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12 february 2011

OK, OK, I'll admit it: until I read Simon Carnell's Hare, I didn't know there was a difference between hares and rabbits. I guess I vaguely thought that hares were wild and rabbits domestic versions of the same animal. Or that the proliferation of names for those little jumpy things with ears was just the product of Adamic whimsy. Come to find – and Carnell is very strict, even a bit snippy about this – that hares and rabbits, though presumably sharing a common ancestor millions of years ago, don't even have the same number of chromosomes, and can't interbreed. Their behaviors are pretty much opposite, and their roles in culture and cuisine are quite distinct.

Of course, one cause of my ignorance is that Americans don't know what to call anything. Just as Americans tend to call all tortoises "turtles," we call North American hares "jackrabbits." A baby rabbit is a "bunny," while a baby hare is properly a "leveret," but Bugs Bunny is clearly a hare. For people of the rugged outdoors, we Americans tend to lack some nuance. Or maybe we just shoot first and make taxonomic distinctions later.

The heart of Hare is one of the best essays on the history of art that I've ever read. Not that art history comprises a large part of my reading (my ignorance is interdisciplinary), but that the chapter "Painted and Plastic Hare" is a superb critical essay by any standards. Carnell starts with the stylized hares of medieval European art, which can play a number of different roles, from moral emblem to naturalism to nonsense. He is especially good on the long tradition of realistic representations of hares, most of which descend from Albrecht Dürer's early 16th-century Young Hare, and include many western-European still lives where hares figure as game for the table. Such pictures are virtuoso technical achievements ("Dürer seems to have painted every hair in his subject's fur," says Carnell on 131), but they are not realism for realism's sake. In an age when only the wealthy were allowed to hunt hares, their presence in kitchen scenes can't help but be a social commentary. Carnell concludes his chapter with some very surreal and disturbing hares, in graphic and plastic arts, from the postwar and postmodern repertoire.

Hares are uncanny beings. They have often been associated with witchcraft, and they figure as tricksters in myth, cartoon, and real life (where they can change direction so fast in the chase that they are a prized game trophy). Hardly any animal escapes anthropomorphism, and hares, with their leggy builds and big eyes, are more humanized than most. But hares seem to stand for the animal in ourselves: for our instincts and our inarticulate lonelinesses. "Shy as a leveret, swift as he," says the farmer in Charlotte Mew's poem "The Farmer's Bride" of his unapproachable wife: what better animal to figure the kind of person we can't understand?

Carnell, Simon. Hare. London: Reaktion, 2010.