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I recently wrote about the Bible as part of our cultural heritage, along with Ovid, and the importance for our younger readers to be familiar with both of them, since they provide such an important resonance for so much of our art and literature. Not simply as footnotes to explain some obscure allusion in some poem you are studying, but as a kind of foundation layer — a diapason for everything that has followed and sounding deeply underneath it.

I received one rather snarky comment complaining that my piece was characteristically over-weighted with Western culture, and that I should have also mentioned non-Western writings.

My reader, I think, had rather missed the point. I was talking about the Western culture we were born into. I was not making a value judgement that ours is necessarily better or more important than others. But I was not born into the Chinese, Indian, African or Native American cultures.

I have always encouraged the widest possible exposure to the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely in other cultures, and to familiarize myself with the art and music of other peoples.

But there are two problems inherent in the criticism my misguided reader has leveled at me. This is not to exculpate myself — I do sometimes overvalue my own culture — but rather to point out some serious problems with trying to be too cosmopolitan. I wish I could embrace all times and all cultures, and god knows, I have tried my best. I read widely, whether the Mahabharata or the Tao Te Ching; I have studied the development of Chinese landscape painting and the impenetrable glyphs of Mesoamerica; I have attended Chinese opera; I watch the new cinema of Iran. I traveled to South Africa to study contemporary art there.

One should be familiar with the Popol Vuh, with the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh.

One should also read more recent things by Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, R.K. Narayan, Kobo Abe, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are hardly less essential than Leo Tolstoy or William Faulkner.

Still, there are insurmountable problems with the whole idea.

The first is that no matter how much I study, how much I learn — even if I were to get my Ph.D. in the Fu poets of China and were able to read them in their original language — Chinese culture would never be native to me. Culture, like language, is acquired, not learned. And just as it is impossible after the teen years to acquire a new language as a native tongue, no matter how well you learn that new language, you can never fully absorb a non-native culture. You will always know it from the outside.  Its idioms are elusive.

So, the sort of resonance I wrote about — the unconscious undertones you pick up when reading in your own lingua that deepen your emotional understanding of your text — you can never fully acquire in a culture you study later in life. Deep as you penetrate, you cannot soak it in the same way a Chinese child, or an Indian child soaks in his own.

Related to this is the second problem.

The pretense of assuming a non-native culture is almost always a form of Orientalizing. That is, there is a kind of romanticized sheen that is cast over the other culture. And that other culture is often used as a flail to scourge one’s native culture.

Lord knows, Europe has a lot to answer for historically. And those who bemoan Western culture use the counter-example from some other culture to make the point. The problem with this kind of cultural self-loathing is that it ignores the simple fact that it is not Western culture that creates the evil, it is human beings that do so. Every culture has its evils to answer for. Europe may, in the past 500 years been dominant, and have a list of sins more immediate in our cultural memory, but we should never forget that all cultures are made up of humans, and humans do and have always done reprehensible things.

I once made a study of genocides, and which religions have been responsible for the largest portion of them. Turns out they all have their murders. The religion least likely to turn on others is Buddhism. Yet, even they have their share; not the least is the current situation with the Rohingya in Burma. So, historically speaking, no one escapes blame. Before Columbus, Native Americans were not living in peace and amity: They were killing each other. China had Mao; Cambodia had Pol Pot; Rwanda had its Tutsis and Hutus. Humans red in tooth and claw.

The romanticization of other cultures leads to some utter silliness. I never cease to be stunned by all the “harmony with nature” blather about American Indians, as if they, as a group (and not a hundred different languages and cultures), had some magic relationship with the natural world that Europeans do not. You look at European painting or read Western poetry and practically all you see or hear is nature, finely seen and deeply felt.

And conversely, you travel through the Navajo reservation in Arizona and see the profound overgrazing that has devastated grasslands. Or visit First Mesa on the Hopi reservation (one of the places I most love in the world), and peek over the edge of the precipice and see the trash and old mattress springs tossed down the cliff as a trash dump. Talk to me then about how Native Americans live in harmony with nature.

No, I don’t mean to imply that Europeans are better than Native Americans, nor do I mean that some Native Americans don’t have a specific cultural relationship with the natural world. What I mean to state is that Native Americans are people too, and are just as capable of being less than their best selves.

These two problems together mean that when we leave our own milieu, we are always tourists — or at best, travelers — strangers in a strange land, fascinated by this bauble or that, able to learn lessons and pick up fresh ways of understanding existence, but these are always souvenirs, the benefits of travel that broaden our horizons.

When we Orientalize — idealize the foreignness of others — we can easily toss away the pith and suck on the bark. There is much value, say, in Buddhism. And if one is to have a religion, it is certainly the least offensive, with the least blood on its hands. But if you want to be one, be a Buddhist in a jacket and tie; don’t shave your head and wear yellow robes. If you were born in Indiana or West Anglia, these Volkgedanken externals miss the elemental meaning and turn profound ideas into cosplay.

So, be aware of the rest of the world. Read widely and deeply. But also, drink deeply from the culture that gave you birth. You may understand other places and other peoples in your head, but you feel your own in your belly. If you are Chinese, dive into Chinese culture; if Mexican, soak in your history, literature and art; if you are born into the culture of Chaucer and King James, imbibe deeply of the Pierian Spring. Learning from other cultures broadens you, but your mother culture nourishes you.

