In what passed for news this summer, it was the season of bread and circuses, girl-in-the-well stories, sex in St. Patrick’s. But even corporate and shock-jock scoundrelism and blowhard columnists tilting at straw men couldn’t keep up with the sensational baby and animal photographs that dominated print and television. Freak-show humans alternated with cuddly and not-so-cuddly beasties to jerk our chains with distinctly sub-Aristotelian feelings of pity and fear. Would the Siamese twins be successfully separated? Would the hippo rising over Prague lose the hanky on his snout? Babies joined at the heads, sharing only a tonsure of curls; under the brown cloud of Asia, a giant panda had twins. A sad family story: the whales off Cape Cod rejoining their clan in death. A happy one: the orphaned orca in Seattle reunited with her family. The bear in the Catskills made off with the baby without benefit of photographer, and the insects spreading the West Nile virus were non-shutterbuggable, but there were plenty of file photos of hungry grizzlies and men in hazmat suits to stimulate the imagination.
In keeping with the general dumbing down represented by George Bush’s drawling Bible-class homilies and visions of Armageddon, the arts coverage gave us copious images and inches devoted to babes on surfboards (the new feminist career choice: “they live to surf”) and flashy new über -hunk Vin Diesel. If the President needed an image to whup the nation into bellicosity, he had it in the CNN videotape revealing Al Qaeda terminating dogs with chemical weapons. On our beach, in a blessedly unchic corner of the Hamptons, we had our own little brush with an animal scare that made local headlines.
Over the course of the summer, the ocean had yielded nothing more malignant than clingy red seaweed and sea lice, scurrilous little critters who go for the inside of women’s bathing suits and went for mine, leaving a super-itchy rash on my tender parts. But then, one recent Sunday, there arrived on our shores … a shark. A real one, not a divorce lawyer or a Hollywood producer or a still-operative chief executive in his private plane.
Reading on the deck of our apartment, I heard voices and looked up to see mothers calling their children in from the ocean. Moments later, a huge white fish appeared, just barely moving at water’s edge. As a crowd gathered round, a young man took the creature by his back fins and pulled him on shore. From a distance, it looked like a swordfish. I ran down to see. I held my breath. There, nestled in the head of the silvery torso, were the unmistakable incisors-stiletto sharp and pearly white against the faint pink of the gums. The mandibles of our shark were, in fact, considerably more comely than the ones in Jaws , those famous vagina dentata (in subtext parlance) that could have used a whitening agent. Here he/she was, the terrorist of the ocean, the Jezebel of the deep. Everyone kept their distance, not quite believing it was dead, it had such ferocity even in stillness. It wasn’t huge (I guessed five feet; the paper later said six), yet it made us all feel small, so awesome was this icon of fear in the flesh. I leaned down to touch it, expecting rough skin, but it was soft and supple. Ed from the building next-door began taking pictures. Somehow the scene, capping as it did an all-too-ignominious summer, was reminiscent of the ending of La Dolce Vita . In Fellini’s classic film, an evening of wild debauch among symbiotic celebrities and paparazzi culminates when the drunken revelers hit the beach outside Rome in the wee hours of the morning and discover the beached whale. In a kind of danse macabre , they whirl around its carcass, a symbolic union of rotting flesh, human and bestial. Two weeks before the appearance of the shark, friends on a nearby beach had discovered a giant carcass of what might have been a cow, minus limbs. A few days later, a beachcombing resident showed me a tibia and a hoof she had found on our shore, skeletal segments of what I took to be the same ungulate. And now the shark: a reminder of our lowly place in the food chain when it comes to aquatic supremacy. Was nature pronouncing judgment?
As Ed snapped away, a young woman confronted him. “How can you do that?” she asked. “How can you take pictures?”
How can you take pictures? Was this eco-freak lunacy? Animal rights run amok? What infringement of animal rights was the photographer committing: the invasion of the shark’s privacy? The theft of his soul? Treating him as an “object”? I’d just been reading the biologist Marlene Zuk’s stimulating book Sexual Selection , about the human tendency to anthropomorphize animals for ulterior political and psychological purposes, about the way we turn certain mammals into pin-ups-the dolphin (it’s smart like us) or the bonobo (it’s sexually liberated, nonaggressive) -according to the needs and theories of the moment.
Was the woman on the beach who objected to photographs worried about the privacy of her brother/sister shark-or, to take a more sympathetic view, was she simply reacting to the tendency to turn every moment into a photo op? For, unlike those riotous drunks in the Fellini movie, our gathering had fallen into an almost religious hush, and remained that way until the shore patrol arrived and carted the fish away.
The story of the shark, a six-foot-long mako, was front-page news in the local papers. However, the cover photograph showed not our shark, sleek and inert, but an “action” photo of a generic killer shark, plowingfuriously through dark waters. But hadn’t I, in imparting a sense of the sacred to our silent vigil, superimposedmyown meaning? Hadn’t I transformed something that was pure nature into a human event, just as the animal-rights protester had invested the shark with her own meanings, andthenewspapers with theirs?
We just can’t help turning animals into metaphors for our own use. My first New York play, as a college student in the city for the first time, was The Threepenny Opera . I fell in love with the Brecht-Weill musical at the Circle in the Square, and the diabolical shark and ur -capitalist Macheath. The growlingly exuberant rendering of that paean to predation, “Mack the Knife,” was one of many seductive voices that sang the siren song of New York.
Today’s capitalist sharks have none of the allure of Brecht’s archvillain. They’re boring and faceless narcissists with nouveau plantations in Texas and Florida. They don’t seduce, but hide behind accountants and preside over corporations with blunt, meaningless two-syllable names that sound like Scrabble rejects-Enron and Tyco, WorldCom and ImClone. But maybe the bland façade is today’s version of Macheath’s “out of sight” jackknife teeth, the gloved hands that never show a single drop of red until-in our transposed animal metaphor-the market slides and bulls turn into bears, and the red ink billows and spreads.
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