Unbearable

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BOOKS SEPTEMBER 14, 2011

Unbearable

The Bear: History of a Fallen King
by Michel Pastoureau
Belknap Press, 384 pp., $29.95

AN ENTIRELY OUTLANDISH thought struck me as I read this book: it might have been written by a bear. The thought arose after perhaps the tenth mention of how the Church had made the bear “into a figure of ridicule,” removing this creature so admired by Northern Europeans as the primary symbol of Christ’s nobility. The notion stayed with me through a discussion of the teddy bear’s advent, which is one of the author’s few acknowledgements that history did not stop in the High Middle Ages.

The thesis, to be fair, is cogent enough: “Since [the bear] was the king of the forest, the king of the pagan bestiary of Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, and Scandinavian Europe, it was necessary to attribute almost all the vices to him to bring him down from his throne.” But for the love of God, so to speak, Michel Pastoreau, or the bear who wrote this book, does not quit, marshalling relentless evidence of how the once-reviled lion and the quotidian stag came to be elevated at the bear’s expense.

My theory at least accounted for the bitterness that permeates this odd study, from its subtitle to chapter heads like “A Humiliated Animal” and the ominous “The Revenge of the Bear.” Then a second, more rational thought occurred to me: Michel Pastoureau is not ursine, he is merely French. Thus his intellectualized sneer and high-handed dismissal of a bear-related funerary exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum (“a mediocre reconstitution”); his unceasing broadsides against the Church, which around the twelfth century became “the sworn enemy of the bear”; his unabashed and unscientific hyperbole (“The bear fears nothing and is, indeed, practically invincible”); and musings so far afield that only a Sorbonne intellectual may be permitted to venture there: “Can a woman procreate with a bear?” I urge you not to search for the answer on Google.

Pastoureau is a scholar of the medieval bestiary, and as far as that catalogue of animals and their traits is concerned, I doubt we will have a more thorough—or more impassioned—explanation of how the once-venerated bear came to be “portrayed as a collection of defects and vices.” By Pastoreau’s count, the bear became the ignominious representative of five of the seven moral sins. An animal once revered by warriors was to become the symbol of gluttony and sloth, a sort of late-career Elvis of the forest.

But I was expecting more. What about the image of Russia as a malevolent bear, which it tried (with not too much success) to subvert with “Misha,” the anodyne mascot who in 1980 couldn’t quite rescue the Moscow Olympics from disaster? What about homosexual “bear” culture and its emphasis on girth and hair? What about Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man—one man, many bears, and one horrifying audio tape? And what about Conan O’Brien’s masturbating bear? Given that Pastoureau has found much to suggest that the bear’s sexual prowess was both admired and feared by medieval Europeans, we could at least have a mention of that funny old bit.

But already I have revealed myself to be un brut Americain. None of this matters to Pastoureau. What matters to him, instead, is that in prehistoric caves “80 to 90 percent of the bones found belong to bears,” which means that early humans and European brown bears lived in close proximity. In cave paintings, in fact, “the bear, except for man, is the only living creature that is shown upright,” which is what politicians would call a special relationship. The bear is the emblem of Artemis; a she-bear nursed the prince Paris, the same who later fancied Helen. King Arthur, rock star of the Middle Ages, was an “ursine divinity,” according to Pastoreau. And for the pagan tribes of Germany, “the bear was much more than the king of the forest … it was the quintessential totemic animal.”

And that is precisely the problem. The early Church tended to not practice much tolerance toward pagan rites, subverting those it found attractive (the whole Virgin Mary business) while suppressing those it feared would threaten its stature. The brown bear of the European forest, with its unchecked aggression and appetites, clearly fell into the latter category. Thus, circa 1100 C.E., the Church launched what Pastoreau regards as a massive smear campaign to wean Germans, Scandinavians, and Europeans off their ursine adoration. This was done by denigrating the bear while promoting theretofore “lesser” animals such as lions; the process was made easier by the fact that while anyone who came into contact with a bear was not likely to emerge with sound life and limb, lions were distant enough that Church scribes could paint them as they wished.

And so there arose stories of saints taming bears, suggesting that the latter is little more than a wild beast in need of God’s order. In bestiaries such as the Roman de Renart, the bear “is presented as one of the most witless of the lion’s vassals and subjects. With his heavy body and slow-moving mind, he can do nothing against the keenness of the fox, the cleverness of the cat, or the wisdom of the stag.” Soon enough he is being touted at carnivals, tamed and effete, the subject not of fear but mockery. “By dethroning and desacralizing the bear,” Pastoureau bemoans, “medieval Christendom made him a melancholy animal.”

And? My dachshund can feel melancholy, too, but I don’t ascribe that to the Vatican. I kept wondering, as I read this book, what does it all mean? I wanted a paragraph that began “Because of the bear’s fall from grace, there are today children in Albania who…” It never came.

Towards the end of his lament, Pastoureau does warn that “in killing the bear, his kinsman, his fellow creature, his first god, man long ago killed his own memory and more or less symbolically killed himself. It is too late to hope to turn back the clock.” It is a very noble sentiment, suffused with genuine sadness. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it means.

The book does end on an atypical note of cheer. In 1969, Neil Armstrong took a bear to the moon. It was only a teddy bear, and it was carried there by an American. But Pastoureau will take what he can get.

Alexander Nazaryan is on the editorial board of the New York Daily News. He is at work on his first novel.

*Correction: Michel Pastoreau's anecdote concerning Neil Armstrong was only included in the galley version of the book, not the final version.

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