Sunday, April 03, 2005

Question of the Panther

Part 3: The Gaze of the Panther

Yesterday I blogged about the question of the animal and promised to return to this question further today. Where yesterday the animal was a chesire cat that told us "we're all mad here", today it is a much larger cat, Rilke's panther, that impatiently gazes. One of Derrida's many points, and he's not the only one to make this point, is that the animal is more than the object of our gaze. We are the object of the other animal's gaze also. In the case of large predators, this objectification we experience is the horrifying realization that we're just another flavor of meat, a possible dinner item. But in the case of other kinds of animals, this gaze in which we find ourselves caught as the object is "an abyss" of the absolute other. The quality and meaning of that gaze could potentially be many, many different states of consciousness, perhaps resembling our own gaze right back at them.

In developed countries, this encounter with the gaze of the animal occurs most often in the mediating structure of the Zoo. The species, Homo sapiens, gives itself the right to imprison other species in cages to become objects of our gaze. In the zoos I've visited, the consciousness behind our gaze is chiefly amusement, and only intermittantly wonder. How rarely we dare to look the animal in the face, that is, face to face with enough awareness to see that we are being seen. To make that connection is then to see from the other's point of view, from behind the bars, in a funhouse mirror wherein we are able to see ourselves through that silent enigmatic gaze. This is the question of the animal too. A trip to the zoo should not reinforce the illusion of a facile Humanism: we look at our caged creatures, subjected to our priorities by a superior technology. Instead, a trip to the zoo should surprise us with the uncanny recognition that the encounter is doubled, that we too are animals trapped in the other's gaze. One human reaction is again, shame.

The German poet Rilke went to the zoo in Paris one day to look for a poem. He found a famous poem in the gaze of a Panther.

The Panther

His tired gaze --from passing endless bars--
has turned into a vacant stare which nothing holds.
To him there seem to be a thousand bars,
and out beyond these bars exists no world.

His supple gait, the smoothness of strong strides
that gently turn in ever smaller circles
perform a dance of strength, centered deep within
a will, stunned, but untamed, indomitable.

But sometimes the curtains of his eyelids part,
the pupils of his eyes dilate as images
of past encounters enter while through his limbs
a tension strains in silence
only to cease to be, to die within his heart.

Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming, the best English translation I've seen out of dozens. See also original in German below

Rilke's greatness as a poet derives from his power of empathy. First he goes to the zoo expecting to look at something for inspiration; but then he winds up looking back out from the other side of the bars. His encounter with the panther moves well beyond amusement and beyond wonder at the Other's otherness. Rilke expresses the panther's gaze, translates it into our language. A closer reading shows that this poem evokes a face to face encounter in which Rilke and his species is also caught, implicated in the Panther's weary frustration. The poem is not about the poet's subjective "will", but about the panther's gaze in which Rilke is surprised by sin, so to speak.

It is not the poet's gaze which objectifies the animal, but the panther's gaze that objectifies the reader.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Der Panther

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannter Stille -
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

[Rainer Maria Rilke]


At 4:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Erick, One problem with your moral evaluation of the poem is that, as many have noticed, Rilke appears more interested in the panther as a symbol than as a consciousness. The cat embodies a certain condition, perhaps the condition of the artist himself. So what looks like empathy is really projection. Which isn't to say that Rilke doesn't also sympathize with the cat, only that that is not where this great poem's main interest lies.

Also, there are better translations. "Vacant gaze" is a cliche, for example. And the final stanza is both padded and confusing. Stephen Mitchell's is not great, either, but it's better. Lowell's version is, predictably, the giddiest and most inventive.

Best, Andy Rathmann

At 2:48 PM, Blogger E. Heroux said...

Thanks for taking up my challenge here. I agree that there may be better translations if the betterness refers to other aspects of poetics. I agree that the Mitchell version is more felicitous in an English flavoring in terms of sound and image and avoidance of cliche. But poems are also states of consciousness, as you've argued too, in which the inevitable compromises of impossible translation forces certain priorities: truth or beauty. Pace Keats, they don't always line up in a straight line together.

So for my argument against the standard modernist reading -- that Rilke projects his own interests upon the symbolic panther -- this translation is quite viable. That the poem has been read as aesthetically "great" _because_ it can be read anthropocentrically is a key to our madness also: "everything is always already about my spiritual condition". But read with more attention to this "question of the animal" I've been discussing is to see that Rilke is not the subject, but rather the object of the gaze. And hence by extension the reader is implicated in that Other's gaze in an ethical face-to-face confrontation. We're surprised to find ourselves in the position of prison guards who've caged this "indomitable will". Shifting the whole subject-object axis back onto a poetic projection is a reading strategy that avoids the question of the animal's gaze, or more precisely the reader's realization that we are the object of another's gaze that calls into account our response and responsibility.

Many poets generally do write about everything as if it reminds them of themselves, especially contemporary poets (with exceptions of course). Look at that dog, how it reminds me of that day in my boyhood when blah, blah... autobiography, etc. But this remains within the general limits of an ego-bound Humanism, blind to how the dog might see the poet.

I think that Rilke's "Panther" is one of those exceptions, except it now needs to be reread as such.

