuna Matata" again, it will be too soon), succeeds in this one respect, at least.  With the exception of a meerkat, a wild boar, and a toucan -- all of whom are treated basically as servants and comic relief -- all of the speaking characters are predators, and the prey are basically de-personified.  In one memorable scene, a herd of bison trample a lion to death, not out of anger or a desire for revenge, but because they literally cannot be reasoned with.  They are running out of blind, unarticulated animal fear, seemingly unable to understand or even hear the cries of the main character for help.  For some lions to be "good" and some "evil," for the choices of a lion to have any moral weight, we must first establish that the central nature of a lion qua predator is morally neutral.  And we must do that by making it clear that the story is told from a lion's perspective.

I got to thinking about all these issues over the weekend, after seeing Zack Snyder's fun, gorgeous, and intermittently disappointing kids' feature, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole.  After Watchmen (particularly the magnificent, absurdly ambitious, aggressively postmodern ultimate cut version, which I wrote about here, here, and here), I doubted he was going to top himself with a picture about magic talking owls, and unfortunately I was right.  However, moments of this picture are still fucking glorious, beginning with a sequence at the beginning when an owl swoops down to snatch a mouse off a branch and then continues effortlessly in its flight.  There are a few ornithological non-sequiturs throughout (one plot thread asserts that owlets can be turned to zombies by being forced to stare at the moon as they doze off -- a weird idea, considering that the laws of nature and even the film itself firmly establish that the little dudes are nocturnal), and a feel-good musical montage that made the Lion King soundtrack seem as edgy and smart as Sweeney Todd's in comparison.  But the movie's best moments come when we see owls' own natural behaviors unexpectedly invested with emotional import. 

"Branching," when owlets glide from branch to branch while learning to fly, is a little like athletics, a little like driving lessons, yet not exactly like either: it occupies a space in an owl's life not quite equivalent to anything in ours.  And an even better scene (easily my favorite moment in the film), comes when the little sister of the two main owlets hawks up her first owl pellet, a solidified mass of mouse bones and fur that resembles something fossilized.  Panting and traumatized, spittle dripping from her beak, she stares in horror at the thing her body has just unwittingly ejected, while her nursemaid, a dippy snake, bustles around saying things like, "Oh, it's a beautiful day, the day of your first pellet!"  "You mean," the stunned chick replies, voice quaking with trepidation, "it's going to happen again?"  Vomiting up an owl pellet is a little like menstruation is to humans, yet it also happens to boys; it's a bit like losing a tooth, but it never stops, not even in adulthood.  At heart, it's a thing that happens only to owls, and it isn't transformed to parallel directly with human experiences -- but the way they respond to it, socially and personally, seems more or less the way people would, if people were owls.

Sure, they look real cute... until you see the gunk that comes out of their mouths.

In this sense, stories about animals or other non-human characters can be deeply subversive, and not just because they allow the author to veil controversial opinions under the guise of fantasy.  Rather, these stories are subversive because of the way they allow readers or viewers to set aside their own perspective to emphathize with one that, by its very nature, is profoundly foreign, even disturbing or grotesque.  Especially for kids, but really for all of us, that's a lesson that can't come soon enough.


John Wiswell said...

In the version of the frog/scorpion story I grew up with, the frog's friendliness and altruism is giving the scorpion a ride grants it sympathy and distinct difference from the scorpion. But then I grew up with The Muppets and had no problem ascribing characteristics to avatar-species or players in stories.

Have you read E.O. Wilson's Anthill. Though I'm on a book-buying embargo until I clear out my shelves, that one keeps tempting me. Reviews suggest Wilson doesn't anthropomorphize his ants at all, instead relying on his life in the biological sciences to narrate the drama of a colony. It might provide a counterpoint to what you've seen so commonly in non-human animal fiction.

The Chawmonger said...

Hey John, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I grew up *obsessed* with the Muppets, so I definitely was down with personified animals. But what creeped me out about the scorpion story (and still does) was his incomprehensibly non-human motivation. One of the reasons that the Muppets can interact directly with human actors is because their behavior is inherently -- if cartoonishly -- recognizable, and can thus elicit responses much the same way another actor's can. If the Muppet Show told this story (a scorpion double-crossed his buddy), they would find a way to show that the scorpion was being an asshole: he was trying to impress a pretty girl scorpion, he thought the frog was swimming too slowly, etc.

