Essay On Freedom Of Birds

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."

Abstract: I will be addressing two issues in this review essay: freedom of the will and the value of genealogy.

Freedom of the Will

In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche explains the basic relationship between adherents of master and slave morality using an analogous relationship between birds of prey and tasty little lambs. What is so intriguing--and troubling--about this analogy is that it spotlights Nietzsche’s rejection of free will. How is any discussion of morality to proceed without that premise of freedom of will?

The analogy (found in Essay I, section 13) describes a predatory relationship between the birds of prey (the masters) and the lambs (the slaves). Acting in accordance with their natures, the birds of prey consume the terrified and tasty little lambs. The birds of prey are strong, exploiting the lambs as they see fit. The lambs, on the other hand, are weak and unable to physically defend themselves against the birds of prey in a contest of strength. And so the lambs use what power they have: they decry the birds of prey as evil, as capable of choosing to be lambs instead, and therefore as responsible for their plunder. But how ridiculous it is to demand that birds of prey be lambs! One animal cannot change to become another.

It is just as ridiculous, in Nietzsche’s view, to demand that masters ought to be slaves. Their nature is to be masters--to dominate, to exploit, to expand their power. If the slaves are unhappy being dominated and exploited, then tough luck, as such is their lot in life as the weaker beings.

The troubling part of this analogy is that it requires us to discard our common conceptions of freedom of will. Nietzsche argues in this section that the “seduction of language” has given rise to an inappropriate emphasis on *doers* rather than on the *deed*. The slaves “exploit this belief for their own ends” and thereby ardently hold that “the strong man is free to be weak and the bird of prey to be a lamb” (BGE I 13). As a result, the slaves “gain the right to make the bird of prey *accountable* for being a bird of prey” (BGE I.13).

How is any discussion of morality to proceed without that premise of freedom of will?

Despite this challenge to free will, it would be overly simplistic to call Nietzsche a determinist. He is just as opposed to the concept of an “unfree will” as he is to a “free will” (BGE 21). Rather, Nietzsche is opposed to free will in the “metaphysically superlative sense” in which one is “causa sui...[able] to pull oneself into existence out of the swamp of nothingness by one’s own hair” (BGE 21). According to Nietzsche, there are dark drives and unknown impulses that influence our actions, perhaps more than our own conscious purposes do. He writes:

“People are accustomed to consider the goal (purposes, volitions, etc.) as the *driving force*, in keeping with a very ancient error; but it is merely the *directing force*--one has mistaken the helmsman for the stream. And not even always the helmsman, the directing force” (GS 360).

The stream (our unconscious drives) takes us in one direction rather than another; it pulls us faster or slower. The helmsman (conscious purposes) merely guide us within the confines set by the stream. For Nietzsche, it is hubris for us to pretend that the stream does not exist or that the helmsman could go upriver if he wanted to.

There are two limited aspects of Nietzsche’s views here that I can support. First, the view of free will that Nietzsche is attacking is one unaffected by one’s past or outside forces. Second, the analogy of the helmsman on the stream fairly accurately describes someone who is choosing to keep the light in the consciousness dim.

First: Nietzsche seems to be attacking a Kantian notion of freedom of the will, one in which the “thing in itself,” unconnected to the world of experience, is doing the choosing. The Objectivist view of free will, on the other hand, recognizes that our choice to think is influenced by the incentives provided by our history and the external world. Ayn Rand argued:

“A social environment can neither force a man to think not prevent him from thinking. But a social environment can offer incentives or impediments; it can make the exercise of one’s rational faculty easier or harder; it can encourage thinking and penalize evasion or vice versa” (Rand, TO, Apr. 1966, 2).

In other words, although we are, in the end, making the choice to think or not ourselves, that choice is not occurring in some higher realm, insulated from the influences of experience.

Second: The Objectivist view of free will recognizes that when people choose not to think, when the light in their consciousness grows dim, their choices are then influenced by the “stream” of unconscious drives and external forces that Nietzsche described. A person choosing not to think is like a sleepy helmsman, barely able to keep the boat from crashing into the bank.

Additionally, I should mention that Nietzsche might not see the “stream” in this analogy as something we are placed upon without our consent. For Nietzsche, the instincts that unconsciously govern our actions are not necessarily biological ones; we can create our own instincts by forgetting the conscious purposes that drive our actions (GM II.2). In this sense, instincts for Nietzsche are similar to Aristotelian moral dispositions. Thus, the nature of the stream could be governed by the past choices we’ve made and the instincts we’ve developed.

Nietzsche’s views on free will and causality are extremely complex, perhaps somewhat unintelligible. Nevertheless, he ought not be dismissed as a determinist. Not only do his explicit writings on the subject disavow such a position, but also, in general, his writings on morality largely indicate some freedom of the will.

The Value of Genealogy

Nietzsche, particularly in Beyond Good and Evil, relies upon genealogy as a method of philosophical analysis in order to undercut the altruist ethic. In his Feb. 5th review essay , Jason summarized the value of genealogy as follows:

“Nietzsche’s genealogy serves, first, to separate the content of morality from the subject itself, by showing the actual, historical development of different and indeed opposite conceptions of morality in history. The second purpose is to show the historical contingency of ‘moral’ valuations altogether; that, is, Nietzsche hopes to dispel the aura of morality ‘in itself’ and any intuitive morality of altruism by showing the purposes for which morality has been used, and by showing that morality originated in pursuit on values.”

