Six years ago, in Chronicle 470 on “Bear Theory,” I focused on the essential qualities of the relationship between a human and a “bear,” essentially a plush animal of whatever species that one “adopts” in a personal relationship.
Internet search fails to turn up any useful bibliographic references on this subject, let alone any literature on “bear theory.” One can read about the history of plush animals starting in the 19th century, or about animal toys and representations since the ancient Egyptians, but the specific phenomenon I am describing, whose origins cannot be more than two generations old, does not yet appear to have inspired any scholarly research.
To sum up the principles of “bear theory,” adopting a bear is, more than a thought-experiment, a life-experiment in “playing God” that, liberated as it is from religious solemnity, gives one insight into the role from within rather than as a worshiper in the public arena. We fashion these creatures “in our image,” not physically, of course (although we prefer bears with a human-friendly appearance) but morally. In adopting a bear, we implicitly promise to care for it: to treat it as a subject, to use our “absolute” power over it only for its benefit, and in ways that do not demean it. Anyone who would mistreat a bear would surely be a good bet to do the same to other humans.
Such adoption is in no way an exercise of vanity. The satisfaction one obtains is in the addition of new “degrees of freedom” in expressing love, a satisfaction that often makes it difficult to resist the urge to add a new bear to one’s “family.” We “play God” only in the sense that we exercise toward our bears an analogy of God’s love for his creatures. Whereas little girls may still teach good manners to their dolls, punishing them when they are “bad,” adults are free to consider their bears as companions, whether childlike or founts of wisdom.
Love for a bear is a uniquely human emotion, one wholly dependent on the configuration inaugurated in the originary event. This freedom to invest subjectivity in bears is all the more of interest because it has not attracted public attention, hence not become the object of a publicity campaign, along with so much else that renders our public life superficial. A bear is not a religious object, but it is certain that, whatever one’s attitude toward religion, only a creature able to believe in God can love a bear.
This second Chronicle attempts to situate the human-bear relationship in its historical context, while examining its unexpected parallel in Thérèse de Lisieux’s relationship to the Trinitary God. I insist, as she herself did, on this trinitary aspect, lest one interpret her devotion as a love-affair with Jesus, as some of her language might tempt one to think. The human aspect of the Son is essential to Thérèse’s devotion; no one could address as she does the One God of the Hebrews. But her relationship with Jesus is explicitly trinitary, which is to say in worldly terms, explicitly paradoxical. She never forgets that Jesus is not a human mediator, or that his divine exemplarity is not something to discover, but revealed from the outset.
What does this have to do with bears? Whereas in the earlier Chronicle, I examined the man-bear relationship from the perspective of the “godlike” human owner, with Thérèse, one learns what it means to see oneself as, so to speak, a bear of God.
I need not insist that if adopting a bear involves a kind of spiritual askesis, it is far easier to carry out than inverting the roles. If our bears can be guaranteed not to have a subjectivity of their own beyond the soul that we attribute to them (and even when two humans collaborate on this project, there are surprisingly few disagreements as to specific attributes), this is hardly true of a human being who defines herself as someone whose personal will is governed at every turn by what she thinks God would want her to do—or more precisely, would want her to want to do, for Thérèse never sees herself as following a divine command, but rather as willing in harmony with God’s will.
Before the latter part of the 19th century, the creation of “ensouled” as opposed to merely instrumental toys was essentially limited to human or humanlike figures: dolls, Jack-in-the-boxes, or the macabre creatures one finds in Halloween costumes, and except in public ceremonies like the Carnival, intended exclusively for children. The emergence of the “bear” in the place of the doll corresponds paradoxically to the need for a more rather than less reciprocal relationship with an imaginary other subject. Not being thought of as a fellow human, the bear can maintain with its owner a strictly personal, extra-worldly relationship.
Having begun a generation earlier, the plush era really took off in reaction to a 1902 incident, when on a bear hunt, President “Teddy” Roosevelt forbore (forbeared?) to shoot a bear that had been captured and tied to a tree. Needless to say, this incident could only have had so great an impact in a social configuration that was well prepared to commercialize it.
But bears still remained entirely in the child’s domain. I can’t imagine my parents playing with bears, and even less, members of earlier generations. In Chronicle 470, I mentioned a lady in her late eighties who was indignant at being asked to meet a “toy,” and I think this would have been the universal attitude until quite recently.
For people of Thérèse’s generation, more or less that of my grandparents, little girls had dolls and little boys played with tin soldiers. Thérèse’s “bearlike” attitude toward God could not have been influenced by any symmetrical activity of her own. But that is not my point. Thérèse’s playfully passionate attitude toward the paradoxical transcendence of the sacred coincides, along with the birth of the “stuffed animal,” with a most significant development of modernity: the emergence of consumer society.
