The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: October, 2012

Editor’s Note: Reformation Sunday

Late October and the chills are starting to work their way into all the empty spaces. Where I am in Michigan there is a palpable sense of loss in the air as the fall colors are starting to evaporate into scatterings of brown, naked trees. Most Sundays I head off to the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting, a community of Quakers who meet at a local Catholic college. However, my ride did not arrive this morning, and I retreated instead to a quiet space and practiced meditation. Coming back into my room, I remembered that today was Reformation Sunday, a day with no small significance in this area.

Grand Rapids, Michigan has one of, if not the, highest concentration of churches in the United States. The majority of them claim descent from the Reformation and the Protestant branch of Christianity that descended from that epochal event. Even the Liberal Quakers, whose anti-liturgical, non-sacramental, non-creedal faith would be anathema to the majority of Christians in Grand Rapids, came out of the same cluster of schisms and beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However distant in time it now seems, the Reformation has a direct and pointed influence on the lives of many, many people

My own tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, is one member of a smaller family of Protestant churches in the tradition of John Calvin. We do not directly commemorate any of John Calvin’s actions on Reformation Sunday–those honours go to Luther’s famous nailing of the Ninety-five Theses onto the church doors in Wittenberg–but we acknowledge and remember the key role that Calvin had in establishing a church that endures to this day in many forms all around the world.

Celebrating one’s tradition is important, and today I recognize the intellectual and religious influence that John Calvin and his followers have had on me throughout my formative years. Calvin was, of course, a Lutheran in his own way, and so I also recognize the contributions of Luther, the monk-turned-rebel who reluctantly broke from the church when the authorities threw him out and his life was threatened. Going back, I honour the Western Christian tradition, recognizing myself as the heir to a whole tradition stretching back to the earliest churches and running through all of medieval Christianity in its Catholic form. The Protestants are therefore not the only Reformers who have had a strong influence on me. Include in that the work of Erasmus, Aquinas, and countless others.  Back beyond that, there is the importance of Judaism and all of its manifestations, the foundation for my idea of God and God’s role in human history. Here the various reformers of early Jewish society–Elijah, Jeremiah, the other prophets and those who followed their God with faithful action–bring their own work to bear. In affirming the New and Old Testaments I am connected, more closely with some than others, to a whole host of traditions and communities besides my own, some of which have faded but many of which have vibrant presence in the world today.

What this means is that, though there is joy in my association with Calvin and the Protestant Reformation, there is also sorrow. Sorrow for the long centuries of animosity between members of the one church. Sorrow for the damnable abuse Christians have heaped on their Jewish brothers and sisters. Sorrow for the long entanglement of Christianity with the powers of this world, with the imperial ambitions of Rome, the Crusading church of the Medieval period, and the colonial West, including the United States. One thing I have noted is that disagreements are always more intractable and calamitous when they arise within families. Thus the harshest words of the Reformers, and the sharpest swords of their political supporters, were directed at their closest brothers and sisters.

The Reformation brought many churches into the world. Nearly all of the largest ones, in Europe at least, became leashed to the state even more closely than the Catholic church had been before. While the pope exercised immense political power, the Church itself was beyond national control, implicated in politics and entrenched in the legal systems of nations to be sure, but still embodying an authority independent and in some cases greater than the state. With the Reformation came truly national churches. The Church of England became headed by the monarch, and churches and states in Germany became intertwined as never before, making a country’s national church a point of war and strife. See a history of the Thirty Years War for more details.

These events in history unsettle me, and I believe that they should. If we are to claim the history of Christianity as our own, we must account for and repent of the evils committed as well as celebrate the good. Compounding this unease are significant points of divergence between Calvin’s theology and my own. Many of Calvin’s most (in)famous ideas, including double predestination, I find at best troubling and at worst unreflective of the nature of God. If I am to stay in the Reformed tradition, does that require me to submit my doubts to the fire and rejoin Calvin without argument?

What am I to do about Calvin? There are a few things, as Paul Capetz noted in a wonderful post, that we should know about Calvin. The first is that he thought of himself as a Lutheran first, but he took a critical and evaluative stance toward Luther’s influence on him. Calvin did not simply follow Luther lockstep but made what he thought were notable improvements on the Lutheran conception of the faith. Other people in the Calvinist tradition, including theologians like Karl Barth, were able to hold onto their tradition not by clinging but by recognizing it as the center and opening up to other truths. As a person in the Reformed tradition, I recognize that Calvin was flawed, that we can take a critical posture toward much of his work while retaining that which is good, and commit to a greater openness to truth wherever it might be found.

On this Reformation Sunday we can honor many triumphs, the purgation of much institutional evil from the church. On the other hand, we cannot say that the church’s work was finished 500 years ago. Instead of turning our founders into idols, chiseling their words into cold stone, we can understand that the church from its inception has been a living tradition not just subject to change but by its very nature forever changing. Seeing this, we can find for ourselves in these troubled times the strength to hold our convictions in an open hand, to have faith that we are secure and not try to grasp and crush, and to see in Catholics, Jews, and others not enemies or historical antagonists but fellows in the pursuit of truth and the good. Perhaps then we can bring ourselves into right relation to God and others.

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Editor’s Note: Embracing Fun and fun.