The method of genealogy, however, does not seem like the best tool with which to accomplish these two goals. Additionally, I have serious reservations about a philosophical method in which the truth is apparently irrelevant, as Jason indicated.

The connection between Nietzsche's and Ayn Rand's ethics is superficial at best.

The first goal, separating the content of morality from the subject, largely requires avoiding the most common method of moral theorizing: starting from presumptions about what constitutes moral behavior and then building a theory around those presumptions. As for what positive method should be used, we ought to start with fundamental questions, ones that do not presuppose moral content, namely “What are values? Why does man need them?” (Rand, VOS 15) Hoping to separate subject from content by historical investigation is much less likely to be fruitful. For example, just about every moral theory has presupposed fundamental conflicts of interests between individuals. A historical investigation will fail to reveal that this premise is questionable. The fact that Nietzsche’s own moral theorizing fails to uproot or even question this basic presupposition indicates a failure of the genealogical method.

The second goal, of dispelling the “aura of morality ‘in itself,’” could well be useful as a rhetorical tool, for those who believe in the holy sanctity of their moral principles. But given the lack of proof for the results of Nietzsche’s genealogical theorizing, probably mostly the young and naive would be seriously shaken by the arguments. Nevertheless, it is clear that Nietzsche views his genealogical method as more than mere rhetoric. He presents the “just-so” story of the origins of master and slave morality as an actual theory (although not necessarily fact), not mere supposing based on weak evidence. For Objectivists, this is fairly problematic; a philosophical method simply cannot be impervious to the truth.

The real question here for Objectivists is whether Nietzsche’s genealogical method into the master and slave moralities bears any resemblance to Ayn Rand’s investigation into the basic questions of ethics. As with Eyal Mozes , I think the connection is superficial at best. Rand’s questions were not designed, as were Nietzsche’s, to demystify altruistic ethics. Rather, the goal was to start at the beginning, to examine all premises, so that correct conclusions could be reached. Rand’s method was to use truth to dislodge false ideas about the bond between altruism and morality; Nietzsche’s method is essentially to use unproven (and perhaps unprovable) allegations to attempt to do the same.


Nietzsche has always been a great favorite of mine, but as the years go by, I find myself more and more disturbed by the incoherence of his philosophical writings. Nietzsche was obviously not interested in “system-building” in the ways that Aristotelians, Kantians, and Objectivists are. Nevertheless, even without a system, my brain craves some kind of consistency and regularity from his writings.   For your information, Richard Schacht’s book Nietzsche is an excellent and very comprehensible overview of Nietzsche’s thought, although perhaps too comprehensible of an overview. I worry that it tends to take the principle of charity too far; it makes Nietzsche out to be somewhat more reasonable and systematic than he is, in my view.    

Response by William Dale

Response by Christopher Robinson

Response by Thomas Gramstad

Back to  Part One, On Human Nature and Values

> Return to the parent page for this 2000 online CyberSeminar, "Nietzsche and Objectivism."


The soul is a bird that flies to paradise.

We’ve been saying this or something like it for as long as we’ve been able to talk about souls and paradise, and probably about birds as well. And why not? We think of both birds and souls as elusive, graceful, beautiful, unfettered. We consider our souls to be the best part of us and birds the most enviable of living things. We want to know them, to be them. Our longing to experience the swoops and turns of flight, to feel that exhilarating ascent, to sense the supporting wind beneath our wings, is so powerful that it emerges in our night dreams, reveries, and myths and infiltrates our languages and music. We say we want to be as free as a bird, to fly with the eagles, to spread our wings and soar. We link aspiration with respiration, as if our desire to climb the sky is as crucial as breathing. Consider any of the profoundest human longings—love, freedom, salvation, transcendence—and you will find an arc described by birds.

Why, then, do we cage them?

Are we lonely? Do we crave the sound of voices other than our own? Are we so relieved to discover we are not alone in the universe that we impound other inhabitants in clumsy embrace?

The Sumerians, the oldest civilization known to have kept written records, had a word, subura, for birdcage.

In the fifth century BC, the Persian physician Ctesiphon wrote of his amazement that certain captive birds speak in human voices and assured his readers that birds raised in Persia could learn to speak fluent Greek.

When the Macedonians under Alexander the Great reached India in 327 BC, the generals Nearchus and Onesicritus amused themselves by collecting native parakeets. Onesicritus managed to keep a few of the birds alive in heavy iron cages during the journey home to Greece. Descendants of those birds are known today as Alexandrine parakeets.

Do we bring birds inside our homes because we are unable to enter theirs? Do we try to tame wild nature because we fear we can never tame our own?

Ancient mariners—Babylonians, Hindu merchants of the fifth century BC, Polynesians, Vikings—often carried caged birds on long ocean journeys. When seeking land they would release a bird and observe its flight. If the bird saw land in the distance it would fly in that direction and not be seen again. If no land was detected, the bird would return to the ship, to its cage.

