Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Decadence, totalitarianism, or something else

Ross Douthat is reading Watership Down to his daughters. He writes "One of the virtues of reading a narrative aloud, to children or indeed to anyone, is the way that vocalizing a story clarifies its power, especially in the quavering passion that you try to keep from your voice (because you don’t want your kids to think their dear dad is too emotional) but that bleeds through in spite of everything. And with a hundred pages to go I can already tell that when I get to the climax of Watership Down, I’m going to be a wreck."  A conclusion he has come to from this re-reading of the book is that it has political relevance. From the essay:
...[E]ssentially Adams’s novel offers a portrait of a political founding, the establishment of a new homeland by a band of rabbit adventurers who escape from a doomed warren when one of their number, a mystic named Fiver, has a vision of its destruction at the hands of developers. But that founding doesn’t happen in a vacuum; instead the band of rabbits engage with two very different warrens, two alternative models of political order, on their path to making a new order of their own.

The first warren, where they briefly try to settle, appears at first to be idyllic. The rabbits are sleek and well-fed, they have plenty of space (the burrows are oddly underpopulated), the lands around are completely clear of predators (“elil” in Adams’s rabbit tongue, Lapine), and best of all the local farmer just tosses leftover produce in the fields.

But soon it becomes clear that this warren has shed all the rabbit-y virtues, cunning and daring and courage and mischief, in favor of odd imitations of human culture — attempted sculptures, existentialist poetry. Its denizens are bored or irritated by tales of adventure and heroism; they cultivate a condescending skepticism about El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster-prince of legend; they seem comfortable and smug and yet subtly depressed. And then comes the revelation: Both the absence of predators and the presence of food is the work of the local farmer, who protects the rabbits from normal harms while trapping and killing a consistent percentage for their pelts and meat — a dark bargain the warren has learned to live with by building a sophisticated system of denial, a culture of pleasure and of death.

This warren is an appealing-seeming snare from which the book’s questing heroes ultimately slip free. The next alternative, Efrafa, is a totalitarian prison house: Instead of surrendering an essential rabbitness for the sake of ease and safety, Efrafa’s dictator, the terrifying and omnicompetent General Woundwort, deals with the enmity of men and predators by running a police state, one that keeps its rabbits underground and regimented, trains the strongest bucks to fight and rule and dominate, denies any agency to the warren’s females, and refuses diplomacy and cooperation with fellow rabbits as much as with any other creature. ....

.... No reader of Watership Down, and few readers of the literary and political traditions on which its narrative depends, would accept that totalitarianism and decadence exhaust the available political alternatives. Indeed the novel is compelling precisely because its new-founded warren, its good regime, is remarkable yet also homely, its founders heroic and also ordinary, with nothing utopian or superhuman or impossible about them. .... (more)

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