Creaturely Motives & Interpretation




Creaturely Motives: Irony and Denial

in “The Natural History of the Chicken”





Creaturely Motives, Irony, and Denial

in “The Natural History of the Chicken”


Humans have two guidance systems that shape behavior: genes and culture. We deemphasize creaturely motives—the need to breathe, sleep, eat, and mate—because they are compulsory and associated with death. Mark Lewis’s documentary film “The Natural History of the Chicken” illustrates our use of culture to manage basic conflicts between guidance systems. We are predators that must kill and eat other animals such as chickens in order to stay alive, yet culture can transform our sociable motives so that we may personalize chickens as children or sacralize them, symbolically harmonizing conflict and overcoming death. In dramatizing incongruities in our appetite for more life, Lewis demonstrates how irony enables us to suspend irrational meanings in cognitive play space and manage the insoluble conflicts that define us.



Like Narcissus, humans are captivated by an idealized image of ourselves. Although we too are animals, we imagine ourselves superior to other creatures. Culture encourages us to overestimate our autonomy and ignore our creatureliness, even though we have to breathe, eat, sleep, and mate in order to stay alive. A creaturely motive such as eating is not a choice, but a compulsion built into us. We are slaves to our creatureliness. Culture disguises our biological nature, and celebrates our autonomy. Romance idealizes mating by making it transcendent while consoling for failure. In addition, romance compensates for humankind’s terrifying awareness that we must die and disappear forever, not only acting out sexual fertility in the promise of posterity, but also intensifying exaltation in vows to love “till the end of time.”


“Eternal love” smothers the question that Ernest Becker posed to a friend and college chaplain: “Who ever gets enough life? Food, laughter, fucking, creativity?”[1] Becker’s question is really a challenge. One chilling implication is that a lifetime cannot exhaust our appetite for life. Another is that humans are always hungry, sometimes even starved. Accordingly, greed for life disposes us to violate restraints. Conrad famously dramatized this appetite Heart of Darkness, where Marlow remembers Kurtz “on the stretcher, opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind.”


The mouth that shouts our appetite for life is also a terrifying heart of darkness. The same orifice that kisses tenderly and speaks our thoughts also hides teeth that kill and chew other living things in order to swallow and digest them, plundering their nutrients and expelling the waste as shameful excrement.

Like other animals, we live by killing. To stay alive, we have to destroy and consume other living things. We thrive on captured life-energy. We enjoy a good meal, yet we fear, despise, and feel guilt over the waste we produce. “Shit” is disgusting and shameful because, among other things, it reminds us that we live by stealing vitality and degrading it. A contemptible person is an “asshole.” Our moral and social faculties are trapped in demanding bodies that will some day betray us and die. At home we cherish pets. Out of sight in the slaughterhouse we kill them on an assembly line, in a depersonalized ritual that numbs or dissociates guilt feelings. By the time they reach the supermarket, the moocow, the Little Red Hen, Mary’s little lamb, and Porky Pig are shrink-wrapped and labeled products, no longer lovable personalities. Culture compensates for our ambivalence in tributes such as Barbara J. King’s Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat.[2]


As a creaturely motive, appetite is tyrannical. If we stop eating, we die. We can love other living things, yet we live by pillaging their vitality. Opening his mouth “as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind,” Kurtz reminds us that humans, like chickens, can be cannibals. None of us asked to be born into this dilemma: it’s how we’re built. Culture harmonizes the conflict with ideas of renewal and ecologies, or theologies of specialness. We savor cuisine and admire the artistry of the dinner table. yet mealtime can shiver with conflict when the diners worry about what to put in their bodies. What will destroy health? What gives more life? Let the inhibitions of culture falter, and the latent terror of voracity emerges.


Neuroscience confirms that we construct reality in our own image, the brain limited in its access to the full range of what exists. For example, we can only perceive a small margin of the electromagnetic spectrum. In The Denial of Death,[3] Becker argued that since humans are uniquely aware of mortality, and nobody ever gets enough life, denial conditions all of our experience. Denial filters all our experience, yet it may go unnoticed.


The subject of this essay is a narrative entertainment that illustrates creaturely motives and the way denial pervades behavior: Mark Lewis’s documentary The Natural History of the Chicken (2000).[4] The film’s unassuming character and its comprehensive ironies make it possible to call attention to insoluble conflicts in the human condition without arousing prohibitive defenses.


