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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’s television lectures—has much that is fresh to say about history, culture, and society as well as the paintings it purports to discuss. Animals and Men is by no means just a book about beasts and birds in art. What Clark is really interested in is the relationship between beasts and human beings; a topic, as he remarks, so vast that it “might occupy a scholar for many years.” He disclaims all intention of writing a definitive work, presenting Animals and Men only as “a short book in which some of the questions are asked.”

It is true that his text is short, but he does much more than ask a few questions. He discusses (and reproduces) many of the important representations of animals in Western art, and makes one original observation after another, many of them in a characteristic throw-away manner. For instance, he asks why the animal-headed gods of Egyptian art seem both more awesome and less beautiful to us than the Greek centaur and faun which have been produced by the opposite process of combination. The Egyptian deities, he suggests, reverse the mind-man body-animal symbolism, and have a mysterious wisdom which comes from their inability to speak.

All gods should be inscrutable…. If the Horus could have answered the questions addressed to him or Hathor commented on the sudden rise in her status in the Middle Kingdom, they would have lost some of their authority.

Or he remarks that Landseer’s famous painting of a Highland stag, The Monarch of the Glen, “epitomizes the self-satisfaction of the Victorian ruling class—masterful, courageous, aggressively masculine, dominating the whole environment.” It will be difficult for me to see this picture again without regarding it as the portrait of a hefty, well-fed Victorian paterfamilias, dressed in an expensive fur overcoat and wearing a noble spread of horns (whose secondary meaning Landseer presumably did not intend).

Unlike some art critics, Sir Kenneth Clark is able to look at paintings and sculpture not only with the detachment of a scholar but also with the directness and intensity of a child. He can relate the medieval copying of standard models in art and in poetry, and compare a figure from the Acropolis of a man carrying a calf upon his shoulders as an offering to Athena with a similarly posed early Christian statue of the Good Shepherd, “usually taken to illustrate the parable of…the sinner saved by Christ. But at a deeper level may not the memory of the sacrificial victim still linger?” At the same time he can notice that the dogs in Titian’s and Velasquez’s portraits tend to make a mute comment on the human subjects, either by satirizing them or through contrast; and that in Titian the animal’s eyes are often “the only ones which look out directly at the spectator, establishing a sort of secret contact.” Again and again Clark makes some observation which in a less prolific and original writer might have been expanded into a monograph. Here it is tossed off so casually that some American reviewers, deafened by the national style, have treated Animals and Men as a mere picture book.

If Clark loses some readers through British modesty, Leslie Fiedler repels others by its opposite. His long literary career, though marked with bursts of great brilliance and remarkable insights of which most critics would be incapable, has also been marred by overstatement, restlessness, and egotism. Again and again he has pushed his best observations to the edge of parody, as if only by shouting could he make himself heard at all. Perhaps this is understandable, considering how much of Fiedler’s working life has been spent in places like Buffalo and Montana.1 A case might be made—indeed, Fiedler himself has made it in “The Novel and America”—for the ill-effects of this kind of enforced isolation on the American writer, who typically finds himself cut off from most of his natural peers on some cold far-flung state campus.

Fiedler’s long exile may also help to explain his restlessness, which has up to now prevented him from writing a consistently first-rate book, though it has probably helped to produce many first-rate essays on a great variety of topics, from communism to pop religion and Dante to science fiction. The best of these are collected in A Fiedler Reader, along with a couple of good and very funny stories and some poems of uneven quality. Probably for reasons of economy, but with great appropriateness, A Fiedler Reader has been produced by photographing the original pieces, which are all in different type faces and sizes, rather than by resetting the text.

Fiedler’s other problem is less easy to explain or excuse. It is not exactly egotism, but rather a continual uneasy thrusting of himself forward, so that whatever he is writing about, the word “I” dots his pages like the upraised arm of a gifted but self-conscious student. Sometimes he can scarcely get into a subject without first discussing at length its relation to his own private psychology and public reputation.2 If they were not near contemporaries I should attribute this to the baleful influence of Norman Mailer; I would blame it on that of New Journalism, except that Fiedler has been doing it for nearly thirty years.

