ANIMAL RIDENS: Striving for the Natural in Augie March

Note: ©2010 Kestrel Slocombe. Written in my junior year at Bennington College, in the Malamud, Bellow, & Roth class taught by Professor Doug Bauer.

From beginning to end, The Adventures of Augie March continually returns to the idea of the Animal. At the end of the novel, in one of his final moments of self-identification, Augie tells us, “That’s the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature forever rising up” (585). Through Augie, Bellow explores the energy of the animal in its extremes of savagery and nobility: it is innocent, wild, fierce, original, naïve, optimistic—indeed, Bellow seems unable to pin down this archetype to any one role, which of course makes it all the more intriguing. Similarly, Augie himself seems deeply conflicted, caught between fear and attraction, pulled between the worlds of wild animal and “civilized” human—but always, and essentially, striving (in true American spirit) to be one or the other. In following the novel’s exploration of this theme, the reader may ask: is the nature of Animal (as it appears in humans or in animals themselves) one to be lauded or disdained? And what can be learned from Augie’s fervent strivings, both towards and away from the Animal’s mysterious essence?

This idea of striving is a particularly American one, especially as it appears in this novel—much of Augie’s life is defined by his strivings, in work and in love. His continual seeking of new jobs and new frontiers is a deeply American search, but one that usually culminates in settled establishment and monetary success, neither of which seem to be goals—and certainly not achievements—in Augie’s journey. Beyond this American ambition, the idea of striving can also be seen as a deeply human idea: animals do not try to be, but simply are. Even oxen in their yoke are not striving, but merely doing as they are told. Augie himself seems to take (at least at times) a somewhat shadowy view of this aspect of humanity, lamenting that through its strivings “…nothing genuine is allowed to appear and nobody knows what’s real. And that’s disfigured, degenerate, dark mankind—mere humanity” (437). Furthermore,

with everyone going around so capable and purposeful in his strong handsome case, can you let yourself limp in feeble and poor, some silly creature, laughing and harmless? No, you have to plot in your heart to come out differently. External life being so mighty, the instruments so huge and terrible, the performances so great, the thoughts so great and threatening, you produce a someone who can exist before it. You invent a man who can stand before the terrible appearances (ibid.).

This passage seems to reveal that at least in Augie’s mind, to be a capable human—more than the animal ridens—requires firstly the self-consciousness to drive one to succeed (to strive), and the continuation of self-consciousness to maintain this seemingly unnatural state. For Augie, then, being human—being “more” than animal—does not come naturally, but in itself requires striving, artifice. This implies that in his “natural” state, he would be closer to an animal.

Indeed, the combination and contrast of Augie’s refined intellect and at times coarse “low” diction mark him from the start as a sort of noble wild-man—he tells us that his body may be “all [he is], this effortful creature” (516), yet the novels sparkles with the scintillating language of his agile, well-read mind. Although we assume that Augie did, at some point, have to work to achieve the “nobility” of his current intellect, we do not see this striving—therefore, to the reader, Augie may come across as inherently both brilliant and simple.

In this way, Augie seems caught, in a sense, between human striving (which can result in brilliance) and animal being (simplicity)—states which are perfectly represented by his two brothers, Georgie and Simon. Georgie, the younger, perfectly illustrates “laughing and harmless,” and is certainly portrayed in animalistic terms: his mental disability means that he is not capable of the full functioning expected of humans, which automatically moves him along the spectrum toward animal. When Augie visits Georgie at the “home” where Georgie lives, Augie’s description further involves the idea of the Animal:

When he heard the dinner bell go—which was like the clink of the church bell of mouse-town in a children’s zoo—trained to answer right away, he went to the rambly green cafeteria…He picked up his tray, and with those disconnected others who scraped their tinware and fed, wagging their weak noggins, without talk or observation, we sat down and ate (457).

