I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times;
Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.
Now therefore, ye children, hear me: Blessed are they that keep my ways.
All the world is my palette; all of creation my ink stand.
If I begin to draw a raccoon, I can draw him in a scientifically accurate manner, but what if I do not? What if I draw him not as he is, but as I am? What if I make a raccoon in my own image? What if I give him two natures? Human and animal? What if I put him in a parlor, drinking tea and playing backgammon with his friend the wren? Why is this not a stretch of the imagination, but a perfectly easy thing to do? Why is this so amusing and so satisfying?
When a child is reclining on the bank watching the antics of a raccoon across the river and asking questions like “why is he doing that, washing his crayfish?”, how is it that some of us answer with a discourse on the fragility of the raccoon’s digestive tract and the need to clean food of impurities, and yet others, like me, want to answer with a wandering tale about how the raccoon has a party to go to tonight, and you cannot expect him to bring crayfish that weren’t properly prepared. First he will wash them. Then he will go into the woods and find a bit of bark to use as a serving platter. He’ll pluck thistles and daisies to make the platter pretty, and then he will trot off happily to his friend’s home which is six half miles around the river bend tucked into a mud wall along the bank and shaded over with birch leaves. There lives his friend the mink. I, at any rate, simply cannot help rattling off in this way. It makes for a happy, if incomplete, answer to the mystery of why raccoons wash their crayfish. Still, both answers, one about digestion and one about dining, anthropomorphize our little raccoon. The biological explanation quickly starts to sound like a discussion of ritual dietary laws as we assume the answer must be linked to why we do things. Is it that we simply cannot resist drawing all the world into ourselves, and even when we think that we have not anthropomorphized the raccoon, we find that we have?
Now, who knows why raccoons wash their crayfish—after all they have just pulled them out of the water. And does it really matter if we know why? Perhaps it is a sign to us to just accept the mystery—which is always the harder option. Or maybe it is God’s way of inviting us to be like Wisdom—forming, delighting, and playing in the world. We begin to muse that God made that raccoon awfully human, at least in the way he washes the crayfish. There must be a reason why. We are convinced that the message hidden in the washing of the crayfish is for us. It is not for the deer, or the skunk, or even the angels. It is for us. Why? Because all of creation was made for us. It speaks to us. Evidence for this is that we are the only ones who can try to read the message—excepting, perhaps, the angels. We humans delight in this guessing game. And we delight in taking creation, and forming it in our own image. After all, talking bears, owls and cows are funny, and when we draw them, we are hilariously startled to find how much they really do look like us and how much fun it is to make them do things they don’t normally do.
What happens though when we anthropomorphize creation? As soon as an anthropomorphized animal enters a story, we fall out of time. We can no longer be pinned to a specific moment in history nor even to a specific place. And while most of the forms in the story are familiar, not all of them are. Mr. McGregor’s farm may look like any other English farm of the early 1900s but it cannot be any one of them. For such a farm, where rabbits dress in blue jackets and have relatives who like to smoke lavender tobacco, has never existed and, in a material sense, it never will. We cannot walk to Mr. McGregor’s farm except when we leave our world and enter into the story world. When we do, we find we have been taken out of time and space, and we think that it is a little bit like heaven. We know it is not heaven, but still we can enjoy the feeling of being unmoored from time. Perhaps it is a practice run. In a story, across the border of time, we can wander through worlds unknown but known enough to still speak to us. After all, we all know children like Peter, Flopsy, Moppet, and Cottontail and gardeners like Mr. McGregor. But while we are not talking about those people who we know, in some way we are. We have stepped out, but we are not lost. The form is still like home, but not.
What can we successfully anthropomorphize? To answer that we have to also consider the question of how far we can push the boundaries of time, space, and form. Where is the border between inventions which take us uncannily closer to an understanding of ourselves or to places which begin to fall silent? The distances between us and what we anthropomorphize may be why animals can be successfully anthropomorphized quite regularly. Closest to us in the hierarchy of creation, the animals are a touchstone to our common world. Plants sometimes can be so transformed. Trees easily anthropomorphize—eggplant not so much. Inanimate objects can work too, but only so far as they still represent humans or animals such as the stuffed animals of Winnie-the-Pooh or the singing lady on the harp of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Talking chairs and mirrors are harder to portray convincingly. Perhaps because chairs and other inanimate objects are one step away from the creator. Less flexible than the raw materials they were made from, their ability to communicate with us is already weakened and diluted.
Even more important is the question of how something is anthropomorphized. I don’t think it is only children who want the safety of a world still somewhat recognizable. We all crave order and meaning. And if you reject creation and the integrity of its order, you find your ink well is empty, and you can no longer create, or read, or understand. To create a story which tells me anything about myself, others, the world, or the world beyond this world, that story must still be grounded in the reality of creation. As Tolkien has pointed out, we are sub-creators and we always will be. We must use the material at hand. And as we must create out of something, there will never be any originality in any of us for we are not the originator. That in no way, however, indicates that our sub-creations will not be beautiful, delightful, instructive, or any other number of good things. After all, as we and the creation we draw from come from the same source, the likenesses we attempt will meet with a measure of success and goodness. Yes, failures do occur. When we misunderstand the proper order and function of our material, our sub-creations fail. Michael O’Brien reminds us that the function of dragons is not to be your friend. We cannot make them so and at the same time draw nearer to the truth of reality. Similarly, we can make a raccoon like a child, but to make a child like a raccoon brings an incoherence. An inherent order has been violated. Failures of sub-creations come from a misuse and misunderstanding of the source material, and the result of a failing work should evoke uncomfortable and even horrifying reactions. Recognition, joy, and delight are a clue that the artist or writer has gotten it right.
So, on finding that there are raccoons scampering across my paint palette and that there are minks in my ink, I have asked myself why this is such a pleasant thing. I have to settle on the comfortable unity of origin that exists between me and the subjects that I come to know through my art and writing. And there is a delight in inviting creation into my world, making it like me, and then discovering that it leads to a transport out of time. How well I or any artist can form the material of creation into pleasing sub-creations is a matter of art but also of truth. One must respect the order and function of the creation one draws from so that one can helpfully make something out of something. Like Miss Potter, I often take a fancy for giving small creatures voice and form. It is a humble, domestic sort of fancy, but yet I think Wisdom delights in it. It is after all, an answer to his invitation to play.
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