From Aesop’s Fables to Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, stories about animals have functioned as parables that help to clarify thinking. As a parable, a Road Runner episode helps us manage the difficult or even unthinkable problem that like coyotes, we live by killing and eating other living things. As children we form our sense of what’s right loving “the moocow” even as we watch one another chew a hamburger that doesn’t look anything like the living animal. The meal and its ritual rules are part of a cultural prescription. The dinner table masks the conflict over killing or transforms guilty perplexity into a question of taste. Mealtime culture changes the Little Red Hen into a “wishbone.” It may make our predation humorous, as in annual jokes about the Thanksgiving turkey trying to escape execution. These processes are likely to disguise our feelings as well as the prey.


Nevertheless, like the road runner, we survive by evading or defeating predators. The road runner cartoon models the insoluble ambivalence that is built into us as appetite. Humans are both predator and prey. Killing to eat is both a joy and a horror. Culture can rationalize the conflict as necessity and condition us with fatalism. But humankind may also react with ambitious denial, enlarging and reinforcing cultural projects such as the belief that cosmic authority ordains us lords of creation, free to use other creatures as measured appetite demands. As “the king of beasts,” the lion is a rival to the lord of creation. Affluent hunters pay to kill the trophy “lord” as a symbolic rival or enemy, not as a lion-chop to be eaten. Grocery stores in Europe market a breakfast cereal called ”Lion” which allows defenseless young hominids to catch and swallow “the king” as the king himself does an antelope in the wilderness. In its animated Lion King, Disney encourages children to identify with a lion cub who comes of age as “The Lion King.”


In Road Runner cartoons, the clever bird and Wile E. Coyote evoke conflicting aspects of childhood. The coyote’s violent futility comically moralizes obsessive greed, punishing the predator. As denial, it gives a comical disguise to the dog-eat-dog appetite in which all life is entangled. By contrast, the innocent road runner is never plagued by hunger and therefore is never tainted by aggression. Like the cartoon, Aesop’s fables also repeatedly project predators and prey, moralizing clashes. Even when the predator succeeds, as when the wolf eats the lamb in Aesop, the dying victim gets the last word, talking back to authority in a resounding protest: “Any excuse will serve a tyrant.”[5]


Moralizing about predatory greed, the Road Runner cartoon is a cultural tool to help stabilize creaturely motives and society. What needs to be emphasized is that we are conflicted creatures: biological animals like others on earth, yet also symbolic beings. As Clifford Geertz has pointed out, genes and culture give us two not always compatible guidance systems.[6] We are conflicted not only within culture, as in the class-conflict acted out by Aesop’s lamb and wolf, subject and tyrant, but also within the creaturely motives that shape us. The mouth that communicates, expresses tenderness, and tastes the world also hides the teeth and muscles we use to chew up, swallow, digest, and excrete other living things. We develop cultures to help us harmonize this conflict. We think of a dead steer as a “Whopper” or boeuf bourguinon rather than as a corpse. Like other tools such as law, medicine, and religion, food culture regulates our exposure to death and futility, and protects morale. Civilization confines slaughter to a farm or a “meat packing plant,” and ritualizes the consumption of body parts at the dinner table with polite manners perhaps framed by a prayer to invisible cosmic authority. Culture turns appetite into a system that promotes survival. It shelters us as habitat does. A house keeps out predators and foul weather, and stages the transformation of living things into food.


One of culture’s tools is irony. Definitions of the term focus on opposition, contradiction, and incongruity. What makes conflicted ideas ironic is tone of voice or an ironic attitude. In spirit, irony is open-ended: it suspends closure. In satire, it mocks inadequacies without necessarily specifying anything better. Confronting doom, gallows humor responds to the incongruity of death by suspending terror and depression in laughter. Whether signaled on the page or in person, irony tolerates conflicts. It makes shareable an acceptance of human inadequacy. If I tell you that “The coyote chases the road runner out of unrequited love,” you’re likely to conclude that the statement is factually incorrect or a joke. However, if I say the same thing ironically, in the context of this discussion of creaturely motives, we may share a hunch that there is more going on in the pursuit than a conventional explanation can say. In that case, the irony would be a suggestion, perhaps intuitive, and beyond any claims of proof. The irony would allow the possibility that there’s more going on in this silly cartoon than meets the eye—more than we can puzzle out just now. Eventually we might consider that the coyote’s chase may combine aggression and desire as stalking does. But meanwhile irony keeps open the

Irony is radically equivocal. It can foster humility in acknowledging that the world is always bigger than we are. But it can also flatter our intuitive powers as if we know more than we do. And irony is unaccountable—which is one reason that television is relentlessly ironical. Using chickens—ridiculous chickens—Mark Lewis has built his “natural history” out of contradictions observed from life.