But here, there's no material or emotional motivation driving the scorpion that makes any sense. He's just doing this *because* he's an animal, despite the fact it runs counter to his best interest, and presumably even to his own feelings. Once Aesop drew my attention to the fact that the scorpion's behavior was fundamentally mysterious to me, it made it hard to ignore that any animal's motivations would be equally foreign. Personification revealed itself to be a limited tool for understanding these characters and who they were.

I should check out Anthill -- that sounds fascinating, and much along the same lines. It's funny you mentioned your book-buying embargo, since I've been doing the same thing and was actually thinking about writing a blog post about it later.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"As much as a reader may like a talking faun or a lovable robot, it's clear she's not meant to locate herself in those characters. By definition, they are the Other."

Do you really think this is true? I would argue that in stories populated only by non-humans, we are intended to see ourselves in the non-human characters, and that once you build a dramatic arc around a character, you have anthropomorphized anyway. Isn't this simply how allegory works?

The scorpion, I think, is just a placeholder for the idea that some humans act against their own best interests, in an inexplicable manner, and it's dangerous to attempt an alliance with them. A crude sort of message from Aesop, but I do think that's his message. It's not that animals are unknowable (well, they are, but that's not the point of non-human characters, I think), but that we can use non-human characters to do reductio-ad-absurdam experiments with human traits.

I've lived with cats my entire adult life, and at some level cats are these odd and alien beasts and sometimes I look into the eyes of my beloved Gradka and know that I will never fathom her, that her perception of reality is vastly different from mine and that can be frightening, actually. But when we pick up a book with cat protagonists, we're mostly reading about abstracted people in cat outfits, I think.

Anyway, I think I disagree with your basic idea but it's still a fascinating conversation.

Also: CGI barn owls! How cute is that? We live a mile from a park where we saw a gigantic barred owl roosting on a branch about 20' up a couple of weeks ago.

The Chawmonger said...

I am so jealous! I love owls, but I never get to see them in real life -- only on Imax.

When I was referring to the talking faun (from the Chronicles of Narnia) or the lovable robot (from the Iron Giant), I was using those stories as examples of times when non-human creatures are paired with human children (Lucy and Hogarth, respectively). In both of those stories, I think the reader is meant to feel affection and some sympathy toward the non-human character, but to *identify* with the human one.

I agree with you, though, "that in stories populated only by non-humans, we are intended to see ourselves in the non-human characters." Absolutely (and I've made an edit in the post to clarify this point): we'll identify with a human if there's one around, but if there isn't, we'll opt for the most humanlike characters available -- in the case of Animal Farm, the "tame" barnyard animals (as opposed to the wild songbirds or rats, which in that scenario become the Other), in the case of Legend of the Guardians, the owls (as opposed to the mice they crunch for snacks, which are the Other there), and in the Lion King, the predators (as opposed to the bison, which double as both dinner and an insentient force-of-nature threat -- in either case, the Other). That's the reason I think stories that focus on animals and exclude humans are so deeply subversive: because the only characters we can identify with are still so profoundly different from us. They ARE "abstracted people in cat outfits," as you eloquently put it -- and the very fact that we're able to accept "people" with disgusting habits and a weird culture, if only for 90 minutes or 300 pages, is exactly what makes stories like this potentially thought-provoking, even radical.

The Aesop fable, though, is a story that for me draws attention to the artifice of this technique. Maybe I'm the only person in the world who doesn't "get" it, but to me, it's impossible to see that scorpion as anything other than an incomprehensible Other. It's not just that his "culture" is different from a human's, in the ways that the owls' differ from ours in the Snyder film (owl pellets instead of menstruation or loose teeth, "branching" instead of driving instructions or bar mitzvah classes), but that he's actually incapable of feeling or reasoning ABOUT that "culture" in a way that makes sense to us.

Anyway, thanks again for reading and commenting!

Paperbagwriter said...

