“Within a writer’s life, words, just as things, acquire powers,” writes Rikki Ducornet in the opening pages of The Deep Zoo, and the book itself unfolds as an exquisite exploration of such words, such things, such powers. It contains fifteen lucid and erudite essays on a kaleidoscopic array of subjects: natural history, fairy tales, the madness of war, monarchs and sea butterflies, David Lynch films, pharaohs’ tombs. Though a slim volume, its richness provides much to explore, and plenty to linger over.
In the first and eponymous essay, Ducornet puts forth the idea of “the deep zoo” – the words within a writer’s life that take on an outsized magic. These words bury themselves deep within a writer’s subconscious, imbue themselves with metaphor and thus become talismans. On this topic, Ducornet’s subjects are Bachelard, Borges, Calvino, and Cortazar. She explores the symbols each author held dear:
“For Bachelard they take the form of shells, a bird’s nest, an attic; for Borges a maze, mirrors, the tiger; for Calvino moonlight, the flame, and the crystal; for Cortazar ants on the march and the cry of the rooster.”
She also unpacks and explicates their meaning:
“…For Borges, there is an evident sympathy between the tiger’s stripes, the world’s maze, language, and the maze of the mind; for Calvino, between moonlight and the lucent transparency of clear thinking; for Bachelard, between attics and a love of solitude; for Cortazar, between the cock’s cry and the knowledge of mortality, of infinitude.”
As a writer of fiction, I have my own deep zoo; accordingly, though I’d never heard the term before, I connected instantly with the concept. Yet despite the idea’s familiarity, Ducornet also brings something unique and original to it: these implications of menagerie, of the untamable. “I am not calling for magical thinking, obscurity, or preciousness,” she writes, “but for an eager access to memory, reverie, and the unconscious—its powers, beauties, terrors, and perhaps above all, its rule-breaking intuitions, and to celebrate with you the mind’s longing to become lighter, free of the weight of received ideas and gravity-ground redundancies.”
With its divergent reveries on art, literature, politics, and nature, The Deep Zoo covers broad territories. Yet it retains its preoccupation with hidden and secret things: those that are intimate and slowly revealed. Genes, for example, or seeds, which appear repeatedly throughout these pages: “The seed is emblematic not only of potency, but of the initial impulse that engenders a universe, a universe characterized by mutability and so: multiplicity.” Seeds are considered in all their private power and mysterious life-force, and in a way are represented as menagerie as well, when Ducornet writes with typical attentiveness and flair that “[t]here are seeds that look like the noses of certain apes, the bottoms of apes, or parrot beaks, tortoise shells, machines of war, the crowns of pontiffs, caricatures of wags and luminaries drawn by Max Beerbohm.”
This meditation on seeds is fortuitous, as seeds are a metaphor for the book itself. The Deep Zoo is not didactic, but wise; not zealous, but possessed with great clarity of thought. It is simply a seed, willing to be planted on fertile ground and blossom as it is tended — and like the seed, it is mutable, shaped by its resonances with its reader’s own sympathies or secret impulses.
The seed is only one of the metaphors the text supplies to describe itself. Another is the labyrinth, both literal and figurative. On the very first page, Ducornet writes of Ottoman calligraphers, who
“delighted in creating mazes of embellishments in which the text was secreted like a treasure. The text needed to be deciphered and the task proved the worthiness of the reader. … The maze places the text within an intimate space, very like a garden, where the text hides, then reveals itself.”
The approach taken in these essays is much the same – labyrinthine. Structurally, the essays are broken into small chunks of prose, each discrete section like another corridor unfolding. It is not always immediately obvious how each piece relates to the piece before it, or flows into the next; we come closer, then drift in another direction. But each series of movements draws us closer to the matter at hand. Then suddenly we are at the center, the focus illuminated.
This is the kind of book that teaches you how to read it.
I read patiently, allowing the words to take me wherever they wanted to go. Still, over time, as meanings began to accrete and coalesce around certain words and terms, I began to see a larger theme emerging: that of Eros vs. Empire.
Eros represents the enigmatic, the organic, and magical, as represented by the self-contained life force that animates the universe and the seed; “the creative impulse, Eros breathing and dreaming within us, is radical to the core. … And like biological processes, it thrives on spontaneity, the necessary anomaly.”
Meanwhile, Empire is its opposite in every respect: an intrusive violation, a force of destruction, a narrowing of possibilities imposed by the rigidity of tyrannical rule.
And as seeds are the symbol of Eros, the Marquis de Sade’s fictional castle of Silling — the setting for the sexual violence of 120 Days of Sodom — is the natural symbol of Empire. Silling embodies a misunderstanding and a perversion of nature, built on the idea that nature is merely brutal, rapacious, and cruel, denying the creative potency and radical life force (Eros) that fuels the universe itself.
The essay on Sade and Silling is one of the most memorable in the book: a searing, blazing passage that trembles with fury and despair. Silling is “a house that demands fresh corpses” (imagery supplied by Belgian writer Jean Ray); “the calamity we will suffer or inflict upon others.” And the details of these ravages of Empire are not left to the abstract: “Silling—like Ground Zeros everywhere, like the killing fields that separate our country from our neighbor to the south, like our own densely populated penitentiaries—is simply another name for all our worst mistakes.”
In this tug-of-war between Eros and Empire, “betrayed children” are perhaps the perfect icons: seeds of potential, trampled by brutality. Such is the fate of Kaspar Hauser, a prince trapped in a dungeon at the age of four, where “for twelve years he lived like an eel in the twilight.” Ducornet draws on Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser as a framing device in the essay titled “Houses on Fire,” and there are further mentions of Hauser — such as in the essay “The Egyptian Portal,” an exploration of the work of artist Linda Okazaki. Okazaki was another betrayed child, only six years old when her mother was murdered, her dog put down, and her long hair cut — a convulsion of loss and trauma. (And, as Ducornet explores, one which forever shaped Okazaki’s “deep zoo” — particularly the dog, a Basenji, who reappears in her paintings as “a trickster and a shapeshifter,” “a protective spirit.”)
“The Egyptian Portal” also suggests, in one of the book’s loveliest passages, that traumatized children maintain an especially vibrant connection to Eros’ creative force:
“…the betrayed child who has had the strength to overcome trauma (a favorite theme of the fairy tale) may become something of a mixto; a violator of boundaries, an artist and a visionary. Trauma leads to a certain distancing from the world and, paradoxically, a novel and even essential revisiting of the world—and so reveals a portal of a kind.”
The portal is somehow both intimately connected to the labyrinth and the seed.
Of course, the theme of Eros vs. Empire is only one lens of many through which to view the pieces collected in The Deep Zoo. It is a rich, multi-textured, and fabulous work, equally transcendent and profane, dotted with images both luminous and surreal. There is depth here, and alleyways still to be explored; its seeds may blossom differently depending on the season, and the center of its labyrinth may shift.
It is a book that deserves to be read well — and read well again.