When Insentient Things Can Talk
A memorable example from “Bambi”
In New England, in autumn, there’s a time of year known as the “Peak” — the moment when the most trees have reached their maximum in terms of fall’s dazzling foliage colors. It’s something like the very exact center of autumn. On the evening news, television weather specialists report the daily movement of Peak from northern to southern states. I should add, however, that the trees themselves don’t seem to pay attention to these bulletins. But what if they did?
Read the following selection from Felix Salten’s Bambi and find out. “Felix Salten,” incidentally, was the nom de plume of the Austrian author Siegmund Salzmann (1869–1945) and his Bambi is considerably darker and more profound than the animated feature made from the book by Disney Studios.
In his Foreword for the English translation of Bambi, the famous British novelist John Galsworthy insisted, “I do not, as a rule, like the method which places human words in the mouths of dumb creatures.” But Galsworthy continues, Salten’s novel is the Great Exception and “very moving” and “a little masterpiece.” Even so, we might go Galsworthy one better and say that, as a rule, putting human words in the mouths of deer and rabbits and other creatures is one thing, but even more dubious is the method of putting human words in the “mouths” of insentient things — like rocks, and trees, and leaves. If we are to grant Salten an exception to do this rule, then his work needs be extraordinary.
By his putting words in the mouths of leaves, we learn — remarkable as it seems — nothing less than what it is to be human. And this is said with such simplicity, such brevity, such understatement and force, that encountering this piece of literature is like encountering the humble and fundamental and inherited wisdom of a life lived and put down in the kernel of a folktale or fable.
In New England, there are really three autumns. There is the Fall-that-is-no-longer-summer, which is a kind of invention when the season itself is painted and slightly distorted by memory and human feelings of nostalgia and loss. Then there is the Fall-that-will-soon-be winter which is another kind of invention and distortion when anticipation and human anxiety skew the season in another way. Finally, there is the Fall itself, the ding an sich (the thing itself), just the season all by itself when it not muddied over by human sentiments of regret or dread — a season not of summer’s absence or winter’s approach, but the thing itself: a time of pumpkins, the thud of a football being kicked, the sound of leaves underfoot.
You’ll find this all when Salten’s leaves talk like humans. They talk, as we do, of the Now in light of Then when things are gone. They wonder whether the Now is a prelude to . . . well, just what kind of Future? They even encounter the Now by itself. And they also wonder, “Why? How? What? When?”
There are writers, I’m told, who’ve cataloged typical reactions to announcements of death and argue that such news is greeted in stages: refusal to accept the truth, bargaining, etc. I don’t know much about that. But I can say that in Salten’s brief tale you find the entire catalog.
You encounter that kind of weltschmerz or fundamental sadness which lies underneath the personal tales of Hans Christian Andersen, especially “The Fir Tree.” You encounter the limbo and puzzled patience of the characters who bide their time in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Toward the end, you even encounter the kindness and acceptance and resignation of the loving old couple who appear in a myth like “Philemon and Baucis” or in a film like “On Golden Pond.”
There is wisdom here, but not of the direct kind when children and adults are preached at. Here is a wisdom not of the bullhorn but of the trees. And the leaves say something not just about death, but about how we humans respond when, moment by moment, we encounter a life that changes.
From Bambi, chapter VIII
The leaves were falling from the great oak at the meadow’s edge. They were falling from the trees.
One branch of the oak reached high above the others and stretched far out over the meadow. Two leaves clung to its very tip.
“It isn’t the way it used to be,” said one leaf to the other.
“No,” the other leaf answered. “So many of us have fallen off to-night we’re almost the only ones left on our branch.”
“You never know who’s going to go next,” said the first leaf. “Even when it was warm and the sun shone, a storm or a cloudburst would come sometimes, and many leaves were torn off, though they were still young. You never know who’s going to go next.”
“The sun seldom shines now,” sighed the second leaf, “and when it does it gives no warmth. We must have warmth again.”
“Can it be true,” said the first leaf, “can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”
“It is really true,” whispered the second leaf. “We can’t even begin to imagine it, it’s beyond our powers.”
“It makes me very sad,” added the first leaf.
They were silent for a while. Then the first leaf said quietly to herself, “Why must we fall?…”
The second leaf asked, “What happens to us when we have fallen?”
“We sink down…”
“What is under us?”
The first leaf answered, “I don’t know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.”
The second leaf asked, “Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we’re down there?”
The first leaf answered, “Who knows? Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.”
They were silent again. Then the first leaf said tenderly to the other, “Don’t worry so much about it, you’re trembling.”
“That’s nothing,” the second leaf answered, “I tremble at the least thing now. I don’t feel so sure of my hold as I used to.”
“Let’s not talk any more about such things,” said the first leaf.
The other replied, “No, we’ll let be. But– what else shall we talk about?” She was silent, but went on after a little while, “Which of us will go first?”
“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” the other leaf assured her. “Let’s remember how beautiful it was, how wonderful, when the sun came out and shone so warmly that we thought we’d burst with life. Do you remember? And the morning dew, and the mild and splendid nights…”
“Now the nights are dreadful,” the second leaf complained, “and there is no end to them.”
“We shouldn’t complain,” said the first leaf gently. “We’ve outlived many, many others.”
“Have I changed much?” asked the second leaf shyly but determinedly.
“Not in the least,” the first leaf assured her. “You only think so because I’ve got to be so yellow and ugly. But it’s different in your case.”
“You’re fooling me,” the second leaf said.
“No, really,” the first leaf exclaimed eagerly. “Believe me, you’re as lovely as the day you were born. Here and there may be a little yellow spot but it’s hardly noticeable and only makes you handsomer, believe me.”
“Thanks,” whispered the second leaf, quite touched. “I don’t believe you, not altogether, but I thank you because you’re so kind, you’ve always been so kind to me. I’m just beginning to understand how kind you are.”
“Hush,” said the other leaf, and kept silent herself for she was too troubled to talk anymore.
Then they were both silent. Hours passed.
A moist wind blew, cold and hostile, through the tree tops.
“Ah, now,” said the second leaf, “I…” Then her voice broke off. She was torn from her place and spun down.
Winter had come.
This essay originally appeared in “TALL: Teaching and Learning Literature” (Sept./Oct. 1994). I discuss the childhood conception of “Aliveness” in more depth in a chapter of my book “Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.”
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