The Duck-Rabbit

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance


The duck-rabbit has been with us since the late nineteenth century. It seems to have made its first appearance in a German humor magazine; it was reprinted in Harper’s in 1892, and cited by the American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899, as an example of how the mind plays a role in perception: in order to “see” the duck (or the rabbit) we have to interpret it as a duck (or rabbit).

A generation later, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reprised the duck-rabbit in his Philosophical Investigations (1953). He argued, against Jastrow (and without citing Jastrow, so that a lot of people think Wittgenstein invented the duck-rabbit), that when you see the duck, you are simply seeing it, and not interpreting it as a duck. What happens, then, when you see the rabbit? According to Wittgenstein, it’s just the same: you see a rabbit. In neither case are you interpreting, at least, not the way you might interpret a sales graph to mean declining profits. The construction of the shape as duck (or rabbit) is implicit in the act of seeing itself.

I have to admit that I have trouble seeing the rabbit. Or rather, I can see what is supposed to be the rabbit, the duck turned on its side, but what rabbit has a neck like that? At the most, I can entertain the possibility that I am being shown a sketch of some proposed duck-rabbit hybrid, an organism bioengineered to satisfy the world’s growing demand for duck meat.

Which leads me to the Merrie Melodies classic, Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, in which Daffy Duck tries to convince Elmer Fudd that it isn’t duck season, but, actually, rabbit season. To save himself, Bugs Bunny convinces Elmer otherwise:

Daffy: Well, I guess I’m the goat.
Bugs holds up a sign that reads “Goat Season Open” and Elmer points his gun at Daffy.
Daffy: What?
Elmer shoots Daffy.
Daffy: You’re a dirty dog.
Bugs: And YOU are a dirty skunk!
Daffy: I’m a dirty skunk? I’M a dirty skunk?!
Bugs holds up a sign that reads “Dirty Skunk Season” and Elmer shoots Daffy.
Daffy: Brother! Am I a pigeon!
Bugs holds up a sign that reads “Pigeon Season” and Elmer shoots Daffy.

And so on. Finally, Bugs tells Elmer that it’s baseball season, and Elmer runs away, shooting at a baseball as he goes.

Duck! Rabbit! Duck! was released in 1953, making it almost inconceivable that anyone on the Merrie Melodies team had read the Philosophical Investigations. And yet it’s hard not to read the cartoon as a commentary on the duck-rabbit. Elmer Fudd goes mad because he sees Daffy Duck as a goat, a dirty skunk, a pigeon—as anything but a duck. Fudd is a sucker for the sign: Daffy, meanwhile, never looks like anything but a duck. Before you go around seeing things as, the cartoon seems to be telling us, shouldn’t you think about what they look like?

It may be, though, that I’m overly sensitive to these duck-rabbit questions. Wittgenstein—not, himself, the most stress-free person on the planet—might, if he could read these notes, wrinkle his nose and tell me to loosen up. The drawing of a rabbit is meant to suggest a rabbit, just as the drawing of a duck is meant to suggest a duck. The length of the neck is immaterial, and anyway, it could be drawn differently. To which I would have to reply, Ludwig Wittgenstein, you may have had an unusual upbringing among the Viennese aristocracy, but you never knew what it was like to have two mothers, or rather, two sisters, either of whom could be, at any time, your mother, or your aunt! Else you would have known how important it was to figure out what that shape was, really.

I hesitate to add that my father’s last name, Ente, means, in German, duck. It does, though. I deduce nothing from this fact, except that the duck-rabbit now has to carry an almost impossible weight of meaning: not only is it the sign of how Yesim was for me at once a stranger and an old friend—a confusion that would have more or less disastrous results later on—but it’s also the sign of my mother-aunts, the Celestes, and the sign of Richard Ente, my father and not-father. I should have called my project Luminous Duck-Rabbits, probably.

Soon, like Elmer Fudd, I will be shooting at baseballs.

© 2008-2021 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.