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27 september 2011

I've never seen a fox (in the wild, at least) in North America. There are many of them, I'm told; they raid chicken coops and terrorize backyard pets. But they are nocturnal, and stealthy, and overshadowed in the American ecosystem by bears and coyotes. Like owls, foxes hunt on the disturbed margins of human habitats, and like owls, they have strong mythic connotations. But also like owls, I just don't see much of them. At least I hear owls, though; who hears foxes?

In suburban London, when I'd stay there off and on years ago, it was entirely different. The red fox was the most mundane sight, at morning and evening twilight, on commons, heaths, waste ground, back gardens. I was as surprised to see a fox then as I am to see a possum in Texas today. Those English foxes were if anything less sociable than possums, which can be fairly easygoing. The foxes I've known mind their own business, don't pay much attention to people, and melt in and out of our living spaces. Like crows, only a lot quieter, they share our world with indifference to us.

Why do I bring up this famine/feast dynamic in my own foxy experience? Much of Martin Wallen's Fox is about the the profound emblematic impact that foxes have had on Western culture. Tricksters, demons, underdog heroes, fabulous adversaries: foxes seem out of all proportion to their commercial and agricultural impact. And it seems worse in the East. Much of Wallen's book concerns manifestations of the fox in Japan. The "spirit-fox" so shadows the Japanese soul that, says Wallen,

the phrase moshi moshi . . . has become the standard telephone greeting and has no real meaning beyond demonstrating that the speaker can make non-vulpine sounds. In effect, then, the greeting means "rest assured that you are not speaking to a spirit-fox who might trick you." (73)
All this from an animal that in some places you never see, and in others you see so often that you might as well be afraid of spirit-squirrels.

There's something about foxes. Wallen suggests that that potential for eldritch excess might reside in the fox's ambiguous biology. A fox is a dog that behaves, and in some ways looks, like a cat. Famously uneatable, it is nevertheless one of the most famously hunted of animals (by the famously unspeakable). So repulsive that you can buy its urine at feed stores to keep other varmints off your property, it became the quintessential sexy animal of the 1970s; nothing conveyed young male approbation more than to call a woman a "fox."

Wallen spends several pages trying to figure out why "foxy" (as in Uma Thurman's character's failed TV series Fox Force Five, from Pulp Fiction) should have become a metaphor for "desirable": without much success. I'm not sure I can explain it, but since I was there, I might at least bestir myself to try. "Foxy" seems to me to have been a reaction to the sway that Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Raquel Welch held over mainstream hetero-male libidos in the 1950s and 60s. Zaftig, costume-filling, expansive, unabashed – and definitely not foxy, even if fox fur was often one of their accoutrements. (Wallen prints a photo of Monroe in fox furs that ran on the cover of Life, shortly after her death.)

No, "foxy" meant reticent but knowing, lithe, sharp-featured, tenacious, enigmatic, hard to hold: all the things that the '60s sex symbol was not. Well, Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, for instance. Was this an advance in sexual stereotyping? It's hard to say. "Foxiness" connotes agency, and "foxy" women were their own women, reserved, appearing on their own terms. The word was used callously, and it was used in ways that equated physical type with identity – not that we've made much progress disentangling the two in the years since. But at the heart of the term, there seemed to be some appreciation for a woman who set her own agenda.

That's speculation, but it helps explain why a whole chapter of Fox is called "Linguistic Fox." Few other animals have so polysemous a relation to language: so easy to name, so hard to define.

Wallen, Martin. Fox. London: Reaktion, 2006.