To the Sideshow

Animals and Men: Their Relationship as Reflected in Western Art from Prehistory to the Present Day

by Kenneth Clark
William Morrow, 240 pp., $19.95

Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self

by Leslie Fiedler
Simon and Schuster, 367 pp., $12.95

In spite of the physical shrinkage and Howardjohnsonization of our cultural world, there is still a marked difference between the characteristic British and American intellectual styles. Of course a few English writers now affect a hyper-American manner—breathless, loud, personal, while some Americans (including many contributors to this journal) try for an English smoothness and balance.

Each style has advantages in getting one’s message across. English prose conveys its most novel ideas with such calm, quiet assurance that they can appear to be already established truths; American writing convinces by hyperbole—if you believe half of what is said, you must be sold on the product. Each style also has disadvantages, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. Readers who are used to being screamed at by the media may fail to hear a polite whisper, however charming and astute; while readers habituated to a quieter manner are apt to reject the loud assertions of some Americans in the spirit of a parent who refuses to buy any breakfast cereal that has been advertised on television.

The national style is well demonstrated by these two writers. Sir Kenneth Clark is given to what may seem to us understatement (“sentimentality…was accompanied by the rather irritating habit of investing animals with human characteristics”). Fiedler, on the other hand, goes in for what most Englishmen would consider overstatement, or even wild exaggeration (“something has been happening recently in the relations between Freaks and non-Freaks, implying just such a radical alteration of consciousness as underlies the politics of black power or neo-feminism or gay liberation”). That either Animals and Men or Freaks should be dismissed because of its cultural style would be an unfortunate oversight (in British terms) or (in American ones) a damn stupid mistake.

At first sight these books are as dissimilar as their authors. The English peer has produced an appropriately tall, slim volume full of beautiful color plates by the best artists of Western civilization; the sort of volume that will be left out on many coffee tables. The American professor has given us a stocky, thick book illustrated with newspaper-gray photographs and medical drawings of the kind that one prefers not to touch when turning the pages; a book likely to be put away on the most inaccessible shelf where the children can’t get at it. Yet the purpose of these two volumes is similar: to examine the lasting fascination of men and women with other living beings who are both like and unlike them. And both writers come to the same conclusion—that behind this intense interest is a symbolic identification. Clark unassumingly speaks of man’s “feeling of kinship” with animals, while Fiedler uses the more portentous phrase “myths and images of the secret self.”

Kenneth Clark’s writing on art is not only original and scholarly but always a pleasure to read; even his early book for children, Looking at Pictures, is excellent, and—like Landscape into Art, The Nude, and Clark …

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