The deep forests of my head are populated by bears. Bears, bears, everywhere.
A bear eating from a tree – as represented by this statue – is the symbol of Madrid. Quite why I cannot recall. Nor can I remember exactly why Peter Fischli and David Weiss, two Swiss artists, have spent much of their career dressed up as a bear and a rat and wandering about like so. Needless to say, they have: and their work in this mode is, at present, at view in Madrid (in the Reina Sofia). It’s well worth examining.
There are, however, other reasons why bears have crept into my head and pushed their hairy paws through the dustbins of my thought. I travelled to Madrid, of course, to engage in a little research on my longrunning European folktales project. My goal was the papers of Professor Seth Kinloch, the Scottish collector, who lived in the Spanish capital from 1941 to 1972. He too, it seems, was fond of bears – and found plenty of bear-related material to interest him in the wide world of the European folktale. Indeed, he dedicated one of the largest folders in his collection to ‘bear stories’: a folder which contains no less than four hundred tales in which bears, in one shape or another, take an active part.
Why the interest in bears? Was it anything to do with Madrid, his adopted home, or might it have had something to do with the fact that Kinloch, by all accounts, looked somewhat like a bear? One friend described him thus: ‘His panda eyes reminded us that he slept little; his broad and hairy chest reminded us that we ought never to question this way of working’. Kinloch’s physical stature is almost always mentioned: it was impossible to ignore. Whilst we may never know the height of his rival Stanley Pleeber; Kinloch was overkeen in mentioning the fact that he measured exactly seven foot. We also know a strange amount about his eyebrows; one of which he left to his secretary in his will; the other of which followed him, willingly or otherwise, to the grave. Having seen the former – now preserved in the Kinloch archives – I can assure the reader that it is, as eyebrows go, exceedingly ‘bear-like’.
I am neither interested, nor capable, of summarising the function of bears in Kinloch’s collected tales. However, I would like to briefly mention a series of popular Hungarian stories featuring a wandering bear who breaks into the homes of peasants and threatens to eat their children if they don’t tell him a good story. The framing device is, as you can see, not dissimilar to that of the Arabian Nights, except that this bear – unlike the Arabian King – is a harsh critic, and always ends up consuming the kids. Either that, or the beast is a dirty liar and enjoys the stories greatly, only to discover that (despite the opinion of some) Art does not assuage one’s appetite. Wonderful as a good story is, one needs a good square meal to survive.
Should one go the other way, yet, and claim that the bear was correct: that the stories aren’t good enough, what we are left with is a remarkable piece of self-criticism: a set of stories in which the authors regularly remind their readers of the fact that they aren’t much good at what they’re doing. In one sense, this renders the entire series redundant, making it a sort of anti-Arabian Nights – a tribute to the near impossibility of perfect storytelling.
Or maybe bears are just hard to please.