This is not a coffee table book about dinosaurs, but it comes close. The Last Dinosaur Book is cleverly, colorfully, and lavishly illustrated. It is filled with movie stills, comic strips, cartoons, and, if that is not enough to hold your interest, you can flip pages 95 to 227 and watch an animated dinosaur come to life.
But before you think you have found the perfect present for that child who loves extinct behemoths, you should be cautioned: The Last Dinosaur Book is an exercise in iconology, not paleontology; it's not about dinosaurs but about our cultural image of dinosaurs. Its author, W.J.T. Mitchell, is a professor of English at the University of Chicago, untrained in zoology and biology.
That doesn't mean he lacks a fascinating tale to tell. Mitchell traces the evolution of the image of the dinosaur in popular culture, and shows how it has changed in response to economic, social, and political developments. Dinosaurs, for example, functioned as symbols of enormous power during the machine age of the nineteenth century. As Mitchell writes, "the dinosaur makes its appearance with all the other modern monsters, coming into public consciousness in the same period, and as a product of the same forces that produced the tank, the locomotive, the steamboat, and the skyscraper."
But now in the information age, our image of the dinosaur has changed. We no longer picture dinosaurs as slow, lumbering brutes. The new star of the dinosaur world is the velociraptor, smaller and less imposing, but smarter, agile, and ultimately more threatening because it hunts in packs. Mitchell coyly asks: "Could this be an allegory of the replacement of corporate giantism by the new model of 'downsized' business organization, stressing flexible accumulation, rapid deployment of task forces to problem areas, and teamwork?"
Mitchell insists on finding economics beneath all cultural phenomena. Indeed, Marx is one of the dinosaurs he'd like to resurrect: "We need Marx to understand the relation of dinosaurs to politics and economics, to the development of capitalism as a world system." While Mitchell makes much of recent films like Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park that place their dinosaur subjects in the new context of multinational biotechnology corporations, he also reveals how contemporary ideology influences those films' view of dinosaurs. He shows that the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, "is a veritable hymn in praise of dinosaur family values, portraying its T. rex couple as ferociously nurturing parents." In The Lost World, the beasts spend more quality time with their offspring than the humans do.
Though Mitchell concentrates on the United States, he notes that the story of the dinosaur as a cultural icon really begins in Britain. The original attempt to popularize dinosaurs was the 1851 Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, where giant-sized models of creatures like the iguanadon were displayed for the first time. Given the roots of our dinosaur imagery in Victorian Britain, Mitchell argues for a connection between dinosaurs and empire: "The dinosaur can symbolize the dominant 'master race' that commands a global empire, the vanished, savage races that lost out in the Darwinian struggle, or an invading horde of aliens who threaten white supremacy."
Here I think Mitchell is really onto something. For much of this century, dinosaurs were portrayed as strong physically, but weak mentally. This is exactly the image that Western colonial powers held of the non-Westerners they subdued. Thus when dinosaurs appear in modern stories, they are invariably found in remote jungles or backlands in Africa or South America and are often linked with primitive tribes who worship or fear them. The typical dinosaur story contrives to transport one or more of the giant beasts to a metropolitan area in a major industrial nation. The fight to the death that inevitably results was an emblem of the struggle between the First and Third Worlds, brute strength pitted fatally against modern technology -- precisely the battle played out time and again on colonial frontiers.
Unfortunately, Mitchell passes far too quickly over the book that most clearly made the connection between dinosaurs and imperialism. He devotes only one paragraph to Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 The Lost World, the prototypical dinosaur story about an expedition that finds the supposedly extinct creatures alive and kicking on an isolated plateau in Brazil. The plateau is inhabited not just by dinosaurs: Doyle peoples it as well with two hostile tribes -- one of humans, the other of ape-men, "and there is bloody war between them all the time." Once we learn that these South American ape-men have the unexpected feature of red hair, the key to Doyle's allegory becomes clear. His lost world is really Ireland -- truly a land of dinosaurs if an Englishman ever saw one. Born in Edinburgh of Irish Catholic parents, the very English Sir Arthur Conan Doyle takes the Victorian view of the Irish as subhuman. (Early in the book, the hero, Professor Challenger, invoking antiquated Victorian racial theories, takes one look at the Irish narrator and sees a "suggestion of the negroid" in his features.)
Doyle finally allows the humans to obliterate the ape-men in one grand apocalyptic battle. His description of the struggle, largely pointless in the context of Brazil, fits Ireland perfectly: "All the feuds of countless generations, all the hatreds and cruelties of their narrow history, all the memories of ill-usage and persecution were to be purged that day." Doyle used his dinosaur story to develop a British imperial fantasy of an Irish Armageddon.
I offer my own reading of Doyle's The Lost World to back up one of Mitchell's central claims, but also to suggest that, despite his having half-jokingly entitled his work The Last Dinosaur Book, much remains to be done in investigating the cultural symbolism of the "thunder lizards." It is surprising that Mitchell says nothing about the Brazilian author Marcio Souza's Lost World II: The End of the Third World. This postmodern, post-colonial rewriting of Doyle makes explicit many of the connections Mitchell tries to tease out of modern culture, above all, the identification of the dinosaur with the capitalist.