Yet in spite of these faults, even at times because of them, Leslie Fiedler is a continually interesting writer, and it is agreeable to report that in Freaks he seems to have found a subject rich and strange enough to hold his attention and support his most extravagant theories and most intimate self-revelations. Freaks is Fiedler’s Anatomy of Melancholy, crammed with out-of-the-way information about etymology, history, biology, medicine, sociology, philosophy, theology, psychology, art, literature, and popular entertainment. It is not surprising that it took over four years, five fellowships, and six research assistants to complete it.

In the introductory chapter Fiedler strikes his characteristic high tone, both oratorical and intimate, which I now realize has always been that of the sideshow barker about to reveal thrilling monstrosities, shocking connections, horrid fun secrets:

The true Freak,…stirs both supernatural terror and natural sympathy, since…he is one of us, the human child of human parents, however altered by forces we do not quite understand into something mythic and mysterious…. [He] challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other, and consequently between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth.

All of us, Fiedler says, have at one time or another felt like freaks, if only because as small children we were temporary midgets and beast-men, “little animals more like our pets than our parents.” Later, during adolescence, we may have feared that we were growing so fast we would become giants, or turn out to be bearded ladies or half-men/half-women. And people of any age who suffer from strong conflicting emotions or play contradictory roles cannot help feeling “a kind of vertigo like that experienced by Narcissus” when confronted by Siamese twins.

Part One of Freaks, which follows this introduction, is the sideshow itself, with separate chapters on dwarfs and midgets, giants, wild men, and so on. They are copiously illustrated (though some of the pictures are of the kind one would rather not have seen) and packed full of believe-it-or-not facts and odd anecdotes. Some of them are upbeat: among my favorite characters are Giovanni Belzoni, a nineteenth-century strong man nearly seven feet tall who, “dissociating himself from fair and theater, ended as an eminent Egyptologist,” and the dwarf spy Richebourg who “was able to pass as a baby and thus smuggle messages in and out of France on behalf of his aristocratic patrons during the Revolution of 1789.”

A few freaks seem to enjoy their lives. Fat Ladies are traditionally cheerful in private as well as public; but then, overweight women, as Fiedler points out, have been admired in many cultures from prehistoric times.3 Even in America today,

Statistics tell us that women plump to the point of being globular…have a much better chance of getting and staying married. All of us have memories of having once being cuddled against the buxom breast and folded into the ample arms of a warm soft giantess whose bulk—to our 8-pound, 21-inch infant selves—must have seemed “as mountainous as any 600-pound Fat Lady to our adult selves. And to rediscover in our later loves the superabundance of female flesh which we remember from our first is surely a satisfaction we all project in our dreams, though we may be unwilling to confess it once we are awake.

Some midgets, too, find success and happiness: General Tom Thumb, the most famous of all, enjoyed his audiences with the crowned heads of Europe and his marriage to an attractive woman of his own size, writing: “I read the Bible every day…. I adore my creator…. He has given me a small body, but I believe He has not contracted my heart, nor brain, nor soul….”

But most of Fiedler’s stories are sad ones. It is usually no fun to be the physical embodiment of other people’s fears and fantasies. Siamese twins hate each other, dwarfs and midgets are subject to condescension and ridicule, giants lose all sensation in their feet and cannot stand upright; and the second largest fat man in the Guiness Book of Records, Johnny Alee, said to have weighed 1,132 pounds, “fell through the floor of his cabin at thirty-four, dying of a heart attack while suspended by his armpits and screaming for help.” Reading one story after another, and looking at these pictures, I find it difficult to agree that “All freaks are perceived to one degree or another as erotic” or even to imagine what their love lives must be like, though Leslie Fiedler does his best to give us this information whenever he can.

It is more comfortable to consider these unfortunate people as metaphors for the human condition, as Fiedler does in Part Two of his book. He starts by outlining, with considerable wit and learning, the different religious, philosophical, and scientific theories developed since classical times to explain the occurrence of freaks, and some of the medical, legal, and moral problems raised by their existence. He also has many interesting things to say about freaks in literature, drama, and films, though he occasionally stretches a point, as when he presents Grendel in Beowulf as “a shaggy protohuman” freak, and Little Nell as a kind of midget. He arouses expectation by proposing that “the Gothic novel has been chiefly produced by writers who considered themselves, or [were considered] ‘freakish,’ ” but damages his case by defining as “freakish” Irishmen, Southerners, and women, and stating that “in all of them, self-hatred is at work.”

