An analysis of human elitism in Dancing Bear by Guy Vanderhaeghe.
Humans desire power in the form authority. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have displayed this with the abuse of animals, the persecution of minority groups, and the general violence against what is outside of the norm. We segregate and ostracize what does not fit into our ideal image of man, because in our frenzy to retain a sense of power, we must label everything that is not ourselves inferior - so that, by elimination, we are untouchable and god-like. This does not apply only to the discrimination of animals, or to the stale terms like racism and sexism, this is a general statement, a general prejudice against everything by every person. Truthfully, each man is prejudiced against every other man because each man compares the other to an imaginary, ideal human based on their individual. This is how prejudice exists in every person, regardless of upbringing. We judge animals for their inhuman appearance and habit, and by judging we justify our persecution of them: we laugh at a performing bear not because it performs humorous antics, but because it is below us and its clumsy human dance is a reminder of that. Dancing Bear by Guy Vanderhaeghe exhibits this human tendency passionately. A deep moral statement vibrates in his allegories, metaphors, and thoughtful parallels: the idea that humans should strive to see this prejudice in themselves. And in seeing it, know that it is wrong.
Perhaps the most painful, truthful excerpt of the story is the description of Bruno's dance. As Dieter lies on the chesterfield, lost in his memories, he sees the dancing bear on market day, and with remarkable clarity, we watch the performance alongside his memories. It is this passage which provides the description of dancing that penetrates every other aspect of the story. Bruno is led into the market, a place defined as innocent and lively, on a chain; which establishes his imprisonment and darkens his entire performance. The dance that he performs is an imitation of a human dance through and through. He "grins" and shows off his predator teeth in a human action, for bears do not grin, they bare their teeth threateningly, but they do not grin. He stands on his hind legs in the unnatural pantomime of a human, which is so uncomfortable that he plummets to ground mid-dance. He twirls, like a ballerina, only he is no ballerina, he is a bear, and bears do not twirl. Every aspect of his dance is coloured by the phrase "tense with the effort of maintaining this human posture" (Literary Experiences 398-399); for the entire charade is simply a bear forcing unnatural action. This brings me to the definition of dancing that may be reused throughout the story. To dance, in terms of the story, is to mime humanity so that one may hide among them, if only as fool. Bruno dances because his master will beat him should he go against the expectation of his behaviour. He dances to avoid punishment; to remain fed and sheltered. Similarly, Dieter "dances" for Mrs. Hax because he will be punished otherwise. He acts in a way that does not conform with his thoughts, rather it conforms with the expectations of society in general, and Mrs. Hax in particular, because to act as he sees fit is to have his cigarettes taken away and to be disrespected even more than usual. "'I must be careful'" (400) is in reference to the open expression of his thoughts, not to physical action. Just as Bruno is reprimanded for dancing when he wants to rather than when he is told, Dieter is punished for expressing thoughts which Mrs. Hax deems childish or stupid. They are one and the same because they both "dance" at the command of a master with movements that are not their own, they are choreographed by humans to mimic the ideal man. Because, by the standard of society, Bruno and Dieter are inferior, they are labelled "wrong". This unspoken label is what drives the acceptance of abusive behaviour towards both characters: this is why none of the market goers protest Bruno's beating and this is how Dieter's son justifies the general negligence towards his father. By being unlike the standard, Bruno and Dieter are doomed to forever be less than human because if you are not an ideal human you must be inferior in general.
As a further explanation of this concept, the line "A man. Under all the lank, black hair a man was hiding, lurking in disguise." (393) must be examined. As can be easily seen, this is a metaphor comparing a bear to a man, not only in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense as well. In the passage wherein this line exists, Dieter is remembering a philosophical discovery of sorts which provided him with the a fundamental idea; that man and any other species are equal, not only on moral grounds, but realistically. Dieter's inborn human arrogance is baffled by the realization that humans are not god, they are not superior. It is this sharp and sudden thought that sends him into a state of panic. Although a child, he is no fool, and he realizes that although the bear looks human, it is not. Therefore, it is the realization of man's likeness to everything else that shocks him, not the act of skinning itself. He labels it murder because he now understands that animals are no less than humans (not that animals are humans), and by understanding the equal value, he realizes that killing and mutilating an animal is no different than doing the same to a human, is no different then murder. This metaphor extends, as each metaphor in his past does, into the present situation or the arena of human versus human. Just as the bear is a human under its fur, a man is like any other man beneath his appearance. Dieter is persecuted by Mrs. Hax (and society in general) for his failing health, both physical and mental. Because he does not conform to the ideal, meaning he cannot "[hurtle] from synapse to synapse" (392) and travels "with jerky, tremulous movement" (392), he is perceived as less human then the common man. But beneath the outward appearance of frailty and foolishness, he is as much a man as any other. Like the bear, it is only what humans can see that determines their judgement. They see "A killer, a marauder" (392) when they look at a bear because that is all that the bear is to them. Likewise, Dieter's son and Mrs. Hax see Dieter as an "old bastard" (391) and burden, because that is all he is to them. In both cases "a man [is] hiding, lurking in disguise" (393) beneath the thick coating egocentric perception creates. Like treasure buried beneath yards of dark soil, the value of the bear and the man are lost on an observer, because the observer is too self-absorbed to search for what is hidden.
