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Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney

Film and the American Moral Vision of Nature: Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney

by Ronald B. Tobias


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With his square, bulldoggish stature, signature rimless glasses, and inimitable smile—part grimace, part snarl—Theodore Roosevelt was an unforgettable figure, imprinted on the American memory through photographs, the chiseled face of Mount Rushmore, and, especially, film. At once a hunter, explorer, naturalist, woodsman, and rancher, Roosevelt was the quintessential frontiersman, a man who believed that only nature could truly test and prove the worth of man. A documentary he made about his 1909 African safari embodied aggressive ideas of masculinity, power, racial superiority, and the connection between nature and manifest destiny. These ideas have since been reinforced by others—Jesse “Buff alo” Jones, Paul Rainey, Martin and Osa Johnson, and Walt Disney. Using Roosevelt as a starting point, filmmaker and scholar Ronald Tobias traces the evolution of American attitudes toward nature, attitudes that remain, to this day, remarkably conflicted, complex, and instilled with dreams of empire.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611860016
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2011
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ronald B. Tobias is a Professor of Science and Natural History Filmmaking, in the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University. He has produced, written, and directed over 30 films, many of which have appeared on PBS, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Travel Channel.

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Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Disney
By Ronald B. Tobias

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2011 Ronald B. Tobias
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-001-6

Chapter One

Tales of Dominion

Christian theology understood the power inherent within nature as the divine ordinance of God. St. Augustine chided the inquisitive who searched for knowledge about nature as violators the Lord's sanctity. "This is the disease of curiosity," he warned. "It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which man should not wish to learn." In other words, the righteous need only know that God was the Cause and nature was the Effect; further inquiry constituted heresy. But as science and technology made it possible to peek at the inner workings of physical nature in the seventeenth century, the philosophers of the Enlightenment ventured an idea that would radically shift the base of power between humans, God, and nature.

What if, several French and English philosophers speculated during the early 1600s, nature wasn't the active manifestation of God but a material thing—what the Comte de Buffon would later call "the external throne of divine magnificence"—elegantly crafted by the Creator but left to operate on its own by a set of discoverable principles? If that were true, Descartes suggested in 1637, then we might "render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature."

By the end of the seventeenth century, material nature no longer reflected the attentive presence of God so much as it confirmed his absenteeism. Nature was not ipso facto God, as Aquinas had suggested, but evidence—the fingerprint—of God. "To know Nature was to know God," Raymond Williams writes in Problems in Materialism and Culture, "although there was radical controversy about the means of knowing: whether by faith, by speculation, by right reason, or by physical inquiry and experiment."

During the Renaissance, knowledge about nature routinely combined objective with subjective content. For example, people shared practical knowledge about secular (or biological) foxes, such as their appetite for chickens, for example, or how to snare them. Foxes also hosted subjective content, including oral folklore such as proverbs, adages, and fables that reflected human strengths and foibles rather than biological attributes. The fox was, in a sense, an almanac that combined practical knowledge with hearsay, folklore, and fancy. Until the seventeenth century, comments contemporary French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, "to write a history of a plant or animal was as much a matter of describing its elements or organs as describing the resemblances that could be found in it, the virtues that it was thought to possess, the legends and stories with which it had been involved, its place in heraldry, the medicaments that were concocted from its substance, the foods it provided, what the ancients thought of it, and what travelers might have said of it."

This imposition of meaning made the fox a repository for metaphysical as well as empirical knowledge. As a staple figure in the literary fabulist traditions of culturally and temporally divergent writers such as Aesop, Vishnu Sarma, Bidpai, Phaedrus, Marie de France, and Jean de la Fontaine, the fox ranged over a broad field of signification. Aesop's fox, for example, is an antihero. Unlike the imperial lion, who lords over his kingdom by virtue of his incontestable strength, the trickster fox learns to live off the radar of his oppressors by using his wits. Read this way, craft and cunning in Aesop's Fables provided disenfranchised peasants with an existential role model and a handbook for survival in a world in which they were powerless.

Christian medieval bestiaries, on the other hand, depicted the fox as a cohort of the devil. Morally bankrupt, he was glib, devious, and charismatic—chief attributes of the heretic—and his frequent appearance on the margins of medieval manuscripts dressed in the robes of a clergyman as he preaches to a flock of birds warns readers of the mortal danger of being astray by false preaching.

The fox developed as a major allegorical figure in the folk and religious canons of Western literature over the course of two thousand years. The trickster antihero of Reynard the Fox (Le Roman de Renart) first appeared in twelfth- century France and then spread gradually throughout the Old and then the New World, where he remains embedded in a wide variety of American cultural incarnations that range from the character of Br'er Fox in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories to the nameless man character in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1953) to Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946) and Robin Hood (1973).