The Natural History of the Chicken is “dedicated to the renowned Italian Renaissance natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi who perceived the chicken as part of a much larger ‘order of things’” (0’41”). The “order of things” might call to mind a parental deity’s supervised “chain of being” or the Enlightenment’s sublime cosmic clockwork. Yet while the film examines crucial philosophical themes, it systematically juxtaposes anecdotal vignettes that demonstrates our contradictory attitudes toward chickens and nature. We raise the birds to be slaughtered and eaten, for example, yet also dote on them as pets, even as “soulmates.” The vignettes dramatize some of the myriad rationales we use to harmonize these contradictions. Taken as a natural history, the film evokes an “order of things” that defies scientific taxonomy. Instead of forcing motives into logical categories determined by a comprehensive theory, the film lets its incongruities speak for themselves.

The closing vignette illustrates the process. There, pastor Joseph Tauer recounts a reassuring fable about Lisa, a hen who covers her chicks to save them from an attacking hawk. He concludes that Lisa was willing to sacrifice herself. After some melodramatic suspense, the pastor reveals that the hawk missed. He vows that the incident proves that divine authority governs the world, and his homily seems to sum up the film on a reassuring note.

The pastor’s didactic tone signals that he is not being ironic. In a larger context, however, his lesson about Lisa is one of the many incongruities that make the film ironic. Among other things, the hawk’s failure to kill Lisa’s chicks means that her own hawk chicks may starve to death. More ironically still, to create the homily, the pastor has to be unchristian, scapegoating the hawk and perhaps sacrificing her offspring.





The film opens with Janet Bonney’s introduction of her farm in Maine and her small flock of chickens. Since the camera sees only a comfortable house in an idyllic setting—no mud, manure, or back-breaking toil—the farm is already sheltered by pastoralism. Janet Bonney is unpretentious and self-reliant, an older woman but not elderly. She recounts how one of her flock died in a sudden snowstorm. The chicken was “lying on her back, frozen, like the kind you’d find in a grocery store” (3’42”). As she prepared to bury the bird, she detected a faint pulse. “My God, she’s alive! So, I got the hot water bottle and put her on her back on that.” She applied CPR, “which I didn’t know too much about, but I’d seen it on television on doctor shows.” Adding “mouth to beak” resuscitation, she brought the victim back to life. Audiences chuckle at the idea of reviving an animal with a life-giving kiss usually reserved for fellow humans and Sleeping Beauty.

No longer young and apparently living alone, the woman celebrated the triumph of life over death by naming the survivor Valerie “for her valor” and putting her in a baby’s playpen to recover. The rescuer, that is, turned the resurrected bird into an individual, a baby—a basic symbol of the desire for more life that is built into us. Valerie “enjoyed watching television”­—the source of the CPR instruction that saved her life and represented by a nearly subliminal 5- second clip of surgery (6’38”) spliced in to conclude the vignette. Valerie’s story illustrates the way culture elevates the accidental survival of a barnyard animal into a “miracle.” The process transforms an anonymous creature into the uncanny hero Valerie, whose remarkable triumph over death counters anxiety and dissolves ambivalence about whether to bond with, or kill and eat, her.

The following sequence ironically sums up Valerie’s transformation. A Cadillac comically decorated with a giant rooster head and tail feathers (6’50”) rushes to deliver Danny’s Fried Chicken. As symbolized by the car, the bird is both a personal totem and food, not to mention an attention-getting advertising logo. On the soundtrack, accompanied by banjo, bass, and country fiddle, a male vocalist yodels as if giving a voice to the automotive chicken on screen, bringing the impersonation to life. The chicken-mobile fuses chickens and humans together the way we identify with the chicken Valerie. At the same time, an intertltle announces that we “spend $40 billion each year on chicken products” and “eat 80 pounds of chicken per person per year.” By consuming chickens, we also make them part of us.