Dieter and the bear are paralleled characters that have very specific, specially chosen qualities. The archetype of a bear is that of a proud, powerful beast, capable of amazing feats and deserving of both fear and respect. Yet Bruno is neither feared nor respected. Rather, he is humiliated for the amusement of humans and beaten by the very ones who should be trembling before his majesty. This reversal of natural roles is disturbing and emphasizes the abusive nature of humans towards anything they can justify lording over. Because Bruno is in a state that renders him vulnerable to attack, the human characters are instantly unafraid and arrogant towards him. None of the market goers flee in panic upon Bruno's appearance because he is chained by his master, and thus subdued to the inferior status which comforts the people. By combining these concepts with the humiliation of dancing, "the pride which should be a bear's" (399) is flaunted mercilessly, and Bruno is thought of as less of a bear, with size and power, and more of an inferior, shackled man. When compared to the present-tense of Dieter's story, similarities can be found. Dieter is a very old man who has lived through the emigration of his family, through the death of his wife, and through many years of life's hardship. This experience and accomplishment should be respected. He should be considered wise and should be given the dues that he has earned with all his years. Yet, like Bruno, he is not respected. His anger is called a "childish temper" (390), his head is patted like a pet or a toddler (391), his physical deterioration is reduced to "peeing the bed" (390), his possessions are taken away as if they were toys, his things are handled with "monstrous carelessness" (397), and his intelligence is undervalued or completely disregarded. As the audience to his private thoughts, we know that he is no idiot, we can see that he is conscious of himself and aware of his situation. We read the resentment in his mind; "How could he have forgotten? In the twistings and turnings of the conversation he has lost his way"(397), he knows that his mind is not as sharp as it was, he hates how he can't hold on to his thoughts, and he is sickened by his own involuntary actions: "he hears himself making a wretched, disgusting noise - but cannot stop"(397). In lines such as these, his self-consciousness is obvious, and with it, his sanity is assured. Mrs. Hax says that he is "Crazy like a fox."(395), but this is only another example of her disregard for they man underneath all the failing life-functions. She, like most people, only sees him in the light of an ideal person based on what she knows. "She liked to suppose, that somehow, he was moved by a dim apprehension of mortality and loss."(391), she does this to define him by what she thinks is "human". By her ideal, a man of his age should be considering death because that is the next natural step for him, she cannot conjure any other thoughts that may be occupying him because she cannot put herself in his place. From her completely egocentric perspective, death and loss can be the only profound things he could think of. Dieter's deep memories are, ironically, not about death at all. They are about life, and like every other treasure within him, these thoughts are not looked for, never discovered, and lost with his death.
There is a thought which seems to drift throughout the piece which connects to the idea of lost treasure. Just as Bruno seems to have a secret which only someone as close to death as Dieter can discover, Dieter has his own secret. He learns, unconsciously, the truth about humans. He discovers how arrogant and scared they are. Within his muddled memories lies the theme of the story: humans must realize their tendency for persecution and judgement, and curb it. Just as Bruno is labelled an "animal" and disrespected thusly, Dieter is labelled a "senile old man" and demoted to something less than human. In a metaphorical sense, The memories of the dancing bear mirror Dieter's own predicament throughout. Bruno dances the unnatural parody of his master's likeness, and likewise, Dieter mimics the foreign practices of Mrs. Hax which go against his instincts and desires. Both characters "dance" in the pantomime of an ideal human because humanity has decided they are inferior, but will condescendingly allow these inferiors to live amongst them, so long as they keep their place and retain the appearance of a human. And yet, despite all the effort humanity goes through to cloak Dieter and the bear in "sheep's clothing", they were already human to begin with. Underneath Bruno's dark, inhuman fur lies the body of a man, and underneath Dieter's apparent senility, a man rests also. Through the eyes of a human, everything is skewed by the idolization of our species. Anything which appears inhuman, or acts inhuman, is seen as less than human. Dieter acts in a way that is not "socially acceptable", or in other words, is far removed from the ideal human. It is this behaviour that makes him an inferior. Yet beneath that image created by observers, he is as much a man as any other. He, like Bruno, has an equal value to any other man, no matter his appearance. This is the insight that the piece provides. It allows us to look within ourselves and see the elitism we harbour there. Nothing is perfect, nothing is flawless. Each person has their own failings and humanity has its general evils. This tendency of ours to judge and persecute is something which haunts us all, and something that is difficult to repress. Yet, even so, we should endeavour to see it in ourselves. We should not be blind and accepting of our failings, instead we should be critical of our natures and do our best to better them. That is the real message of Dancing Bear.