The biophysical animal began shedding its metaphysical dimensions in the middle of the sixteenth century. In 1551, the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner published Historia animalium, a visual compendium of the animal kingdom that reflected a growing interest in the extrinsic animal. Often cited as the first modern zoological work, the Historia animalium not only draws on the Old Testament, Aristotle, and medieval bestiaries, but also Gesner's personal observations of animals to create a synthesis of ancient, medieval, and modern science. Hand- colored plates accompany a curious alloy of objective and subjective content about each species, including fables, proverbs, adages, and facts about the animal's life history, a description of its anatomy, and its geographic distribution.

The animals in Gesner's bestiary range from the literal to the figurative. The cow, the horse, the goat, and the dog share pages with the unicorn, the satyr, and the manticore, a fabulous beast with the body of a lion, the head of man, and the sting of a scorpion. Gesner's renditions of domestic animals are precise—the result of personal observation—whereas his renditions of exotic animals such as the baboon and the porcupine are secondhand. His work departs from earlier (and later) natural histories that reflect a fascination for the real and imagined grotesqueries of terra incognita as he shifted his interest increasingly away from imagination toward investigation, from the unknown to the known, and from the unique to the mundane. His depictions of the cow and the horse, for example, concern themselves with the correctness of proportion rather than the rampant metaphysical speculations that intrigued many of his contemporaries.

Gesner's fox straddles the medieval and the modern. At first his portrait seems more whimsical than biologically representative. The fox's excessively angular features reinforce it as vulpine, shifty, and untrustworthy. Its intense gaze assesses the viewer, but indirectly, from an extreme angle. Gesner's fox is agile, smart, and contemplative—still gorged with subjective content.

Yet Gesner's fox is as much index as icon. The text that accompanies his engraving supplies observational data about the animal's range, habits, and diet. Although he mixes zoological and etymological information with adages and proverbs, Gesner's inchoate empiricism nonetheless prefigures modern science. His work presages the fork in the road that would separate subject from object, culture from nature, past from present, and poetry from science. By the end of the century, others began to publish meticulous anatomical studies such as Carlo Ruini's Anatomy of a Horse: Diseases and Treatment (1598), arguably the first comprehensive and serious scientific study of the horse. His detailed drawings of the musculature and blood circulation of the horse were a precursor to veterinary science. Nature became increasingly depicted as material substance scrubbed of spiritual content.


In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas proposed a moral hierarchy of existence called the Great Chain of Being (Scala naturae), an organizational metaphor based upon the "goodness of things." Its basic premise is that every rock, plant, animal, human, and angel has a designated place in a divinely created hierarchy that extends from the lowest (that which is completely material) to the highest (that which is completely spiritual). Where one ended up in this pecking order depended upon the degree of Spirit with which one had been endowed. The peak of perfection was God, who sat on his throne as the Divine Hierarch. Immediately beneath him served a host of angels, followed by man ("a little lower than the angels"). Following man, which Aquinas ranked from monarchs and popes to thieves and pirates (with Gypsies occupying the lowest rung of humanity) came animals, birds, worms, plants, and finally rocks, which were devoid of Spirit. The Great Chain of Being was, in Stephen J. Gould's words, a "static ordering of unchanging, created entities ... placed by God in fixed positions of an ascending hierarchy."

Aquinas' discrete divisions that separated humans from animals served as a theological (and social) model that gradually evolved as a biological model. But other men of science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries preferred instead to speculate on the variety of grotesque beings that cohabited the human and the animal world, creatures that did not fit neatly into theology's clear- cut scheme of things.

Once the lines between the celestial, the human, and the bestial had been drawn, it became important to enforce their separation. For example, the sanctions for having sex with animals were severe in the Old Testament. Leviticus condemns bestiality as morally reprehensible and prescribes death for both for beast and "whosoever lieth with a beast." The severity of the punishment reflected a belief in the catastrophic consequences of those illicit unions. Leviticus 18:23–24 reads, "Neither shall thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith; neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion" (emphasis added). The confusion that resulted from the physical commingling of animal and human consisted of a startling array of monsters that blurred what it meant to be either animal or human. One Jewish scholar rejected the idea of miscegenation between the human and animal based upon the Judaic belief that God had created "an unbridgeable abyss between the Creator and the creature," and exhorted Jews to remain "oblivious of these unions (contrary to nature) that result in the births of divine or monstrous beings, which in other traditions, blur the dividing line between man and the animals."

