NOVEMBER 16, 2016
CALL IT BIG CAT THERAPY, exchanging the therapist’s couch for the lion’s den. In a central episode from his latest novel, Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer describes how as a teenager, the protagonist Jacob and his cousin jump into the lion enclosure at the National Zoo. The experience is revelatory: “There, on the dirt, in the middle of the simulated savannah, in the middle of the nation’s capital, he felt something so irrepressible and true that it would either save or ruin his life.” And all in one session.
Foer’s scene clearly recalls an episode from Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Bellow’s protagonist, a “bungled lump of humanity” tormented by an insatiable yet indefinable hunger (I want, I want, I want!), descends into an underground enclosure on the compound of his host, King Dahfu. There he comes face to face with the king’s captured lion. “She is unavoidable,” the king tells his terrified guest,
Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider […] She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you.
It works. After several sphincter-tightening sessions, Henderson is prowling alongside the beast, filling the underground den with his cathartic roars. Talk about Bellovian.
Steven Church, the author of One With the Tiger, seems to be a perfect candidate for big cat therapy. A writing professor fascinated by apex predators — lions, tigers, and especially bears — Church possesses the “urge, however taboo, to leap into an encounter with a force beyond [his] control.” Church theorizes rather than acts on this urge, which comes on strongest, naturally, at stifling academic conferences. He explores why, for example, the violent bear attack scene in The Revenant seduced rather than repelled him: “I wanted that kind of intense ecstatic experience […] I just wanted to be close to the terror, to feel the energy of those precious moments.” Unwilling, reasonably, to court such terrifying ecstasy — juicy material though it would provide — Church develops an “obsession” with those intrepid souls who have. People like Timothy Treadwell, the bear conservationist made famous in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, or David Villalobos, who in 2012, while riding on the Bronx Zoo’s Bengali Express Monorail, leapt 16 feet into a tiger enclosure. It was 10 minutes before zoo workers managed to distract the Bengal tiger, Bashuta, with a fire extinguisher, giving David and the beast ample time to get acquainted. As Bashuta mauled the 25-year-old, the latter apparently petted her “like a common house cat,” admiring her fearful symmetry from up close. Despite his grievous but non-fatal injuries, David felt he had succeeded in his goal: “I was testing my natural fear […] It is a spiritual thing. I wanted to be at one with the tiger.”
Although psychosis seemed to best explain David’s leap — his parents, alternatively, blamed Adderall — his fearlessness stuck with Church:
When David Villalobos jumped from Bengali Express Monorail into Bashuta’s cage, he also leaped straight into my consciousness […] I wanted to understand the thinking of such savage and unruly minds. I wanted to get close to the subjectivity of people who push the boundaries between human and animal, who come close to crossing over …
The end result is this occasionally confusing book about confusion: confusion between man and animal; savagery and civilization; sublimity and insanity; between the “moral indifference of nature” and our compulsion to anthropomorphize, the “pathological drive to turn something natural and animal — savagery and death — into something spiritual, meaningful, and utterly human.”
I say confusing because the ostensibly straightforward subtitle, “Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals,” actually indicates how nebulous Church’s subject is. The book does investigate what might be termed the sublimely violent — most notably Villalobos’s epiphany in the Bronx and Treadwell’s life and death in an Alaskan area known as the Grizzly maze, where for 13 years he inhabited “that penumbral zone between human and animal.” But there are also merely violent encounters between humans and animals, as in the case of Travis, a pet chimp who goes ape, so to speak, on his longtime owners. Then, too, there are violent encounters between humans and other humans, which, whether spectacular (Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear in a boxing match) or mundane (a backyard scuffle) fall far short of sublime. All are lumped together, manifold episodes of meaningful and meaningless violence alike, such that reading the book feels a bit like going to the zoo and seeing one animal from the savannah, one from the tundra, and another from the taiga in adjacent pens.
Indeed, One With the Tiger skips lightly from cage jumpers to the Incredible Hulk to a mass shooter like Bernard Goetz to a cultural history of severed ears — throughout which Church fixates on two themes: the almost sensual surrender to overwhelming power, and the barely repressed brutality of humans. I suppose that both could be said to involve a submission to savagery, but they strike me as altogether different beasts. Church states that he would like to “normalize” both the urge to be bitten and the urge to bite, but that is an overly broad rationale for grouping the purposeful (if unhinged) quest for sublime experience alongside episodes of adrenaline-fueled response to a real or perceived threat.
Stylistic tics reveal how Church struggles to contain his slippery subject. Questions about David’s motive are “vessels for my own explorations.” A fictional bear attack victim “was just a vessel,” though “[i]t was a lot of pressure caring for such a container.” Watching Werner Herzog listen to the audio of Timothy Treadwell’s last moments, Church writes that Herzog becomes a “surrogate for our morbid curiosity, a vessel for the violence and horror.” Later, he describes a tiger as both an absence — “a kind of void […] a kind of existential nothingness” — but one that nonetheless can take shape as a “vessel of your own annihilation.” After relating an anecdote about how a friend, a bearded carpenter, turned the other cheek when provoked on a city bus, Church writes: “[My friend’s] story thus became a vessel for my own imagined defense, my own burdens of fear.” Mike Tyson is a “vessel for our collective savagery” as well as a “vessel for our own vulnerability.” With so many containers on board, the larger vessel — the book itself — is in danger of springing a leak.
