The Human Animal
Critic Edward Rothstein begins his “Connections” column in today’s New York Times by mentioning Robert Wilson’s recent staging of Fables de La Fontaine at the Lincoln Center Festival. Featuring a cast of masked half-human, half-animal characters, Rothstein describes the stage adaptation of La Fontaine’s work as an unusual reversal of Aesop’s fables: “Aesop’s animals are nearly human,” writes Rothstein, “La Fontaine’s humans are nearly animals.”
But though they might contrast in this respect, both Aesop and Fontaine’s fables seem to agree on the undeniable similarities between human and animal. And in his forthcoming book The Human Animal in Western Art and Science Martin Kemp demonstrates how this blending of the animal with the human is, and has been, a recurring theme throughout western culture. Citing Kemp’s book, Rothstein’s article goes on highlight just how pervasive such depictions of the human-animal really are:
We name sports teams after rams or bulls and automobiles after cougars or jaguars. Our language speaks of crocodile tears and fish eyes.…Babies’ rooms, filled with stuffed bears, lions and lambs, are like plush pastoral Edens before the Fall… For adults fables bring the animals and the humans even closer together, with discomforting or startling results, ranging from the grimness of Art Spiegelman’s comic-book Maus to the romance of the film March of the Penguins.
But what is the point of these preoccupations? In a book to be published in September by the University of Chicago Press, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science, Martin Kemp, who teaches art history at Oxford University, shows just how powerful the theme is, and how essential it is to Western traditions of art and science.The animal is used to reveal the human, the human to reveal the animal.
The animal world, he points out, may have provided the first model for understanding the complexities of the human one.