We hear constantly of the materialism and hedonism of the “consumerist” modern world, but I would emphasize just its opposite aspects. Along with general literacy, liberation from fears of starvation and early death from a variety of causes that were beginning to be eliminated in Thérèse’s day freed the general population to enrich their semiotic universe as well as their practical one by attributing meaning to objects, whose usefulness was no longer an obsessive concern. Nor was this meaning limited to showing off one’s wealth and good taste, as in Veblenian “conspicuous consumption.” In consumer society, as Baudrillard and others have made clear, we do not merely “express ourselves” by our purchases, but fashion our persona, both public and private.
Born in 1873, Thérèse’s life coincided with the third phase of consumer society, which can be said to have begun in France under the “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis-Philippe in 1830, but only began to influence the middle classes during the Second Empire that emerged from the failed Revolution of 1848. In this period, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary (1856) was its best-known fictional exponent, as in the next, in an elitist mode in counterpoint to the Third Republic, was J.-K. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes (A rebours, 1884).
Thérèse’s own life was anything but “materialistic.” Confined from the age of 15 within the austere convent of the Carmelites, she was wholly cut off from the marketplace—indeed, from more than a bare minimum of consumption of any kind. To beautify her world, Thérèse relied not on luxury goods but on flower petals. Nonetheless, the emergence of consumer society and Thérèse’s new insight into the paradoxical reciprocity between man and God are parallel developments that mutually illuminate each other.
Thérèse’s provincial petit-bourgeois world was one in which class relations were not salient. Her family was relatively well off, and as a little girl Thérèse gave charity to the needy. But her father was a pharmacist, not a factory owner, and the devout Martins were respectful above all of one hierarchy, that of the Catholic Church. Very unlike the five daughters of Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennett, all five of M. Martin’s found their vocation in the Church. Thérèse as the youngest, and her father’s favorite, was from an early age eager to follow her sisters.
What in Thérèse reflects the consumer era is her passionate search for reciprocity with Jesus, without becoming in any way his rival. On the contrary, she sought to fully integrate her sense of personal value within her submission to the divine, in a mode that we might call transcendentally affectionate. Which is to say that her search for meaning went beyond the accumulation of “meaningful” objects to its transcendental source in the sacred.
To convey something of the flavor of this relationship, I have translated a few non-consecutive fragments from a 297-line poem composed in 1895, “Jésus, rappelle-toi !” [Jesus, remember!]*
I come to you, hide me in your bedclothes
In your cradle I want to stay always!
To the festival of love that your Mother gives you
Oh! Kindly invite me, Jesus, my little brother,
About your little sister
Who made your heart beat,
[the original se souvenir de is much more natural than “remember about”]
With your little hand caressing Mary
You held up the world and gave it life
And you thought of me!
Jesus, my little King
O Bread of the exile! Holy and divine Host
It is no longer I who live; but l live of your life
Your golden ciborium [=wafer box] Preferred above all others
Jesus, it is I!
*Poésies de la bienheureuse Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus (Lisieux, 1913) : 12-23
Calling Jesus her “little brother” who is then asked to remember his “little sister” says it all. This kind of reciprocity would be unthinkable were it not for the freedom with which Thérèse articulates the paradox of God’s inclusion-of and inclusion-in the human, as illustrated by the Eucharist, in which we become part of God as he becomes part of us. When Thérèse depicts herself as Jesus’ ciborium chosen above all others, she is not implying rivalry with either Jesus or his other communicants; the paradox of faith is that each believer is “chosen above all others” because he or she “possesses” God.
Similarly, in another poem (“Mon ciel à moi”), she writes: “My heaven is hidden in the little communion wafer . . . Oh! What a happy moment, when in your tenderness / You come, my Beloved, to transform me into you!” No doubt this reciprocity is implicit in the Trinity itself. But the intimacy of these poems is one of companionship and familiarity, less mystical than joyfully paradoxical.
It is not by accident that we find in Thérèse’s language many of the same accents that a generation earlier had been heard a few dozen kilometers to the north-east in Emma Bovary’s dreams of romantic love. The capital difference between the adulteress and the saint is that the latter maintains the paradoxical distance between the worldly and the sacred that the former confuses. The possibility of this confusion tests Thérèse’s moral purity: her fervent but playful affection is secure in the knowledge that it will never be tempted to go beyond its bounds. In a number of her poems, Thérèse insists on her chastity, the virginity in which she resembles Jesus’ Mother.
