The other day, my husband, daughter, and I went to a zoo — a good one, where the animals are well cared for and occupy spacious outdoor areas that approximate their natural habitat. We had a wonderful time with all the animals, as we always do, but the crowning moment this time came at the end. We overstayed our welcome a bit by taking our time leaving after the park closed at 5 pm; at least the zookeepers don’t seem to mind too much. But this time, we were later than usual, and thus we were in time for the lions to arouse from their slumber.
Every time we’ve been to the zoo, the two lions — one male, one female — have spent their time stone-cold unconscious on their lawn, as if passed out from a long night of too many cold beers. This, of course, is their prerogative, since they are nocturnal creatures. But this is the time of year when the sun begins to go down noticeably earlier, and thus its rays were getting decidedly longer when we heard the first series of roars.
We were not too far away from the lions, but clearly their bellows could be heard throughout the entire zoo (and probably the adjoining neighborhood), as fellow overstayers-of-welcome began to arrive in groups shortly after the lions let us all know they had returned to the land of the conscious. I stood there with my mouth open while the male lion sent forth several long bellows followed by a series of short barks. At this, the female emerged from their house-shelter and joined the chorus, both of them seeming to answer the other, yet not facing the other, but rather some invisible point in space unknown to the rest of us.
Each time their interchange would end, they would lie down in separate places for 5 minutes or so, then one of them would get up and start roaring again; unfailingly, the other would rise and roar in response. It is hard to convey how thrilling this was to hear and to watch. The sound that came from these animals literally echoed through the entire park; if you were standing next to them as we eventually were, the sound overpowered you so much that you felt you were hearing it within your very bones, not merely your ear drums. There was no other sound.
So this got me to thinking about how drawn we are to all the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, etc. The zoo also has two tigers and one leopard, and the response of the human onlookers is always the same to all of them: awe, admiration, fascination, respect. We think they are beautiful, and we are mesmerized by their barely-restrained power. We might love the cuter, sometimes also majestic prey animals, both large and small — like the various primates, tropical birds, turtles, prairie dogs, porcupines, llamas, kangaroos, camels, elephants, capybaras, tortoises, zebras, and more. We are charmed by them, curious about them, attracted to them. But there is something about those big cats and their raw, frightening power, combined with their cool composure, that seems to elicit the same reaction from everybody: a magnetic fascination and a formidable respect.
As this was in the back of my mind, I also happened to watch The Godfather. Aside from the artistic achievement of the film itself, it got me thinking about why we are drawn to mafia characters, particularly the dons. We are utterly fascinated with them, though we know their lifestyle is unlawful and in many ways detestable. Yet knowing this, we sometimes feel a contrarian respect at the same time, as I did for Don Vito Corleone while I watched. True, he was portrayed in a way that showed not only his criminality but many dimensions of his full humanity as well, so perhaps that helps to explain it. But in movies, books, and television, we have to admit we can’t get enough of these characters. The Godfather series is only one example; the huge success of the TV series The Sopranos is another. And while we might not respect the mafia in real life, when their criminality is too stark and uncomfortably close to us, the fact remains that we are still fascinated by them. We buy books about them (Black Mass, for example), and we flock to semi-nonfictional depictions of them in films (The Departed and Donnie Brasco, for example).
As far as the fictional stories go, it is their fictional nature that allows us to observe that underground world with undisguised engagement for some discrete period of time without needing to worry about any of it being real — without needing to respect any of the real mafia bosses whose actions in the real world we disgust. So why do we feel such magnetic draw, and even that strange, grudging respect for these characters? I believe it is the same reason that we are drawn to the big cats, with all their undulating muscles; their raw power simmering just beneath the surface of their skin; their shocking roars that we seem to hear in our very bones; the chills of fear, fascination, and respect all at the same time. It is the rogue aspect to the existence of both the big cats and the mafia personalities; their power; and perhaps above all, the perception of their self-determination that stirs in us these strange and contrarian reactions.
Fundamental to us as humans is an inherent resistance to being told what to do. We manifest this resistance early in life as toddlers (as every hapless parent such as myself knows), and it does not vanish with the coming of the years. It is tempered by our upbringing, by civilization, sometimes by religious convictions; but it remains beneath the surface, sometimes like a still lake, and sometimes like a pot of water so close to boiling point that one object thrown into it will make it explode. It is the reason “reverse psychology,” the practice of advocating the opposite of (or even indifference to) the desired result, works so well. It is the reason that when we are in school or college, we instinctively resist reading books that we are assigned to read — books that, left to our own devices, we know we would enjoy reading. It is the reason there is so much resentment toward the perception of “nanny government” or “Big Brother.” It is the reason that we feel a secret little thrill when we flout some small law, like overstaying our parking meter without getting caught, or like successfully pulling a U-turn against the sign that says not to, or like performing some small home improvement in our houses without appearing at town hall to ask permission and pay for permits. Someone of a certain age, whom I know, recently said, “These days you can’t lean two sticks together without needing 5,000 permits.”
Unfortunately, it is also part of the reason that some people are attracted to violating larger laws, laws meant to protect all of us dwelling in peaceful society. Mafia dons would, of course, fall into this category. Even though Mafia dons radiate self-determination of a criminal variety, there is something attractive about self-determination itself. In civilized society, it manifests itself by the will to vote, or by anti-regulation sentiment, or by quitting one’s job and deciding to employ oneself so as not to have to live by someone else’s desires and rules. When that JetBlue crew member summarily renounced his job by announcing over the loudspeaker, “I’m outta here!”, inflating the emergency slide, and grabbing a cold one on his way out, we laughed and we cheered for him. Despite the famous Beatitude, we tend to value the bold, and we tend to value the meek only when they can make themselves be bold. I certainly don’t think that’s the way things should be; we would have a kinder, less violent society and a kinder, less violent world if we consistently took that Beatitude as seriously as Jesus wanted us to.
But I do wonder if all this is part of the same undercurrent in our minds that causes us to shiver with reverential delight at lions, tigers, and leopards when they are guaranteed not to hurt us. Whether it is or it isn’t, I do know that I’ll never forget that almost mystical thrill we all felt when we stood there in our favorite zoo. Because we had heard and seen the lions roaring.
© Elizabeth Keck 2010