In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder traced the Roman tradition of keeping birds in cages to Marcus Laenius Strabo of the Order of the Knighthood at Brindisi. “From him,” Pliny writes, “began our practice of imprisoning within bars living creatures to which Nature had assigned the open sky.”

Discussing the excesses in which some Romans indulged, Pliny cited the example of an actor named Clodius Aesop who enjoyed eating birds that while alive had spoken in human voices. The actor was driven, said Pliny, by “the desire to indulge in a sort of cannibalism.”

Just as birds in mythology, art, and religion are associated with the soul, so too is the wind. The ancient Greek word psyche meant not just “soul,” but “wind,” “breath,” and “mind.” It was also the name the Greeks gave to the butterfly, the insect known for its fragile beauty, delicate flight, and “resurrection” after its pseudo-death within the coffin of the chrysalis. Nor should we forget that in Genesis God blows the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, and “man became a living soul.”

In the Iliad Homer personified the north wind as an impregnator of life: “three thousand mares he had, that pastured along the marshy meadow, rejoicing in their tender foals. Of them Boreas became enamored as they grazed, and in semblance of a dark-maned stallion he covered them; then they conceived and bore twelve fillies.”

Though generally skeptical of folklore, Aristotle thought it plausible that mares could be impregnated by the wind. He cautiously endorsed a notion popular in his day that a female partridge might become impregnated if she stood downwind of a male or if a male flying overhead should happen to breathe upon her. He agreed that “wind-eggs” or zephyria are laid by domestic hens, partridges, pigeons, geese, and many other kinds of birds that have not mated with a male of their species—and that they might be produced by the wind, since “hen-birds can be seen in spring-time inhaling the breezes”—but insists, correctly, that such eggs are infertile. Responding to the folk belief that vultures must lay their eggs in some faraway, unknown country since their nests are never found, he contends (again, correctly) that the nests are difficult to locate only because vultures build them on inaccessible rocky cliffs.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe it was commonly believed that all vultures were female and could be conceived only by the wind.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter—and the Bird is on the Wing.”

Do we imagine that we can encage time itself?

For hundreds of years, women’s quarters in the royal courts of Europe were livened with cages housing local species of birds (tropical imports could not survive the cold of winter). Among those most prized were chaffinch, greenfinch, siskin, and, especially, bullfinch, which could be trained to mimic a variety of melodies.

In about 1350, the German cleric Konrad von Megenberg published Das Buch der Natur (The Book of Nature), a compilation of much of the science and natural history of his time. The bulk of the book was borrowed from the thirteenth-century Dominican friar Thomas of Cantimpré’s Opus de natura rerum (not to be confused with the De rerum natura of Lucretius), but Konrad added new material as well, including comments on the behavior of tamed birds. He noted, for instance, that siskins, linnets, and goldfinches were customarily kept in wooden cages and that they could be trained to lift tiny wooden cups of grain with their feet and eat from them.

As early as 1341, Portuguese sailors visiting the Canary Islands and the neighboring Azores and Madeira noted that the islands were inhabited by great numbers of small, plainly marked birds with extraordinary vocal abilities. By the reign of Manuel I, from 1491 to 1521, it was fashionable throughout Portugal to keep cages filled with these birds that had long been known as canaries. (Portraits of ladies of the era often displayed one perched on a delicately extended finger.) To preserve a monopoly on the lucrative trade, merchants in the Canary Islands attempted to export only males. But because the gender of canaries is difficult to determine, occasional females got out, allowing limited breeding of the birds elsewhere. The females were so coveted that in 1622, when word spread that a Spanish vessel had been stranded on the island of Elba and that its cargo of male and female canaries had escaped, a party of Tuscan merchants sailed to the island specifically to obtain the birds. The merchants carried the canaries to the Tuscan city of Leghorn and sold them for their literal weight in gold.

Following the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s completion of a sea route to India in 1499, traders began transporting large numbers of parrots from Africa, India, and Java to the capitals of Europe, where they were purchased as housepets by merchants and patricians. The King of France was an early enthusiast; soon also were other European monarchs.

It was perhaps about this time that an Italian proverb appeared: “The songbird in its cage sings not for joy but rage.”

Soon after the first explorations of the New World, American species began arriving in Europe. Among the favorites were South American macaws, which were much larger than African parrots. Another, the yellow-headed amazon, was first carried home by Columbus.

During Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, Sebastion del Cano, who took command after Magellan’s death, received a bird of paradise as a gift from the sultan of Batjan in the Philippines. Upon the expedition’s return to Spain in 1522, del Cano’s bird created a sensation. The imaginations of those who saw it were enflamed by this living wonder with its ribbonlike tail feathers streaming behind, its colors as vibrant and varied as tropical flowers.