The sequence that follows visits a commercial chicken hatchery, the agricultural industry’s source of chickens as food. The film keeps the human concern for “more life” in the foreground by explaining that the steel buildings are “designed to hatch fertile eggs from breeder farms” (7’31”). However, the identical steel buildings, shrouded in secrecy, resemble a Nazi death camp. Inside, the camera shows eggs and newborn chicks in factory profusion, processed as a commodity, as in vaccination, which sends fluffy, newly hatched chicks down metal chutes. The vignette closes with an shot that fills the screen with crowded, doomed chickens. An intertltle announces that “This year 8 billion chickens will be slaughtered to meet consumer demand” (9’24”). On the soundtrack a choral Agnus Dei ironically sharpens the resemblance to a Nazi death camp.


Having laid out the conflicting ideas, the film moves to a family farm in Virginia where Joseph Martinez offers a farmer’s frank, naturalistic rationalization of killing to eat. He raises chickens as he does plants, to “be close to the chain of life,” which “gives him a sense of well-being” (10’10”). If you eat a chicken, “somebody is killing that animal for you.” Yet the food chain is a rhetorical device and artificially blends plants and animals. Nobody keeps a turnip as a pet or uses CPR and a baby’s crib to bring it back to life.


As depicted, the Martinez farm itself euphemizes the conflict. Unlike Janet Bonney’s blizzard-struck farm, the Martinez farm is sunnily pastoral. While agribusiness can plow a five-mile long furrow these days, Maple Spring Farm is personal in scale, verdant green, tidy as a dining room, and unburdened by muck, toil, and finance. The Martinez family includes an attractive spouse, two model children who search out the free-range hens’ eggs, and the family dog. Like their rooster, who protects his hens as “father-figure and lover,” the farmer cares for his kingdom as an idealized monarch. His chickens are “as free as I am” and happy, as if that would make killing them easier rather than more disturbing.


In these episodes, culture assimilates animals and the problem of death. It humanizes chickens as surrogate children, but also, contrariwise, it makes them commodities stripped of identity, so copious they threaten to burst the walls of the steel hatchery shed containing them. The next vignette, Joel Vavra’s demonstration of chicken behavior, returns to a personal scale.


In his performance, Joel Vavra impersonates chickens in order to explain them. As he mimics the animals’ actions and vocalizations, he gives them a human voice. Dressed in farmer brown overalls, he acts out imaginative sympathy with nature. Acting out the chickens’ mating dance, he interprets them to us. The rooster’s crow after mating, he explains, is a cry of triumphant fulfillment, part of the cock’s genetic endowment. Mating, life pushes back against death. In its genetic logic, the solitary creature cries in protest: I’m still here, I exist. With this mating cry the vignette closes. The camera withdraws and the rooster-man shrinks into the distance, vanishing into the vastness of the field in a visual demonstration that an individual life is a speck in the infinitude of the dark cosmos. Finally a still shot of a dark corn field is all that remains, with the man’s rooster-cry alone and defiant on the soundtrack.


Like valorous Valerie’s “resurrection,” this is a fantasy of overcoming mortality. In human terms, as presented, the mating behavior and rooster’s crow dramatize the hero’s defiance of death. The animal’s appetite for more life is assertive, even aggressive, as the next vignette dramatizes.


Bobby Wayne Webb tried to raise roosters for cock-fighting, but ended up in a court fight with his suburban Ohio neighbors (13’13”). For society, cock-fighting functions to manage morale. Like gladiators in the Roman arena, fighting cocks model the heroic need to face down death-anxiety. Wagering on a fight to the death, the combat offers the thrilling prospect of “more life” in a victory. Gamblers identify with “their” gladiator and vicariously experience the triumph over terror and the threat of cowardice. The cock allows the winner to stand out against anonymity which—as in the mob of doomed birds jammed into the chicken-raising factory (9’24”)—is tantamount to social death. The gambler who loses confronts death in his dead bird, who is potentially a scapegoat to be disavowed, just as the proud victor tacitly disavows the loser and his rooster. In this way the combat reproduces, and also potentially finesses, the social hierarchy.


Webb stakes over a hundred young roosters to the ground, so close to one another that it keeps them in a state of emergency aggression. The rows of metal huts resemble a military encampment, a factory layout, a prison, or a death camp. As a gamecock breeder explains, roosters crow to mark territory and protect their females. The cocks crow in a threat display to warn off rivals even as they are fighting against the tethers that keep them staked on the edge of danger and helpless. Webb’s “farm” keeps their nervous systems in a state of constant emergency threat, primed for an instinctual fight to the death.