Here's a heartwarming classic of the "scorpion and frog" variety from everyone's favorite Greek slave:

The Farmer and the Snake

One winter a Farmer found a Snake stiff and frozen with cold. He had compassion on it, and taking it up, placed it in his bosom. The Snake was quickly revived by the warmth, and resuming its natural instincts, bit its benefactor, inflicting on him a mortal wound. "Oh," cried the Farmer with his last breath, "I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel."

The moral: The greatest kindness will not bind the ungrateful.

In another version (which I prefer) The snake then bites the farmer, then says to her as she lies dying in disbelief, "Silly woman, you knew I was a snake when you brought me home!" The moral listed on this alternate version reads, "Kindness is wasted on evil."

Is this the same moral as the scorpion and the frog? In a way, yes. The snake can't help that he's fucking evil, just as the scorpion can't help killing that dumb frog. The addition of "silly woman" in the second version also adds an unneeded hint of misogyny.

I really like this fable, but in both cases, the snake/scorpion definitely stands in for base or malevolent human drives which threaten to destroy themselves and those who care for them: kind of like an addict. In fact, Carl Jung's theory of the anima and animus takes root from the Proto-Indo-European language root *ane- ("to breathe"), from which animal and animation also originate.

Jung's anima and animus both refer to the male and female unconscious respectively. Strangely, he also asserted that for men, the anima represents the unconscious feminine psychological qualities that a male possesses and for the animus in women, vice-versa. He added that the anima/animus both a light and dark side and that one must ultimately contend with their own unconscious to gain control of their own lives.

Ultimately, Aesop's animals all stand for primal or animal drives within all of us. That's why each animal works as a stock character or archetype: deceptive snakes, foolish donkeys, noble lions, humble mice. Even Hobbes is a Tigger like character representing Calvin's over-energetic spirit and we've all heard about how each animal in the 100 Acre Woods of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh series represents a different mental disorder threatening Christopher Robin: Pooh is an over-eater, Rabbit has OCD, Owl has delusions of granduer, Piglet has anxiety disorder, Kanga and Roo have some serious separation anxiety issues. And Christopher Robin? He's either schizophrenic, has Peter Pan syndrome, or is a closet homo (maybe all 3).

The larger point I'm trying to make is that animals have always stood as characters on which to project our neurosis. Look at the Dog Whisperer. Whenever Cesar tackles how to discipline an unruly mutt, he says that the owner must first change some part of themselves, to become more assertive, clean, restrained, or consistent so that the animal will mirror their intent. Having trained my own dog and heard horse handlers discuss the "breaking" of a horse, I see how humans come up against their animal drives in trying to master animals in the real world all the time.

Of course, sometimes a tame tigers end up mauling a gay magician onstage in Vegas amid hundreds of horrified onlookers, but that is neither tragic or comic nor a moral illustration of any sort so much as just really damned entertaining.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks for the comment, PBW. You make a lot of good points (you're right on about the Dog Whisperer, and I actually had never heard that about the Pooh characters -- just fascinating). I may have to revisit this subject at some point, since the more I think about animals in fiction, the more complicated it gets...

scott g.f.bailey said...

I've been thinking about this a bit more as well, as it happens, and one thing that interests me is the idea of the animal character representing the authorial voice. Or an authorial voice, maybe, as all voices are the authors. In "Calvin and Hobbes," for example, Calvin is presumably the character with whom the reader is to identify, and Hobbes is--I think--the presumed narrator of the story, the adult authorial voice, adding ironic commentary about the childish behavior of Calvin. Though that system of characterization isn't consistent throughout the life of the strip, I don't think. But I do think that Hobbes is closest to the viewpoint of the adult reader, even closer to us than the adult characters in the strip, because Hobbes pushes at that fourth wall a lot.

It seems to me that in Aesop, we aren't meant to identify directly with any of the characters so much as we are supposed to observe them analytically and learn our moral lessons.

I'm trying to think of how I situated myself when I first saw "Dumbo" (as an adult) and when I first read "Charlotte's Web." This is an interesting and complex topic, but my thoughts today are a hash so I'll leave you alone now.