The Watchmen: Nite Owl’s Lament
Posted by lisagbrown on March 2, 2009
Alan Moore’s The Watchmen is not about animals. However, when I recently reread the brilliant graphic novel in anticipation of the Warner Brothers film version (opening March 6), I was entranced by the passage below, which is written by the character Nite Owl, and is “published” in the fictional Journal of The American Ornithological Society. It is a passage that succinctly, eloquently and poetically confronts the challenges of studying animals — in this case, birds.
Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such minute detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the length of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry? That in our pedestrian descriptions of a marbled or vermiculated plumage we forfeit a glimpse of living canvases, cascades of carefully timed browns and golds that would shame Kandinsky, misty explosions of color to rival Monet? I believe that we do. I believe that in approaching our subject with the sensibilities of statisticians and dissectionists, we distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spellbinding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place.
This is not to say that we should cease to establish facts and to verify our information, but merely to suggest that unless those facts can be imbued with the flash of poetic insight then they remain dull gems; semi-precious stones scarcely worth the collecting.
When we stare into the catatonic black bead of a parakeet’s eye we must teach ourselves to glimpse the cold, alien madness that Max Ernst perceived when he chose to robe his naked brides in confections of scarlet feather and the transplanted monstrous heads of exotic birds. When some oceangoing Kite or Tern is captured in the sharp blue gaze of our Zeiss lenses, we must be able to see the stop motion flight of sepia gulls through the early kinetic photographs of Muybridge, beating white wings tracing a slow oscilloscope line through space and time.
Looking at a hawk, we see the minute differences in width of the shaft lines on the underfeathers where Egyptians once saw Horus and the burning eye of holy vengeance incarnate. Until we transform our mere sightings into genuine visions; until our ear is mature enough to order a symphony from the shrill pandemonium of the aviary; until then we may have a hobby, but we shall not have a passion.
“Daniel Dreiberg, a.k.a Nite Owl” in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen
“Attirement of the Bride” 1940, Max Ernst