One of his most striking observations is that each historical period has its favorite kind of freak. Thus for instance the eighteenth century preferred giants, who suggested the orderly prodigies of human and divine achievement; while Romantic self-consciousness produced a fascination with Siamese twins, and beast-men like Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy flourished at the same time as popular Darwinism. Today, he says, our characteristic freaks are the wild man and the hermaphrodite.

The two final chapters of Fiedler’s book are the most questionable, and the most overstated. In them he tries to connect the freaks of the sideshow with those of Zap Comics—asserting that the disoriented and disaffected members of the youth culture were taught by their leaders to see themselves as spiritual wild men and hermaphrodites; while children today, brought up on Freakies cereal and Monster bubblegum cards, “begin freaked out, which is to say, retribalized, reunited with their remotest ancestors, for whom distinctions between the real and the imagined did not yet exist.” He writes so well and with such conviction that the reader who is not turned off by intensity may be lulled into acquiescence, until suddenly awakened by a statement such as that vampirism and cannibalism “have recently been legitimized by the rise of radical feminism, whose implicit slogan is MAKE WAR NOT LOVE.”

Like Kenneth Clark, Fiedler has a gift for discovering new and unexpected connections; but he cannot resist playing with his material the way a novelist or a poet plays with it, emphasizing what suits him and forgetting the rest, making statements that may be poetically appropriate but are practically doubtful, especially as he builds his book to a climax: “Of all Freak archetypes the most universally appealing surely is that of the cannibal or the Geek, which is based on fantasies that begin with suckling and weaning.” The appeal of the Geek, a kind of phony wild man once common at rural American tent shows, who bites off the heads of chickens for a minimum wage, is surely not as universal as Fiedler imagines. He is not even, as Fiedler admits in the penultimate paragraph of his book, a natural-born freak. But apparently it is just in this that his attraction for the author lies. “No normal can became a Giant, a Dwarf, a Siamese Twin…. But anyone, merely by altering consciousness, can become a Geek, become for others the Freak he has always felt himself to be.”

With his next breath, however, Fiedler steps back from the abyss. Today, he announces, most physical freaks seek through medicine and surgery to become normals, just as they prefer to be known as “special people” or, when apearing in public, as “entertainers.” And of course the rest of us support this decision, he adds, “except when at the sideshow and not sure whether we wake or sleep, we experience for a moment out of time the normality of Freaks, the freakishness of the normal.”

This final indecision, this erotically charged alternation between the safe and the scary, is characteristic of Fiedler. Though never a card-carrying freak, he has been for many years an enthusiastic fellow traveler, given to what he calls in his preface “excursions into the dark places of my own psyche,” and therefore an excellent guide to the more shadowy regions of contemporary life and letters, a rare but admirable sport among serious American critics.

According to a statement in Animals and Men, part of that volume’s earnings will go to support the World Wildlife Fund. There is no similar announcement in Freaks, and no obvious institutional recipient, since freaks have as yet failed to organize themselves. Still, it is agreeable to think that at least one special person will benefit from the sales of what may be a widely read and admired book.

  1. 1

    About which he has written a characteristically original and overstated piece, “Montana; or the End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” In it he speaks of “the Montana face…reticent, sullen, weary—full of self-sufficient stupidity”—an observation which, like many of his others, caused him to “endure scorn and even hatred.”

  2. 2

    As at the beginning of “Chutzpah and Pudeur“: “Not to have made the conjunction public, once it had occurred to me, would have been to betray a lack of gall, nerve, chutzpah, to put it precisely; but not to have regretted it a little almost immediately, would have been to reveal so total an absence of decorum that the very notion of boldness would have lost all meaning. In either event, I would have confessed myself half a man, half an artist….” Etc.

  3. 3

    The earliest surviving piece of sculpture, the Stone Age “Willendorf Venus,” is a grossly fat female figure.

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