Canadian Lemmings, New Yorker Cartoons and Plato
Robert Leighton, The New Yorker, August 5, 2013 (p. 26)
I don’t know if you can read the speech bubbles in the image above; it’s a crowd of lemmings on the edge of a cliff, and they’re all saying, “After you,” “After you.”
Of course, as you can see from the banner, they’re Canadian lemmings, which means they’re so polite they never get around to actually jumping off the cliff; they just stand there “after-you”ing each other until … who knows? Until a fox comes along and devours them? Until they all die of starvation? Until the melting of the polar ice caps renders jumping into the ocean to drown moot?
As far as American impressions of Canada go, there isn’t a whole lot to be drawn from this; we already know that excessive politeness is one of the main traits people from other countries attribute to Canadians. What’s really striking about this cartoon, to me, is that it shows what a remarkably narrow view The New Yorker (or its Cartoons Editor, Robert Mankoff, at least) seems to take of Canadians. Why do I say that? Because in November 2012 – not even a year ago – they published this cartoon by Roz Chast:
We’ve already discussed it on its own, of course, but when you put them side by side, the similarities are striking. Both use a banner to alert the reader that the cartoon is depicting a Canadian form of something the reader already recognizes (readers will have pre-formed notions of what lemmings do and what a stand-off is); both involve a situation where one character has to make an initial move so that another (or others) can follow; both have the phrase “After you” in speech bubbles; and both are only funny in the context of the idea that Canadians are so polite as to be functionally paralyzed in situations where one person has to take the initiative.
In fact, the cartoons are essentially identical; the only difference is that the two humans in the Chast cartoon have been replaced by a group of lemmings in the one by Leighton.
Slightly Philosophical (feel free to skip)
Perhaps we should look at this from the point of view of Plato’s theory of forms: is it possible that there are only a certain number of New Yorker cartoon jokes, and they are just executed in different ways? The joke, in its essence, would be like a Platonic form, and the cartoon based on it would be its temporary expression in the material world. So for these two cartoons, the essential joke (the Platonic form) is, “Canadians are excessively polite.” Each cartoon illustrates the joke in a different way, but the joke itself remains the same (just as various carpenters can build good and bad beds, but the Platonic form of “bed” remains unchanged).
If I had more time and energy, I might be inclined to go through my copy of The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker to see if I could identify, say, 50 essential jokes that come up over and over in slightly different form. These jokes would be timeless and unchanging, but the different expressions of them (the individual cartoons) could include references to the culture at the time they were created.
The more I think about it, the more bewitching this idea seems. But alas, I have not world enough and time to undertake a massive thematic analysis of New Yorker cartoons.
Giving The New Yorker Its Due
As an aside, let me say that everyone on staff here at Wow – Canada! loves The New Yorker generally, and we are all particularly fond of the cartoons. More than that, we’re thrilled to see our humble little country getting mentioned at all. And yet, as Canadians, we wouldn’t mind seeing a slightly more nuanced portrayal of our nation. Is that so much to ask?
And in fairness, The New Yorker does print cartoons that relate to Canada where the joke is based on something other than Canadians being polite, as a quick Google search will show. Here’s one by Liam Walsh that I was going to write about but never got around to:
The caption reads, “What part of Canada that I know nothing about are you from?”
This one trades on the idea that Canada is an obscure place Americans know nothing about, but here the (Brooklyn hipster?) partygoer is mocked for his ignorance. I can’t help noticing the Canadian’s outfit, though; of course we all wear plaid shirts, all the time. (Or is the cliché Canadian clothing a part of the joke?) And here’s one by Donald Reilly:
The caption reads, “You seem familiar, yet somehow strange – are you by any chance Canadian?”
I like this one. It’s based on a fairly common idea – that Canadians and Americans are essentially the same – and yet the phrasing of the caption and the set-up suggest that we’re just different enough to have a vaguely defined romantic allure for Americans (though not for Eddie in Limitless). Certainly Canadians have the sense that Americans don’t see us as significantly different from them; whether we agree, and whether we feel whatever differences we do have make us more attractive, as suggested by the cartoon, is up for debate. (The idea that Quebec is sexy, as opposed to Canada in general, might be more widespread.)
And here’s one by Peter Steiner that manages a unique Canadian double: including both health care and Mounties:
The caption reads, “We’re borrowing the best features of the Canadian system” – which apparently means doctors dressing up as Mounties. Ha!
Still, it’s hard not to feel that all these cartoons are based on clichés about Canada and Canadians.
A Bit About Lemmings
When I read the headline, “Canadian Lemmings,” on the Leighton cartoon that we began with, I have to confess that my first thought was, “Canadian lemmings? No such thing.” Painful as it is for me to admit, I was wrong; and worse, I was schooled by a New Yorker cartoon based on a tired cliché about Canadians. According to no less a source than Hinterland Who’s Who (pause while Canadians of a certain age smile wistfully), there are several species of lemmings that are native to Canada.
The most shocking part of the Wikipedia entry on lemmings (which, needless to say, I consulted while researching this post) was not the assertion that they don’t actually commit mass suicide (which has been their ticket into the public imagination and is obviously a key idea behind Leighton’s cartoon), but rather this:
A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.
Yikes! So Disney captured Canadian lemmings and then fired them off a cliff with a turntable (remember those?) just to promote the idea that they commit mass suicide? Now that’s shocking. And to turn the turntable into an engine of death – thankfully we’ve all switched to mp3 now, a much less menacing technology. No one’s using their iPhone to launch rodents off cliffs.
Here’s a clip:
If you look closely at the part that shows the lemmings “jumping” off the cliff, you’ll notice that you never actually see one jump; what you see is a bunch of lemmings at the edge of a cliff, and then other lemmings flying off the cliff from out of the frame (no doubt launched from the turntable). I don’t know if I would have picked up on that if I hadn’t known the scene was staged; the brain tends to want to make connections, and I think most people would unconsciously assume the lemmings were jumping even though they never actually witnessed one jump.