I take music and punctuation fairly seriously. That I do, that I do. Punctuation-rules-transgressing band and artist stage names make the lives of editors and writers all over the world curl their long, skinny fingers in reflexive agony. It instantly unlocks my vast store of self-loathing. “Oh, me. Why did I choose the hobby of caring about music, if these meanies are going to foul up the beauty of typography and make me ask questions like ‘if a band name is normally not capitalized, but it appears at the beginning of a sentence, when even words like ‘of’ get a chance to be capitalized, then what do I do?’ Indeed, this is the personal hell that Nate Ruess and his cland of funsters (Or is that fun.sters? Oy, here comes the self-loathing again.) plunge me into whenever I look upon their name in my iTunes library

Tabling that discussion (in the American sense) for now, I want to express a certain amount of happy surprise that, for the first time in at least twenty years, I’ve agreed with America’s choice of the number one song in the nation. Let me reassure you that, yes, I am a horrific snob and sonic thrill-junkie who prefers listening to unstructured group improvisation (tap your foot to that irregular time signature, my yops) to the latest genetically-engineered radio sugar. I will be absolutely unapologetic about preferring certain kinds of music to others, and won’t tell you that “of course I think that Lady Gaga is a postmodern genius worthy of my critical attention and energy” just to make you say, “hey, this guy is totally, like, not a smooth poser of a hat-wearing, beard-toting elitist who votes for Liberals and, like, I should date him” (I’m assuming that you’re either a woman or a gay guy and that you have the voice of the Lumpy Space Princess). First of all, I’m not interested in dating right now. I’m married to my work. Second, I need to stop ranting, and I’ll get to the point.

Fun. (writing gods, please let this be the right choice) is a rock band with a number one hit. What’s weird is that that didn’t used to be so amazing. At the tail end of the 90s, we had rock bands with number one hits fairly regularly. I don’t like most of those bands–yes, Radiohead did have a song on a NOW collection, but that was fourteen years ago–and of all the genres of music I avoid, “rock that gets on the charts” is by far the most suspicious and shifty. Only Nickelback and Train and other such detritus are talentless and glossy enough to be bands and still get on Billboard. So, as I navigated to iTunes to listen to the sample for “We Are Young” I had a basic idea of what to expect.

Right off, there were a few positive signs. First, pretty good album artwork that looked more like the jacket of a Vampire Weekend LP than a sludgy late 90s nu-metal disc. Say what you will about Vampire Weekend being toothless and derivative, and they are those things, but they’re production wizards and know how to put together good album artwork with only a few basic elements. Relatively attractive typography, a heavily-edited photograph (or maybe it was taken on vintage film) that smacked of effort and taste, and a kind of unassuming simplicity. Album artwork has a very important place in my music-buying decision-making process (my MUBUDEP, if you will) and there have been quite a few times where I’ve streamed an album online and looked forward to buying it only to stop because the artwork would look atrocious in my iTunes library. Yeasayer, I’m looking right into your dreamy eyes. Ooh. They’re dreamy. But they have a terrible taste in album art. I mean, not all music with a great package is great, but it’s the first warning sign that a band is lazy or has no taste.

Second, I saw that Janelle Monáe was featured. Now, the actual song wastes her talent in the most disappointing way possible, but I’ll get to that later. Janelle Monáe is one of my favorite singers in popular music, a genuine weirdo with a command of melody, production, and grandiose conceptual strategies who makes enthralling genre-hopping pop music and I’ll stop ranting about her now. Needless to say, anyone that Janelle Monáe would work with had to have some talent, aesthetic commonality with her, or both. As it turned out, it’s a bit of both.

Nate Ruess and his band do not come from the “we had a hard time in school too and we speak to the crushed balls and humiliated faces of teenage boys or wannabe teenage boys everywhere” school of rock music. Punk, grunge, metal, and, in a weird way, folk rock, all come from or at least know people from this school. The game they’re trading in is called the Game of Authenticity (TM). In this game, you either tell stories straight from your heart or fabricate them to sound like those stories and sell them as such. You make raw, three-chords-and-the-truth type music that deemphasizes production and, in most cases, talent, to make yourself look sensitive, agressive, or whichever archetypal rock star emotion you’re going for. Fun. is nothing so primal. Nor are they from the BIG SOCIAL STATEMENT OF DUBIOUS VALUE school of rock music. Purveyors of this more respectable and adult style are bands like U2, its evil clones like Coldplay and all 90s and most 2000s CCM bands, and relatively smaller bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. Fun. is not interested in curing AIDS, though I’m sure they would be as happy as anyone to see that happen, and they aren’t into telling stories about their own failures and life troubles–at least, not without a lot of embellishment and bigness. Fun. comes from yet another school of rock bands, which I christen the Peter Gabriel School, named after its patron saint.

I could also call it the Queen School. What fun. is interested in is being memorable and big, to have their songs arrest your attention and give you a good time but with a varied tone. Though Some Nights features seamlessly glossy production and borrows many sonic cues from hip-hop artist and narcissist extraordinaire Kanye West, it feels much more like a 70s rock album that has been put through an especially aggressive remaster, perhaps by a particularly bored engineer messing with old magnetic tape tracks that he’s digitized and put through Logic Pro. You see, Nate Ruess is what happens when you take a relatively respectable-looking young man, one who wears flannel on stage for crying out loud, and let Freddy Mercury’s ghost have its way with him while he’s performing. Fun., to me, is Queen reborn for this century. Both made enormous songs with stage presence of their own. Both of fun.’s albums begin with heavily orchestrated introduction tracks that let Ruess’ voice dance all over them, reaching for and largely reaching a level of well-crafted drama we rarely hear in pop music. We hear it from these guys, from Janelle Monáe (who is disappointingly underneath the mainstream) and we hear it from the better hip-hop artists. There’s still enough room for some more–and no, Coldplay and Muse don’t count, even though I do like some of the more Queen-influenced aspects of the latter band.

