Animal Review
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  Animal Review for February 23
February 7
| February 13


A Personal Experience 


This morning I awoke from an unpleasant dream. In the dream, I was late to work. My job was to lecture on French literature, in French, a language I can't speak. I was delighted to have had such a non-harrowing, non-disturbing, squeaky-clean nightmare after a day of reading 'A Personal Experience' by Kenzaburo Oe. The book resembles homemade jam (this is perhaps my first and last extended metaphor, so pay attention), in that sour things (a series of sordid transgressions) are boiled (in stress), sugared (with sex), canned in glass (the hero's motives become increasingly transparent), and finally sealed neatly under an opaque layer of paraffin. As connoisseurs of homemade jam know, the paraffin is not for consumption or, as the FAZ (a newspaper) says on the back cover blurb, "This book, which many will feel is obscene as it offends, even deliberately, feelings of shame, could be called moral." The book is clearly obscene if the word has any claim on meaning. The paraffin of virtue rewarded take up two pages at the end. Morality permeates every sentence, perhaps because it's impractical to stage transgressions without it.


The book explores the pressing question, "If I abandon my wife, kill our deformed baby, and use our savings to go to Africa with my girlfriend, will I ever be good-looking?" As the novel opens, the hero is so ugly that a transvestite takes him for a homosexual. The swift accretion of layers of dirt, sweat, and epoch-making bad breath mask his inner filth more than they reveal it, and at the apex of his nastiness he gets a hot babe who understands and accepts everything about him -- the ultimate humiliation, apparently. Only in the last two pages can he look into a mirror with pride, finding that he still has a chance of coming to resemble his father-in-law (the book's Obiwan Kenobi) and continuing to fool his naive wife. It's the all-or-nothing fantasy of a really straight kind of guy. Obviously such guys still exist, but I can't imagine any of them are reading this, so I am forced to recommend 'A Personal Experience' to my readers for its abundant animal imagery. Sea urchins, sloths, rhinoceroses, warthogs, chickens, tigers and many other animals are likened in profusion to various aspects of the hero's consciousness and surroundings. The prose is tight, and it's not very long.


The Giant Catfish 


A giant catfish was recently caught in the Neckar near Kiebingen. It is on display in a public building there, but having received reports that you have to stand in line for an hour to see it, I have decided to ignore it. Last weekend, 2,000 people saw it. The catfish is about eight feet long (approximately the size Capt. John Smith reported seeing in the crystalline waters of the Chesapeake Bay) and thinner than you'd think, they say. I feel vaguely irresponsible ignoring the catfish, but then again, the catfish is the least of my worries.

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  Animal Review for February 13


While walking home last night I passed a row of letter-sized flyers wheat-pasted to the white tile wall of a pedestrian tunnel.  Each bore the likeness and name of the founding theorist of anarchism, Prince Kropotkin. The flyers were printed in black on bright red and the word "Kropotkin" was in Russian.


What were Kropotkin's ideas?  Actually, they were very nice. He thought that humans, like the other animals, would eventually recognize that voluntary cooperation and mutual aid are their best survival strategy. All over Europe, citizens were banding together to found voluntary associations -- fire departments, humane societies, glee clubs -- which he saw as evidence that the process was already underway. Ultimately, he reasoned, such structures would replace the state. He was as certain as Marx and Engels of his ideas' inevitable victory, since they were based in sound biology. Bees, for example, who cooperate, are more numerous than orangutans, who don't. The triumph of anarchism is most obvious in the avant-garde United States, where volunteers feed the hungry and even the army is all-volunteer.


There's a fine line separating anarchists from libertarians. I remember once a libertarian dropped by the A-Space (in West Philadelphia) wanting to do a cafe night and show a video. The video was about how the FBI fucked up in Waco, and we sent him away as though he had rabies. Actually it's a pretty fat line -- the line separating the right from the left -- but often enough the difference between them is a matter of taste and tone. There's no question that the anarchists in Philly wanted the Federal government off their backs, but it was hard to look at this large biker from Lancaster County and imagine that his ideas about what he'd do with his newfound freedom had anything to do with those of a Quaker lesbian peace activist. Probably he would have said, "I have nothing against black people and Quaker lesbian peace activists as long as they go their way and I go mine," which would be anarchist party line if anarchists had a party, but that doesn't mean you want him and his friends patronizing your cafe and scuffing up the floor with their oily boots. Above all, anarchism is for the small -- there was hardly a man over 5'8" in the entire scene. These are people who carry skateboards for self-protection. The idea of pistols makes them feel faint. They don't even like cars or power saws. If there were a violent revolution, they would lose.


