Saturday, September 21, 2013

Medieval Symbolism and Beasts of the Southern Wild

Medieval Theorists endeavored to justify the use of allegorical language in the Bible and sacred texts.  They drew a number of conclusions about the value of metaphor in communicating unknowable Truths via written texts.  These theories and methods of analyzing metaphor are fascinating to apply to Behn Zeitlin’s 2012 film, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The film follows a 6 year old protagonist, Hushpuppy, through her experience living with her Dad in a community called “The Bathtub.” They are located outside of a protective levy, and are isolated from much of what might be termed “civilization.” Hushpuppy’s relationship with her terminally ill father, Wink, is complicated, but sincere.  She never knew her mother, and whether her mother died or left them is never concretely set forth.  The pair survive a hurricane-scale storm and the subsequent flooding, and work to protect their community and its culture from outside threats, including dehumanizing rescue efforts and mythical beasts.  Ultimately Wink passes away, and Hushpuppy earns her place as the leader of her community

Augustine[1] referred to literal and figurative conventional signs.  All conventional signs must be literal first, in order to allow for the creation and connection of figurative meaning.   Any word, image, or constructed representational art is first a literal sign, and can secondarily be a figurative sign if additional meaning is assigned to it by the creator or viewer.  There were a number of literal signs in Beasts of the Southern Wild that grew to take on figurative meanings.  The choice of the filmmakers to present the auroch as being a porcine animal, rather than the historically accurate bovine classification, was originally one made of necessity.[2] They needed an animal smart enough to train. The aurochs were played by baby potbellied pigs, with a costume made of nutria skins (a rodent native to the Deep South, fittingly enough.)  And by including an adult potbellied pig in the earlier sequences of the film, the permeating presence of the pigs, and the contrast between adult and juvenile physiology created a galaxy of signifiers.[3]

Augustine’s explanation that words themselves are signs, and simultaneously things is exemplified beautifully when Hushpuppy says “I wanna be cohesive.” to the boatman. It is clear that the word itself is only a sign in relation to the defined meaning of cohesive, because Hushpuppy is clearly not familiar with the word or its meaning.  But the word has some meaning to her all the same, despite it probably not being the assigned meaning.  She and the boatman assign different, possibly congruent meaning to the same sign.

Boccaccio[4] praised poets who take truths and hide them behind a veil of fiction.  The presence of this ambiguity of symbolic meaning surfaces largely through the use of tropes, or recurring themes or elements within the narrative.  There was clearly some meaning behind the way Wink, Hushpuppy’s dad, proved so sensitive to Hushpuppy’s touch.  On at least 3 separate occasions she hit or pushed him and he collapsed. That there is meaning in this is easily deduced, but the possibilities for that meaning are polysemous.  

Aristotle was insistent on the binary between signs or things that are useful versus those that are pleasurable.  Based on his religious and cultural background he put forth that God intended some things to be enjoyed (things that bring one closer to God,) and other things to be used in the navigation and cultivation of a life seeking after those things intended to be pleasurable.  According to this religious binary, when things intended to be used are instead enjoyed, it is an abuse of the intended purpose.   This is an interesting concept to bring to the scene where the girls from the Bathtub voyage out to the brothel.  The contrast of women simultaneously filling the roles of whore and affectionate mother figure is stark, and consistent with the convolution of roles throughout the film.  In helping to fill the girls’ need for physical affection, these women are using their physicality for a pleasurable end, rather than abusing it toward enjoyment in what ought to have been a useful end.

A similar binary is presented with Wink’s vigorous insistence that neither he nor Hushpuppy are allowed to cry.  To indulge in crying, in his worldview, appears an Augustinian abuse.  It is to wallow in a vein that one ought to pass through as quickly as possible.  That there is mutual allowance for appropriate crying by both of them just before his death is somehow indicative that the appropriate time has finally arrived and crying is finally pleasurable, or transcendent.

Dante[5] might have celebrated how this film utilizes a common vernacular.  The meaning of some dialogue has to be interpreted by viewing the signifiers that appear to be represented.   In the scene where the Bathtubbers chant for Hushpuppy to “Beast it!” It is only possible to deduce what this term means by seeing her proceed to do it – to break into a crab with her bare hands.  Once we establish this literal interpretation of the term, we are able to begin to grapple with the figurative implications of the action, it’s place in her society, and the implications of the syntax.

Thomas Aquinas[6], and subsequently Dante purported that symbolic texts were to read in several ways, and could carry meaning in each of these ways simultaneously:
Historical/literal meaning, allegorical/tropological meaning, moral meaning, and anagogical meaning.  It would be easy to find an allegorical or anagogical meaning for the presence of water in this film, but that meaning has to be established first via the historical/literal meaning of the water.  The presence of the flood water is a key plot point before it is representative of cleansing, rebirth[7], punishment, or mortal life, or any other polysemous Noah-based signifier[8].