Soon after he adds, “It must be as simple as the blue-and-white of pillow ticking to lay plans to take care of creatures so, clothe them, feed them, put them in their dormitory” (ibid.). The language here is obvious: zoo, trained, wagging, creatures, feed. And although Georgie seems perfectly happy here, Augie is helplessly human, immediately and helplessly caught up in human schemes: “The rest of the trip I kept thinking that something should be done for Georgie, not to let him spend his entire life like that” (458). Georgie is happy just being, but this is not enough for Augie.

Simon, meanwhile, is typically American and typically human in his striving, and—though he could never communicate with Augie’s brightness and sensitivity—becomes an economic success far beyond anything that Augie can (or perhaps wishes) to achieve. However, even with all his human success, Simon also becomes what would typically be classified as an “animal,” embodying the pursuit of success as an animalistic endeavor that yields animalistic behavior—brutal, cutthroat, primal. This is perhaps best illustrated in description of Augie’s outing with Simon:

Simon went into the kitchen to bawl out the headwaiter. Seeing some pot roast on a platter he broke off a piece of bread and sopped the gravy, covering the meat with crumbs. The waiter hollered and Simon yelled back, furiously laughing in his face too, “Why don’t you wait on people then, you jerk!”

Finally they fed us…We went into he cardroom where [Simon] forced his way into a poker game. I could tell he was hated, but no one could stand up to him. He said to some bald-headed guy, “Push over, Curly!” and sat in (464).

Simon’s savage eating, yelling and laughing in the waiter’s face, pushing his way into a game of cards: such behavior would usually be described as beastly—even the use of the phrase “they fed us” implies the guests’ animal-like status. Furthermore, Simon and his girlfriend Renee both exhibit this feral intensity when in an argument: “…she enlarged her eyes and arched and hardened her neck and he lost his head and sometimes tried to swat her while his skin wrinkled and teeth set with fury” (504). Once again, Augie’s close and ruthless observation paints people as animals, in the worst sense: physical, wild, dangerous. The irony here is, of course, that Simon has been the “capable and purposeful” businessman in the family, living the American dream of striving and success—and in doing so, he has come to embody worst of animal savagery, while Georgie the non-achiever portrays what could be seen as its best qualities: innocence, acceptance, gentleness. In its essence, this duality certain calls into question the validity of striving.

Caught even more vividly between the world of animals and the world of human striving is Thea, Augie’s lover. Thea’s ideas about animals and nature are revealed most clearly in her relationship with Caligula, the eagle. A lizard attacks Caligula, and he wounds it, but then leaves it be (379). Thea goads him on, wanting him to kill it, and becomes furious when he does not. Augie sympathizes with Caligula, and tries to help Thea see his point of view, but she is intractable: “But that was my humanizing again, and she shook her head. She believed fierce nature shouldn’t be like that” (ibid.). In this case, Caligula moved on instantly when he was attacked: he was the typical animal that Augie idealizes, living without history (instantly forgetting the lizard after it attacks him). Thea is the typical human, wanting Caligula to hold onto what has already happened.

Almost from the start Augie is more sympathetic to Caligula than Thea is, and is in a sense in a similar situation as the eagle: while Thea is training it to be wild (never seeing the hopeless contradiction in this method), she is in a sense also “taming” Augie—before he meets Thea he has been much more of a freewheeling wanderer. The trip to Mexico is the first time that Augie commits, on any level, to a life with someone else. But although he is officially allied with Thea, Augie seems to end up tending toward Caligula’s side: when Thea is insulting the eagle, Augie tells us, “…I felt implicated, because he had been tamed on my arm” (386). He goes on, “Well, it was hard to take this from wild nature, that there should be humanity mixed with it; such as there was in the beasts that embraced Odysseus and his men and wept on them in Circe’s yard” (ibid.). While Augie’s way of putting it—that there is humanity in animals—might be an odd one, what he is getting at is truth: that both humans and animals are vulnerable and imperfect. In a sense, Augie is closer to the animals than Thea is—she herself tells him that he gets “human affection mixed up with everything, like a savage” (377).

