March 10, 2018
In 2006, the German television channel ZDF aired an hour-long documentary about Oliver Kahn, the celebrated goalkeeper for the German national football team. In the final sequence, Kahn is seated by the window of a crowded restaurant. The interviewer hands him a sheet of paper and asks him to read it out loud. The text turns out to be Rainer Maria Rilke’s iconic zoo poem, “Der Panther”:
Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf —. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille —
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris
His gaze has from the passing of the bars
become so tired, that it holds nothing more.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.
The supple pace of powerful soft strides,
turning in the very smallest circle,
is like a dance of strength around a centre,
in which a mighty will stands numbed.
Only sometimes the curtain of the pupils
soundlessly slides up—. Then an image enters,
goes through the limbs’ taut stillness—
and in the heart ceases to exist.
—Trans. Edward Snow [slightly modified]
The interviewer then prompts Kahn to comment on the poem. At first, Kahn remarks that “it must be a terrible thing for an animal like that to be trapped inside a real cage — for in this case of course the cage is a real one.” The interviewer then suggests that Kahn himself is also trapped inside a cage of sorts, to which Kahn responds: “Yes, I was just about to say. The question is: what is my cage? My symbolic cage?” He offers a series of different suggestions: the physical goal, or the penalty area; or perhaps the cage is psychological, the product of internal and external pressures that hamper his sense of freedom. “In that sense,” he concludes, “the poem is wonderfully apt.”
The first thing to note about Kahn’s interpretation is the distinction he draws between the real and the symbolic cage. The implication is that to interpret a poem such as this, one must move from the literal meaning to the metaphorical or symbolic meaning, and, moreover, that this entails a shift from the animal to the human. The real panther at the Jardin des Plantes is trapped inside his cage and gradually grows numb to the outside world, but the true significance of the poem lies in its metaphorical applicability to the reader. Clearly, this was also the filmmaker’s intention: to prompt Kahn to reflect on his own situation and to read the poem as referring to himself rather than merely to the plight of an animal in a zoo over a century ago. This, of course, is how animals have traditionally always been interpreted in literature and art, namely as symbols and metaphors for something other than themselves, almost invariably some aspect of the human.
In recent years, in the context of the ‘animal turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, literary scholars have begun to work against this tendency of interpreting nonhuman animals ‘out’ of texts, insisting instead that these animals are not ‘just’ metaphors or symbols, but are also literally to be read as referring to themselves. While I wholeheartedly support this development, we must also be careful not to succumb to a naïve literalism that would seek to disavow or suppress the metaphorical significance of textual animals. Rather—and Rilke’s “Panther” is a perfect example in this regard—the task must be to unpack the complex interplay between the literal and the figurative, and the ways in which these textual animal presences come to signify in ways that gesture beyond the human, toward a less narrowly anthropocentric conception of the world. This is one of the principles of what I call “zoopoetics.”
The tension between literal and symbolic meaning is central to Rilke’s poetics in “The Panther.” The poem is usually numbered among Rilke’s so-called Dinggedichte, or “thing-poems,” in which he tried to give expression to nonhuman entities, both animate and inanimate, in an ‘objective’ manner. The ambition was for the poems to be not simply representations of something else, but rather things in themselves. Thus, while “The Panther” is certainly inspired by Rilke’s visits to the Jardin des Plantes, the poem itself is supposed to be the panther.
What does this mean in practice? First of all, it implies a certain continuity between the form of the poem and its content. At a thematic level, the poem describes the panther’s movements, first back and forth along the bars, and then, in the middle stanza, the movement becomes circular—ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte. This, already, is a hint that the form reflects the content, since this description forms the middle of the poem itself, and hence, by extension, the “dance of strength” can be read as referring to the poem as a whole, whose regular, iambic rhythm and ABAB rhyme scheme reproduce the panther’s ceaseless pacing. The first and third stanzas centre on the panther’s gaze. In fact, the gaze is the subject of the first sentence: we are seeing the inside of the cage from the panther’s perspective. The monotony of the panther’s experience is emphasised through the repetition of the word “Stäbe” [bars] in lines 1, 3, and 4, as well as the rather inelegant internal rhyme of “tausend Stäbe gäbe”.