In a different, yet not so very different way, our playfulness with bears can never be tempted to bridge the transcendent gap between us and them. The bear cannot figure in a Pygmalion myth like that of Balzac’s “Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” [The Unknown Masterpiece], where a painter works desperately at creating a beauty so perfect that she could descend from the canvas into the real world. Like God and man, man and bear are not subject to confusion, which is why we can be so much freer with bears than with human-like dolls.
However “childlike” these relationships may be, they are never childish. Thérèse’s petite voie is explicitly a model of adult life. Although Thérèse lived only to 24, she was far from a little girl at that age. As pointed out in Chronicle 651, she had been despite her youth given a highly responsible role in the training of novices, and in the opinion of the Prioress would have been an excellent choice to perform even her eminent responsibility. La petite voie emphasizes Jesus’ love for children and the humble, but without embodying it in ascetic practices, or even necessarily in the praiseworthy activities of a Mother Teresa—although only failing health prevented Thérèse from participating, as she had hoped, in missionary activity in Asia.
Thérèse’s early death can hardly be called “providential,” yet it allowed her example to have its maximal effect. Her saintliness was a potential for good works more universally exemplary than any specific activity could have been.
It is for “the rest of us,” believers and non-believers, that priests and nuns are in principle set apart from biological necessity in order to furnish examples of the sacred’s peace-bringing power. As, on a humbler level, are our bears.
Supplement – 4/11/20
A couple of comments I received after posting the original version of this Chronicle suggested a connection between “bear theory” and the Winnie the Pooh books that remain a living element of culture in an era when young people are no longer familiar with works like Peter Rabbit or Wind in the Willows. Pooh Bear, and by extension, all of Christopher Robin’s friends—Kanga and Roo, Eeyore, Tigger, Mr. Owl (who spells his name Wol as I recall), and of course Piglet—are bears in the modern sense, personages inconceivable before “Teddy” became the center of a stuffed animal universe.
This contrasts with Kenneth Grahame’s characters, Mr. Toad, Badger, Otter, Mole, Rat, and the little Hedgehogs, who still belong in the tradition of animal tales going back to Aesop and beyond. As for Lewis Carroll’s personages, although associated with Alice’s playtime universe, they are far more diverse and less clearly adoptable than bears. They include cards, chess pieces, a cat, an egg like Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn from British heraldry, and fictive personae like the Walrus and the Carpenter (and their oyster victims), whereas we are meant to imagine Christopher Robin surrounded in real life with his little gang.
I have known these books and their characters from childhood. But if I failed to mention them in the original Chronicle, my only excuse is that the idea never crossed my mind. Reading about Pooh as a child—I had a few stuffed animals of my own, although I don’t recall any bears—was not contiguous with my current bear experience, which I owe chiefly to my wife Stacey. Stacey is younger than I, but both her parents have enjoyed good relationships with bears, albeit not quite as intense as ours.
I recognize that this is not a valid excuse for excluding these literary antecedents from my discussion. No doubt they would have been irrelevant to the discussion of Thérèse, but certainly not to the attempt to link the bear phenomenon to the evolution of consumer society. Pooh in particular was not only a great literary success, but a stimulus to the creation of innumerable avatars of all its main characters, which still sell today in no doubt considerable quantities, as well as to the extension of the Pooh concept to non-bears, as in the Toy Story series. I doubt that the personages from Alice in Wonderland have known anything similar, and even wonder if the work is still widely read by today’s children, whom I would not trust to being given anything to read other than study manuals for the SAT.
As a final point, post-Teddy as they undoubtedly are, the Pooh stories remain in essence, as they presumably originally were in reality, bear stories told by a father to his son. Stacey and I talk to and about our bears, but there is between us nothing of a parent-child hierarchy, and relatively little story-telling—although we have composed back-stories for some of our most important bears, notably my mentor-hedgehog Henri Kipod. The bears accompany us through life and provide above all occasions for acts of tenderness that find their reward in themselves and their sharing within our family circle.
The purpose of “Bear Theory” is to point out the possibilities opened up by our freedom to assign meaning for the kind of “playing God” that Thérèse, equally playful in her passionate seriousness, attributes to Jesus in her poetry and her prayers. The decline of formal religion does not mean the demise of the paradox of sacred transcendence, which embodies itself in these private fictions, perpetuating a process that began with the first “work of art.” For helping us to break down the barriers between “real life” and the adult childlikeness that Thérèse embodied so ideally, we certainly owe a great debt to A. A. Milne, Christopher Robin, and their little friends.