Augustine said that knowledge of tropes is necessary for resolution of ambiguities.  There is tremendous ambiguity surrounding the presence of the Aurochs in this story, but by noticing that the film consistently cuts from shots of the group of Aurochs to shots of Hushpuppy and the other girls in the Bathtub, creates a correlation that (along with the physical traits of the pigs used to represent Aurochs) makes them each seem like a group of infants, and makes their understanding of one another seem plausible, if not possible. (Which Aristotle[9] would like.)

Examples of moral interpretation of this film are easy to identify in some of the more didactic recurring themes and motifs. Hushpuppy repeatedly talks about “strong animals” while footage of the Aurochs is shown, but by using the term “strong animal” instead of “Auroch” she leaves the interpretation of her observations in ambiguity.  Based on the sequences that follow her observations it is easy to conclude that her words hold meaning in relation to interhuman behaviors as much as to the behavior of the Aurochs. 

Some of the moral meanings that can be found within this text were described by Silpa Kovvali: “A protagonist's origins, when humble, are almost exclusively presented as something to escape, an obstacle on her or his road to self-fulfillment. Zeitlin [the director] strongly resists this portrayal. The suggestion is that the city is motivated by self-interest—a desire to quell a threat rather than to care for the smaller or sweeter among them. It's no wonder that the residents of the Bathtub are distrustful of everyone and everything they associate with it, even the institutions that could improve their material condition. And so Hushpuppy struggles to escape from the hospital and return to, not run from, her humble origins, which she views as a crucial part of her identity. No sane person would react to Beasts by deciding that healthcare is unnecessary or evil. But an open-minded viewer should leave the film with a greater understanding of the way that complicated political histories can make people distrustful of institutions widely perceived as universal goods.[10]

The numerous anagogical meanings behind the metaphors in this film can be represented by the example of Hushpuppy’s repeated references to breaking and fixing things.  The power and emphasis that is placed on individuals actions and decisions – in relation to their entire environment and community, creates a lasting impression.  There is also much to suggest a theme of the inevitability of mortality and the ideal of a legacy.    

The film managed to validate the subculture of the Bathtub without glamorizing it.  The importance of a sense of heritage and community, as something worth preserving, was a consistent transcendental theme. It did tend toward painting a negative view of the more “civilized” world – it was too sterile and not alive enough. The literal presence of varied forms of life and awareness of heartbeats in Hushpuppy’s Bathtub existence seemed far more alive in contrast to the shelter/hospital in civilization. 

All of the Medieval theorists we’ve discussed proposed that metaphor allows the sensuous to provide access to the spiritual.  Hushpuppies most sensuously presented experiences are all hugely metaphoric - her motif of listening for heartbeats, for example.   But remarkably Hushpuppy herself uses her father’s metaphors as a way to know the unknowable, which in her case is her mother.  She uses the jersey as a physical metaphor for her mother when she talks to it, and she visualizes all of her father’s metaphors about her mother literally.  Her mother is faceless, unknowable, like God. And she develops a relationship with her entirely through metaphor.

Augustine proposed that if something in a text doesn’t make sense literally, it must be a metaphor.  There are ample opportunities to exercise this logic in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  I struggled to make sense of Hushpuppy’s proclivity for hiding – bother herself and other objects – throughout the film.  As a behavior it didn’t make sense.  But when her illogical need to hide things is viewed symbolically, it becomes a representation of her interior emotions, vulnerability, and childlike rationale.  Hiding under a cardboard box in a house fire makes no sense literally, but it forms a lovely metaphor, especially as she talks about her charcoal drawings on the cardboard box lasting forever.

Boccaccio insisted that obscurity helps meaning be more valuable because it takes more work to obtain. Throughout the film, the reason these characters should stay in The Bathtub is obscure, yet even a 6 year old can understand it.  The film metaphorically constructs a sense of place and identity and culture, strong and “cohesive” enough that it’s value becomes understandable far more effectively than if it had been promoted via rhetoric.

[1] Augustine, On Christian Teaching[2][3] Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Barthes: On Plotting." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Jan. 31, 2011. Purdue U. Sept. 21, 2013. <>.[4] Boccacio, Giovanni, Geneaology of the Gentile Gods, Book 14
[5] Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivo  Book Two, and Letter to Can Grande
[6] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, Question 1.
[7]In A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, the meaning of water “may be reduced to three main areas. It is a source of life, a vehicle of cleansing and a centre of regeneration.” [ii] [ii] Chevalier, Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant. Trans. John. Buchanan-Brown. A Dictionary of Symbols.Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994. Page 1081.
[8] Jung identifies Noah’s Ark as “an analogy of the womb, like the sea into which the sun sinks for rebirth.” - [i] Jung,C.G. Symbols of Transformation. Collected Works, Volume V. Edited and Translated by Gerhard Adler and R.F.C. Hull. Princeton University Press, 1977. Page 211, Paragraph 311.[9] Aristotle, Poetics.

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