Why Animals Talk in America
Editor's Note: Growing up in Vietnam, animals spoke to the author in folklore or through mysterious calls in the night. Now the animal creations of Hollywood and Madison Avenue entertain, but deliver no mystical or spiritual messages.
Last week I took my 7-year-old nephew to see "Finding Nemo," the animated movie about a nervous clownfish in search of his "fish-napped" son. Though we both loved it, out in the sunlight my mind veered back to my Vietnamese childhood, where animals did not exist simply to entertain.
In that tropical world where wild parrots fought over every ripened star fruit in our lush garden, I, unlike my nephew, knew no Bugs Bunny, no Donald Duck and certainly no talking clownfish. But when an alligator was spotted in the river, children gathered on the bridge and screamed and watched with delight, fascination and fear.
Once, when a wild peacock was caught and its leg tied to a tamarind tree, its mournful sounds gave me vivid and phantasmagorial dreams.
Animals didn't exist for me then as human-like characters. Nor did they do slapstick on television, like "Tom and Jerry." They were strictly and specifically themselves, that is to say, awesome and mysterious.
In old Vietnamese folklore and fairytales, animals do speak, but when they do, it is always a very solemn and serious occasion. The ancient turtle tells the King that the magic sword in his hand can defeat invading enemies. The silver fish that the orphan girl just returned to the sea turns into a benevolent spirit in her dream, and foretells her glorious destiny.
Indeed, the world I once knew as a child was one where man's relationship to animals was both somber and full of spiritual implications. A family friend, for instance, was chanting her Buddhist mantra in front of the family's altar when a white butterfly flew in through the window and landed on her shoulder. She shooed it away, but it kept landing in the same spot. The third time it did this, she wept. A bad omen: Her sister, she later found out, had passed away in another country that very same day.
Karl Jung, the great psychoanalyst of the early 20th century, called those moments synchronicity, "a confluence of evens in a numinous or awesome atmosphere." He wrote of an episode in which a young patient related to him a dream of a bejeweled beetle. As she described her dream, Jung heard tapping on the window: a scarab beetle was trying to get in. He caught it and gave it to her. "Here's your beetle," he said. The intelligent, highly rational woman was astonished. Jung reported that after this incident, his patient managed to go through her intellectual defenses to the root of her emotions, and made real progress toward wholeness.
For those blessed few, nature sometimes conspires to give meaningful coincidences as boons. For far too many of us, however, animals play a lesser role. We tend to anthropomorphize and exaggerate their behaviors for our amusement -- the owl is wise, the lion is proud, the mule is stubborn -- and to tell our own stories through them.
Somewhere along our modernizing way, something sacred has been lost. These days, real animals play a far less pivotal role in contemporary life than compared to the days of hunters and gatherers, or even a couple centuries ago.
Think of the tiger, a species near extinction. That "fearful symmetry" that William Blake immortalized in his poem "Tiger, tiger burning bright," has long since been replaced by Tony, a child-friendly version who peddles cereal on TV with the innocuous jingle, "It tastes grrrrreat!"
And so as creative, witty and enjoyable as movies like "Finding Nemo" may be, I can't help but think that if real animals have, in their own special ways, tried to communicate with man, he, too enthralled with his own voice, can no longer hear. And as the natural world is reduced to the size a petting zoo, I fear its deep mysteries, too, are receding from human experience.