The roosters’ nonstop clamor rattles Mr. Webb’s neighbors. They become caught up in the birds’ creaturely motives when they are fired up by the roosters’ war-cries. The special effects make houses quake and windows shudder as if in battle. Like the birds, the human neighbors square off in a territorial struggle, fantasizing about being snipers. One consults Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for guidance, mistaking the ancient Chinese warrior for Japanese. For relief, the neighbors go to court. As evidence, they tally some 20,000 cries in a single day. This is akin to the noise of battle, and the neighbors prevail in court. Since chickens will kill and even cannibalize one another, the ruckus points to the ultimate threat of extermination that resonates with the human nervous system’s alarm. Raised to kill or be killed, the cocks are enslaved to command as gladiators and soldiers are. In fighting to survive and propagate more life, the roosters dramatize the spectators’ creaturely motives.


The neighbors’ and animals’ unconscious affinity is ironically reinforced when the next clip shows the Martinez children happily gathering free-range eggs as if they have an intuitive pastoral understanding of the hens’ habits. Then Danny’s comical rooster-mobile briefly reappears, followed by a closeup of an industrial egg-production facility (hens lay 80 billion eggs a year) whose overcrowded cages and conveyor belts foreground the depersonalized scale of factory farming (23’39”).


As the film sets out the basic conflict, the vignettes become more intensely personal. Karen Estrada, for example, celebrates her “soulmate” Cotton, a Japanese Silkie Bantam rooster, as her surrogate toddler and as a magical tonic for morale (25’29”). She takes Cotton grocery shopping, shares her food with him, and keeps him domesticated with a special diaper. She swims with the rooster cuddled to her breast, reads a poem she has composed that glorifies the joy he imparts. When his owner goes out, she leaves Cotton watching television, maintaining that the rooster appreciates Pavrotti’s singing, even as the camera satirically implies that the operatic tenor resembles the rooster in his full-throated expression.


Karen Estrada gushes. Her jubilation has the didactic fervor of a tent revival. Although she may strike audiences as a warbling, dotty eccentric, her uninhibited euphoria can be understood as a performance akin to the clown’s role in Shakespeare: an escape from ambivalence meant to wake people from humdrum torpor.


As Janet Bonney resumes the story of Valerie (30’53”), she reports that news of Valerie’s “miraculous” escape from death awoke interest in mortals around the globe. She suggests that Valerie’s story may have uplifted audiences disturbed by the anxious coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The trial was especially disturbing because a famous athletic symbol of fertility stood accused of destroying a wife and marriage that epitomized more life. “People” Janet Bonney theorizes, “needed . . . a Cinderella story”: that is, a fairy tale in which mating whisks a servant girl into the kingdom’s ruling family. In this context, Valerie did join the human family—in fact she led hopeful mortals up to the doorway to heaven. Janet Bonney called in Alex Kapuscinski, an “animal communicator,” who reported that Valerie told him she had gone into a tunnel of light while near death, only to have a supernatural voice tell her, on the edge of immortality, that she “must go back.”[7] The chicken’s experience seems to confirm the reality of life-beyond-death. What’s more, like a 19th century séance, the report affirms that the cosmos is personal, with a voice that a mere chicken can understand. At the end of a “tunnel of light,” a 20th century version of the séance experience, the voice tells the chicken on the threshold of ultimate revelation that she must return to life. When Valerie resumed her life in the barnyard, says Janet Bonney sounding like a virtuoso animal communicator herself, Valerie gave “the girls” an exciting, circumstantial account of her adventures, highlighting the pleasures of the playpen and television.


As in the ancients’ practices of ornithomancy, Valerie became associated with an uncanny life-force and, consciously or not, afforded onlookers reassuring omens. This is the fetish-power that farmer Lloyd Olson’s rooster Mike acquired after he was decapitated for the frying pan but “refused” to die (34’10”). The beheaded Mike behaved like an ordinary rooster. The film parodies a tall tale by having country folks relate the story. The vignette includes a photograph of the headless Mike as well as clips of neighbors who witnessed his freakish survival. Hoping to make money to pay off the farm, the Olsons exhibited the headless bird as “Miracle Mike” in sideshows at fairs. His apparent immortality fascinated crowds,[8] as if he proved that a will to live can triumph over death.


Since we locate our identity in the head, Mike’s decapitated life is an unwelcome reminder of our creaturely limits. Although we idealize our autonomy and attribute our executive capability to the brain, Mike’s survival makes the origin and organization of life mysterious again. It disrupts the conventional cultural story as well as our everyday experience of life. For some people, this disruption stirred sinister anxieties. After Life magazine featured Mike during World War Two, when war deaths tested cultural consolations, the Olsons received hate mail condemning their exploitation of Mike’s survival. Religious writers complained that death is God’s plan, and refusing to submit implies an unholy rebellion.