For a while we had something resembling an informant, or at least a man of no known national origin who used to come to A-Space collective meetings, which were generally devoted to discussions of floor-cleaning and coffee-making, and ask, "Where are the bombs?"  At first everyone thought he was saying "bums" and was almost insulted.  He stopped coming after he was found dead.


I don't know who is plastering Tuebingen with posters of Kropotkin, but now that socialism is over it could be anyone. Anarchism has a certain allure for the right, since it instructs left-leaning people not to vote. But the leftmost political party is promoting itself with a slogan about solidarity between young and old, which seems like evidence that young people aren't expected to vote anyway, since it's hard to imagine why they'd want to be reminded that in a welfare state they have to bankroll everybody's grandma.


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Animal Review for February 7

The Red Fish

At the botanical garden, there's a display of aquatic plants and fish -- six or eight small aquariums and a couple of large ones with reef fish and sea anemones. The fish hide among the weeds and it's fun to watch for them. In one tank, filled with narrow ribbons of pale green, lives a red fish. Black, squat, polka-dotted algae-eaters swarm below him like cockroaches. At first you don't realize how many. The red fish ducks out of sight and you turn and say, "Wait, there's a beautiful red fish in this one." Probably you are with someone who trusts you enough to wait.

Silent Spring

Yesterday it was pushing 70 degrees. Accordingly, I sped towards the woods on my bicycle, then shackled it to a tree and climbed to the rim of the Hagelloch Trace (an old road ten or fifteen feet deep, like the Natchez Trace, except that it's only a few hundred yards long) to forge squinting uphill into the gray, saturated light of a hazy summer afternoon.

I was expecting a transcendent experience of sylvan loveliness, but instead the warm air made the bare trees look like they'd been hit with Agent Orange.  When everything in nature is "dormant" aka dead and brown, it's best that the air be crisp and frosty. Like a warm morgue, the woods were full of somewhat disturbing smells. A few birds called listlessly and a hawk circled on the updrafts like a vulture waiting for mice and bunnies to doze off in mid-stride.

The too-bright glare of day eventually (around 5:15) gave way to the golden horizontal light of evening, and I walked with Andrea up Gallows Hill to watch the sunset. It was nice, but quick. I had run like hell two miles to get there ten minutes late and was still out of breath. The run was one of those 37-going-on-14 things I'm always doing: I had only 20 minutes until I was supposed to meet Prince Myshkin at the Sudhaus, but I had locked my keys in the house and couldn't unlock my bike (we'd had the idea of surprising Andrea so she could take a walk on the special hot day -- he would mind the store while I lured her outside), so I ran. I suppose everyone who knows me post-Israel is used to my panicked rushes to see sunsets, that is, my irritating insistence, which does not win me any friends, that we must leave now, right now, immediately ....  Missing sunsets in Tel Aviv is like refusing to go to work because it's payday. Living is supposed to have compensations. Here I'm mostly alone, so instead of being forced to stage shrill, pleading, ineffectual protest tantrums in a recurrent state of exalted, tearful amazement that anyone can possibly resist obeying me on an issue as clear-cut as sunsets, I can run. Luckily Andrea shares my priorities. "If we leave right away, we'll catch the sunset," I said as I arrived gasping and sweating, swaying on my feet from exhaustion. She grabbed her coat and held the door. Within one minute we were bathed in glowing light that streamed up from the horizon like a river of yellow-pink photons of pure joy. We picked a bench amid the transfiguration. Gradually the sunset became smaller and moved farther away. Soon it was a miniature portrait of itself. Then it was gone, and we walked back down the hill in the blue twilight.

Afterwards I asked Prince Myshkin about a painting he seems to have been working on for a long time, a series of rows of strange symbols glowing backlit on deep blue. "It's a passage from Matthew," he said: "'I baptize you with water, but one is coming after me who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.'" He was apologetic about the script. It was his own invention, based on ancient Greek. He's not so sure about it anymore, and that's why he's painting so slowly.


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