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You enter the cave, walk through tight spots, crawl on hands and knees and come out, 100 yards later, into a dark room, a widening in the cavern walls, and see, if you point your lamp at them, some of the most beautiful animals ever drawn by human hand.chauvet

The very first art — some 30,000 years old — is some of the best, and what you have are pictures of animals. On the walls at Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira in Europe, you find bison and elk, aurochs and rhinoceroses. When you find people drawn on the cave walls, they are hardly more than stick figures, but the animals are often so realistic you can identify them by genus and species.

You can see it in the Egyptian tomb paintings, too. Human figures are stiff, in the artificial “King Tut” poses so familiar from the hieroglyphs. The humans are stylized and symbolic rather than naturalistic. But the animals don’t share that fate: They are seen with a grace and directness at odds with all the machinery of symbolic hieroglyphs — a real duck, a real hippopotamus, a real ibis.knossos

You can see it too at the Palace of Minos in Knossos, where the mural is filled with graceful dolphins and mackerel.pompeii fish

Or in the mosaics at Pompeii, with its seafood menu of crustaceans, eels, octopuses and seabass. Animals have a special place in art.leonardo

They speak to us in a special language, even when they exist as a smaller part of another painting: the dog in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, or the mink in Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine.

It is an element that reflects us and we can’t seem to do without. But what is that element?

“They connect us to something larger or greater than ourselves, or with a past we’ve forgotten,” says painter Anne Coe, whose work is well known for its sometimes satiric use of animal imagery.

And, in fact, the animals in paintings almost always have an ulterior reason for being there. They are doors to something. “Something larger,” as Coe says.

But it’s a two-way door, and what the animals mean depends on your direction as you pass the portal.

Almost like choosing which end of the binoculars to look through, you get very different takes on what animals are and what they mean.

Going one way, the animals are symbols. They stand for all kinds of things: sometimes totemic, sometimes archetypal, sometimes they are as simple as elephants for Republicans and donkeys for Democrats. But they stand for something other than themselves. Perhaps the Democrats would be better symbolized by a platypus or the GOP by a warthog, but there you go: We are stuck with the symbols. Everyone understands them; they’re shorthand.medieval animals copy

Medieval and Renaissance art is filled with this kind of symbology. The dog stood for faithfulness, the goat for lust, the lion for nobility. Of course, for the medieval mind, everything was a symbol.egyyptian bee

We still have some of this emblematic symbolism with us: busy as a bee; crazy as a loon; the industrious ant vs. the lazy grasshopper. We tell Aesop fables to our children to warn them about bad behavior.

But going through the door in the other direction, the animals are steadfastly not symbolic, and force us to see them for themselves as separate entities in the universe. They force us to recognize them as “thou” in theologian Martin Buber’s formulation of “I-thou,” as distinguished from “I-it.”

You look at the eyes in a painting by animal portraitist May Cheney and you see the “there” there. There is no mistaking the cat or dog or goat for an insensible beast.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” Buber himself said.may cheney dog

Cheney says, “The animal is present and looking back at you.”

And you are forced into the awareness that symbols are already several removes from reality, and that sometimes it is good to re-experience the world as it actually is.

When animals are symbolic, they are in some sense projections of ourselves. When they are not, they are reminders of all the rest of the universe. In either case, they kick-start us into the recognition of the larger connection we have with the world. And that is their function in art. After all, art itself is there to slap us into awareness, the way a doctor slaps a newborn into breath.

But whether the animals are symbolic or not, they also make us see them — as we come in the door or go out — either as kindred spirits, beings like us but in different form, or the opposite: beings that make us face the ineffable otherness of the world.

But there are more dichotomies, and more art to express them. Even if we see them as ourselves in fur or feathers, we have to ask: Are they similar to us because they are like us, or because we are like them? Are they people, too, or are we also animals?

“There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but they are people like unto you,” it says in the Quran.

Western civilization has a long history of making a distinction between human and animal. The Bible gives us “dominion” over the beasts. We come up with all kinds of distinction to prove we are not animals. We have language, tools, laws, poetry. But looked at from the other side of the door, animals are no less distinct, no less deserving, no less intelligent than we are: Bees can make honey; humans don’t know how.

Mark Twain made fun of our presumed superiority to the animals: “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the ‘lower animals’ (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me.”hiroshige fish

You can see these choices played out in art, and not only in European art. It is there in the manga drawings of Hokusai and book illustrations of Hiroshige, the temple carvings in India, the Mayan glyphs and in the Chi Wara antelope headdresses of Africa.chi wara

Animals mean something to all cultures. You can see it most directly in the paintings of children.

When they are introduced to animals in the classroom by a teacher who brings a bunny or a turtle, the children respond intensely. You don’t have to teach them anything about art: They burn to make paintings of the animals. You can’t stop them.

And their paintings in the first or third grades parallel the adult art, although in childhood terms: Sometimes they see themselves as the animal, playing baseball or caring for the animal babies, and sometimes they see the animals as something foreign, exotic and emotionally powerful. Boys, especially, love to paint sharks or dinosaurs.kid shark

The untutored and spontaneous identification with the animals is so deep that you can’t prevent it from happening. This may or may not be animals’ primary virtue, but it is one too often overlooked when we consider their value as pet, draft animal or cutlet.

They are there in all our art: The animals are either mirrors or windows. We look into the animals’ face and see.

Ultimately, the animals are a connection with the world: They allow us to deflate our species’ solipsism and recognize that connection.pompeii fish 2