As it happens, Miracle Mike absurdly choked to death after the Olsons forgot an eyedropper to clear his throat. Since they had hoped that Mike’s career would rescue their farm from debt, the episode’s closing shot of the Olsons’ gravestones makes a sly comment on our striving for more life (41’22”). Their grandson sums up: “I think Lloyd and Clara thought that they were in the money, that they were going to go off and seek their fortune and retire off of this rooster. Mike drew a pretty good crowd at the sideshows, be it people that were just interested or thought it was a hoax.” For him, the contradictions stimulate wonder: “I really don’t know what to think of why Mike lived. Was it just fate? Did this one particular rooster have just that much will to live? Or was it just because he was so dumb of an animal he didn’t even know his head was cut off?”


When Joseph Martinez continues his story, by contrast, he philosophizes about life as a natural ecology rather than as a social Darwinist struggle for survival. As he kills a bird on camera, his commentary rationalizes his actions on the soundtrack. “In order to eat a chicken,” he says, “you have to kill a chicken. There’s just no easy way around that. I try to do it as easily on them as possible. I try to respect them all the way through the process to the table. All farmers take this as a matter of course.” He keeps the relationship personal and respectful. And he is proud to be forthright.


Still, the farmer’s philosophy is not without conflicts. His qualms about killing he displaces to non-farmers, whose ignorance amounts to denial. “I guess I feel a little odd about speaking about killing because I know many many people have no experience of this at all, and it’s very difficult for them to see it as not being cruel. But I don’t see it as being cruel. I see it as necessary.” In this formula, necessity is akin to the immemorial peasant’s bedrock fatalism. And it implies sacrifice: the victim’s sacrifice, and the demanding role of the heroic paterfamilias or priest who carries out the slaughter. “Somebody is doing it if you eat meat. Somebody is harvesting that creature for you.”


At the Martinez family dinner table, with the corpse of the chicken roasted golden brown, the farmer also acts as Dad and priest ritualizing the consumption of the sacrifice. He leads the family in a toast to “our beautiful chicken.” The ritual’s reverence recalls the worshipful mystification that Valerie and Miracle Mike inspired, corroborated by the family’s ceremonial harmony and security. The underlying pastoralism implies that “nature” has always been benevolent, as in “organic” farming and the Paleo Diet.


Facing the camera, Mr. Martinez is eloquent: “There’s a sense of wholeness about growing your own food. It reminds me that it’s not just me in this world. It helps me stay attuned to those things that are important to me like cycles of life and death, of happiness and sadness, just everything that makes a life rich. So it keeps me connected to things outside of myself.” While it recalls the Joel Vavra the rooster-man defiantly crowing in an overwhelmingly vast landscape, the family farmer’s creed of selflessness and necessity dramatizes for the camera a moment of contentment untroubled by survival greed.


The film closes with the pealing of church bells and Pastor Joseph Tauer’s appeal to divine authority to harmonize our conflicted nature (46’36”). In Unity Magazine, whose cover feature is titled “Courageous Living, Abundant Living” and illustrated by a photograph of a motherly woman with baskets of food—an explicit invocation of more life—the pastor has published a homily about chickens titled “Call Me Chicken.” As a rule, he explains, the word “chicken” usually implies cowardice. To refute that misperception, he tells us about Lisa, a Japanese silky bantam smaller than other chickens, “but big in her love for life.” The tale of Lisa provides climactic reassurance and associates the audience with a church congregation, yet irony colors the ritual.


Lisa, the pastor believes, was desperate to be a mother, yet the other hens picked on her and predators scavenged her eggs. After some frustrated interventions, the pastor finally built Lisa a special home for her alone, implicitly taking the role of paterfamilias or rooster himself. In what amounts to a virgin birth—there is no rooster in the pastor’s tale—Lisa became an ideal mother to a brood of chicks. One day a hawk panicked the flock, and Lisa’s chicks hid under her. The hawk swooped down and appeared to kill Lisa but miraculously missed.


The pastor concludes that Lisa was willing to give her life for others, and that this proves “the absolute order in God’s universe.” Like a saint’s life, Lisa’s tale becomes a parable about cosmic truth. The pastor imagines Lisa “overcoming the so-called survival instinct,” willing to sacrifice herself for others. The assumption is that self-sacrifice is a value that transcends creaturely motives such as self-preservation, and fulfills a divine plan. In the process it also relieves our guilt as predators who must kill to live. Framed this way, the pastor’s story excludes alternative explanations such as the instinct to keep absolutely still or play dead in an attack in hopes that the predator will pass over the victim.