Oh, there’s plenty of drama in pop music. Most albums don’t aspire to be this huge, though. Outside some of the most arrogant and talented hip-hop artists, there are few people left in the mainstream who can sell millions of albums and actually make albumsrather than glorified song collections. Some Nights manages to be suitable for the radio. Look, you have autotune and huge, fat beats. Strong choruses (sometimes overpowering, as in my least favorite song “We Are Young”) drive the songs, which are fleshed out intelligently, growing bigger and bigger even when they are ostensibly quiet and moody (“Carry On”). The stories Ruess tells, the lyrics he sets down, feel authentic even when piped through computers, but they have a deliberate and artificial quality that outshines the reedy naturalism of most songwriting from those playing the Game of Autheticity (TM).

The album has problems. A few songs are much weaker than the others (including the big radio single and “All Alright”) and though the band recalls Queen, it doesn’t have the chops to impress the same way. My favorite two songs are the first two songs, and though it might be the best one-two punch song combination of any album I’ll listen to this year, and it’s enough to sustain my interest up until the well-executed closing track “Stars,” the more inconsistent middle makes you aware of the band’s limitations. Fun. has a lot of room to grow, but they’re a great breath of fresh air for my library. A rock band that gets back to what rock music does best, namely be a vehicle for theatrical drama, and what pop music does best, which is to sound great in a vapid way while worming its way insidiously into your mind.

Fun. also put the point home that taste is ultimately totally personal and a bit amorphous, not resting on genres or particular artists but a specific sensibility. Like good music wherever it comes from. That doesn’t make my own stylistic preferences less important, but more shows that they transcend labels. Fun lesson, eh?

By the way, there’s been this weird snake sitting on my neck this whole time. It’s coming out of my ear, whispering the lyrics to “One Foot” over and over again. I think I’m under its control. It’s telling me to stop writing, that you’ve had enough. Well, that’s that then. I’ll be signing off soon, Reptilian Majesty. Of course I will polish your scales, oh master. And bathe you in sultry springs, yes that too. We’re going to have such fun. together aren’t we?

Books I’ve Been Reading in Heaven: Theopoetics

Tiger is shape running through a forest

Of stripes

Tiger is roar rupturing a chorus

Of pipes

Tiger uses sight through skin to see

The bones

Tiger hides in darkened shelters to stay

Alone

Alexius’ Townhouse

Nights are getting longer, and the moon and its consorts linger long in their black cloaks. Dark conversation escapes the shrouds and pricks my ears, softly rattles the windows. Flecks of the sky have begun to coat the ground, exploding against tigers’ paws like ashes. Forecasters called for a nailstorm to begin, and everyone fled into the caves and shelters, like Earth tigers fleeing the thunder of a hunter’s weapon. But when the familiar corkscrew clouds coil their way across the sky, they pass without depositing a single nail. Lately, I have been doing nothing except sleeping through the ashfalls, listening to the slender talk outside.

Have we angered our safekeepers? Is this heaven collapsing down on our heads? When the sky sheds its last bit of exoskeleton will the brilliant light of heaven spill forth again? If I may speculate: either God is coming or the true nature of this world will be revealed as an inferno, a false paradise. These idle thoughts aside, I have been reading a great deal in the past few days, and as I have buried the lead far enough, I feel I should offer some thoughts about books I’ve been reading lately. It may work wonders for my constitution.

1.  Amos Niven Wilder: Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination

At the tail end of the 1960s–as the counterculture dominated the news, church membership declined, and postmodernism’s seeds were being sown by architects and writers–a group of Christians were concerned that the church was hurtling toward extinction. Add on top of this the contemporary vogue for Death of God theology, and you have a potent mix. Many of them were part of a group called the Society for Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture, including our author Amos N. Wilder, whose brother was writer Thornton Wilder. His book is primarily concerned with exhorting Christians to reconfigure and reinterpret their religion to suit the times, to develop a theopoetic that could address the condition of their situation and be the basis of better contemporary theology that would reinvigorate the old religious institutions. Wilder explains the importance of the poetic in his opening:

“It is at the level of the imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered. It is here that culture and history are broken, and here that the church is polarized. Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown and new-name the creatures.

Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem.

Before any new theologies however secular and radical there must be a contemporary theoretic. The structures of faith and confession have always rested on hierophanies and images. But in each new age and climate the theopoetic of the church is reshaped in inseparable relation to the general imagination of the time” (1)

Theopoetics thus attempts to describe God in terms of poetic interpretations and articulations of lived experiences. Wilder lays out the justification for the Church to enter into this kind of work, noting that the old, stultified rationalisms were breaking down and people were becoming more interested in the experiential and the mystical, especially in New Age and Eastern religions. This, Wilder perceives, is a golden opportunity for Christians to both rediscover their more mystical and aesthetic traditions and help people translate their purely inward experiences into greater coherence. As Wilder notes on page 27:

“A traditional theology, oriented to older vicissitudes of the church militant, encourages an evangelical pietism or an ineffective liberalism. A theopoetic oriented to today’s struggle with the principalities and powers can overcome their bondage, exorcise their evil, and shape human future.”

In other words, religion enraptured by its own past, wedded to an old language that fails to resonate with the contemporary imagination, will devolve into something either purely therapeutic or something uglier. The Church should struggle instead against what Wilder calls “the principalities” of our age. How? His interpretation of the Christ story gives a good clue:

“[The life of Jesus] was a guerilla operation  which undermined social authority by profound persuasions. What no overt force could do it did by spiritual subversion at the level of the social imagination of the polis and the provinces of the empire. It was a case of liturgy against liturgy, of myth against myth” (28).