No living bird of paradise was seen again in Europe until 1862, when Alfred Russel Wallace delivered a pair to the London zoo. The event made the elaborately plumaged birds instantly fashionable as adornments on ladies’ hats, creating a furious trade in bird-of-paradise carcasses. In 1889 alone, Germany imported fifty thousand skins. Fashions changed just in time to save the birds from extermination, though the larger species, with their yard-long tails, remained popular as living ornaments in gardens and aviaries. Three New Guinea species—the king bird of paradise, the lesser bird of paradise, and the blue bird of paradise—were especially popular as caged pets.

Are we so captivated by the intricacy of feathers, the catenary elegance of wings, the trills and warbles of song that we want to possess them? But why do we encage what captivates us? Who is the captive here?

A generation after the death of Leonardo da Vinci, Vasari, in The Lives of the Artists, wrote of the great artist: “Often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold, he would pay the price asked, take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom. In return he was so favored by nature that to whatever he turned his mind or thoughts the results were always inspired and perfect; and his lively and delightful works were incomparably graceful and realistic.”

Perhaps Leonardo released captive birds out of sympathy, but it seems certain that he was motivated as well by the practical desire to observe their behavior in flight. His notebook descriptions reveal details so precise they could only have been studied at close hand. He wrote: “The bird beats its wings repeatedly on one side only when it wishes to turn around while one wing is held stationary; and this it does by taking a stroke with the wing in the direction of the tail, like a man rowing a boat with two oars, who takes many strokes on that side from which he wishes to escape, and keeps the other oar fixed.”

He wrote also, as a reminder to himself: “You will make an anatomy of the wings of a bird together with the muscles of the breast which are the movers of these wings.

“And you will do the same for man, in order to show the possibility that there is in man who desires to sustain himself amid the air by the beating of wings.”

Leonardo noticed, as few before him had, that human bones are dense, excellent for providing leverage and absorbing impact, but they make poor frames for wings. The secret to bird flight is hollow bones.

Where Leonardo found intellectual gratification others have found moral fortification. The Chinese Buddhist custom of fang sheng, or “release life,” has long granted honor to those who would bestow freedom upon captive birds and other animals. Monasteries often kept a pond dedicated to the practice, where the pious could release fish specially purchased from local fishmongers. Marco Polo noted that in Hangchow, which he visited in 1276 and described as “the greatest city in the world, where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in Paradise,” it was customary for Buddhists to buy captive turtles from vendors and release them into the lake upon which the city was built.

When feeling benevolent, Tzu-Hsi, the Empress Dowager of China (1835–1908), released large numbers of caged birds, creating a lucrative trade among local bird catchers and merchants. Each year her birthday was celebrated with the release of ten thousand birds. Many of these liberated birds were quickly recaptured by peasants with nets and returned to the market, to be sold again to the Empress’s agents.

After the death of the Empress it remained fashionable throughout China to engage in ceremonial mass releases of birds as an homage to Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. In 1963, as an act of piety in a time of drought, residents of Hong Kong released three hundred sparrows as well as many turtles, monkeys, and barking deer. Markets in traditional Buddhist communities in Thailand, Cambodia, and Tibet continue to this day to offer birds that can be purchased and set free. The practice is especially popular among young travelers from Western nations.

Sigmund Freud, in his famous 1910 paper, “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood,” decided that Leonardo’s habit of purchasing caged birds only to release them revealed an extraordinary gentleness of nature.

Here is Leonardo’s childhood recollection, according to Freud: “I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.”

Freud found this statement fascinating on many levels. He noted that in the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians the word “mother” is represented by the image of a vulture (there was phonetic basis for this: both words were pronounced mut). He noted as well that the Egyptians represented the human soul with the image of a generic bird, ba, standing with its arms raised in the attitude of prayer. Egyptologists refer to this symbol as a “soul-bird.” Furthermore, in Egyptian mythology the Mother Goddess is represented as having the head of a vulture and the body of a male human displaying an erect penis. Freud then made what many consider an improbable leap by concluding that the images revealed in Leonardo’s dream were evidence of both homosexual and Oedipal tendencies. He sought to strengthen his argument by citing ancient folklore in which vultures were believed to exist only as females that reproduce by opening their vaginas during flight and becoming impregnated by the wind, a notion that had long been entangled in the popular imagination with the Christian doctrine of Immaculate Conception. He proposed that the vulture in Leonardo’s dream inserted not her tail into his mouth but her penis.

But Freud’s argument was undermined by perhaps his most notorious slip, the mistranslation of the Italian nibbio, or kite, as “vulture.” Kites and vultures are both members of the family Accipitradae, but they display unmistakable differences in appearance and behavior. A kite has long angular wings and a deeply forked tail, and though it will feed opportunistically on carrion (as vultures do almost exclusively), it more often hunts mice, rabbits, and other living prey by swooping upon them in the manner of hawks. Freud based his analysis of the “vulture” dream on a faulty German translation of Leonardo’s journals, an oversight that has baffled scholars because Freud surely had access to the original Italian, which he read fluently, and he could have seen at a glance that Leonardo’s dream featured a kite, not a vulture, and thus had no link to the Egyptian mother/penis imagery, nor Immaculate Conception, nor had any mythological significance at all.

Freud observed, in a different context, that the German slang term vögeln, meaning “to fuck,” translates literally as “to bird.”