But as pointed out above, an even more serious omission undermines the pastor’s tale. In casting Lisa as a saintly heroine and the hawk the villain, he moralizes nature, imposing a cultural melodrama on it. Lisa becomes the supreme mother, and the mother hawk the messenger of death. The narrative becomes an allegory about human character. By envisioning nature not as an ecosystem but as a moral instrument, pastor Tauer screens out the reality that the hawk could be a parent too, possibly with hungry chicks doomed to starve because their parent’s talons missed. What’s more, if the pastor acknowledges that his God made both the Japanese bantam hen and the hawk, he is in the awkward position of believing that his God has created a predatory world and plays favorites.





Pastor Tauer tries to overcome conflicts that entangle us by devising a story that transcends them. As partner, he helps and loves Liza, and with her he creates a family: more life. Yet he invests this family with value by making Liza Christlike in her self-sacrifice while scapegoating the hawks. In cultural history, this is the dynamic of social hierarchy. One family or class is idealized or ennobled at the expense of others. Liza’s brood becomes a moral aristocracy, as it were, while the hawks go hungry or become outlaws. It is human imagination that distinguishes between Us and Them; nature is indifferent


Because we are insolubly ambivalent and hierarchies are contestable, we depersonalize the animals we slaughter or sacralize them as we do with the chicken Valerie or halal meat. In the ancient world, haruspicy or divination with bones projected the search for more life into the supernatural. Today the chicken’s wish-bone is a faded reminder of ornithomancy and the use of bird flight and organs as omens. Still, imagination today may attribute to birds a link to the cosmic life-force or supreme meaning. Like mating behavior, the symbolic transformation of a chicken into a family member or soulmate can be a means of generating more life and connecting the family to the mysteries of birth and death. The dynamic seems to be built into us in the instinct to divide reality into Us and Them.


The division of Us from Them directly registers the predatory and sociable motives that conflict us. The conflict lies in the need to kill to insure our survival, and the way the compulsion to kill arouses anxiety about death. The conflict is symbolized as the storm that “kills” (transforms) Valerie. The priestly “animal communicator” relays Valerie’s supernatural experience to her “family” and, by satellite, to the world. The Olsons’ story complements her story. The farmer’s slaughter of chickens for the frying pan is the storm that creates “Miracle Mike” and a magical promise to grow the farm and enrich the Olsons.


By symbolizing killing as a storm, we attempt to naturalize it. The storm disrupts and endangers routine, but it seems built into life and “natural.” At the same time, paradoxically, the symbolic storm dissolves the conventional cognitive categories that enable us to function but also rigidify thought. Habits, for example, make our mental operations more reliable and efficient, yet they also may rigidify as prejudices, inaccurate and resistant to reality-testing. A basic irony of the film is that our prevailing conventions misconceive the chicken. The symbolic storm of near-death or play-death makes Miracle Mike and Valerie—”dumb clucks”—into totemic figures that reveal to us a supernatural dimension to experience. In effect, the storm forces us to rethink.


Cognitively, a miracle resembles irony inasmuch as both concepts disrupt rigid conventional categories and allow for “unthinkable” incongruities. It’s ironic or possibly miraculous that humans can think of chickens as hard-wired dumb clucks and as personalities with uncanny connections to nature or the cosmos. Either way, as irony or miracle, these are mental operations. After all, even if these concepts expand or refresh our conception of reality, all creatures nevertheless do continue to age and die. What’s more, the knowledge of that physical reality of death stays with us.


Irony and miracle are related ways of managing an overplus of meaning. The film, for instance, presents humans as both biological and spiritual creatures, motivated by survival greed and moral aspiration. Both irony and miracle are ways of acknowledging incompatible realities. Irony suspends the excess meaning and the contradictions it implies. We can have a “sense” of irony without defining it. But miracle also suspends incompatible realities inasmuch as miracles depend on belief and cannot erase the contradictions that the miracle is supposed to transcend. To repeat: even with miracles, people continue to eat and die.


Both modes of thought are conditional or subjunctive, with a latent awareness that cannot be wholly integrated. While such a conditional mentality might seem extraordinary, it is common in everyday experience. In fact, it arguably affects all of our thinking. We more familiarly think of it as play.