I appreciated this book for expressing many of my own concerns about the church today and because it resonated with my own support of a theopoetic expression of faith rather than a “scientific” theory of God. Radically situated beings, who are performing in a great theater of the Divine, can only play their roles to their utmost. The language of any group, including the Church, should change as God reveals God’s self in new ways and gives new opportunities. The book is short and to the point, laced with technical language but put together in a way that I found readable even as a relative neophyte in theology. It provides an inspiring framework where the Church can tell its story in new and renewed ways and effect real change at the level of the imagination. Highly recommended.

That ran longer than I expected, so I will continue this series of posts this Friday and beyond. Hold out hope for this feline heaven. I would be disappointed if my suspicions in this matter were proved correct.

Editor’s Note: Intro to Surrealism

Meret Oppenheim. Object. Paris, 1936

Meret Oppenheim’s Object, a perfect representation of Surrealism.

Prelude:

I designed this post as a Cultural Discerner for the Third van Reken residential community at Calvin College. It is intended to help my floormates and I enjoy the Real/Surreal exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. However, I do not believe that this specificity should limit its usefulness for any other interested people. Therefore, I am writing this with a general audience in mind as well as with special attention to the content of Real/Surreal as far as I can perceive it.

History of Surrealism:

With that out of the way, we enter into a brief history of the movement known as Surrealism. As a child, I had an instant attraction to the unsettling juxtapositions and air of magic or fantasy found in Surrealist painting, but I know that this is not a universal attraction. If you are a more disinterested party, primarily encountering this art for more “useful” purposes (say, a class assignment) these are the essentials of the history of Surrealism:

1. The movement grew out of Europe in the late 1910s. This means that the big Event everyone was living through and processing was the First World War. Intellectuals, poets, and artists throughout Europe had, like all people on that continent, experienced in some way the staggering trauma of that war, which decimated the male population of Europe and much of its countryside. The first major founders of Surrealism–including poet André Breton, playwright Antonin Arnaud, and painter Max Ernst–created much of their creative philosophy in reaction to their interpretation of the First World War. What had been the cause of this Great War? Nationalism, an over-reliance on reason and technology, a disregard for the playful in favor of the mundane and mechanical. Thus, Surrealism emphasized the sub-rational, the whimsical, and a spirit of criticism and unsettledness. Where art movements like Futurism celebrated the onrush of technological progress and glorified the nation-state, Surrealism posited itself as a retreat into the mind, a recovery of something spiritual that modern men (emphasis very intentional) could recover after the devastation of the war.

2. Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, and the Surrealists were heavily influenced by this work and other Freudian texts. Dreaming and the uncanny parts of reality are major themes in Surreal art, of course, but arguably the most important contributions of Freud to Surrealism were intellectual and theoretical. The idea of free association, of not censoring the irrational to suit the moral or behavioral boundaries of society, is essential to all Surreal art. We’ll get to how that looks in practice in a moment, but I would encourage you to hold onto that idea. To a Surrealist, the conservative mores and rigorously “rehearsed” nature of society were oppressive and needed to be thrown off in order to unleash true creative potential and make art that matters. Another legacy of Freud’s is that Surrealists tend to eroticize everything. It should come as no surprise that Surrealists put naked women in many, many paintings of theirs. Gotta release those id urges.

3. Karl Marx provided the Surrealists with a political ideology around which to shape their ideas. This played into their belief that society should be radically reshaped along more humane grounds. Marxism offered them a framework for thinking about art that could stir the masses and overthrow the previously established norms of Western culture. Most European Surrealists were Communists–Dalí being the one major exception as far as I know–but were thankfully not influenced by any of the art being developed by Stalin’s propagandists.

4. After a manifesto defining the goals of the movement was signed in 1924, Surrealism took on some real force as an international artistic ideology. However, though it was in many ways a unique form, it had a direct antecedent in Dada, a movement that similarly embraced radical politics and the absurd. Dada is a fascinating and compelling strain of art in its own right, but I don’t have space to get into too many details. Suffice to say that Dada (which flourished from 1916 to the late 20s in Europe) largely invented anti-art, and celebrated destructive and irrational urges but was not nearly so influenced by psychoanalysis as Surrealism. It was more concerned with radical forms and offering a direct challenge to people’s tastes. Definitely look into Dada if you have the inclination.

5. There are a few other big influences for Surrealists. These include individual artists like Hieronymus Bosch, George de Chirico, and Pablo Picasso as well as strains of Cubism and Primitivism.

At first, Surrealists were uneasy about painting. The first members of the group were mainly writers, and it was thought that the meticulous nature of painting made it unsuitable for their goals. Gradually, however, more and more visual artists grew up around the manifesto and became the public face of the movement. Over the course of the next few decades, Surrealists produced many famous works of art in the face of an unstable European political situation in the 1920s and 30s.

Before, during, and after World War II, many Surrealist artists emigrated to the United States to salvage their lives and livelihoods. This collective of fleeing artists included one key figure named Arshile Gorky, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide and an enigma. His work was far more abstract and fragmented, not to mention expressive, than most of the more cerebral Surrealist art. That said, Surrealism had a direct influence on the evolution of Abstract Expressionist art, the manliest and most active abstract movement of its day. Jackson Pollack, the most famous of these Abstract painters, did Surrealist art in his early years before creating his drip-painting methods. In that way this artistic movement gave inspiration to later art but died out as an organized style soon after World War II. Popular art, especially in the psychedelic 60s (think the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour), would appropriate much of Surrealism’s aesthetics but usually in service of far less radical goals.

Examples of Paintings:

Autumn Afternoon

Giorgio de Chirico’s painting Autumn Afternoon distorts space and juxtaposes various historical styles to unsettling effect.

Magritte Menaced Assassin

René Magritte, the Belgian artist behind The Menaced Assassin (1927) also distorts space but charges the scene with eroticism and menace. One of his favorite motifs was a man in a suit and bowler hat, both safely middle-class and vaguely disturbing.

