Michel Pastoureau, director at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where he teaches the history of western symbolism, has recently published a volume called Famous animals (2008). Until the 1960's, the animal kingdom had been neglected by historians. Now it is an integral part of the collective imaginary of any civilisation. And quite rightly so. All societies have reserved a mythical place for animals, a primary symbolic role. The bestiary of any human group is a reservoir of meaning that can finally find its hermeneuticians. Michel Pastoureau limits his investigation to his avowed field of expertise – the western world. He sets out to introduce to us a list of animals – real and imaginary – which have left a mark on human history and continue to do so. Are you already thinking of some examples? If not, here's the menu: the snake of the original sin, the animals boarding Noah's ark, the bestiary of the Lascaux cave, the Minotaur, the Trojan horse, Balaam's donkey, Jonah's whale, the Roman she-wolf, the geese of the Capitol, Hannibal's elephants, the animals in baby Jesus' manger, St. Anthony's pig, Aboul-Abas (Charlemagne's elephant), Renart, the English leopard, Buridan's donkey, Dürer's rhinoceros, but also, closer to us, Teddy Bear, Mickey and Donald, Milou, Nessie, Laika (the cosmonaut), not to mention Obelix's wild boars or Dolly, the cloned sheep! Pastoureau knows his list is incomplete: he could have included Athena's owl, Montaigne's dog, St. Jerome's lion and St Francis's little sparrows, Baloo and Babar, Felix the Cat or the Pink Panther... Whether we like it or not, we live among animals, we humanise them, we allow ourselves to be impressed by their legends. Starting in early childhood and going all the way to the Apocalypse, animals question us and listen to us, forecast our future, illuminate our origins, adapt to our desires, moralise us in fable manner and soothe our anxieties – when they don't make them worse –, reminding us just "how difficult it is to be human". I find the formula used in this passionate inquiry excellent: first, the facts, as they are presented by the most reliable sources; then, their interpretation in a key equally allegorical and anthropological. You can read a "profile" in five minutes, you have a wide choice, and the whole offers more than the sum of its ingredients. I think that, after joining the EU and NATO, what our culture needs to do, among other things, is reintegrate without ideological censorship, omission and interdictions in the vast bestiary of the continental civilisation. Whole generations have failed to show up at the meeting with the inhabitants of this magical-religious, popular or scholarly world. All those who, like me, lived their first years in the kitsch clamour of the pioneers' propaganda were deprived not only of the palate pleasures offered by "real" chocolate, clementines and other goodies, but also of the opportunity to shape their sensitivity around "famous animals". I, at least, was not subjected to the "country's hawks" madness (I was already an adolescent when this new form of kindergarten indoctrination appeared), but I still feel when reading this volume how sparse my interaction was with these heavenly dream companions. For children, the connection with the zoology of culture is another means of prolonging the paradise of lost innocence, and this problem should be remedied at least now, although the new "infantile imaginary" is technological (and robotically-destructive), rather than "edifying" in the tradition of White Fang. Having said all this, I'll go back, together with Michel Pastoureau, to Milou (at least I had him and Tintin, thanks to the former "French Library" in Bucharest). "Born" in 1929, the little white fox-terrier was initially a protagonist but had to later on concede in front of other – human – characters, such as captain Haddock, Tryphon Tournesol, the absent-minded professor, or Dupont & Dupond, the clumsy, echolalic detectives. But Milou continued to speak, "heard" only by the attentive readers. Is he still saying anything to you? Dliema veche, 8-14 January 2009 Translated by Dana Crăciun

by Teodor Baconsky