In play, the idea of pretending or conjecture conditions experience. Play can be formal, as in theater or wordplay. But English has a cluster of words that overlap with the core idea such as possibility, uncertainty, guesswork, conjecture, intuition, surmise, suggestion, fancy, and presumption. The words are conditional insofar as they make it possible to entertain—to give attention or to consider—an idea that may be hypothetical. Conditional realities include stories, daydreams, the past and the future. Since dreams are made from recognizable materials, no matter how distorted, they too have characteristics of play.


Consider again the film’s treatment of the poultry industry. The steel buildings suggest a factory, prison, death camps, and social death. The process is designed to depersonalize slaughter. However, the film insinuates the need for a sacralized dimension by including on the soundtrack a choral Agnus Dei that worships the sacrificial lamb of God, innocence, and mercy. It can be religious feeling but also, if belief falters or hunger prevails, irony. Empathy and appetite are both possible, and the director makes it impossible to omit one perspective or the other. The overplus of meaning is irreducible, with no way to secure closure. At the same time the film’s argument is playful. Athough the industrial process culminates in slaughter, no killing, industrial accidents, or diseases such as salmonella appear onscreen. Likewise the symbolic storms, from the blizzard that “freezes” Valerie to the war-cries of roosters that quake the neighbors’ houses, are comic. In effect, the film’s clashing ironies build up a cognitive storm that disrupts our conventional reality. But this storm, too, is comic in its omission of sordid or agonizing examples.


It is easy to overlook the element of play in behavior. In re-enacting her rescue of Valerie, for example, Janet Bonney is ambivalent. She wants to affirm the profundity of her story, but she is also aware of her audience and the extraordinary claims that attracted worldwide attention. The film accompanies her account of the tunnel of light with choral music reminiscent of Holst’s “The Planets,” which may or may not be satiric. Rather than report the voice of God—“You must go back”—or the experience of the chicken, the woman relates the animal communicator’s account. She takes the role of a priest mediating between humans and the divine: Valerie ”realized” that she was “put on this farm not just to lay eggs, but to prove to people that with love and with caring, miracles do happen” (34:09). Her vow that “miracles do happen” is a blessing at the climax of the episode, followed by a roseate sunset. Interpreting Valerie to us, the woman also recreates the morale-boosting conviction of a mother rehearsing the lesson that comes with a new baby.


This wisdom risks being a platitude, and also comes dangerously close to humankind’s death-anxiety. Aware of our ambivalence, Janet Bonney compares Valerie’s lesson to the OJ Simpson trial, whose audience was “kind of fed up and needed a story that was homey and—a Cinderella story, if you will, that did work out” (31:41). The heroic Cinderella, originally chicken number seven, “we decided to call ‘Valerie’ for her valor. Queen Valor—I don’t know, but ’Valerie’ it was, and she has responded to that name ever since” (31:50). The interjected “I don’t know” shows the woman giving the culturally welcome blessing while being ironically aware that it may sound inflated and fake.


The self-critical moment illustrates the multiplicity of human mentality. The woman is aware of the human need for Valerie’s miracle while she is also critical that the miracle may seem unbelievable. After all, however valorous Valerie may be, she will presumably go on laying eggs and ultimately be eaten. Among other things, Janet Bonney’s exaggeration would call attention to her failure as an artist as well as a priest by misjudging the audience’s temper. Her self-correction—“I don’t know”—is a sign that the “blessing” she gives is conditional: colored by play and irony.



[1] “Letters from Ernest,” Christian Century, March 9, 1977, 220.

[2] Barbara J. King, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018.

[3] (New York: Free Press, 1974). At his death, Becker was writing Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975), applying the implications of denial to violence. George Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh .


[4] As of June 7, 2018, the film is available on youtube:

[5] Project Gutenberg:

[6] Cf. Clifford Geertz’s well-known formulation in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973): “our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products–products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless.”

[7] Raymond Moody, Life After Life (1975) established the term “near-death experience as paranormal. The best-seller ”Proof of Heaven” by nerurosurgeon Eben Alexander, which claims proof of a near-death experience, has been repeatedly debunked, as in Luke Dittrich, “The Prophet,” in Esquire (July 2, 2013).


[8] The guillotine’s traumatic decapitation during the French Revolution gave rise to fascination with “the dividing line between history, madness, dream, and decapitation.” See Laure Murat, The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness (Chicago, 2015), 69.