Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301
It is in the half-light of limbo that we see the forms of animals and men in Gascar's Les Bêtes…. The stories with a war or pre-war setting take place in semi-darkness, an absence of light…. The evening light in which animal forms proliferate and images of fear multiply is both that of a tormented world at war and that of the interior recesses of the minds of individual men.
When one is at that time of day which is "entre chien et loup," it is difficult to distinguish the man from the animal, the animal from the object. The title, "Entre chiens et loups," given to the longest story of this collection, is doubly ironic: it intimates that the conflict of man and dog described in the story is that of the dog with a more savage animal, a wolf, and it describes too that indistinct twilight in which the story is bathed, one in which it cannot be determined if the ambiguous shape seen in the distance is dog or wolf. One form appears to already be, or be about to become, another. The bench on which the butcher kills his animals resembles his victims with outspread legs; trees become "crucifiés" in the winter light…. (p. 85)
There is not just a superficial resemblance of forms in the dimness nor does Gascar stress this similarity solely for the purposes of comparison, in a symbolic or metaphoric fashion. In this dream-like atmosphere one form becomes another; there is a constant metamorphosis. There is the constant possibility of change in man and animal, either in the direction of evolution or that of atavism…. We are threatened by a rapid proliferation of forms, constant transformations….
There is here no line completely separating the animal kingdom from the world of men…. Gaston is an entirely new species…. He is the animal form of a new species of hate or evil which invades and conquers us each time another conquering horde invades our soil. We will return home one day and find this new species installed in our home, waiting for us.
In such an animal-man world, it cannot be assumed that man remains superior to the animal in the hierarchy of species. This superiority in the order of creation is a myth which the commandant in charge of training dogs for attack would like to believe, just as he would insist that man's word "war" denotes an orderly, rational and impersonal science, a civilized skill. (p. 86)
From the very first, [the narrator] senses that it is man, the common soldier, that is being regimented and controlled …, and that the dogs are but hiding their violence under a deceiving cloak of obedience. He recognizes their insubordination. Man, the "master," has nurtured the savage force of the dog, but he cannot truly control and discipline that force, which he would set loose against his fellow men.
For it is man who is the hunter as well as the hunted. The commandant is not superior and apart from his dogs…. The dogs are the reflection of a savage atavism in man himself. Although the organized, passionless nature of his violence deceives the commandant and makes him see himself as superior, it is really he, not Franz, who is a throwback to a previous form of man. "Man is a wolf to man": the "wolf" of the title of this story—the wolf which might be mistaken for a dog—is indeed man himself, the primitive man of hate and bloody justice from which we have tried to escape since the beginning of the species. (p. 87)
The animal has not always been the image of man's malediction. Gascar finds delight in the variety and beauty of animal forms which abound in the creation and in the imagination of man…. There are legendary animals too, those which man creates to express his needs and aspirations…. (pp. 87-8)
There is a complicity, one might say an identification, of animal and man in these mythic forms. It is the myth of creation, the ark and the flood, as well as the myths of Pegasus, the centaur and dolphin of antiquity, which Peer and the boy of "La Vie écarlate" dream once again…. Peer sees the horses as images of man's flight and need, but the liberating flight which he and the horse make together ends upon awakening…. (p. 88)
In a world where man is alienated from man and animal both, the forms of man and animal change…. The horses are no longer proud and beautiful, but are described as … crouching dogs. They are shades, their rhythm broken as well as their pride…. Peer is also like an animal which has been broken. Only his furious attacks upon the horses break the indolence and the kind of "unconsciousness" which help him endure this purposeless, solitary life of war. Both his apathy and the ferocity which results in him as a reaction to it make a different man of him, one in which we do not recognize the form of the "human" being.
The setting of "La Vie écarlate" is not a wartime one, yet one recognizes in the butcher's wild and gratuitous slaughters the carnage of war and the alienation of man and animal. Here the natural order of things has been changed. It is true that man has always killed animals for food, but now the killing has become a personal thing, the butcher is a madman, and the lovely image of the sea-horse with the boy on his back gives way to the grotesque image of the carcass of a "mouton-homme" hung on a hook. (pp. 88-9)
The apathy and loss of effect of this changed form of man are as shockingly cruel as his violence….
Man and animal no longer share together the companionship of the creation and the flood nor the harmonious beauty and freedom of the animal-man world of myth. Now they but resemble one another in the cruel metamorphosis which has transformed them both. (p. 89)
The images of the fugitive, of the hunter and the animals he pursues, recur in Gascar's later novels and stories, and along with them, the persistent theme of the longing to penetrate into a new morning. The hope of enlightenment is constantly repeated even though the means of achieving it is not quite clear. Through Paul, the hero of Le Fugitif, like Franz a man with no identity of his own, Gascar expresses this hope…. The passive attitude … expressed by this man in limbo does not seem typical of the man Gascar himself, a man actively involved in the political struggles of his time, nor is it similar to the passionate cry of Franz, but it does indicate the hoped-for evolutionary direction which the metamorphosis of forms may take.
Although the reader feels keenly the subdued horror and feeling of eternal guilt evoked in Les Bêtes, the oppressive half-light of these early war-time stories is not definitive. (To be sure, the possibility of rebirth "dans la lumière révélée," in a luminous state of pure mind, is as yet extremely remote, only an elusive dream.) Like Franz's witness, these stories are warnings of a danger already upon us. Gascar exhorts the individual man not to regress further from the human condition he once attained. He calls attention to the menace hidden from us by a comforting protective myth. He asks at least recognition of the struggle which must be made against the "animals" of man's malediction so that man may arrest his atavistic return to the primitive forms from which he has come. (pp. 90-1)
Judith J. Radke, "The Metamorphoses of Animals and Men in Gascar's 'Les Bêtes'," in The French Review (copyright 1965 by the American Association of Teachers of French), October, 1965, pp. 85-91.
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