The Problem of Wild Minds: Knowing Animals in Grizzly Man and Ming of Harlem
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The Problem of Wild Minds:
Knowing Animals in Grizzly Man and Ming of Harlem

Near the end of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the book’s eponymous protagonist recalls visiting the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes with his friend Marie.1 The zoo is in bad shape; the pair overhear children questioning their parents: “Mais il est où? Pourquoi il se cache? Pourquoi il ne bouge pas? Est-ce qu’il est mort?” Sebald writes:

I recollect that I myself saw a family of fallow deer gathered together by a manger of hay near the perimeter fence of a dusty enclosure where no grass grew, a living picture of mutual trust and harmony which also had about it an air of constant vigilance and alarm. Marie particularly asked me to take a photograph of this beautiful group, and as she did so, said Austerlitz, she said something which I have never forgotten, she said that captive animals and we ourselves, their human counterparts, view one another à travers une brèche d’incomprehension.

(268)

This phrase from Marie that sticks in Austerlitz’s memory seems to be a French rendering of a phrase from John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?”2 There, Berger inquires into what it is for “man” to encounter “the animal” – which, as he puts it, “scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.” He goes on:

This is why the man can surprise the animal. Yet the animal – even if domesticated – can also surprise the man. The man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension. And this is so wherever he looks. He is always looking across ignorance and fear. And so, when he is being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him. His recognition of this is what makes the look of the animal familiar. And yet the animal is distinct, and can never be confused with man. Thus, a power is ascribed to the animal, comparable with human power but never coinciding with it. The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.

(3)

Though Sebald simplifies Berger’s image, in which there are two “similar, but not identical” abysses, he also complicates it by qualifying it, for Marie is referring specifically to captive animals. And indeed, things are complicated further by the disturbing and melancholy (and characteristically Sebaldian) context of a dilapidated zoo, whose mostly “empty and [End Page 137] deserted” enclosures are “decked out with pitiful remnants of natural objects” (268). The two images and their differences raise three separate but related questions: What is it to know an animal? What is it to know a wild animal? What is it to know a captive animal?

In Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), Timothy Treadwell enters the Alaskan wilderness to live among grizzly bears. Styling himself as their protector, he spends thirteen summers with them, becoming something of a celebrity in the process. In Phillip Warnell’s Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air (2014), Antoine Yates obtains a tiger and confines it in his apartment, sharing a home with it for years. He also acquires and keeps a caiman alligator. The films draw their powers from similar sources: they contain very compelling footage of animals; their human protagonists are eccentric, fascinating, and charismatic; blurring fact and fiction, they problematize notions of documentary evidence; they tell astonishing stories. Both unfold in a philosophical register, largely thanks to their voiceovers: in Grizzly Man we hear Herzog pontificating on the “overwhelming indifference of nature”; in Ming of Harlem we hear a poem by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the strangeness of animals, and how they “live outside” the names we give them. The human protagonists of the films share somewhat similar fates: Treadwell is eaten alive, as is his lover; Yates is badly bitten, then arrested and imprisoned for reckless endangerment, his animals confiscated.3 But if Herzog’s film may be something of a morality tale – whose protagonist is punished for his transgressions – then Ming of Harlem is harder to pin down. Consider...


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