Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Zookeeper's Manifesto

Archaic Cultures also kill animals on the altars of the gods. Of course: like unto like. By taking the animal to the altar, we are not ridding ourselves of it nor making it more pure and holy. It goes to the altar to feed the animal in the god, the divine that is partly animal, thereby keeping the god alive, and alive there in that temenos, that altar. The altar is an animal's keeper, keeps the god from roaming, its dreadful power tethered to a concentrated location. Get back, stay there behind the smoking candles and the grillwork. Don't cross over suddenly. The altar is a cage, each cathedral a great zoo." - James Hillman, "Going Bugs"

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the dearth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. - Isaiah 11:6-9

 Oh Newt. You never met a monster you couldn’t love. - Leta Lestrange in The Crimes of Grindelwald by J. K. Rowling

Have you ever been to a zoo? What am I saying, of course you have. You’ve walked the sticky pavement, heard the vaguely ethnic music playing the background, seen the bears, the giraffes, the crocodiles. But have you really? That’s a better question. Do you just walk past the kangaroo exhibit, do you maybe just stop and pay the minute or so of attention that justifies your money, or do you really, truly, pay attention to the animal?

It’s worth it. You’ll see that the kangaroo, the boa constrictor, and the elephant are not something that you just passively look at. You can’t: these beasts are lumbering, crawling, hopping, swimming beings.  They transcend one space and find themselves in another. You have to track them, follow them with your eyes. For the animal is not an animal unless it moves. And it is the movement that makes the animal.

Nowhere is this more the case than in your inner zoo, the zoo of the mind, the ecosystem of your thoughts and feelings. See how rage thumps its way along, dashes out toward the periphery only to be pulled back by the leash you’ve set it on. Watch the sadness droop, folding its wings. See the mania thump the tree crazily. You are not one but many. There is a thriving ecosystem in your head, your heart, with both a food chain and a circle of life. But this inner zoo isn’t “inner,” not exactly. Just as much as anger throws itself against the glass of your soul does it do so in the soul of you neighbor. You can see it in their eyes. They bear traces of the animal passing behind them. They are animated by extra-human presences. A good psychologist is therefore a good zoologist: they will watch these animals in the zoo of the mind, notice them, and let a reciprocal acknowledgement pass between them and it. The person whose heart is their stomping ground need not even notice. The animal has seen itself in the other’s eyes, and it rests content.

The psychologist does this by listening, watching, and remaining curious. By doing so they give the animal a habitat, gives it a bigger enclosure, gives it space. This is a kind of dreaming, a kind of rapid-eye movement that darts between chaos and order, a way the unformed data in the brain’s right hemisphere can can embody itself in the left. Categories loosen. Cramped legs stretch themselves out. But we are bad at this, I daresay. For what is Facebook, what is Twitter, what is the entire political spectrum but a great velt, a great savannah, where these beasts hope to take up a place? Scroll through your feed and you will see them. The conservative mood, the right, is itself an animal. As is the left and its mood. And they are both a sight to behold. Their extended necks and delicately placed paws gives you goosebumps when you see them. What immortal hand or eye dare frame either one’s fearful symmetry?

But their fur is a little disheveled of late. Both of their eyes have a gleam of manic desperation in them. They jump at the slightest noise. They lash out when touched. They are on edge, scared. And for good reason: the other has encroached on its territory. Each one is constantly wounded by the other. So they attack, preemptively, to protect themselves. They both do this. And so they both feel a need to do this, and it gets worse and worse and worse.

For they have forgotten that they are not unlike each other. Both are protecting what they think is under attack. Both feel that life would be better without the other. Both launch their attacks with a sneer, a desperate manic certitude, that somehow believes every time the other will just fall down dead. And both fail to see that their defense is perceived as an attack by the other, and that their defense in turn will strike you as an attack, and so on ad infinitum.

This is the apocalypse that threatens. Two animals, two great lumbering things, who long to annihilate the other. If they do, we will be their casualties. You’ve already felt it, haven’t you? The rage you feel on Twitter that is not quite human, the compulsion you feel that comes from a presence not your own, the weird belief you feel that somehow, this time, they’ll learn? You are a pawn in a battle of the beasts. You know that it feels like drowning, that you post in a manic rage more than anything to be free of that manic rage. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe.

This is the Flood. For when Noah built the ark, he was not just saving the animals. He was saving us from them. For each animal needs its space, needs its stomping ground, needs a home. This is its right. When he built the ark, when he made the compartments large enough for the giraffe and small enough for the gecko, he was attentive to those spaces. He knew that not every animal can live with another. Some spaces are incompatible. But each animal is priceless.

So how are we to house the lion and the lamb together? Or better, how are we to house the lion and the tiger together? Noah’s answer was simple: give each one a mate. An animal with a partner will be occupied. Like in the therapist’s gaze, it will see itself. It will already have a home. This partner in the ark, moreover, is its space there. An animal that feels itself in the outside world, that has a mirror for its feelings and its thoughts, exists in both the brain’s hemispheres, so to speak, is able to stretch itself into into a form appropriate for it. It exists as a pair, as all things should, and as nearly everything in the body does.

This bipolarity is the ark. It is the space that prevents catastrophe. It is the thing that delimits the flood. And this is our quest too. You know the feeling of being triggered. We all do: that is the spirit of our age. To live in 2019 is to be offended, to be scared, to be irritable. Often, you lash out to protect yourself, and this too is something you have often had no choice in doing. The animals roosting in you are trying to join themselves, to stake their territory, to win their mates, and they are rending you in the process. But choice enters, as with Noah, when you give each animal its mate. Crucially, it is when you give the other animal its mate. The one that threatens you.

Try this sometime: when someone threatens you, when someone triggers you, imagine them getting everything they want. You, at this point, have little to do with this fantasy, and if you appear in it, it is just their manic caricature of you. Feel the way they triumphantly defeat that caricature, the joy they feel in defeating their enemy. Without even having to do anything physical, this will register with them. And then watch, almost magically, as their expression softens and their eyes relax their manic openness.  For you have given the animal its partner. If you are braver, actively agree with your enemy. Say, yes, you’re absolutely right. There’s no need to abandon your own position when you do this. Even if their contention is that you’re devilishly wrong, there’s no reason you can’t be devilishly wrong and right at the same time. The law of excluded middle is a misguided antique from ancient history.

And if you are braver still, have radical faith in your enemy. Believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that if you let them finish their sentence, if you actually listen, if you listen as if you could learn something, that they can become more than they are now. For most people just want to talk. They are using you as a tool to flesh out the thoughts that they can’t flesh out in their journal (if they have one). You have very little to do with it. But you could gain much from the beauty in the thought once it’s allowed to blossom. And this is true even if it’s ugly, pathological, or hateful now. Wouldn’t you like the other to give you the same courtesy?

All this is boat-building. And we must build a boat, for the flood is coming. It is up to our waists, and we doggedly refuse to notice. This boat is a temple, a temple to the god, to each god, to each animal. It is a great zoo. We all feel this. Many of you will have had dreams about a flood in the past few years. J. K. Rowling, who, for all her faults, is tuned in to the archetypal realm of being, has articulated this with her modern-day Noah and his suitcase-ark. We must each be Newt Scamander. We must each love the animals, especially the ones that are the most unlovable. We must soothe them, pet them, watch their fur slowly relax and their tight shoulders droop. For, as Heidegger said, we are shepherds of Being. And Being is furry.

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