Readers familiar with the movement known as Cultural Studies will have already recognized that Mitchell's book is an example of it, and indeed The Last Dinosaur Book exemplifies the best and the worst of what is fast becoming the dominant approach in literature departments throughout the United States. Mitchell certainly makes us take a fresh look at the dinosaur as an icon in popular culture. In the end, however, he never really grasps the phenomenon on the ground level of popular culture rather than on the airy level of academic abstraction. He has much to say about what dinosaurs mean but very little to say about why so many people are attached to them.
When English professors like W.J.T. Mitchell start writing about movies like Jurassic Park, traditionalists are outraged, as though they were some-how asserting the superiority of Steven Spielberg to William Shakespeare. But Mitchell makes clear he doesn't especially value popular works about dinosaurs. In fact, he is hostile to popular culture in general. He approaches it with the attitude of a physician, determined to diagnose its ills. He wants not just to analyze our images of dinosaurs, but to demystify and debunk them. He is out to demonstrate that when we seem to be interested in dinosaurs, we are really betraying our anxieties about something else. In short, Mitchell has other fish than dinosaurs to fry, and his subject is merely a pretext to criticize capitalism.
Cultural Studies, far from being a populist movement, is elitist and analyzes popular culture from the Olympian perspective of the left-wing academic intellectual. Beneath the surface of The Last Dinosaur Book, a contempt for American popular culture is always bubbling up. There is in fact only one moment when Mitchell seems to side unequivocally with the dinosaurs -- when he talks about the way the tyrannosaurs attack a variety of sports-utility vehicles in the Jurassic Park movies. Evidently there is nothing he hates more than a Ford Explorer:
According to auto industry reports, 95 percent of "off-road vehicles" never leave the road; they spend most of their lives parked in suburban garages, as monuments to advertising fantasies of family wilderness vacations, gas-guzzling testimonials to the cheap oil supply made possible by the American military adventure in the Persian Gulf.
In offhand moments such as this, Mitchell's not-so-hidden agenda surfaces with a surprising preachiness. The dinosaur is not the real target of Mitchell's animosity -- the way of life of the middle-class American is, and above all the American love of consumer goods. In Mitchell's view, because something is called an "off-road vehicle," it had better stay off roads, and if it somehow turns up in a suburban shopping mall, something has gone desperately wrong with America. Mitchell is generally willing to read things symbolically instead of literally, but he won't allow consumers any fantasy component in the enjoyment of their purchases.
The trouble with Cultural Studies is not that it shows too much respect for popular culture, as many traditionalists claim, but that it shows too little. Is our culture's interest in dinosaurs really so surprising, and do we have to follow Mitchell in attributing it to base, material interests? Could one not find some higher impulse at work in our love of dinosaurs, even if at times it takes what appear to be crassly commercial forms?
I think it says something good about the American people that they cannot get enough of their beloved dinosaurs. They are displaying at least a form of scientific curiosity. Aristotle said that philosophy begins with wonder, and dinosaurs are wondrous. It is a challenging thought that animals so unlike those alive today once walked the earth in such diversity and profusion. Dinosaurs clearly stretch our nation of the limits of the animals kingdom; there is something sublime about their sheer bulk and terrifying power. Mitchell does not mention the fact that as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, Romantic poets like Byron and Shelley were already responding to the imaginative potential of new paleontological discoveries. (Shelley even anticipated the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction in Act IV of Prometheus Unbound.)
Mitchell is particularly puzzled by the fact that Jurassic Park was the biggest money-making film of all time, until surpassed by James Cameron's Titanic. If I may indulge in a little Cultural Studies myself, the success of these two films suggests that people everywhere are gripped by stories of very big things that suddenly and mysteriously go under. In traditional literary criticism, there is a name for this kind of narrative: It is called "tragedy." Several of Shakespeare's tragic heroes -- Othello, King Lear, Coriolanus -- might be described as dinosaurs: titans who have outlived their era and survived into an age of petty creatures who combine to bring them down. Jurassic Park is no King Lear, but in the story of the giant beasts, the public somehow intuits a tragic fate. The dinosaur offers a vulgar and much simplified analogue of what Shakespeare presents in his profound tragedies: an antique grandeur facing extinction.
Indeed one way dinosaurs function in popular imagination is as images of our aristocratic past. "Tyrannosaurus rex" -- king of the tyrant lizards -- reminds us that the principle of democracy is a comparatively new thing. The fact that we routinely speak of "when dinosaurs ruled the earth" shows that there is a political dimension to our understanding of the thunder lizards.
Mitchell is leery of the place dinosaurs occupy in the elementary school curriculum. He is afraid that stories of the great beasts may be teaching our innocent children politically incorrect lessons in aggressiveness and violence. But perhaps that is precisely the function dinosaurs serve in our culture: They are a challenge and a counter-weight to the gospel of niceness that dominates public education. (And Barney -- the hyper-nice children's television host dressed up as a purple dinosaur -- may be the education establishment's revenge on dinosaurs.)
Like the extraterrestrials dressed in togas and carrying Roman swords in 1950s science-fiction movies, the dinosaurs rise up out of our historical past to haunt us with images of pre-democratic and traditionally heroic forms of greatness -- a kind of Homeric age when sheer strength gave a title to rule. In one of his notes, Nietzsche wrote: "One would make a fit little boy stare if one asked him: 'Would you like to become virtuous?' -- but he will open his eyes wide if asked: 'Would you like to become stronger than your friends?" Nietzsche, like Aristotle, would understand our fascination with dinosaurs.
Paul A. Cantor is professor of English at the University of Virginia.