Joan Miro Dutch Interior

This might be my favorite Surrealist painting. One of the instincts Surrealists had was to find the Surreal in the childlike and naive. Joan Miro’s Dutch Interior (1) is based on an older painting called “Lute Player” but is far more abstract and freely composed and executed.

 

Male and Female

American artist Jackson Pollock composed this image before developing his style of Abstract Expressionist action painting. Miró is a touchstone, but the style is far less intellectual and more emotional and active.

 

Subway

Another American response to Surrealism, this image is far less fantastical in its conception than most European Surrealist images. That said, it still retains a fusion of familiar working or middle class situations and a nightmarish emotional atmosphere. Space itself looks deformed. This piece is in the show for the GRAM.

Delvaux The Great Sirens (1947)

Despite my enthusiasm for much of what Surrealism gave to the world, there are troubling aspects to it as well. For one, it tended to reduce women to either uncanny objects (female Surrealists, the few there were, often played with this trope) or dreamlike muses. Their Freudian psychology and male machismo did not help, as evidenced in this Classically inspired piece by Delvaux called “The Great Sirens” (1947).

 

Hobbes

Hobbes

Opening Dedication:

For me, there is no hope of writing this missive to the living without writing a clear appreciation of the role of Bill Watterson’s work in my cultural and intellectual formation. As the only young tiger known to have crossed over into the human world, I fell in the early days into a sharp-pointed despair, understanding true isolation and loneliness. Tigers respond only to their own bodies, and here came the trappings of Western humanity: rational thought, language, awareness of self, the insidious influence of dualism, notions of ennui and disaffection. With a degree of alienation from my body and the larger community of tigers, I thought my life was hardly worth saving.

Discovering Calvin and Hobbes was a seminal event in my assimilation into human society. Here was a portrait of an animal utterly at ease in his navigation of human absurdities and hypocrisy. A tiger that could hold humans close to himself and in contempt at the same time. Watterson’s work, simple illustrated panels, contained an entire framework for coping with aloneness. Hobbes is rarely comforted by the presence of other tigers. We tigers are by nature solitary, yet this one could live in a real community with his human family. Watterson invested this nonhuman character with deep sympathy, wit, and exuberance. Walking on two legs or four, his life was perfectly tuned even if his actions are not always admirable.

Where my own life has been wracked with the angst of possible extinction, the eradication of my entire species from the planet, Hobbes, if he was so concerned, mostly kept this quiet.  I commend Watterson for creating a character whose very reality seemed fluid and subjective. Calvin was lucky to have such a friend, and I often felt bad for the parents who could not experience Hobbes’ true nature. I suppose from the human perspective we are meant to pity Calvin for believing in something so pure and joyful as a tiger who can walk, talk, and name himself to high executive positions in a sexist club. Drawn with feline grace, he strode and bounded, burst through doors at unlikely speeds and excelled at verbal jousting–even if in a juvenile way.

Stripes off to Calvin and Hobbes for being a true work of art and a product of near-unsurpassed genius in its medium. Praise for it being this tiger’s guiding light even in these celestial doldrums. Tigers fancy themselves better left unchanged, but we could all do to be a bit more like Hobbes. That goes double for humans.

Hobbes

Background:

Thomas Hobbes was neither a tiger nor a very optimistic man, even for his very Calvinistic era. In the 17th century he composed numerous works expounding on his philosophy of politics, which was intimately intertwined with his view of human nature. Bill Watterson describes this view as “dim,” but that three-letter adjective does little to illustrate the depths of Hobbes’ moral pessimism. This is the man who thought that members of his own species were inevitably prone to mischief and that their natural state was war, the only remedy for which was a governing structure with undivided and absolute power. He did allow some provisions for citizen revolts in the case of danger, but whether that is genuinely in accord with his philosophical system or just human hypocrisy is a matter I’ll let your species’ thinkers debate.

The Character:

Consider, then, Hobbes the tiger. Like all the characters we have examined so far, he is a fusion of genuine feline sensibility and human construction. No God-made tiger would act the way that he does, and in his every thought and action he reflects upon some human thought or emotion. He is, in that sense, anthropomorphized. When he curls up in front of the fire in the winter, he is seeking warmth, but the comfort and love that people are usually only projecting onto their kitty cats really exists in Hobbes. I should revise my previous statement that he is a fusion of feline and human. What I should instead state is that Hobbes is a fusion of the civil/domestic and the wild/untamed. In that way, he is more like a housecat that can talk and has real emotions than a tiger pushed into a human context. Domestic cats are creatures that, by their own volition, sacrifice some of their wildness and independence from humans in exchange for the care and attention of their human counterparts. Hobbes embodies some of theses characteristics. Like a housecat, he eats food made by humans and appears to do little to no hunting, preferring canned tuna (and swordfish steaks) to, say, live rabbit. For all that, he is still a tiger, and is bound to that tigerness. To an extent, however, he depends on his human family for survival. Let’s unpack that last statement.

Now, a normal domestic cat–we’ll make this concrete and say that it’s the one owned by my editor’s family–depends on his human family because he is slow and old and unsuited to hunting. He needs food and water, and occasionally some attention from his, shall we say, domesticated partners.

