When depth is on the surface
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
Emir Kusturica's amazing film Underground is
about the 50 years of war that have plagued the former Yugoslavia. It opens
with one of the most harrowing glimpses of war I've ever seen in a film.
Instead of the usual human carnage, it shows a zoo being bombed.
It is a surreal collage. A wounded tiger is assaulted by a goose
that he destroys in an annoyed gesture. An elephant steals a man's shoes
from their place on a window ledge. (The man insults the elephant by calling
him a "big horse.") A young, terrified chimpanzee, clings to
the zookeeper, watching his bloodied mother die. The zookeeper shuts the
dead monkey's eyes tenderly.
The rest of the movie is a bizarrely slapstick parable of that
nation's sad history. It slowly collects pathos until its Marx Brothers-like
images are overtaken by unforgettable glimpses of absurd human death.
The story of the orphaned chimp and the zookeeper is integral, often rising
from the status of subplot to precipitate major turns in the story.
How is it that a chimpanzee successfully carries such significance
in a film about the depth of human cruelty and suffering?
Of course, it is because the monkey is so like us and at once not
like us. We have become inured to depiction of the suffering war causes
human beings. Seeing another being, an animal, suffering reminds us in
a vivid way of the cruelty and suffering we experience in our human but
very animal hearts.
I have been thinking a lot about the psychological value of animals
to human beings lately. Partly, it's because I live a few blocks from
Zoo Atlanta. Sometimes I take clients to the zoo and ask them just to
pick an animal and pay attention to it, to describe to me every detail
of its appearance and behavior, as if I were blind.
As they articulate the details of the animal, they are inevitably shocked
to find themselves in the presence of another being -- a kind of
being for whom everything is on the surface. That's the thing about animals,
as James Hillman notes: All their depth is right on the surface in the
way they display themselves. But they are also very shy and tend to hide
themselves. In that, they are very much like the parts of ourselves we
don't accept. Our "complexes" are always out front despite our
efforts to hide them. When we start playing with them, treating them with
some respect, they begin to behave differently
I think all animals remind us of the unseen beauty that is waiting
to erupt in our lives if we give it sufficient invitation and patience.
A month or so ago, I had the idea to place a bird feeder in the
narrow strip of wooded area outside my library window. My computer faces
the window and I thought it would be interesting to watch the birds when
I tired of writing. It will be no shock to veterans of this practice,
but I was outraged that the feeder was immediately overtaken by squirrels.
For hours every day, while the birds sat on a fence and watched forlornly,
the squirrels engorged themselves at the feeder. Two- Porky and Petunia,
as I named them - became acrobats, hanging upside down, even swatting
at blue jays that dive-bombed them. My cat Mr. Mew sat on my library table,
often with a paw on the window, his claws fully exposed in the apparent
hope that a creature would magically come through the window into his
In the very brief interludes when Porky and Petunia were too sated
to eat more, the feeder attracted gorgeous cardinals, blue jays, and the
mother from a nearby nest of brown thrashers.
I returned to the store where I bought the feeder. Unless I could
set the feeder in the middle of a space about the size of a football field
and put shields on the top and bottom, I was stuck with the squirrels,
I was told. An alternative was to buy, for nearly $100, a special "squirrel-proof"
mechanical feeder. When the squirrels put their weight on the perch, the
feeder closes. Cool!
I installed the new feeder and, indeed, Porky and Petunia went
mad with frustration. They repeatedly tried to break into the feeder,
repeatedly losing their balance and repeatedly falling to the ground.
"Strike!" I'd scream, leaping from my chair, with every failure.
I'm sure you can guess what happened. I looked up two days later
and saw one of the squirrels eerily wapped about the feeder. With one
paw, he was bouncing the perch up and down and, as it went up, he'd insert
a foot and grab a seed or throw some to the ground.
I was reminded I could adjust the feeder, making it even more sensitive.
I did. In fact, the squirrels seemed quite discouraged. But the adjustment
made it hard for large birds, like the blue jays, to feed. I tinkered
some more and got it to a position that the squirrels had to work very
hard to get a single seed. The birds began to spend more time than the
squirrels at the feeder.
Then, one day, last week as I was writing, I looked up and saw
what I thought was a very large cat lumbering about the base of the feeder.
It turned, reared back on its hind legs and stared directly into the window.
It was a huge raccoon. While the squirrels watched from nearby branches,
the raccoon climbed onto the fence, stood up, stretched over to the bird
feeder and, putting a paw in just the right position, began feasting.
I banged on the window. He hopped down, came closer and astonished me
by stretching over to the window for a close look at me. We do this daily
now. Moreover, the birds now often fly over to the burglar bars on the
window and tap on the glass. One of the squirrels does the same thing.
I'm sure the irony is clear to you. I, not them, am behind bars.
They are coming to the window to look at me as much as I watch them. This
reversal astonishes me! Of course, I have given up the battle against
the squirrels. I figure if I banish the raccoon, a skunk will appear.
Perhaps an elephant will escape the zoo and take to stealing sunflower
seeds from me and then put his trunk through my window!
The world really does call our animal hearts to engagement at all times.
Do yourself a favor. Join Zoo Atlanta (404-624-5600) or the Atlanta
Humane Society (404-875-5331). At the least, install a bird feeder. Canine
Showcase and Wild Bird at Ansley Mall (404-875-0611) has the best selection
Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing
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