And although Thea, too, is capable of being affectionate, she doesn’t let it hold her back when she has to move on: Augie recalls how they once rescued and cared for a cat together, but he wonders, “…Where was this cat now? Left behind somewhere, nowhere special, and that was how permanent Thea’s attachments were” (442). In contrast with Thea’s judgmental idealism for “fierce nature,” and in contrast with her ability to care and then ruthlessly move on, we can begin to understand just how true and deep Augie’s connection to animals is.

Perhaps fittingly, it is Thea’s moving on that inspires one of Augie’s most animalistic moments: in a fit of rage after she has left him, he quickly descends to brute physicality to manage his emotions:

I turned back and kicked open the gate of the house, looking for what to attack and smash. Swooping and bursting, I tore up rocks in the garden and hurled them at the wall, knocking down the stucco. I went into the living room and wrecked the oxhide chairs, the glassware, tore off curtains and pictures. Next, finding myself on the porch, I kicked to pieces the snake cases, overturned them, and stood and watched the panic of the monsters as they flowed and fled, surged for cover (432).

Augie himself is a beast here—intensely physical, attacking and swooping. However, at the same time, he is raging at the animal—the oxhide chairs, the snakes. However, these are both associated with Thea, who not only has just left him, but who possessed certain ideas about animals and nature in which Augie was initially caught up, but which eventually—as illustrated through the experimentation with Caligula—proved harmful and somewhat ridiculous.

Augie’s response to one in particular of Thea’s ideas further reveals his own nature as helplessly human, even as he glorifies the animal (and even as he achieves further intimacy with the animal, through Caligula). Thea’s big idea, in this case, is “that there must be something better than what people call reality. Oh, well and good,” Augie responds to this notion. “Very good and bravo! Let’s have this better, nobler reality” (345). He clearly shuns Thea’s (somewhat platonic) idea that there exists another, better reality.

However, Augie himself has previously lamented, “How is it that human beings will submit to the gyps of previous history while mere creatures look with their original eyes?” (360). By invoking the concept of “original eyes,” Augie implies that animals see reality differently from humans: without the weighty trappings and implications of “previous history.” (This could be seen as one of Thea’s more animalistic traits: her ability to move on, with sudden and brutal abruptness, seems to suggest a certain insensitivity to the events of the past.) Augie glorifies this ability to see with original eyes, and in doing so implies that there is a better way to see the world than the human way. Thus, he discloses an essentially human part of his nature, and one that he in fact shares with Thea: the desire to believe that there is a better way to see and experience reality. In a sense, Augie is here tending toward that human state of striving—in this case, striving toward a different, “better” way of interacting with the world than what comes naturally to him as a human being. Furthermore, although Augie is deeply drawn to the idea of the animal’s original, ahistorical nature, he fails to see that this quality is perfectly embodied in Georgie, one of the few characters in the book who seems truly content.

Through his interactions with and observations of Georgie, Simon, Thea, and Caligula, Augie’s conflicted ideas about animals and humanity are clearly illustrated. He is essentially at odds with his own ideals: drawn toward the state of animal naturalness and repulsed by humanity’s savage and almost animalistic striving, it seems he may end up striving to be a non-striver. In the later parts of the novel, the abundance of animal references (whether explicit or implied) not only cements the animal’s importance as a symbol, but—in their varying illustrations of animalistic glory and animalistic savagery—further illustrate how deeply conflicted Augie is on this matter. Mintouchian is described positively as a lion (531); Bateshaw is subjected to insults of pig and snake (545), and is also said to resemble a horse (551). Guests at a party in Mexico lie “in the garden with bottles, about to pass out or already looped in full…people poured for themselves, broke off chunks of ice with candlesticks, grabbed glasses from one another” (414)—hardly civilized behavior.