Hobbes, of course, is a tiger full and free. His size enables him to hunt for whatever he might need. In fact, the parents should be grateful that his manners and social graces are so well-developed, or else Hobbes might have them for dinner when times get rough. Yet Hobbes cannot escape the bonds of his own humanity for this reason: he is the creation of a human, namely Calvin, and therefore embodies a full range of human characteristics. Personality, real feelings, self-consciousness, artistic ability, a vague ability to comprehend mathematics, a spirit of adventure not oriented only toward survival, the ability to think critically and project hopes into the future. Until I entered into human relationships and society and learned their language, I was unable to attain any of these characteristics, but Hobbes is not fully a tiger the way that I am (or was, depending on who you ask). Hobbes was created partially human, for to be a real companion for a human one must be a human. There is another parallel here to the particular domestic cat to which I earlier referred. This domestic cat exists, on one level, as a pure animal, one essentially and totally oriented toward survival and response to a less conscious body than most human imagine they have. However, my editor has endowed this cat with a whole range of human attributes including imagination, a quick temper, business acumen, the trappings of royal offices, and a sophisticated dialectical variant of English to use in speech. If we are to be coldly rational, then we can see that Hobbes is nothing more than a construct of a young imagination, designed to help a hyperintelligent but emotionally and socially maladjusted child deal with his environment.

I choose to reject this interpretation. To me, there is nothing compelling in it, and it violates the integrity of the art that Watterson has given us. Hobbes, I contend, has an inner life of his own. He thinks, breathes, loves, and lives life in fullness. The problem is not that Calvin thinks that he is real but that the parents fail to recognize his essential reality. The parents’ minds are too occupied with the material world around them, the “facts” of reality that dictate their roles as disciplinarians and child-raising beings. Only in moments, as in some of Calvin’s father’s bizarre revisionist explanations for natural phenomena (e.g. the sun sets directly near Flagstaff, Arizona and the world was black and white before the invention of color) does their natural aptitude for imagination, recognizing the creative potential in all of life, spark to life. Calvin’s world is one that is enchanted but still, since it was conceived by an adult, aware that this enchantment is fragile and that imagination is a scarce resource in a world dominated by the demands of growing up, of becoming a useful social creature. Hobbes, then, is entirely real to Calvin, and in Calvin’s experience is as solid and material as his love/hate interest Susie Derkins and the burned out Mrs. Wormwood who teaches him the useful facts of life. Six-year-old Calvin does not look at his parents or his peers as idols or role models. Instead, he looks up to Hobbes, the free-spirited anarchist who, because he exists above the ordinary, can enjoy the world but remain beyond the reach of discipline. People think he’s just a stuffed toy, after all.

Recall that Richard Parker from Life of Pi was something of an embodiment of humankind’s animal nature, a source of tension and conflict as well as salvation for young Pi. Richard Parker and Hobbes are, forgive the pun, entirely different beasts. Part of the reason is that Parker exists, for now, only in words and is therefore less substantial as a body, but the major difference is that, to my mind, the ambiguity surrounding Hobbes’ existence is not very ambiguous at all. At least, not to the person to whom it matters. Pi presents the problem of Richard Parker as a question of alternative narratives and moral evil. Calvin has none of that literary self-reflection that Pi has, no grand plot or theme to challenge the reader with by creating Hobbes. Instead, Hobbes’ existence is only ambiguous to us as readers. Ultimately, though, unlike in Pi, the question of Hobbes’ existence or nonexistence is totally unimportant to interpreting the story because the important thing is that he exists to Calvin and that’s that.

On my better days, trapped in this “heaven,” I am still able to see the glory in the world around me, the hand of the Divine in the working of the entire universe. To see the world not in terms of atoms or causal billiard balls but in terms of unfolding events, the revelation of nature and our interpretations of it, that is a true blessing. I just hope I can escape this place someday. Chaos is encroaching. The inhabitants are restless. Let’s see where this goes.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker
The Life of Pi
is a novel about lifeboats, tigers, religion, and the universality and power of human narrative. Perhaps, it proposes, we can redeem the world through our imagination, to take the mundanely cruel and transform it through words and symbols into a sign of hope. Pi Patel, a zookeeper’s son from Pondicherry, India, is involved in a shipwreck and cast out onto the Pacific Ocean in a life raft. Through his experiences of survival, he realizes his dependence on the sea and the force of human will. Much of it can be taken as religious allegory or a statement of faith (as America’s President would apparently have it).

Critics have noted all of these things. They also note perhaps the most important part of the story: it involves a tiger. Yes, you might call it a felino-centric reading, but when I read Life of Pi I could hardly be expected to divorce myself from my own species origin. Perhaps the genius of the novel is that, despite being a tiger (and maybe this is true for you humans out there) I was able to suspend that part of me for awhile and think how much trouble we cause for you humans sometimes. Pi is meant to be the protagonist. It is in his mind that the novel lives, or at least in his story. Yet without the tiger, as Pi says, the scraggly human could never have found the will to live.

I have less to say on the topic of Richard Parker than on Shere Khan. Not necessarily because I believe that the latter is in any way a more accurate or inspiring portrayal of my kind. No, I would say instead that Richard Parker serves a different purpose. He is neither protagonist nor antagonist. In some ways, he is less a character than (depending on you interpretation) a narrative device or a symbolic representation of one aspect or another of Pi’s internal being. The book spends most of its time in a tension with Richard Parker. Real or a fabrication? Savage or noble? A metaphor for human-ecological coexistence or a hungry and insatiable killer? These are provocative ambiguities, and are simply more difficult to address in a brief post. Instead of trying to arrive at a comprehensive and final judgment on Richard Parker and his role in the novel, I would like to leave the conversation open and invite my readers to reply to my editor online.

