Looking at a Panther
Rainer Maria Rilke – Der Panther
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.
Standing in the shadows is a panther awaiting its prey. It is lurking in the darkness, refusing to be seen. The light only touches it slightly, still revealing a dark but spotted fur. The robust body is carried by athletic legs, as a hall is stabilised by columns. The paws are resting and the claws are retracted. The tail is waving slowly, menacingly. The yellowish eyes are – although in a way unreal, false – disturbingly piercing.
The prey is us, the visitors. We are lured into looking, into scrutinising, into dominating. Or is the animal the prey? Like the panther in Rilke’s poem, the gaze cannot get a grip on anything anymore, but for different reasons. The animal in the museum is dead physically, the one in the poem mentally. What is this fascination, to keep a dead animal behind glass windows or bars, to examine it? Is it dominance: having defeated an animal and thus nature? Or is it morbid fascination? Merely scientific interest? It might just be a combination of the three.
Both humans and animals can be prey. We can be prey to many things. Most of all, we become prey to the animal within us when we look. Looking is a threatening gesture. By looking, we subjugate. And subjugate we do. Animals become affected by our gaze. And they gaze back, as far as it is within their power. Is this really strength? Can animals affect us? Can the animal actually refuse to be seen? The eyes of the panther in the museum will be forever looking, but their artificiality will never exercise power over us.
This text is one of a number of texts written for the Wissensdinge project by students of the University of Potsdam as part of the course Critical Animal Studies in winter 2013. The class was taught by Anja Schwarz for students of English and American Studies.