Extending the middle finger of the hand and thrusting it aggressively into the air is considered in many cultures to be among the most obscene of gestures. In American slang the act is called “flipping the bird.”

“The Khanty and Mausi of Siberia also believe in a binary soul system. One soul, the lili, is associated with the breath, the head, and the handling of raw intellectual data, while the is, or shadow soul, is related to a person’s emotions and is particularly active during sleep. Like the Egyptian ba, the symbol for the breath soul is a bird . . .”

— Peter Novak, The Lost Secret Death: Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife

When Cortes reached Tenochtitlán in 1519, the menagerie of the Aztec ruler Montezuma was probably unequaled in the world. Its cages contained such wonders as jaguars, ocelots, and deformed humans. Montezuma had also built a magnificent House of Birds, the Totocalli, where hundreds and perhaps thousands of tropical birds lived amid elaborate tiles and latticework and a vast collection of jewels, gold plates, and gold bars. Years later, one of Cortes’s foot soldiers, Bernal Diaz Del Castillo, recorded his recollection of the House of Birds:

Let us leave this and proceed to the aviary, and I am forced to abstain from enumerating every kind of bird that was there and its peculiarity, for there was everything from the Royal Eagle and other smaller eagles, and many other birds of great size, down to tiny birds of many-coloured plumage, also the birds from which they take the rich plumage which they use in their green feather work. The birds which have these feathers are about the size of the magpies of Spain, they are called in this country Quezales, and there are other birds which have feathers of five colours—green, red, white, yellow, and blue; I don’t remember what they are called; then there were parrots of many different colours, and there are so many of them that I forget their names, not to mention the beautifully marked ducks and other larger ones like them . . .

Cortes looted the gold and jewels from the House of Birds, but left the birds. This was apparently acceptable to the Aztecs, who placed higher value on feathers than gold. Later, in 1521, after Montezuma was dead and the Spaniards were sacking Tenochtitlán, systematically destroying every building and slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children, Cortes ordered as a coup de grace that the House of Birds be set aflame. The city’s remaining defenders were said to be “much aggrieved” by the sight.

By the middle of the sixteenth century in England, “jailbird” was a common slang term for an incarcerated prisoner. A related epigram, “the bird is flown,” indicated that a convict had escaped.

In the 1690s, miners in the Austrian Alps valued canaries not only for their entertaining songs, but for their tendency to die more quickly than humans in the presence of toxic gases, thus serving as early warning systems. Some miners became breeders of the birds, carrying them to Innsbruck in cages slung from poles over their shoulders, where dealers were eager to purchase them. From there the birds were shipped by cart to most major European cities. As the Austrian mines were depleted of their ore, miners who moved to Germany’s Harz Mountains in search of jobs in the silver mines carried with them a few dozen pairs of canaries. This foundation stock led to a race of the birds renowned for its singing. The Harz region, already a center for raising chaffinches, bullfinches, and goldfinches, quickly adopted the canaries and established a robust trade. By the nineteenth century bird fanciers in London would accept no canaries except Harz canaries, driving many Spanish and Portuguese importers out of business.

Collectors across the Atlantic were equally fussy. One well-known enthusiast was Walt Whitman, who proposed in his poem “My Canary Bird,” that the song of a caged bird was equal in value to fine literature:

In Whitman’s time, decades before radio and recorded music, caged birds were among the most popular form of home entertainment. (Today only about six percent of US households keep birds as pets). The most desirable birds included wild European and North American species such as linnets, thrushes, nightingales, European robins, bullfinches, goldfinches, purple finches, mockingbirds, cardinals, grosbeaks, and buntings, but by far the most popular was the canary. Small neighborhood bird stores were as common in nineteenth-century cities and towns in America as were barbershops. Many barbershops, in fact, also sold birds.

Probably the most successful bird dealers in America were two brothers named Charles and Henry Reiche. In 1843, shortly after immigrating to America from Germany, they opened a bird shop in Manhattan at 55 Chatham Street near the Bowery, where they began importing and selling about two thousand canaries a year. Soon after, during the California Gold Rush, they scored a windfall by shipping three thousand of the birds to San Francisco, where they sold quickly at what was then the nearly unimaginable price of twenty-five to fifty dollars each.

The brothers’ success convinced Charles Reiche in 1853 to publish a book, The Bird Fancier’s Companion, which became immensely popular and was reprinted many times. From 1853 to 1867, the Reiches imported about twenty thousand canaries each year. By 1871, the number increased to forty-eight thousand.

That year Charles opened a second store, this one in Boston, and published the tenth edition of The Bird Fancier’s Companion. In it he advertised “Birds of Plumage” for “Zoological Gardens, Menageries, and Private Game Parks.” He noted, too, that the Boston store’s “Department of Taxidermy” offered a mounting service for deceased pet birds as well as a “good assortment of STUFFED BIRDS constantly on hand.”

Reiche claimed to be the largest dealer in America, accounting for two-thirds of all imports. It is possible—even likely— that Walt Whitman purchased the canary bird made famous by his poem from the Reiches’ shop in New York.