Apart from some admittedly halfhearted efforts to contact David (“Part of me wanted David to stay in the realm of myth and mystery”), Church isn’t interested in fleshing out his understanding of the young man who inspired the book. As participatory journalism is obviously not an option, Church instead roams widely across news stories, pop culture, and philosophy, content to follow where his curiosity leads. He has an engaging voice, alternately blustery and vulnerable, solemnly defending his yearning to leap into the abyss while also ironizing it: “These should not be the thoughts of an overweight writer, a classroom volunteer, a professor and member of professional organizations who has bad knees and wears sweatpants a good part of every day.” Actually, Church is at his best in quieter scenes, as when, on an outing with his children to the Fresno Zoo, he begins musing on the liberating aspects of a place “defined by cages, control…” And he’s wonderful on his own body; a big man (critics beware!) with a big temper — “When I explode it could be messy and loud” — he is wary of, but also fascinated by, the power lurking in his 6’4” frame. Less convincing are moments when he strives for effect, for instance a strange riff on snarge (“the residue left on a plane or in its engine after an encounter with a bird”): sitting at a New York café on September 11, 2014, the 2,974 geese or eggs eliminated by a federal program after the Miracle on the Hudson makes him think of the 2,922 miles separating him from his children and the 2,996 casualties on 9/11: “That day [9/11] in 2014, I felt the sinking weight of all the numbers that define us…”
And yet one never doubts Church’s commitment to, or rather obsession with, confronting forces beyond human control. In an early section, he agrees to visit a former student’s journalism class and play the role of a lifetime: the victim of a grizzly bear attack. He takes on the assignment with an earnestness bordering on the comical, fretting over “the challenge of embodying the subjective experience of an attack victim” for the cub reporters. Interspersed with autobiographical snippets about Church’s own ursine encounters are transcripts from the class Q-and-A. At one point, he channels Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now:
I can’t make a friend of that horror, not those images. I can’t give them to you. Not yet.
Similarly portentous statements abound, so much so that Church’s performance begins to resemble Seinfeld’s Kramer hamming it up as a gonorrhea patient for spellbound medical students.
But perhaps a certain hamminess is the intended effect of the scene and the book. After all, Church spotlights the especially theatrical quality of human-animal encounters. He nicely describes the tiger pen at the Bronx Zoo as “a grand green stage, set for drama, open for the existential business of witness.” The wild itself is a grand set, as Church shows in his excellent discussion of Timothy Treadwell:
The bears […] and Treadwell himself became actors on a safe stage, participants in a larger drama he crafted […] He was a storyteller who had trouble separating the story from reality — and thus he became the perfect subject for Werner Herzog.
Even Church’s own relationship to violence is theatrical. He begins the book reenacting an imaginary trauma in front of an audience, then later finds himself a player in an actual violent encounter that feels just as artificial. Goaded at a party by the drunken husband of one of his students, Church grabs him by the throat and slams him against a wall. Though somewhat justified in his action, he is nonetheless mortified:
There was nothing sublime or ecstatic about it […] It was as if the two of us had been sucked into a clichéd pop-culture narrative of masculinity and violence, of intimacy and savagery, and neither of us knew how to get out.
We hypocrite lecteurs experience a triumphant thrill in the satisfying take-down of a boorish pest even as Church conveys to us the humiliation that always follows in violence’s wake.
If the transcendent is nowhere to be found in this scene, it is in no short supply elsewhere. Church sensibly contends that harrowing encounters with apex predators “put us into a state of sublime confusion, a state from which true knowledge of self and the wider world can emerge.” And when expounding on grizzlies, a little bombast seems appropriate to his large subject: “[A] bear is never just a bear. It is always something greater and more wild, more sublime and powerful than humans can perhaps ever fully understand.” But in a section about the terrible television programs he loved while growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s hard to take his paean to the schlocky show Manimal (“a nexus of meaning and madness”) or Grizzly Adams, “fully and ecstatically alive in that in-between realm,” as more than a rhetorical performance. And his attempt to depict writing as a “thrill-seeking endeavor” worthy of inclusion at future X-Games feels similarly staged:
The page […] becomes also a kind of void, and writing a spiritual leap into the empty white space, a leap that frightens and paralyzes a great many people, and one that still fills me with equal parts terror and wonder.
A risky assertion: If everything is sublime — an apex predator, pop culture figures, Tyson’s uppercut, a blank page — then nothing truly is.
Having put it off for as long as possible, it is now time to mention Harambe, the gorilla killed at a Cincinnati zoo after grabbing a toddler who slipped, or consciously jumped, into its enclosure. A video captured the spectacle, eliciting pity and fear first among the onlookers, then among the millions of people who watched it online. (All the world’s a stage, especially its zoos.) Had his manuscript not already been completed, Church might have considered the Burkean — that is, terrifying — sublimity of the otherwise grubby affair, or mulled over the irresolvable ambiguity of the animal’s behavior. Then again, perhaps it is a blessing that Church, well-suited for the task though he may be, didn’t dive headlong into the scene. By now Harambe, like Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” has become a name. In the words of The Atlantic’s Venkatesh Rao, the slain gorilla morphed into the ultimate meme, “the message that became a medium, capable of carrying any signal, without becoming identified with any of them.” That is one large, perhaps impossible, vessel to fill.