More examples abound, each of little significance on its own, but in concert deepening the animal’s importance: “One lion is pretty near all the lions,” Augie tells us, (552); he calls men wolves and women birdies (572); he calls himself and Basteshaw “Two demented land creatures struggling on the vast water” (557); he mentions in one stream of thought that “The wild beasts would flee” (454). In describing a hospital he says that “voices would scream, sing, and chirp and sound like the tropical bird collection of Lincoln Park” (499). In describing her secret lover, Stella calls him a “dog” and says he didn’t have a “single human feeling” (574). When Augie writes that he is going through a period of great change, he invokes the image of “the appearance of animals in the heat of evenings to desert fathers” (487). He also addresses his fellow human beings, “O you creatures still above the ground, what are you up to!” and goes on, revealing once again his longing for the animal’s inherent state of naturalness:

Many times I felt tears. Or again I’d be angry and want to holler. But while no other creature is reprimanded for its noise, for yelling, roaring, screaming, cawing, or braying, there is supposed to be more delicate relief for the human species. However, I’d go up to the mountain roads where only an occasional Indian heard and wouldn’t say what he thought of it, and there I’d speak my feelings aloud or I’d yell, and it made me feel better temporarily (447).

Here, Augie longs to be free to express himself as the animals do; however, when he sees others doing this, he seems distressed, frustrated, afraid, or disgusted. For example, in this description of Stella, she is entwined with the animal, and the animalistic aspects of her nature seem to leave Augie bemused:

There is a certain amount of simple-mindedness in Stella as well as deception, a sort of naïve seriousness. She cries very sincerely and with utmost warmth. But it’s not a simple matter to get her to change her mind on any matter. I’ve tried, for instance, to get her to wear her nails shorter; she grows them very long, and when they tear they tear into the quick and she starts to cry. Then I say, “Good heavens, why do you let them grow like that!” and take the scissors and trim them, which she submits to. However, she only lets them grow long again. Or, in the case of the cat, Ginger, who’s very spoiled and wakes you up at night by turning over lamps and dishes so that you’ll feed him, I only made myself look foolish arguing that he ought to be shut in the kitchen at night. I couldn’t get anywhere.

She’d repeat continually how she had wanted to be independent (575).

Stella is quite obviously linked with animals here: her “simple-mindedness” and emotional sincerity; her nails that are like claws, with Augie clipping them like her owner—these seeming especially pertinent as the cat is so quickly brought in, and it seems that Augie is on one side, with Stella and the cat on the other. Her wish for independence is especially ironic, coming just after we have seen that she is as dependent as a housecat that has been raised indoors and knows nothing of the wild.

The animal continues to appear in human characters, with Bellow still seeming indecisive about its relative strengths and weaknesses—lauding the innocence and strength of the animal; chagrined by the ferocity that humans display when behaving, by society’s standards, “like animals.” Thea, illustrating the latter, is once described as follows:

…her nostrils seemed as if they had accepted some of the sickness, smelled the poison she spoke of. And the animals and animal objects, the oxhide chairs, the straw-rustle snakes, the horned and shaggy heads, all that seemed to have a raison d’être got dull, useless, brutal, or to be a jumble, a clutter merely, when something was wrong with her. While she herself looked tired, tendony in the neck, pinched in the shoulders. She didn’t even smell right (428).

In this passage there is close and obvious connection made, by sheer proximity, between Thea and the animalistic objects that surround her. The intensely physical description of Thea makes her sound like a wild animal, and Augie’s mention of her not smelling right plants both of them even more in the animal kingdom.

Augie’s attraction to the natural world is further illustrated when he speaks passionately in its defense, exclaiming, “ ‘Damn you guys, you don’t care how you fiddle with nature!…Somebody is going to burn up the atmosphere one day or kill us all with gas,” and adding, “Why should one man have the power to damage all nature and pollute the entire world?’ ” (552). We know what he has said regarding mankind: “…nothing genuine is allowed to appear and nobody knows what’s real. And that’s disfigured, degenerate, dark mankind—mere humanity” (437).