On the singing of canaries, from The Bird Fancier’s Companion, by Charles Reiche: “The most admired notes are the bow-trill (bow-roll), the bell note, the flute, the water-bubble, the nightingale note, wood-lark note . . .

“Persons keeping canaries for their singing only, should keep them in cages of about a foot in diameter, either round or square; as in a large cage they will not sing so well or constant, having to [sic] much room to fly about and amuse themselves, which in a great degree takes away their attention from singing.”

In the final years of Whitman’s life, while he was an abundantly lionized semi-invalid living in Camden, New Jersey, and for much of the century following his death in 1892, a “fellowship” or “college” of disciples in Bolton, England met each year on May 31, Whitman’s birthday, to drink sacramental wine from a goblet referred to as “Whitman’s Loving Cup” and to display objects of sacred Whitmany. Those objects included a lock of the poet’s hair, a fistful of dried leaves of grass gathered from Whitman’s birthplace in Huntington, New York, and a stuffed and mounted canary that while alive had been kept in a cage in Whitman’s house on Mickle Street. A photo of Whitman’s British disciples shows eleven men in bowlers and straw hats, wearing coats and vests, sporting mustaches, sideburns, and beards, half of them sitting in the grass, the others standing behind with arms crossed or hands on hips. One examines a pocket watch as if he, at least, knew that time is too precious to waste. Some express joviality, while others appear somber or slightly mischievous, and one seems poised to deliver the punch line to a joke. They could be a party of church deacons on an outing in the country, feeling a bit naughty for the lemonade they’ve imbibed, while still quite pleased with themselves for their moral rectitude.

Whitman’s canary, mounted and perched on a leafy twig and preserved under a bell jar, remains on display in the Bolton Museum—still caged after all these years.

Eventually the Reiche brothers expanded their business to include captives other than birds and began supplying circuses with a variety of animals, many of them collected in Africa by Charles. In cages inside their shop on Chatham Street and outside in a small backyard the brothers displayed a selection of tigers, leopards, sea lions, wildcats, monkeys, baboons, and gnus.

According to the New York Times, on June 30, 1878, a thirty-foot python escaped from the Reiche Brothers’ shop and made its way to City Hall Square. There it twined around the base of a tree and “hissed defiance” at any people who dared to approach it and caused a stampede of retreating passers-by. By now the Reiche firm was “the most extensive bird and wild beast importer in the world.”

In 1887 the Times reported that Charles Reiche had imported from Central Africa two sibling “wild baby boys” named “He” and “It.” A third sibling, “She,” died in London, en route to New York. Nobody could ascertain whether these wild babies were humans, apes, or some unknown species of primate. The Times wondered if the evolutionary ”Missing Link” had been found and wrote:

The children, which are believed to be about a year old, are both males and have tailless bodies about 15 inches in length, partially covered with long red hair. The color is of a slate gray on the back, pink on the breast and abdomen, shading to a spotted pink and gray on the sides. The abdomen is very large, as is usually the case with young human babies, and the back and shoulders are perfect copies of the back and shoulders of a young child. The legs are about 8 inches long, and are very similar to the legs of the monkey tribe. The arms are long and terminate in well-shaped hands, which differ from human hands only in that the thumb, which is disproportionately short when compared with the length of the fingers, is set some distance back from the base of the latter.

But the most puzzling part of the body is the head. If it were cut off through the bridge of the nose and below the ears, it would assuredly be declared, by at least every unscientific person, to be the head of a human being. The forehead is full, and would please the parent of any baby, as giving promise of great intelligence, and it slopes back to a broad based and well-rounded head, on which are set small and finely carved ears, of which even a beautiful young woman might be proud. The eyes are brown and large and full of intelligence and softness . . .

The Reiche Brothers advertised for “a good, reliable colored woman, experienced in the care and bringing up of babies, as nurse for two wild children from Africa; must be tidy, clean, and of kind disposition,” and soon hired a woman named Mrs. Minerva Sparrow, of Brooklyn. Mrs. Sparrow told the Times that she “was greatly surprised when she saw the babies. They were let out of the cage and waddling to her on all fours, as fast as they could, climbed into her lap, put their arms around her neck, and laying their heads on her shoulders, seemed to want to go to sleep. She was much affected by this and declared that she would be happy to take care of them.” The “children” gave Mrs. Sparrow “hugs of delight and fondness. They were so much attached to her by noon that when she left the room they wept.”

In the weeks that followed “He” and “It” enjoyed a great deal of public attention and were introduced to New York’s high society while “attired in dresses and bibs that would make a Thompson-street infant howl with envy.” But shortly after attending a play at the Union-Square Theatre “It” became suddenly ill and died the following morning of what an autopsy revealed to be “a ruptured heart, phthisical lungs, congestion of the liver, and atrophic spleen.” Mr. Reiche ordered the body embalmed, placed in an open metal casket, and exhibited to the public.

“We all love Birds—Song birds especially. How can we help it? Are they not the most lovely and joyous of all God’s creatures; and such fitting companions for our parlors, delighting us, as they do, with their charming and sweet harmony? And what can be more pleasant to the lovers of the beauty of nature, than to study their innocent and amusing habits? True as this is, we should at the same time not forget that, to enjoy this pleasure, these little warblers have to become our prisoners, and can only look to us for their necessaries. It is, consequently, our first duty to make their situation as comfortable as possible.”

