Welsh naturalist Ronald M. Lockley spent a large chunk of his life on the rabbit-riddled island of Skokholm just southwest of Wales. When he found he could do better writing about rabbits than catching and breeding them, he wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit (Macmillan, 1964). The book, which is a detailed account of all rabbit activities and proclivities, has become the manual on rabbit life. It informed Richard Adams’ novel, Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972), which is the rabbit adventure tale, about the ways and mores of leporid life. Fiver, the runt-rabbit guide embodies the spirit animal that bunnies have become in many mythologies, pop cultural contexts, and other great stories.
Rabbits extend far outside of the hillsides, downs, and Easter baskets in which we we typically envision them. Examples I can think of without too much effort include Bugs Bunny, Greg the Bunny, the Playboy Bunny, the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, 8 Mile‘s B. Rabbit (played by Eminem), the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll, Bambi’s pal Thumper, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Watership-Down mythology of Fall of Efrafa’s Warren of Snares, and the out-moded rabbit ears of broadcast television. As Susan E. Davis and Margo Demello (2003) write in their definitive Stories Rabbits Tell (Lantern, 2003),
…besides inhabiting forests, fields, backyards, and homes, they inhabit the realm of representation–in folklore and photos, on television and film, in gift stores and in literature. These fabricated rabbits may not tell us much about the lives of real rabbits, but they do tell us a great deal about how we think about rabbits and their place in society (p. 129).
Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology by Dominic Pettman (Zer0 Books, 2013) uses the rabbit as totem as a trope through which to interrogate our relationship with technology. Pettman explores the Heideggerian being-toward-death of the pooka in Harvey (1950) and Donnie Darko (2001), the overwrought sexuality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the spectral haunting of the rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). Like Frank the bunny in Donnie Darko, Pettman reads the rabbits both Of Mice and Men and Watership Down as guides: Looking at the bunny is looking into the future.
Skipping ahead, however, is not always a promising prospect. The Cassandra conundrum of seeing imminent catastrophe and having no one in the present believe you follows the prophet–rabbit or otherwise. The vagabond rabbits of Watership Down led by the frequently hysterical Fiver, Lennie, George, and Candy in Of Mice and Men led by a rabbit-ridden future vision, Donnie Darko led by his daylight hallucinations of Frank, and Elwood led by his imaginary Harvey are all held suspect by their peers. “The list of lapine totems, no doubt, could go on and on–which is partly my point,” Pettman writes (p. 63). Moreover, two more rabbit holes he mentions early in the book include “the bunny plot” and “the Easter egg.” The former is a nagging idea that won’t leave you alone until you write it out of there, and the latter, of course, refers to the hidden treats of media: DVD menus, websites, etc. Pettman writes,
Indeed, the notion of the Easter egg can be employed to reflect on the nature or possibility of significant surprises in a claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world. A world seemingly bereft of alternatives. Perhaps we need to enact rituals designed to encourage the magic bunny to break the tedious cultural algorithms that restrict every day – in the West at least – to a smooth series of anticipated rhythms. (After all, a predictable consumer is a docile and productive citizen.) Perhaps we should be finding inspiration from the temporal tricks of this particular totem to get access not to the material Easter eggs of fetishized commodities, but the hidden, virtual gift of the “something else”: an unprecedented experience, a unimagined possibility, an unanticipated alliance, and so on (p. 63).
A future seen eliminates the element of surprise. For the living being, it’s an ontological issue, one that Pettman explores from virtual rabbits to software, citing everyone from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark, William Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, to Slavoj Žižek, Deleuze and Guattari, Vilém Flusser, and Giorgio Agamben. Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.
Concluding, Pettman sums it up, writing,
The rabbit, Orc, penguin, avatar, angel, pixelated lover – even Paradise itself – all make appearances in the idiosyncratic virtual montage fashioned by this book. They are neototems for an era in which the monolithic notion of Nature is finally giving way to an understanding of ecology that includes computers as much as whales, and in which humans are just as likely to be sheep as shepherds (p. 164).
Far from the private life of the rabbit, its many public representations can show you the way. Totems can help us see the world with fresh eyes. So, next time you’re lost in the media matrix, wake up and follow the rabbit.
Adams, Richard. (1972). Watership Down. London: Rex Collings.
Davis, Susan E., & Demello, Margo. (2003). Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Books.
Lockley, R. M. (1964). The Private Life of the Rabbit. New York: Macmillan Publishing.
Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.
Rabbit drawings by Roy Christopher.