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Andy Rathmann said...

Erick, I think I see where you're coming from. I've got to say though, that, from a literary critical point of view, this translation is bad. Why does the translator write "curtains of his eyelids"? There is no mention of eyelids in the original. Similarly with "images of past experiences." That's not in Rilke's poem. I suspect the translator thinks he has to explain everything and make the poem accessible, but that just falsifies the well-known strangeness of the original. And there is a real question about that "Bild" that occasionally enters the panther's body. I've always assumed that Rilke wanted to leave its content unspecified while still suggesting that the image is of the human being who pauses to look at the cat. You assume that too, I think. But, if so, then the fate of that human image or mental representation is simply to vanish within the panther's consciousness. How do you see eye-to-eye with a creature who lives in the perpetual now of bodily sensation? If this is really a poem about empathizing with animals then it is more interested in the impossibility of that empathy. Animals really are different. Which is no reason to keep them in zoos, of course. Beyond the issue of animals, the poem's larger concern seems to be to imagine a consciousness upon which images simply fail to make an impression or resolve into anything. That would be the poet's nightmare, both for himself and for his audience.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger E. Heroux said...

We agree about zoos, but only sometimes about that whole very deeply implanted cluster of modernist assumptions about aesthetics and ontology. But now that you point it out, yes "curtains of his eyelids" seems redundant (if the curtains of his pupils in the original are the eyelids, then why use two words for that?).
But what I haven't seen explicitly taken into account so far is the direct observation in the 1st stanza where those "tausend Stäben" or the bars of the cage are mentioned three times, impressive repetition for such a short poem. In other words, if we drop the tradion of anthropocentric interpretation, then that repeatedly emphasized cagedness sets up the resulting troubled sort of lack of consciousness you attribute to an essentially different animal. My reading looks at the situation, or the mediated structure of the zoo, to which Rilke repeatedly calls attention.
So in this bloggy shorthand, when I wrote that the reader is the object of the animal's gaze, I'm also thinking that the bars caused the panther's unnatural frustration, that concluding line about "und hört im Herzen auf zu sein." We are _not_ empathizing with an essentially natural consciousness, but rather one that we ourselves distorted with a cage.

The idea that this must then be reinterpreted into a general Poetics of Humanism is precisely the reading that I've tried to show is blinded, in which the images of Rilke's poem enter our "Herzen" (hearts) and dwindle to nothing, finding no real understanding there.

As for the assumption that humans are _essentially_ different from animals, rather than simply somewhat different depending on what you're talking about at the moment, if you don't like the "shame about feeling shame" argument, then see above about animal laughter and the prairie dog word for "human being".

At 3:37 PM, Anonymous Andy Rathmann said...

Yes, the bars frustrate the animal's vision, as Rilke says. But in the third stanza Rilke contrasts that abject state with those rare moments ("Nur manchmal...") when an image _does_ break through and is experienced by the panther. At such moments the panther registers the image in its limbs. Its characteristic mode of perception, in other words, is bodily, which is what gives its physical confinement special pathos and arouses our sympathy. But part of Rilke's achievement in this poem is still to insist that the panther is not like us (just as the echoes of a supernatural ritual in the second stanza heighten its alien status). So sympathy, yes, by all means--but empathy? I think this term is dubious for many reasons, beginning with the obvious truth that no one has access to anyone else's experience.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger E. Heroux said...

We must be the only two people on the World Wide Web arguing about this issue, as my site counter registered a dramatic drop in hits around the days of this series on the animal and poetics. My usual 25 visitors per day seem to be waiting for me to go back to something more relevant. But I have to insist that this topic is relevant to our lives, and is intimately related to whether or not civilization will have much of a future, not to put too find a point on it. And I have to insist that the reasons are difficult to grasp because the matter is difficult for us. And you seem to be the only other person interested in arguing it, so . . . that’s something. Not sure what.

I know that your position is respectable, and doesn’t it go something like this: “We can’t actually know or feel the same as others, but this doesn’t mean that we should never have sympathy for them. Ethics doesn’t require empathy so much as sympathy, at least in the case of animals. Poetics affirms imaginative versions of empathy, but these tend to reveal more about our own imagination rather than actual truths about alien states of consciousness. The vital link between ethics and aesthetics then is not based on access to literal truths necessarily, but rather that sensitivity in one area prepares sensitivity in another area, refined attention allows enhanced awareness of both goodness and beauty, of both content and form, and so forth. Poems are generally about poets, and thus by extension about their readers. . . .”

All of that is great and a very good program, as far as it goes. But now we return to deconstruction, already in progress. . . . (recalling of course that deconstruction does not “destroy” such programs but rather leaves them in place with new revelations about their aporias, or their limits, or the repercussions of their constructedness).