—Charles Reiche, from the introduction to The Bird Fancier’s Companion

Ivan Turgenev, whose ambition was to emancipate the serfs, wrote in his Literary Reminiscences what must surely be the definitive essay on the art of keeping nightingales in cages. He wrote, “If properly kept, a nightingale can live for five winters. In winter he has to be fed on black beetles or dried ants’ eggs; only the eggs must be fetched not from a pine but from a deciduous wood, or he might get constipated from the resin. A nightingale must not be hung over a window but in the middle of the room, and the cage must have a soft, cotton or linen, ceiling . . .”

Charles Reiche on the nightingale: “He will sometimes dwell for several seconds on a strain, composed of only two or three melancholy tones, beginning in an under voice, and swelling it gradually by a most superb crescendo, to the highest point of strength, he ends it by a dying cadence. His very striking musical talent, surpassing all other singing birds, has acquired for him the name of the KING OF SONGSTERS.

“Their cage should be at least 15 inches long and a foot high, in which are placed three perches, two below and one above. The top of the cage should be of green muslin, or such like, instead of wire, which prevents the bird from injuring its head, by flying up, which it is in the habit of doing during the season of migrating.”

Turgenev might have failed to notice a parallel between caged birds and serfs, but many other writers have found similar comparisons useful. Henry David Thoreau employed the metaphor while living in his cabin at Walden Pond, when he wrote: “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.”

In her 1843 memoir of a trip around the Great Lakes, Summer on the Lakes, Margaret Fuller observed a bald eagle chained near Niagara Falls as an attraction and “plaything.” It stirred a recollection:

When I was a child, I used often to stand at a window from which I could see an eagle chained in the balcony of a museum. The people used to poke at it with sticks, and my childish heart would swell with indignation as I saw their insults, and the mien with which they were borne by the monarch-bird. Its eye was dull, and its plumage soiled and shabby, yet, in its form and attitude, all the king was visible, though sorrowful and dethroned.

Now, again, I saw him a captive, and addressed by the vulgar with the language they seem to find most appropriate to such occasions—that of thrusts and blows. Silently, his head averted, he ignored their existence, as Plotinus or Sophocles might that of a modern reviewer. Probably, he listened to the voice of the cataract, and felt that congenial powers flowed free, and was consoled, though his own wing was broken.

“Every fabulist has told how the human mind has always struggled like a frightened bird to escape the chaos which caged it . . .”

— Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a triumphant example of a tradition that for centuries equated caged songbirds with the captive female spirit. A remnant of the tradition lingers in the British slang term for a young woman as a “bird.” The American equivalent is “chick.”

Angelou borrowed the title of her memoir from the poem, “Sympathy,” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, published in 1899:

Henry James was so fond of the metaphor that he adopted it as the titular conceit of his 1898 novel In the Cage. The young female protagonist, who is engaged to marry a man she does not love, spends her days working as a clerk in a postal and telegraph office, confined within a “frail structure of wood and wire . . . framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or a magpie.” Her fiancé lobbies to have her transferred to a similar cage in the office where he works as foreman, so that she will be “dangled before him every minute of the day.”

The caged parrot in the opening passage of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, speaks for the narrator, who is trapped in a loveless marriage and confined by the duties of domestic life, when it squawks over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!” (“Get out! Get out! Damnation!”)

Most cages are designed not only to incarcerate, but to display. There are those who consider this more punishing.

James’s and Chopin’s novels and Dunbar’s poem all appeared within a year of one another, and were coincidental with a popular ballad of the day, sung in 1900 by Florrie Forde in London music halls, featuring the refrain, “Her beauty was sold for an old man’s gold, she’s a bird in a gilded cage.” (Chaucer had visited the same territory five hundred years earlier in “The Maunciple’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, asserting that though a bird be placed in a cage of gold, it would prefer, “by twenty thousand fold,” to be free in a forest, even one “that is rude and cold.”)

During the early decades of the twentieth century, women in servitude to Japanese textile mills typically worked twelve-hour days, six or seven days a week, under appalling conditions, in unlit and overheated rooms. After work they were herded into cramped dormitories where they were confined until they could return to the factory floor the next morning. The songs the women sang as they worked often featured the image of a caged bird. One example:

In November 1925, in the city of Hodogaya, women millworkers went on strike to protest their working conditions. Specifically they called for a reduction in work hours and the right to leave their dormitories to meet visitors or at least to return home for family emergencies. The strike, which was partially successful (the work week was reduced by a few hours, but all other demands were refused), became known as the Caged Birds Strike.

Kafka wrote famously in a letter to a friend that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

To another friend he wrote, “A book cannot take the place of the world. That is impossible . . . One tries to imprison life in a book, like a songbird in a cage, but it’s no good.”

His most famous aphorism: “A cage went in search of a bird.”

Women in contemporary rural Pakistan frequently employ the metaphor of caged birds to describe themselves. But unlike actual birds, which are valued for their songs, Pakistani women liken themselves to birds that are both caged and silenced.