We may also begin to notice that while “sein Blick” refers on a literal level to the panther’s gaze, as we read it also becomes possible to interpret it as the reader’s gaze, which is likewise scanning these bars. This effect is reinforced by the preponderance of parallel vertical ascenders at or near the end of each line: lt, tt, ll, etc. These could be said to mimic, at a material level of the words on the page, the sight of the bars, endlessly passing before our eyes. The only lines that do not end in ascenders of this sort are the second and fourth lines of the final stanza. It is surely no coincidence that these lines describe an image traversing the barrier of the bars and entering the panther’s eye. The horizontality of this movement is further emphasised by the two dashes, one in the middle of a line and the other at the end. The last word in the second line, “hinein”, rhymes with “sein”, which is the last word of the poem, but also the first. In this way the reader is sent back to the beginning, in a further mimicry of the panther’s endless circling dance. The intrusion of the image from outside does not offer a way out.
In this sense, the poem in fact seems to invite an autobiographical reading: as you read, you become the panther and the real cage gives way to a symbolic cage around the human reader. It is open to interpretation what exactly this cage is, but it seems that it is one that we have constructed ourselves. It is language, or society, or whatever it is that prevents us from being truly free. We go to the zoo and find that we are the ones in the cage.
Returning to the principles of zoopoetics, we must note that the symbolic meaning does not replace or destroy the real existence of the cage. In fact, we must show how the cage is both real and symbolic—material and semiotic. Moreover, this is true whether the encounter with the panther takes place in the poem or at the zoo: even the real panther in its real cage exists within a cultural framework, which is to say within a symbolic system, and as such has both a material and a semiotic component. This, in turn, has implications for how we read the lines: “Ihm ist als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe / und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.” From the panther’s perspective, the world ends at the bars, and no encounter with the outside world, including with the human visitor, is possible. From the reader’s perspective, we may also interpret it as a version of Jacques Derrida’s infamous assertion that “there is nothing outside the text.” This, too, would be consonant with Rilke’s poetics of the Dinggedicht: rather than referring to an external reality behind the bars of the poem, the poem constitutes its own world, hermetically sealed from the outside. There is no ‘real’ panther in this text, there is only language. Finally, this insight must also be re-evaluated in terms of the material and semiotic character even of panthers and cages in the real world. In other words, even if you go to the zoo and look at the panther, you cannot escape the cultural frameworks of significance and domination that allow this encounter to take place.
Which brings me, finally, to the question of the Anthropocene. Within literary animal studies, as I have said, the main point of criticism of traditional modes of reading animals in texts is that they ignore the specificity of the animal itself, and instead see only a version of the human everywhere. In this tradition, the whole world serves as a mirror designed to amplify our anthropocentric narcissism. Yet, now, in the age of the Anthropocene, Man really does encounter himself everywhere he looks: there is no aspect of life on this planet that does not in some way bear the imprint of human activity. In his famous essay, “Why Look at Animals?”, John Berger writes that zoos cannot help but disappoint, because the animals we see there are mere shadows of themselves—they are, to use Rilke’s term, “numbed” compared to their full-blooded cousins in the wild. In the age of habitat loss and mass extinctions, however, it is increasingly the case that there is literally “no world” beyond the bars for these animals to inhabit. Perhaps it is time, then, to embrace what formerly would have been seen as an anthropocentric fallacy, namely the tendency for humans to look at animals and see only themselves. How might the zoo of the future account for this state of affairs?
 Oliver Kahn und die Dinge des Lebens, dir. Marin Martschewski (ZDF/3sat, 2006). The clip in question is available on YouTube with English subtitles: <https://youtu.be/-7TBpkKi_SE>
 Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems . A Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), pp. 72–73. Translation slightly modified.