Flightless birds and American fixation

25 09 2007

Of the narrating roles that Morgan Freeman has undertaken — which includes the Oscar-winning gem, Million Dollar Baby — few have had the pandemic-level impact that his voice did when it plodded methodically, Freemanically, over two hours of penguins waddling around.

His voice, not to mention those wobbly feathered creatures, have pulled in more than $127 million dollars since 2005, according to boxofficemojo.com. More relevantly, they helped to stir up a frenzy throughout America that had until then been more of a dull fascination, the preserve of toddlers in love with Disney…and middle-aged women in love with Disney: A frenzy for penguins.

But why penguins? Why have flightless fowl suddenly ascended to their current state as a massive, national curiosity? Everywhere you look, birds with useless wings and poor balance. They’re in Coke commercials. The very strange thing that was Happy Feet. Special exhibits at museums. Those Opus books. In windows of toy stores. On backpacks, lunchboxes.  When, in Thanksgiving Weekend 2006, The Hallmark Channel played March, the channel attracted its largest audience ever.

Penguins seem, in both March and their cultural positioning, to represent all the good parts of humanity without all the existential and moral mess. People saw a parable in March, a human narrative in the quixotic and inevitable yearly mission. Penguins appear to have feelings of love, or at the very least a rather fervent passion for commitment, without sleeping with their secretaries. They hug, not stab. They chatter and swim, not bitch and gossip. They hunt for fish, not for each other. And every year, emperor penguins spend one year with a mate to help hatch an egg and raise a baby.

But, what such an interpretation of the creatures does is merely glorify an instinct. Is it that America is so starved for a sense of family morality (see: Religious Right, or those who voted down gay marriage) that it must look to a set of creatures who sit atop completely different limb on the evolutionary tree? It has to project a value-set that was contrived and manufactured to begin with, a value-set that has been organically rendered obsolete?

Why not pick the way that bucks hurtle themselves into one another as an allegory for how man must battle (and experience hell of headaches) for love? Or hibernation as a metaphor for taking time to smell the roses? How about squirrels or dogs licking themselves as a display of self esteem?

Director Luc Jaquet has condemned this personification, pointing at a number of fallacies in the metaphor, not the least of which is the fact that penguins practice monogamy in the same way that Scott Baio does, not to mention penguins’ willingness to form homosexual partnerships.

“I find it intellectually dishonest to impose this viewpoint on something that’s part of nature,” he said. “It’s amusing, but if you take the monogamy argument, from one season to the next, the divorce rate, if you will, is between 80 to 90 percent… the monogamy only lasts for the duration of one reproductive cycle. You have to let penguins be penguins and humans be humans.”

Not only have penguins exhibited bisexual promiscuity, they’ve also been known to steal penguin chicks, ostracize their own and, according to Wikipedia (and thus probably wrong), practice prostitution.

I’m not sure how they would pay.

But maybe we can take some lessons from these mindless interpretations. Rather, we can take some lessons from the antitheses to these interpretations. Maybe penguins don’t offer familial parables, but their yearly quest provides cause for examination.

For penguins, it’s instinct, an annual 100-kilometer pilgrimage without alternative. If we’re to go with the scientific consensus (as well we should), animals possess only vapors of consciousness. Not quite enough to recognize good-vs-evil in any way beyond immediate survival.

Good with a capital G — the eternal, universal Good involves a conscious and willful rejection of evil (whatever that is), a renunciation of the many pulls against that Good.

I don’t really mean this Good in a religious sense, but I guess it would jive with a great number of religious mythology. But in this life, we must realize our opposition, not just follow our instincts and let ourselves fade into autopilot. We must fight against that opposition, our heads lowered, yet eyes up and our minds never once underestimating that opponent.

There’s little glory in an unexamined, easy mission, just like, as Kierkegaard wrote, there’s no validity in following a code blindly. There must be a leap of faith. We must admit that our paths could be incorrect. Without that leap, without acknowledging that what we are doing could be wrong, we’re just coasting.

Our generation faces endless, ever-growing choices, from career to cereal. There are more than ample ways for us to go wrong every second of every day. But also, in those ways, just as many ways to go right.

Sartre’s hero in The Myth of Sissyphus achieves heroism by accepting that his act is futile, yet persisting in it nonetheless. As such, he takes away the gods’ ability to mock him, pushing his rock to the top of the hill and dutifully chasing it down the other side, then repeating the process ad infinitum. The joke was on him, until he owned it.

Take heart from Sissyphus, the model for the modern condition. Just don’t beat back, like Fitzgerald said, boats against the current. Beat forward, against more and more currents. But recognize that resistance, accept the fight.

We’ll be stronger for it. With or without polar ice storms.




One response

25 09 2007

Aww, penguins! I love how they swim and play in the water (and try not get eaten by big mean sea creatures).

Read my law school essays. Please.

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