Monday, June 13, 2011
MENAGERIE, A CHILD'S FABLE BY CHARLES JOHNSON
Every culture I've studied has in its storytelling tradition the animal fable. In the West, we immediately think of Aesop's fables, Orwell's Animal Farm, and native American stories when this form is mentioned, and in the East we remember the Jātaka tales. The form is old, very old, and totemic. (I've read that Aesop chose it in order to disguise his commentary on political life in his time and thereby avoid the wrath of the authorities.) So I always felt that somewhere in my body of work there should be at least one philosophical story in which all the characters are animals. Over the decades, "Menagerie: A Child's Fable" seems to continue to be a popular story that readers enjoy interpreting many ways, especially politically. I just noticed that there is a Study Guide for it on the internet, and Symphony Space has a recording of it read by Gloria Foster for their "Selected Shorts" audio-tapes.
The idea for the story came to me in the early '80s when I felt concerned about what I saw as the increasing balkanization of American society and culture. That was during Reagan's first term when the "Culture Wars" reached a boiling point. The story is set in a Seattle pet shop. Its conflict arises when the somewhat cruel owner of the shop, Mr. Tilford, simply doesn't appear one day, which leaves the animals inside trapped and on their own.
Existentially, the disappearance of the pet shop owner, who kept order, is for these animals equivalent to the death of God. (Yes, the sub-title for the story, "A Child's Fable," is tongue-in-cheek.) But even though he never returns, the story's loyal and pious protagonist, Berkeley the watchdog, desperately hopes he will make a "second coming" and save them all. The watchdog is no rocket scientist or brain surgeon. He lives by faith. Waiting for Tilford's return, believing he must return some day, Berkeley does everything he can to keep the various caged animals alive. He tries to stand-in for Tilford but, being a dog, what he can do is limited. As I was writing the story, I kept thinking of a statement by Edmund Burke that has haunted me for decades:
"Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites...Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free."
Berkeley has his nemesis in Monkey, a clever instigator who feels the watchdog keeping everyone caged to maintain order is fascist. Among all the caged animals, he is closest to man or humankind on the evolutionary scale. The ape (think of the old phrase "God's ape," which is a reference to the Devil) is an eloquent and persuasive speaker; he convinces Berkeley to release every creature in the shop, arguing that democracy and civil liberty are the only fair political and social arrangements. The watchdog hopes with all his heart that Monkey is right.
But, as Chinua Achebe might say (or Yeats), things begin to "fall apart" as the days wear on and the food supply becomes scarce. Needless to say, the beasts in Tilford's pet shop do not "police" themselves, as Burke recommended. Each species in the shop resembles a tribe. When scarcity descends upon them, they abandon any semblance of the share values required for democracy and equality---which Berkeley has tried to maintain---and divide themselves along the lines of species and gender. Some animals raid the food set aside for others, like the more helpless and vulnerable fish who cannot leave their fishbowls. Then comes cross-species rape and the likelihood of genetic mutations. As violence, chaos, and a dark, Darwinian "survival of the fittest" approach increases and the pet shop catches on fire, the story moves toward its tragic ending, and Berkeley just before his death ironically realizes that only one creature will probably survive the conflagration: Tortoise, the shop's resident Taoist whose habit is to retreat into his protective shell (a metaphor for meditation or monastic retreat) whenever conflict arises among the other animals (i.e., in the social world).
Democracies strikes me as being flexible, but a balance of forces and shared values and the abandonment of tribalism must be maintained from one generation to the next. The dangers to such a system can be many (Think of Eisenhower's famous warning about the problem posed by a "military-industrial complex"). In the Middle East, the experiment with democracy will have to find a solution for tribalism and the very old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Europe faces its own version of a dilemma posed by democracy: namely, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement in October, 2010 that in her country, "This multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and live happily with each other has failed. Utterly failed." French President Nicolas Sarkozy probably agrees with that.
The main point here, I suppose, is that democracy is a delicate, on-going experiment. A messy one, as President Barack Obama observed last year. But it is better than any top-down authoritarian alternative that I can think of. And perhaps "Menagerie: A Child's Fable" captures a little bit of its inherent drama and dangers.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 9:49 PM