For Henri, Percy, Penny, and Trikey (and Stacey)

My previous Bear Theory essays, Chronicles 470, 654, and 679, appeared between September 2014 and December 2020. Since then, having turned 80 and become a bit more aware of my mortality, I thought I could add something to these musings as more than just a pretext for turning my attention away from the growing ugliness of today’s world, here in the USA and in so many far less attractive places.

For one thing, in my previous essays I hadn’t bothered to point out the most striking difference between bears in the sense of “stuffed animals” and the dolls that children had traditionally made their companions: their softness and even furriness, in sharp contrast not only to classic china dolls but even to cloth dolls such as Raggedy Ann and Andy (remember them?). Cuddling with a doll had previously lacked the warmth and fuzziness one can find with a dog or cat or the other mammalian companions one encounters on a farm. One wonders how all this would have developed in the absence of the famous 1902 hunting incident that led to the creation of the “Teddy Bear.”

Which is by no means to deny that the most essential feature of a bear remains its eyes. Our senses oblige us to attend to the “look” of other creatures, and I think we are always disappointed with bears whose eyes are not clearly visible. But the fuzziness that assimilates the teddy bear and other plush animals to our furry domestic favorites—that is, not human representations but living creatures, is very much a factor in the modern transformation of these companions into more credible bearers of personhood.

One bear attribute that has become more salient as the coming years diminish is their non-mortality. One notices at funerals that many old people, especially women, take bears with them in their coffins. And without so anticipating my own demise (I would prefer to leave my bears in the world for those who could still appreciate them), I do find it a particular pleasure to think that, unlike me and my contemporaries, the bears will always remain the same age—for the most part, eternally young, for it is difficult to think of most bears as old, although a few are quite compatible with an image of maturity.

This vision of an immortal object of affection is hardly comparable to the love of God, but I could see having a conversation with Ste Thérèse de Lisieux on the subject. As I suggested in Chronicle 654, I felt that she conceived her relationship with God/Christ as the equivalent of a bear’s relationship to its human partner: a gentle playfulness in which she could act with total confidence simply by following her intuition of His will—never having to doubt her intuitions because she could have confidence that this will had programmed, not her decisions themselves, but her moral compass, in advance.

That Chronicle contains several citations from Thérèse’s poetry. What is most striking in these writings is her sentiment of being fully trusted, that God needs no persuasion of the utter unlikelihood that she will disobey his will and like Eve listen to Satan in disguise. Her freedom is intact, yet it contains no element of mimetic perversity, of desire to affirm her own Difference. I guess that is what we mean by sainthood. We should remember that Thérèse wrote all this before her canonization; she had no advance pretension of being elected to serve others as an example; her confidence in God’s love was sufficient unto itself.

How is Thérèse’s relationship to God relevant to my experience of bears? I surely have no sense of God-like power, no sense that my will controls, rather than discovers, that of our bears. I experience them as Others, as friends and companions, not as slaves or robots. But as with God and Thérèse, there is no element of opacity; whatever they think or do, it cannot offend me, and even when I imagine them playing tricks (our band of small armadillos are the tricksters in the family) they are acts of teasing, not hostility. As when, for example, I can’t find something I just put down—and then realize that the armadillos must have taken advantage of a moment of distraction to move it somewhere else.

Now that the post-WWII era is coming to a close, and the epochal sense of security that was first perturbed by the attack on 9/11 is gradually being replaced by that of awaiting impending catastrophe, one appreciates all the more the imaginary security provided by one’s bears as exemplifying the joys of a peaceful life. One would indeed have little time for such amusements if one lived in constant fear of danger. Thus I would imagine, for example, that celebrities and billionaires who live surrounded by security staff would be less likely to find pleasure in befriending “stuffed animals.” This practice reflects a desire to prolong the careless freedom of childhood, a sentiment not yet unreasonable in the America of a generation or two ago, but that can only be simulated in today’s less than tranquil environment.

Thus having had the good fortune to have lived in peace for all these decades, I don’t feel I am wasting valuable time by patting a bear’s head when I pass. As I grow older, they remain my grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, and even those like my hedgehog mentor and mascot Henri Kipod who assists me in thinking through the problems of GA, and whom I have always considered senior to myself, will always remain as they are—never slowing down, losing their memories, or revising downward their speculative count of remaining years.

Whether or not the bear phenomenon is related to our “mirror neurons,” it is so to speak an inverse mimesis; we relate to bears as to others to whom we are completely transparent, inasmuch as we take for granted that they understand our intentions. This transparency is one of their most delightful aspects; bears always remain themselves, are never mere imitators or emulators. They inspire no feeling of superiority; we wouldn’t think of attributing to them an inability to understand whatever we wish to convey to them. Some people have real conversations with their bears; I rarely say more than a word or two, but what I appreciate is the sense of mutual affection that their presence generates; never indifferent, they always enjoy one’s company. With bears we are always old friends who know each other so well that neither ever imagines the possibility of offending the other.