Pi’s feline is named after a character in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I have not read this book, so this information does little except insofar as I understand that this name also coincides with sailors who were involved in cannibalism incidents, which makes it a suitable name indeed. Parker is both  much stronger physically than his human fellow passenger and dependent on him at the same time. It is not in avoiding each other (which, on a lifeboat, is impossible) or in overcoming each other that harmony is achieved. Instead, they come into a real, messy, and often terrifying relationship. I have no idea what the sociologists or psychologists would say about Pi or Richard Parker or the strange and spiritual way that they relate on that lifeboat. Having the facts might be useful. It would clarify matters significantly and tell us whether Richard Parker is real or not. Of course, that has little or nothing to do with how powerful and necessary Parker is for Pi and for the reader. “Mere” story has more force to change people and the world than we sometimes realize.

I can’t really talk about Parker’s depiction. His portrayal is believable on the one hand, but on the other the story he inhabits can be utterly fantastical. The role he serves is to the story. What disturbs me about this story is how well it conveys a narrative where tension and opposition appear to be a source of strength for the young human. Only in relationship with the tiger can he survive, but that relationship is troubled. Further, there is an indication in the story that Pi is mastering this beast, this animal nature of his, through this story about him and the tiger in the lifeboat. It still presents tigers, like the jungle book, as somehow lesser, simply because we cannot think or believe in God in the way humans claim to. That said, the portrait of tigers here is legitimately glorious in some ways. At least we are not skittering away like mice in fear of humans. Backed into a corner, we can be reasonable if our lives depend on it. That’s hopeful.

One more thing. The novel ends with something of a challenge: if we cannot prove whether one story is true or another, which should we choose to believe? Pi says that this is the way it goes with God as well. Well, as a denizen of the afterlife, I’m beginning to suspect something truly sinister. For the last the nailstorms have been falling with greater and greater ferocity. This could be considered an anomaly, but it appears that some of the tigers are losing their agility. I fear this place could be decaying from the inside. What does this say? I couldn’t tell you. I wish I could ask Richard Parker, if he exists. He seems fairly wise.

 

Fictional Tigers: Shere Khan

 

I have not seen the entirety of Walt Disney’s 1967 film The Jungle Book since leaving the Earth. There is also a long waiting period on ordering film prints for reasons that have not yet been made clear to me. This only adds to my suspicions about this being a heaven–if Netflix is more efficient and its representatives more courteous than a divine being’s, what kind of…ah, but I digress. I am currently engaged in an analysis of several fictional tigers that have achieved a large degree of mass awareness. Rudyard Kipling’s original Shere Khan was and is, of course, a significant and worthy addition to this canon, but that is not the character under scrutiny this time. Instead, I will be focusing on a figure that is more obviously relevant and iconic for my reading public, that of Disney’s film portrayal.

Shere Khan here is a composite of an appearance provided by designer Milt Kahl and the voice of George Sanders. The former is responsible for animating central characters in many of the early Disney films including Pinocchio, the Lady and the Tramp, Prince Philip, and the llama from Melody Time. George Sanders’ career is no less illustrious, spanning around four decades and including roles in All About Eve and Rebecca. Both bring a similar perspective on how the tiger that is Shere Khan interacts with his surroundings. Sticking to appearance and sound for a moment, we’ll look at each in turn before looking into how this imperious figure factors into the larger picture(s) of the film.

Kahl’s Design:

The body is massive and powerful, with huge paws, a somewhat flattened, solid cranium, large muzzle, and thin stripes. The Khan’s jaw protrudes sharply and almost gives the appearance of an underbite. The eyes are drawn as menacing slits colored with yellow and finished with tiny dot pupils.The only fur on the body that is rendered as real hair as opposed to flat color is the “hedge” around each side of top part of the face, which helps establish a more human facial structure. The face does, in fact, resemble that of George Sanders, who had a similarly prominent jaw and nose and whose hair pushed out around his head, exposing a receding hairline. Human eyebrows have been added for convenience. His tail is expressively animated and rendered as flexible, but also makes several maneuvers that no tail I know can do, such as bending at right angles in certain spots. Claws are improbably long and perfectly cut, giving us some insights into this cat’s probable grooming habits (look at my own claws for a perfect contrast).

When he first appears, the imposing tiger stalks a deer and exhibits a casual naturalism. Documents about the production of the film indicate that Kahl watched documentary footage of felines in order to capture their physicality accurately. Of course, being an animated character and an anthropomorphized animal, the Khan has to speak and have reasonable conversations with other animals. During dialogue scenes, most of the naturalism melts away and the animators simply contort his anatomy in apparently possible ways so the audience maintains the illusion that this is still a tiger but also believe that he could speak and make facial expressions that communicate certain things to humans. Tigers are not interested in facial expressions or tone of voice, at least not in the way humans are. If tigers were to construct a meaningful medium of artistic communication, it would probably involve more aural and scent cues, perhaps a form of live theatre, but to most tigers Shere Khan seems unspeakably alien at times. That said, from a more human perspective, there is a particular view of “tigerness” that peaks through the exaggerations. This tiger is an intimidating force but one that is capable of intensity, quiet, and cunning. Its physique is sharp, its face suitably human to identify with but distorted and catlike enough to be unsettling. Khan’s elegance in motion conveys many stereotypes of cats in general and tigers in particular. Silent, diabolical, and slender, but powerful and savage. This will bear out well in the film’s own narrative.

As for the general style, this appearance definitely fits into the Disney films that first experimented with xerography in order to make animation more efficient and fluid. Outlines are sketchy and thin, and the entire appearance is far more angular and even jagged than earlier depictions of animals in Disney animation.

It should be noted that the aura of power and authority contradicts the depiction in the original Jungle Book, where Shere Khan is mocked for having a lame leg. Because Disney simplified and distilled Kipling’s book and focused on Khan as the villain, they obviously felt they couldn’t let him be anything less than an imposing physical presence. I would disagree with that, and I’ll get to the reasons why in a moment.