The presence of such beasts was more than just speculative. In 1573, Ambroise Paré, an accomplished anatomist often referred to as the "father of surgery," published a visual compendium of interspecifics that resulted from the unnatural union of beast and human. De Monstres et Prodiges chronicled the "Blending and Mixture of Seed" that resulted in human-animal hybrids such as a frog-headed boy, a pig that has the hands and feet of a man, and a man who is half pony. In 1642, Ulisse Aldrovandi, (whom the Comte Buffon would call the "Father of Natural Science") published Monstrorum historia (The History of Monsters), followed in 1665 by the Italian scientist Fortunio Liceti, who published De monstris (On Monsters), which mixed the grotesque, the monstrous, with the fabulous. Liceti's pig has the head of a gentleman wearing a powdered wig. One of his cats has six legs; four of them feline and two, which extrude from its pelvis, are human. There is a man with the head of a fish, and a fish with the head of a man. Those more beast than human remained naked and wild; others, more human than beast, range in dress from royals to tradesmen to paupers. Liceti's man with the head of an elephant and Aldrovandi's man with the head of a swan (cynocephalus) have evolved as citizens, whereas the satyrs and the mermen and sea women (Mare donna) remain brutes.

Nature's world was also a laboratory for radical evolution: fish sprout legs or wings and dogs walk upright. Rather than moving toward a world of orderly segregation between species, nature seemed more interested in creating a pan- species that blurred animal and human into a single continuum of life. As in Aquinas, the more human an animal, the higher its place in the hierarchy of life, but the divisions between self and animal Other remained uncertain. Nonetheless, the human incorporated—literally and figuratively—the animal as effortlessly as the animal incorporated the human. The fabulous beasts of Gesner or Aldrovandi are more than just medieval marginalia or fetishes of morbid anatomy; they also act as visual interrogatories that try to map the borderlands between the bestial and the celestial, the human and the animal, and the self and the Other. They overcome the ecclesiastical denunciation of trespass and flirt with miscegenation.

But the need for coherency in nature made the imposition of order paramount. In 1603, Francis Bacon wrote an essay entitled The Masculine Birth of Time, in which he categorically imputes to nature the purpose of serving humanity: "I am come in very truth leading Nature to you, with all her children, to bind her to your service and to make her your slave.... So May I succeed in my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man's dominion over the universe to their promised bounds." When in the late sixteenth century Galileo proposed that the universe, while numinous, was not ineffable, people were starting to regard nature as a text that could be translated verbatim provided one could learn the language it was written in. That language, Galileo declared, was mathematics.

Galileo's work in astronomy, mechanics, and mathematics produced a method that others would test and elaborate. It was from Galileo that Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) developed his concept of the world as a mechanical system. "The universe, that is, the whole mass of all things that are, is corporeal," Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In other words, all that was real in the universe was material and therefore knowable, and if it wasn't material, then it wasn't real. Hobbes, a devout determinist, went so far as to reject the idea of free will. Everything, including that which was human, he declared, could be explained by the mathematics of motion. His declaration of independence, free of the tyrannical restraints of theology, resulted in his own version of the prime law of nature, which, "thus conceived, is self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, pursued by whatever trickeries or cruelties may prove to be advisable."

From that point in history forward, the control of nature depended upon the ability to predict it accurately. There was no place for chance, randomness, or chaos in its orderly equations. Ultimately, the feeling developed that no mystery could remain inexplicable. By the time Isaac Newton published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687, people had begun to think of nature as a logically ordered "world machine" that could be understood by carefully examining each of its constituent elements, much in the way a mechanic could dismantle an engine in order to understand the functional relationships between its parts.

"The decisive theoretical break came with Descartes," notes John Berger. Since God privileged only humans with souls, animals were reduced to the status of biological machines. "To the same degree as man has raised himself above the state of nature," Buffon lamented, "animals have fallen below it: conquered and turned into slaves, or treated as rebels and scattered by force, their societies have faded away, their industry has become unproductive, their tentative arts have disappeared.... What visions and plans can these soulless slaves have, these relics of the past without power?"

Freed from the theological hobble of the ineffability of nature, the new project rapidly expanded its scope during the eighteenth century. Nature now required systems of order that explicated linear relationships between living things. The earlier attempts of naturalists such as Aldrovandi, Liceti, and Gesner to categorize creatures into groups quickly proved futile as the imperial fleets that scoured the world dumped untold biological wealth into their nations' coffers. The cloistered walls of Europe started to crumble as a flood of unknown plant and animal species into the Old World created an epistemological crisis. What were these things? How were they related to other things? How should they be categorized and what should they be called?


Excerpted from FILM AND THE AMERICAN MORAL VISION OF NATURE by Ronald B. Tobias Copyright © 2011 by Ronald B. Tobias. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Tales of Dominion....................1
2 The Plow and the Gun....................19
3 Picturing the West, 1883–1893....................29
4 American Idol, 1898....................49
5 The End of Nature, 1903....................65
6 African Romance....................83
7 The Dark Continent....................103
8 When Cowboys Go to Heaven....................115
9 Transplanting Africa....................129
10 Of Ape-Men, Sex, and Cannibal Kings....................145
11 Adventures in Monkeyland....................157
12 Nature, the Film....................173
13 The World Scrubbed Clean....................181

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