Percy, a small hedgehog who wears glasses, assists me in doing crosswords and other puzzles. I often find his presence an inspiration to fortitude if, say, I am having trouble completing a grid and wonder whether to look up a clue on the internet. His sister Penny, on the other hand, is very conscious of her looks and enjoys wearing adornments of all kinds; she sometimes quarrels with Stacey, accusing her of not according her the respect her beauty deserves.

I myself have no such conflictive relationships—although on one occasion long ago, one that they never let me forget, I gave a spanking to one of our rambunctious armadillos. This sort of thing never happens when I’m alone with the bears. Stacey and I together have a slightly different relationship with them; for example, she sometimes takes on the role of one of them, which I don’t feel comfortable doing.

Bears can be a real consolation for loneliness and a source of reassurance that human love is real and accessible to each of us. But, more pertinently from the perspective of this list, they provide a valuable insight into the whole question of “supernatural” beings and the role of faith in the life of our species.

The difference between bears and the various sorts of divinities and semi-divinities found throughout human culture is that we accept that their status as other than plush artifacts is a fiction, something we can, not so much “pretend to believe in,” as act as though we believe in, never having to conceal the “as though” from either ourselves nor others—but of course not from the bears themselves. Such relations are clearly not possible with pets, and all the less with other humans. But it is clear from our interaction with bears that the question of their “reality” as “other minds” can never arise, being taken for granted from the outset by all who are involved in such interactions, with the exception of small children who, not yet fully aware of the limits of human consciousness, can be excused for “believing in Santa Claus.” (As to whether they really believe in the personhood of their bears, I’m not sure how easily we can answer that question.)

If we then consider in what sense a religious believer would find the assimilation of his objects of belief to the category of “bear” inadequate, it is notable that we cannot cite objective evidence for this distinction without alleging the facticity of miraculous revelations—whence the vanity of disputes between believers and atheists, given that neither can cite uncontestable evidence on their behalf, the sole advantage of the latter being their ostensibly more comfortable fit with Ockham’s razor. To which the obvious anthropological rejoinder would be that, just as we invented language because we needed it to prevent mimetic conflict so that our species could be perpetuated, so religious faith would not have existed all these millennia without a similarly useful function.**

But then the question arises as to whether, given the current decline of religion in the West—and bracketing for the moment the question of Islam in particular and of quasi-creedal belief systems such as we find in today’s China—this does not demonstrate that the usefulness of religion is undermined by modernity, so that even if it would indeed be better for us all to accept the incarnation of the sacred in a Being capable of exercising moral suasion over the real world, the credibility of this belief is not sustained by the most advanced forms of human self-consciousness—now rivaled by our technical expertise that is rapidly becoming capable of programming cybernetic devices to carry out tasks previously inaccessible to any worldly beings other than ourselves, with need neither for deferral nor the sacred it protects.

Bear experiences are of particular interest in developing human self-understanding because, in contrast with the experiences of the transcendental that we may classify among “acts of faith,” they avoid any confusion between subjective and objective reality. Not only can my conversation with a bear not possibly throw doubt on the distinction between subjective and objective realities, but it is difficult to imagine that any such interaction could give rise to divergent interpretations as to the nature of the mental attitudes involved.

In this context it seemed useful to conclude my discussion of “bear theory” with a report of an incident illustrating the intersubjective interplay that the adoption of bears makes possible.

We have had for a number of years in Santa Monica a triceratops named Trikey whose coat is a mottled light blue color. Since we often read lying on our living room couch, Stacey bought and gave to me in Missouri a blanket we could use on the couch in winter months, decorated with a hedgehog motif.

When I first spread the blanket on the couch, I could not help noticing the striking color harmony between the blanket and Trikey; it was almost as if we had purchased the blanket to match. When I showed Stacey how well they paired up, we both were struck by the pleasurable idea that Trikey, as a quadrupedal dinosaur, would be thrilled to think of himself as a distant ancestor of the hedgehog—a relationship that surely has no basis in biological fact, but does not lack all plausibility, as it would for example had Trikey been a tyrannosaurus. Thus when I use the blanket on the couch, I almost always share it with Trikey so that he can experience his kinship to the family of hedgehogs, and thereby to GA.

It was not as though Stacey felt proud or lucky to have chosen a color that went well with one of our bears; our pleasure cannot be understood in the absence of its mediation by Trikey. It is his happiness that we both continue to vicariously celebrate. I will leave it to the reader to extricate the structure of real and imaginary relationships among the three participants that this anecdote reveals.

**On March 30, in preparation for Easter Sunday, an online article appeared entitled “The Single Most Important Fact in All History,” referring to the miracle of the Resurrection. A Christian believer may call this a “fact,” but surely it is significant that, like all miracles, its facticity is hardly beyond doubt. I can only respond in the quasi-heretical terms of Tertullian, credibile est, quia ineptum est, usually simplified to credo quia absurdum.