Animal Nature

Why do we humans feel this insatiable need to express ourselves? Perhaps we should take a hint from our animal companions.

Last night I was sitting in front of the TV and Macavity, the younger of our two tabby cats, jumped up on my lap and proceeded to purr loudly, nestled with his little nose in my armpit. What a delicious life of small needs a cat enjoys - food, an opportunity to hunt the odd lizard, and the warmth and comfort of his family are the only requirements. I don’t think little Macavity has ever felt the need to compose a symphony or play the violin sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach and as far as I’m aware he’s never put paw to paper to write a novel nor paint a picture. Listening to him purring away like a small tractor, I wonder what made his brain so different from mine. Why do I feel the need to write an article for Limelight about his cat-mind, when all he does is lie about the house as if it were a five-star resort where the bill never comes?

We humans have an insatiable need to express ourselves. We compose music, we write words, we paint, we act, we play instruments and sing and talk and make films about our feelings, and then other humans come and watch us do these things, and still other humans write about how well we did it. 

Is this creation of art a simple need to express ourselves or is it more of an ego-driven pursuit? Mahler believed his musical view of the world was important enough to warrant filling two hours with a symphony. Wagner had an ego the size of a zeppelin, creating the massive 16-hour series of Ring Cycle operas and then building his own special theatre to house them. Let’s face it, from Beethoven to James Cameron, many of the word’s greatest creators have been ego-ridden maniacs. They make art and we listen. 

Classical music broadcasting is a modern extension of this one-sided communication. Whenever I sit in the ABC Classic FM studio and speak into a microphone my words stream out across millions of hectares of Australia. And if there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night and listening to digital radio, surely they would have thought my voice to be the voice of God, deciding what music they will listen to, in what order they will hear it, interspersed with whatever snippets of information I might think they will find helpful. This centralised model is now outmoded – if you don’t like what you hear on the local station, find it online in New York or Trinidad. If you want to be a broadcaster, don’t wait for the ABC to offer you a job – get online at YouTube and start your own music channel. Rather than one station with a million listeners, we will now have a million stations with no one listening at all. Even the shepherds willeventually set up their own internet radio site, broadcasting soothing sheep music across the valleys (although they’ll need a lot of RAM).

Thank heavens animals don’t feel the need to join in this artistic self-expression, because the planet couldn’t take it. Can you imagine how noisy the forests, savannahs and seas would be with lions writing poetry, dogs playing drums and dolphins dancing ballet? Is all our music, theatre, painting and self-expression nothing more than the human equivalent of my cat searching out my lap – something warm and comforting that is as good an answer as any to the big questions of life, the universe and everything? 

For more of Guy Noble’s wit and wisdom, check out his Soapbox every month in Limelight magazine.

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Animal Nature
Guy Noble
Guy Noble is a conductor, radio broadcaster and the writer of a regular column entitled Soapbox in Limelight magazine.
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