Friday, February 07, 2014

Fluffy Bunnies

The Rabbits of Watership Down are rabbits. They are as rabbitty as Richard Adams can make them. Everything they do is based on real rabbit behaviour. However, Mr Adams asks us to imagine -- well, not imagine, but take for granted as a scholarly fact -- that these rabbits have human intelligence, culture, language, even religion. Well no, not these rabbits -- rabbits in general, and foxes, and sea gulls. How this works we can’t question for a moment. (Could a leoporine mouth even form the syllables El-ahrairah? Is a rabbit brain big enough to develop that kind of consciousness?) It’s funny, actually, how easily our mind accepts this kind of thing. It gets you into philosophical hot water if you aren’t incredibly careful. If a rabbit or a hamster had human consciousness, then obviously vivesection would be wrong. I think Richard Adams develops this fallacy at some length in his later books.

Peter Rabbit is also a rabbit, possibly with a fly upon his nose. And the anthropomorphosiation has gone a lot further than it has in Watership Down. He wears clothes. His daddy smokes a pipe, forsooth. But he also lives in a whole, and steals cabbages from a farmers garden, and if I remember correctly there is an implication that the farmer has sometimes made his relatives into pies. If Watership Down asks us to imagine a world in which rabbits have human minds, the Peter Rabbit books asks us to imagine a world in which, instead of Rabbits, there are tiny, Rabbit shaped people.

Again, we don’t have any trouble getting our heads around this. We don’t say for goodness sake they have culture and language and you are going to put them in a pie what kind of wierdo are you?

The Hare in Aesops Fable is in a lot of ways less animal like than either Hazel and Fiver or Peter Rabbit. I mean, we take it for granted that tortoises and hares can communicate, and place bets, and that owls can adjudicate, and so on and so forth. Peter Rabbit is doing Rabbity things, even if he wears a tam o shanter. You never saw a hare behave remotely like that. But I suppose it doesn’t count; it’s not really a story; it’s just a proverb, with the Hare representing “fast thing” and the tortoise representing “slow thing.”.

Bugs Bunny isn’t a rabbit. In fact the only rabbity thing about him his the carrot, and that is pretty much only there to be a place holder for a cigar, so that he can be a sort of caricature of Groucho Marx. He isn’t even really rabbit shaped, any more than one of those childs drawings of a cat looks anything like a cat. But we sort of accept that that’s the way rabbits look in cartoons. In the days when people used to watch Walt Disney cartoons, they used to ask “What Kind of An Animal Is Goofy”? The answer is, well, he isn’t really any kind of animal, and it wouldn’t make any difference if he was. I think there used to be a rabbit in the Disney Mythos, but it was retconned out during the crisis. There is a famous example of false memory syndrome in which subjects are persuaded to believe that they met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, even though Bugs Bunny isn’t owned by Disney, or wasn’t then. But cartoons are probably a different thing and I have run out of rabbits.

Okay, then, bears. Paddington Bear is clearly not a bear. He wears clothes, talks English and although he causes chaos wherever he goes, its the sort of chaos that a very naughty child would cause, not the sort of chaos that would occur if a large South American carnivore got loose on and English Railway station. There is pretty much nothing bear like about him at all. There is a vague memory of the fact that bears (proverbially) like honey in Paddington’s liking for marmalade, I suppose.

Does anyone but me remember Mary Plain? She was a sort of proto-Paddington, a two legged bear who could talk English living in a suburban home. But she mostly did human things -- enter fancy dress competitions, join the boy scouts, and, after the series had jumped the entirely non anthropomorphic shark, solved a mystery and get shipwrecked on a desert island.

I suppose Yogi bear is more like Peter Rabbit. He wears clothes and talks and can interact with the human world when he needs to, but he retains one specific bear-type attribute: he lives on a nature reserve, and steals goodies from visitors picnics.