I wonder now if we should introduce a distinction between anthropocentric reading and anthropomorphic reading. This latter is a human projection of one’s spiritual condition or some human characteristic onto the animal other, or more accurately onto the other animal, when that characteristic doesn’t pertain. This last qualification is important, since I can attribute, e.g., bipedal-ness or pain or curiosity or etc. to certain animals and it wouldn’t be anthropomorphic; it would simply be accurate. It would be also “empathetic” besides being accurate. Hmmm…. Is Rilke’s panther an anthropomorphized one? This is a tough call. You equivocated on this, but then your main emphasis is yes, Rilke cannot but anthropomorphize, and anyway that’s what makes the poem more interesting. On the other hand, you maintain the suggestion that Rilke imagines the panther’s alien consciousness as thoroughly different from his own-- "its characteristic mode of perception is physical". That's interesting beyond being a close reading of the poem; it also raises the deconstruction some human / animal binary, to the degree that my perception and your perception is also physical too.

I suppose that one modernist reading is to praise the necessary “tension” then in this poem -- between the anthropomorphic projection and the sympathetic alienness. Poetry strains to evoke such ineffable paradoxes. But you haven’t yet said that much in this cramped space, though I assume that you were about to or you hinted as much. And yet even that is not enough for me in this case.

One can have sympathy from an anthropocentric stance, as in looking down on the poor suffering dumb brutes, and when we slaughter them, we should cause less pain and so forth. But in contrast, empathy would be in tension with anthropocentricism. It decenters the humanist presumption.

Your last argument holds to the position that we only have access to our own minds – at the rigorous extreme this is solipsism. I think that this is half true, but then only a half truth. The other half has to do with empathy rather than sympathy. There are occasions where we can spot “curiosity” and so forth among other creatures, accurately, and with or without sympathy. We might spot a cunning murderous rage, e.g., and then shoot the beast. Isn’t that the skill of empathy rather than sympathy?

Maybe I should have used this term “anthropomorphic” before at times to make a distinction; where on the other hand, an anthropocentric reading is probably a wider and more diffuse and therefore trickier thing to see, like permanent haze. You began by suggesting, in high modernist style, that the greatness of Rilke’s poem is also its anthropomorphism in a strange way. We readers find it more “interesting” precisely because it can be read as about us, not about some dumb beast to which we can’t fully comprehend anyway. To recap: that’s the reading I tried to show is itself a symptom of our madness regarding the question of the animal. And in the simple form, it would be anthropomorphic and also anthropocentric. Rilke might be doing this, and then it is up to the reader whether to accept it as such or rather to read against the grain to show Rilke’s symptoms. My reading is neither of those.

However, another interpretation you offer is that Rilke does at least _imagine_ what it might be like inside the panther’s consciousness, both the frustration of being caged and also those occasional moments when something else, some “Bild” enters the animal’s limbs –perhaps the panther’s image of Rilke himself?-- and then seems to vanish in its mind like some kind of mysterious void. This is also Heideggerian: the animal has no language, thus its very Being is without a “world” or horizon of our consciousness – (his terms are not necessarily from the dictionary). At any rate, this 2nd interpretation is not anthropocentric – even if in aiming at empathy it flirts with anthropomorphism. It isn’t purely anthropocentric because in this 2nd reading, at least Rilke shows empathy for a panther-centric view.

This reading is closer to mine. Except that I drop the assumption of having access to an essentially Other consciousness in pure form. Instead, as you recall, I focus on the subject-object gaze in the poem in the mediating context of the zoo, a context which has distorted any access to “nature”. I note that the gaze is from panther to reader, which places us in a position of ethical responsibility for that distorting context.

Deconstruction often arrives at the “undecidable” in such double or triple readings. But if my reading is at odds with high modernism, then we could decide which is more valid and according to what priorities or criteria. I’ve made my choice there. The priorities of the modernist reading are a distraction, a denial of the question of the animal. This isn’t to say that the modernist reading is invalid, because it certainly can be shown to operate according to the conventions of highly literate readers. It is merely to say that it is a symptom of having made an anthropocentric decision before reading the poem.

And that distinction is to me more interesting than Rilke’s supposed spiritual condition at this moment in our history. I read existentialism and romanticism and modernism during my ‘20s, and found it very important for myself then. I don’t wholly reject those now, but rather supplement with a post-. If what I’m loosely calling “modernists” are more interested in the kind of reading you summarize, then they are welcome to it, but it’s no longer much to brag about today. I can see why the reading is plausible and perhaps even intentional, although Rilke’s intentions would be too hard for me to judge without extra-information. By the way, if you know of information about Rilke’s intentions, please send it to me. I’ll mention you in my next paper.

By “today” I mean that ethology and zoology are showing just how much language and cognition many other animals share with us. And I mean an era in which highly literate people are talking about the post-human drift into cyborg conditions; and yet at the same time, a new recognition of humanism’s old pathological denial of our own animality. This paradoxical new situation seems very deep and well, hazy. It might seem pretentiously over-reaching to frame the issue in this manner, but then that’s again a decision based on priorities. I don’t mind so much the flak as I do the muffled feeling of repression that such issues are not being discussed enough, that instead most educated people are instead discussing things like how to earn more money, and how to persuade people to consume more, and how to appear cultivated, and how to make TV shows more lively, or which church is more respectable.

I’m still not sure how clearly this haze of anthropocentricism might be seen through. But I suspect that after it is seen through, my writing will seem a good deal easier to grasp.


Post a Comment

<< Home