In Maximum City, his nonfiction portrait of modern-day Mumbai, Suketu Mehta describes the courtship behavior of the city’s professional dancers. If after a long, expensive, and strictly chaste courtship a suitor succeeds in winning a dancer’s favor, she will invite him to join her in a taxi. She then instructs the driver to proceed down the street, while she scans the sidewalk:

. . . until finally she sees him: a man with a couple of cages slung over his shoulders, filled with birds.

She gives the taxi driver a fifty and tells him to take a walk, go drink some juice.

She calls out to the bird seller and he comes over. His cages have tiny songbirds fluttering about inside, with beaks of different colors. The dancer asks her man to buy some of the birds—six for 500 rupees; “If you want more fun take a dozen” . . . —and the girl rolls up all the windows of the taxi and opens the door of the cage and all the birds fly out and fill the small dark taxi with their energy and their music. She laughs with delight and asks her man to play a game with her: Catch the birds. They reach out their hands to grab the birds, who are small and quick, and they have to wave their arms wildly about even to touch them. As the girl and her ardent suitor reach out to catch a bird, they sometimes, accidentally, can’t help touching each other. This is new for the man—remember, he hasn’t touched her up to this point. As a bird lands on her shoulder, he must make a grab for it, and if the bird flies off, his hand lands on her shoulder. If it should fly close to her breast, why, it is within the rules of the game that he should try his best to capture the songbird, which might just be that little bit too quick for him, and his hand, in its dart forward, might meet with something else, softer, harder. And so the whole of the tiny Fiat taxi is filled with birdsong, her giggling, his laughter, and, every now and then, a quick female gasp. And so it is that at last, at long last, the dancing girl and her patient suitor go all soft and hot in the back of the taxi, the space around them filled with fluttering and panicked songbirds.

Half an hour later, the door of the taxi opens and half a dozen or a dozen dead birds are thrown out on the road. If there are any remaining alive, they fly out over the great dark sea, free at last.

By brandishing our captives do we seek to convince ourselves that we are in command? Does our assumption of supremacy in the Chain of Being authorize our habit of chaining other beings?

Surely that is the case with the judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, who ordains himself the suzerain or overlord of the world and seeks to enslave nature. To be an overlord requires possessing, naming, cataloguing, and ultimately caging every living thing. It is the logical culmination of the Old Testament dispensation of man’s dominion on earth.

“The freedom of birds is an insult to me,” the judge says. “I’d have them all in zoos.”

Nietzsche would allow them their freedom, if only as symbols of the freedom that humans who are bold, daring, and courageous are capable of achieving: The “free spirit . . . is characterized by a pale, subtle happiness of light and sunshine, a feeling of bird-like freedom, bird-like attitude, bird-like exuberance . . . slipping away . . . evading, fluttering off, gone again, again flying aloft; one is spoiled, as everyone is who has at some time seen a tremendous number of things beneath him . . .”

For freedom is a terrible responsibility, and a cage is just a smaller prison. When we release birds, after all, we release them into the prison of finding enough food every day, of being constantly vigilant to avoid predators, of requiring a safe place to sleep at night, of long and hazardous migrations, of time’s brittleness of bones, atrophy of flesh, crumbling of feathers.

We frequently forget (but how can we forget?) that we too dwell in cages. Some of us might cage birds to be reminded of this. Others perhaps want reciprocal gratification, as does a child, who, when struck, strikes another.

Or maybe we’re seeking a kind of homeopathic remedy for our own confinements:

To our bodies, which require constant replenishment with oxygen, water, and food or they die.

To our appetites and cravings; our desires and lusts.

To our homes with their roofs that leak, basements that seep, wiring that cracks, appliances that fail, windows that break, floors that must be swept, furnaces that must be fueled.

To our automobiles, and their demand for fuel, lubrication, service, insurance, licensing.

To society’s dictates, laws, and taboos, written and unwritten, spoken and unspoken, and to its enforcers.

To the collectors of taxes, the judges, the teachers. To our PINs and passwords. To our credit histories.

To our guilt, remorse, envy, and regret.

To our rigid and tendentious opinions.

To our obsessions, compulsions, addictions.

To our general predicament of being sentient beings aware of our mortality.

To our height, weight, breasts, ass, the symmetry or asymmetry of our facial features, the sound of our voices, the color of our skin.

To our parents, spouses, children, friends, and casual acquaintances, who while enriching our days and giving significance to our lives, erect and fasten new bars to our cages.

To the inner voice that whispers you can’t, you won’t, you never will.

To our fears of darkness, drowning, freedom, falling.

To the gravity that chains us all our lives to the earth—our home, our mother, our cage—while our greatest desire has always been to soar.

Did we count great, O Soul, to penetrate the themes of mighty books,

Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays, speculations?

But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel thy joyous warble,

Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long forenoon,

Is it not just as great, O Soul?

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore—

When he beats his bars and would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

I am a mill girl: a frail bird

Even though I have wings I can’t fly away

Even though I can see the sky I’m stuck inside a cage

A tiny bird with broken wings.

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