The least bear like of all is Rupert the Bear (everyone sing his name). He is, basically, not a bear. He isn’t even a teddy bear. He is twelve year old boy with a bear’s head; whose friends are twelve year old children with elephants heads and badgers heads. I don’t recall that he even particularly likes honey. Cartoonist Alfred Bestall said that you couldn’t ever send Rupert to the seaside, because putting Rupert in a bathing costume would force you to address the question of weather he is furry all over.

One can see the point of Yogi Bear being Yogi Bear rather than Yogi Naughty Petty Thief Man. His relationship to the touritsts, on the one paw, and the park ranger, on the other, sort of reflects that of an actual bear to and actual tourist. (On my one visit to an American national park I was warned to hang any food out of reach of the bears or put it in a metal crate, so evidentally its a thing.) It’s like Tom and Jerry who are really cat like and mouse like only in so far as the former chases the latter. But what’s the point of making the comical protagonist of Paddington a bear shaped child, rather than, say, a child?

I never quite understood why clever men like C.S Lewis and A.A Milne and Pink Floyd were quite so keen on WInd in the Willows. I’m not sure I ever got to the end of it. I think Lewis was right about why Mr Toad had to be a toad rather than and English country gentleman, even though he’s obviously an English country gentleman and not a toad. If he was a human, he would have to have servants and employees and we’d have to at least have a hint about where his money came from. As long as he’s an animal, we can sort of skate over that. (Lewis thinks he’s both a child and an adult: a child in that food sort of just turns up and no-one asks where it came from; and adult in that he gets to choose what he wants to do and there’s no-one to tell him off.) And the shape of a toad’s face is a sort of fixed caricature of a certain kind of human. I don’t think that there is any reason to suppose that Owls are wise, particularly; I don’t even know if they are cleverer than other birds of prey. But they are always wise in stories because the big eyes look like we imagine a wise human ought to look. So stories about animal-shaped humans lend themselves to a kind of fable where everyone has a more or less fixed personality and it can’t really develop. (A.A Milne said that you only had to look at the toy pig and the toy donkey and the toy tiget to see their personalities -- timid and gloomy and bouncy.

In that sense, Star Trek is more like an animal fable than anything else, isn’t it? The different “races” representing a different fixed kind of human personality; or possibly a different aspect of one individuals make up -- The Klingon representing “The soldier” as much as The Owl represents “the Wise”. Which is why it’s so besider the point to read anti-semitism into Deep Space Nine.

But while this may be a literary effect of anthropomorphic animals, I don’t think it’s actually the reason. It is perfectly true that if a child behaved like Paddington Bear, he would get punished or injured or given pills. (If an adult behaved that way, he’d be arrested or put in a home.) This is not to say that you can’t do stories about naughty or accident prone children in a realistic setting, but they either have to get some sort of comeuppance, like Dennis the Menace, or they have to be devious enough to avoid it, like Just William, which introduces an element of cynicism which isn’t funny. Or which is funny in a different way: more sophisticated, less innocent. But I don’t suppose for one moment that Michael Bond said to himself that he wanted to write a story about the kind of child who floods the bathroom the first time he needs a wash, but then thought it wouldn’t be that funny if a child did that kind of thing and then thought I know I’ll make him a bear instead. He started to tell a story about a bear. That’s what’s odd, in way. Once we start to tell stories about bears or rabbits it somehow becomes natural that they wear duffle coats and tam o shanters and like honey and marmalade. We almost can’t look at an animal without anthropomorphising it.

I hope this has been helpful to all those who have been so seriously confused and perplexed by recent pronouncements. I admit that I was surprised to find out that Hello Kitty had a personality or backstory. I assumed it was just something that existed to be stamped on note paper and teeshirts. But I can’t see how anyone could possibly have been surprised by the information that Hello Kitty is not a cat. Of course it isn’t. Anymore than Bugs Bunny is a Rabbit or Pooh is a bear.

No comments: