The Problem of Wild Minds: Knowing Animals in Grizzly Man and Ming of Harlem


Near the end of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the book’s eponymous protagonist recalls visiting the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes with his friend Marie.1 The zoo is in bad shape; the pair overhear children questioning their parents: “Mais il est où? Pourquoi il se cache? Pourquoi il ne bouge pas? Est-ce qu’il est mort?” Sebald writes:

I recollect that I myself saw a family of fallow deer gathered together by a manger of hay near the perimeter fence of a dusty enclosure where no grass grew, a living picture of mutual trust and harmony which also had about it an air of constant vigilance and alarm. Marie particularly asked me to take a photograph of this beautiful group, and as she did so, said Austerlitz, she said something which I have never forgotten, she said that captive animals and we ourselves, their human counterparts, view one another à travers une brèche d’incomprehension.


This phrase from Marie that sticks in Austerlitz’s memory seems to be a French rendering of a phrase from John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?”2 There, Berger inquires into what it is for “man” to encounter “the animal” – which, as he puts it, “scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.”

Read Article On Muse