Sanders’ Voice:

I would recommend listening to the voice before reading this. It’s sonorous, authoritative, and, importantly since this was made for American audiences, British. Before I comment on why that last point is so vital, I will make some more general comments on the vocal performance. It has a fluidity and ease to it, and it is also congruent with Kahl’s design work. It has a highly refined and superficial sophistication to it that is directed entirely toward more basic desires. Just as the suave and beautiful exterior is essentially there to help the tiger kill and eat poor baby deer, so the voice is one that probes, that lures and traps with its courtesies. I love listening to it. It also properly establishes Khan as more of a threat: if this character is so much more physically powerful than the human and has what seems like a mind to match, then our little slab of human bacon is in serious trouble, ya hear?

I believe we have established the character as much as we can without much reference to his actual doings. Now to the doings.

In The Jungle Book:

As a young tiger, just barely become fluent in English and beginning to walk upright and buy carcasses diced into pieces at the butcher instead of hunting for them myself, I saw this film. It seemed a natural bridge between my home life in the Indian forest preserves and the new human life I was about to enter into.

When I did watch the film, however, I kept waiting for the tiger to appear. There are rumors and brief mentions at the wolves’ council. The council chooses to ostracize the young human in their protection because of this implied threat. Bagheera, the wise but stodgy panther and mentor, admonishes Mowgli to fear Shere Khan, to avoid any encounter. Two thirds of the film pass. I watch the young boy “go native,” embrace his animal nature, and join ranks with a hedonistic bear possessed of an impressively buoyant gut. Throughout, my younger self is wondering “when is the tiger going to get here?” It is not that I ever thought of Shere Khan as the protagonist; even when I had only just discovered films I knew that I would not see many tigers portrayed heroes. It did, however, feel as though Jungle Book was dragging its heels, satiating the audience with bit-part troublemakers like Kaa and King Louis. These were warped animals but not fearful ones. Kaa had his hypnotism and silver tongue, and Louis his raucous charm and misplaced ambitions, but their names did not inspire the same dread. Only the striped one would do.

What are we to do with this period of tense waiting? I think that the creators of the film do an excellent job of building anticipation. Where my young self thought of this as simple padding (some of it might be padding, but I’ll leave that aside) I now appreciate the delayed gratification and the threat that mystery presents. The jungle is fundamentally unknown and Shere Khan is a personification, a name for all that is savage and threatening to Mowgli. All the animals shiver at his name, and are offended, perhaps secretly ashamed, when their young human protege trumpets his lack of fear. I should amend my previous statement: not all the animals fear Shere Khan. The elephants, for instance, seem totally unperturbed by the tiger’s immediate presence. That said, their lack of concern comes from their unparalleled size and strength, and is accompanied by a lack of concern, an indifference for their environment that is humorously embodied in their “stamping and crushing” the underbrush. Concerned with the drills and formalities of a military, the elephant Dawn Patrol forgets that they are supposed to be patrolling for something. 

Mowgli’s is a more personal courage, born both from naivety and–this is what I think the film is saying–an innate human desire and obligation to tame nature. It’s not a coincidence that the author of The Jungle Book also composed a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” Mowgli is not a white person, but he is a human, and therefore his destiny is to subdue and transcend nature, to the envy (King Louis) and undoing (Shere Khan) of all of his animal foes.

The great tiger, then, is for most of the film a device to move the story forward. Writers need some justification for their plots, or else we won’t believe them. The Jungle Book uses Khan to get Mowgli out of the wolf pack and into danger. At a certain point, however, the filmmakers have to show us the real thing. Luckily, the real thing is more than impressive enough to justify the long buildup. Physical prowess, mental quickness, a certain measure of wit–these are all arrayed against humans and more specifically against the human use of fire. Shere Khan is a bit of an extreme Luddite. He kills all humans because he fears that their technological superiority and rapacious appetites will displace him from his perch at the top of the food chain. Beyond the strength and deceit, the defining personality trait for our striped brother is fear. A fear that is justified because, as proved by how the film ends, in this world the humans always get what they want. They have mastered nature and the only appropriate response for nature to have is to fear their new overlords. Animals can seek to be human and they can try to kill the humans but there is no possibility of victory.

The fall of a tiger, the rise of humanity.

Humans are not animals in this scenario. Mowgli, having used fire to banish the tiger into the grasslands, is compelled by, what else, the female form, back to human civilization. For me, there was a poignancy to the end of the film. Earlier it is mentioned that Mowgli will grow up to be a hunter and probably kill many of the jungle animals. It is somewhat absurd, then, that Bagheera and Baloo can dance so triumphantly into the end credits. Their respective species are about to get a royal taste of habitat destruction thanks to fertile and productive humans like the one they have just saved. One particularly fascinating way to look at this response is to say that the animals accept their place. There they are, and they cannot enter the village nor deny humankind its will. So they dance in an absurd celebration in the face of certain devastation. Parallels between this and the indigenous experience of colonization could also be drawn, but I’ll let that lie.

I am not sure I agree with that assessment entirely, but there is a sad kind of truth in that interpretation, I feel. Being a tiger who died the way he did, who used to live among other tigers who died of starvation and gunshot wounds, I think I understand this film differently from others. I think that Shere Khan is something of a martyr for our own kind, a final bastion of resistance, the last of our kind refined to rule. I admire the fact that he is so compelling a character. Despite being unsuccessful at the end, mastered by fear and unable to complete his mission, I think he is more representative of tigers as a whole than most others in human fiction. Sense his strength, watch him stalk, see and hear the beauty of his motion and his voice. Look past his violent tendencies for just a moment and see that he is a tragic figure and an icon for many young tigers (who speak English) to look up to.

 

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