We know, too, that he finds the self-consciousness of being a “capable” human to be exhausting, and that he can be seen as something of a noble wild-man: a highly intelligent individual who yet writes of his “body, which is maybe all I am, this effortful creature…” (516), and tellingly says, “Oh yes, I got up on my hindlegs like an orator and sounded off to everyone” (498).

Furthermore, we know that he lauds the animal’s ability to see with “original eyes”—an ability which he covets. And while all these facts point to Augie having definite aspects of the animal within him, and to his valuing those aspects, we also see that he is uncomfortable with what could be seen as animalistic aspects of his brothers’ lives: Georgie’s passive, enclosed existence, and Simon’s excessively hedonistic, crude, and ferocious lifestyle.

What Augie seems to connect to in the animal is its authenticity, un-self-consciousness, physicality, and ability to live uninfluenced by history. He tells Kayo, “In the world of nature you can trust, but in the world of [man-made] artifacts you must beware. There you must know, and you can’t keep so many things on your mind and be happy” (489). What seems to be of essential importance here is the quest for the genuine. Augie tells us, “That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real” (437), and when he writes of the “dark degeneracy” of mankind, he emphasizes that “nothing genuine is allowed to appear and nobody knows what’s real” (437). Placed in contrast with the concept of striving, the importance of the genuine only grows: genuineness, by its very nature, does not require striving to be something, but merely being.

We can see how un-self-consciousness, physicality, and the ability to live uninfluenced by history are all related to Augie’s ideal of a more genuine reality—to be self-conscious, nonphysical, and lost in thoughts of the past is, for him, to be distanced from reality. Animals are, then, essentially in touch with reality. Toward the end of the book Augie tells us, “So the only possessing is of the moment. If you’re able” (443), further emphasizing this point—nothing is more real than the elusive present moment—and suggesting that in the end the animal is presented as a model for a happier life.

But what of Simon, Basteshaw, Thea, Renee, Stella, and all the other humans who are described as behaving like animals, in the least flattering way? If Augie’s conclusion is that the animal is a noble inspiration for mankind, how do we account for the bestial behavior that he vividly includes? The answer may be found in an important detail: that in the cases of the characters examined above, when they illustrated negative animalism most clearly, they were at the same moment caught up in very human patterns: Simon striving for status and success; Stella caught I emotional dependency as only humans can be; Basteshaw lost in egoizing to Augie about his scientific ambitions; Renee and Simon arguing about some jealousy that had nothing to do with living in the present moment; and Thea, when she leaves Augie, becoming associated with animalism through his rage of infantile human jealousy.

While Augie chooses to describe these moments in language that we will instantly recognize and to which we will relate—the language of wild, fierce animals—when we examine these moments in the scope of the whole novel, we can see that they are actually some of the most intensely human moments—moments of trying, of striving. Even more interesting may be the fact that while the reader might see this human striving, and perhaps Bellow might see it as well, Augie does not, it seems. By the end he is not tremendously altered: still somewhat naïve, still the laughing creature; physical, self-conscious, still unsettled—in the last lines of the novel he proclaims, almost victoriously, “Look at me, going everywhere!” (586). In his very celebration of his restlessness, perhaps Augie is finally being a striver, rather than striving to be a non-striver.

In a typical embrace of contradiction, Bellow may leave us somewhat unsure as to what teaching, if any, we are to take from this book. Perhaps we should be content to live in complexity, striving to be more like the noble animal, and less like the savage one. Or perhaps to strive is too human—perhaps we, and Augie, are to let go of all trying and be merely what we are: optimistic, dark, naïve, fierce, laughing, hungry, gentle, snarling, frightened, original, animal, human.


About Kestrel Slocombe

I like writing, meditation, art, reading, riding horses, playing guitar, watching trees in the wind, ferns, the smell of woodsmoke, Mozart and Bach, long walks in the wilderness, and the sound of the cello.
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