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Senior Correspondent

Transforming the Vanities

Transforming the Vanities


[While I think it works standing alone, this post will make more sense if you are familiar with Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down. If you haven’t read it, your library should have copies. Printed versions tend to be a bit pricey, but it is a good book for your home library. I found an e-version on Amazon for about $5. As a last resort, Wikipedia does a nice “reminder synopsis." But do give yourself the gift of snuggling down with the book for a nice winter read. It is not always a cozy read, but "all’s well that ends well.”]

When, this past Christmas Eve, I heard that Richard Adams had died, I promised myself that I would reread Watership Down. I used to show the video in my media criticism class, and upon recalling that it had been a VHS cassette, I realized just how long it had been since I had encountered the narrative. The work is sometimes classified as juvenile or teen fiction, and often can be found on middle school reading lists. Bad call. I remember that when I wrote Taming the Wild Tube back in 1990, I specifically warned parents that despite being animated and featuring rabbits, Watership Down is not a video for children! It will give them nightmares. My older daughter, a thirty-something attorney who just gave birth to her own daughter, would still have trouble with it. 

But having just finished the novel again, I am reminded that it is a beautiful, thoughtful, mature work. One is first struck by the grace of Adams' descriptive prose. It is painterly. Layer of articulate description follows layer after layer until the literary equivalent of a Hudson River School landscape emerges from the pages. Beautiful. 

My previous interactions with the work were pre-chord theory and Distilled Harmony. But it will surprise you not a whit to learn that my recent reading found harmonic resonances leaping from every page. First, we need to agree that the work is not merely a story about rabbits. Rather it is an allegory, with Hazel, our primary protagonist working his way past a variety of challenges in pursuit of the transcendent harmony advocated by the mythological god character, Frith. 

I’m going to resist the temptation to launch into a “close reading” that would tickle my colleagues with a literary criticism bent. Instead, I want to play with the idea of what Hazel’s journey has to say about finding our own way to harmony. 

Adams makes it clear that, initially, Hazel seems a strange choice to lead a ragtag band of rabbits across the threatening English countryside in pursuit of a new, safe warren. Hazel is neither the most senior, nor the biggest, strongest rabbit in the band. Others have prescient, psychic gifts or are better fighters and more skilled in rabbit “survival skills.” But Hazel has a unique gift – he senses how to turn flaws into desired attributes. Hazel values the unique characteristics of others and never insists on competing with the notes more obvious in others. Rather, Hazel realizes the value of blending those individual notes into shared harmonies that benefit of the entire warren. 

As I read the work it occurred to me that rather than seeing it only as a study of how individuals can work together harmoniously for the common good, it also encourages us to consider how we might blend our various “selves" together into a more harmonic individual identity. 

It seems the current vogue to assert that we all possess the same suit of abilities. Just show up and you will get a certificate of participation. The reality is that we are better at some things than we are at others. I had always believed that, given the time and opportunity, I could be a wonderful saxophone player. So, after securing my first full-time, real, tenure-track teaching position I went out and rented a sax and prepared to loose the new bird upon the jazz world. It soon became evident that the best use for my saxophone certificate of participation would be to use it to gently wrap up the instrument as I returned it to the music store where it might find its way into more sax-enabled hands. As I said, we are better at some things than we are at others. And it is those things at which we are most adept that come to structure and define our identities. 

There is a problem with this relationship between ability and identity. The problem is that the line between identity and vanity is very fuzzy. And the fuzz only gets thicker as our experience, and perhaps our peers, affirm the legitimacy of a particular facet of our identity. The slide into vanity is easy when given a nudge. And, I suppose, a touch of vanity does no harm. After all, self-esteem and a feeling of self-worth is healthy. However, the link between vanity and identity can be problematic when vanity turns to arrogance.  

Two primary examples from the Watership Down narrative:

First, rabbits are great storytellers, and throughout the novel Adams uses the stories to acquaint us with the rabbit-kind’s oral traditions and mythology. In one story we learn that rabbit-kind’s precarious place in the world is itself the result of vanity sliding into arrogance. El-ahrairah [In rabbit mythology, El-ahrairah is the Prince of Rabbits] is forever bragging about the fecundity of “his people.” Lord Frith requests that El-ahrairah rein in the unchecked spread of rabbit-kind. El-ahrairah responds with his usual “my people are the best in all the world” mantra. This arrogance angers Frith and causes Frith to divide the previously congenial animal kingdom into competing groups. Under this edict many animals become predators – “Elil” in lapine – leaving rabbits as prey who must be continually on guard, able to survive in this newly dangerous world only by cunning and speed. 

And then there is General Woundwort. Woundwort is the Chief Rabbit of Efrafa, a totalitarian warren that our protagonists encounter in their wanderings, and from whom the rabbits eventually steal the does needed to ensure the future of their warren. Woundwort’s vanity regarding the invincibility of his prerogatives as Chief Rabbit and his own physical strength, makes this violation of Efrafa intolerable. So Woundwort leads a retaliatory raid on the Watership Down warren.  Hazel conceives a plan that leads the vicious dog from a nearby farm up the hill to the warren just in time to catch Woundwort's warriors exposed above ground. Those who are not killed, flee – except for Woundwort whose vanity cum arrogance drives him to fling himself at the dog hollering, “Dogs aren’t dangerous!” While his body is never found, it would appear that Woundwort chose "death by Elil" – a voluntary, terminal confrontation with a lethal predator – in preference to any further damage to his arrogant self image. 

Hazel is the opposite of arrogance. His leadership hinges on his ability to transform potentially negative vanity into skills that serve the group, while simultaneously freeing the individual from the constricting bonds of vanity. It was this last part that struck me most in this recent reading of the work. How do we free ourselves from the constricting bonds of vanity? 

We live in a competitive world. We may choose to believe that “certificates of participation” make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. That is, I am afraid, an illusion. As a young competitive swimmer, one of my daughters became intrigued with having at least one of each color of the ribbons awarded after each race. Competition, and her own evolving abilities, allowed her to collect every color but black – the ribbon awarded to sixth place, and in the confines of our pool, last place. She simply could not allow herself to intentionally lose in order to collect her missing black ribbon. Despite our attempts to “level the playing field,” our children quickly come to realize that they are “differently abled.”  

I continue to believe that that is a good thing. I like it that my oncologist seems to be at the very top of his field. I am simply unable to fix my car and so am pleased that others have that ability. I am delighted that university hires people far more competent than I to untangle the increasingly complex relationships among the various pieces of technology that enable my everyday activities. On the other hand, I would be loathe to let any of those folks edit these essays. 

Is that vanity? I don’t really know. I know it is not yet arrogance as I am quite able to read the works of others – like Watership Down – and be amazed to the tune of “I could never do that!”  So maybe a healthy perspective is to attempt to examine those abilities we do possess that may be inclined toward vanity – and the slippery slope to arrogance – and assess not why this makes us better than those around us, but rather to reflect on how we might both improve the ability and use it to benefit the whole warren. How we can, like Hazel, transform vanity into a truly worthy ability. 

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