The Rat Fiends

Posted on May 6, 2010


“Of the animals that move about on the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard” ~ Leviticus 11:29

A standard rat trap.

For the past month or so the C.K.R. household has been under the constant threat, surveillance, and invasion of several unwanted visitors. The descendants of the perpetrators of the worst genocide committed against mankind, rats killed a third of the world’s population.

Rats caused the Bubonic Plague is what I tell myself while lurking about the hardwood floors at night, struggling to stifle sound, aware and alert and ready to throw a shoe should the vermin appear.

The traps that have been dispersed within the house vary in size, shape, and quantity, but everything short of a rat-sized Iron Maiden or toxic gas bomb aside, the armaments in place would do justice to any trained exterminator squad.

Predictably, there has been little success. Night after night the snaps of the traps triggered ring out in dissonance; upon inspection the next morning we find not only that there are no dead rats caught in the crossfire but that the traps themselves have been robbed. Even though the whole house smells of cheese, our bait is never recovered; the rats absconded, rubbing our noses in their prize (and later, their pellets). Fuckers.

“I know it sounds silly,” Dad says one day contemplating in his chair, “but I’ve made it somewhat of a personal vendetta to see that these rats are gone. I don’t just want them gone, I wantum dead.”

Cut back and forth across the past month to the various points in which my mother, father, and brother spotted the intruders and emitted cartoonish falsetto yelps in response and I think Dad’s intentions are mutually accepted right now.

My brother has a ball python which is now about four feet in length, about as long as this specific breed grows. He tells me one night after a round of G.B.s that he intends to let his snake roam the house if the invaders are not soon found.

“He’s big enough now that he can pretty much fuck up anything that gets in his way,” my brother tells me.

Think Reverse Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Anti-R-T-T.

My mother, once afraid of snakes, also suggested the idea recently because she views a six-inch rodent as a larger threat than a four-foot reptile.

In last year’s Inglourious Basterds there is a very profound analogy made by S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (masterfully played by Christoph Waltz) to a dairy farmer suspected of harboring a Jewish family in which he compares his contempt for European Jewry to an ordinary person’s revulsion toward a rat and subsequent indifference towards squirrels.

Col. Hans Landa: The feature that makes me such an effective hunter of the Jews is, as opposed to most German soldiers, I can think like a Jew, where they can only think like a German … more precisely, German soldier. Now, if one were to determine what attribute the German people share with a beast, it would be the cunning and the predatory instinct of a hawk. But if one were to determine what attributes the Jews share with a beast, it would be that of the rat. The Führer and Goebbels’s propaganda have said pretty much the same thing, but where our conclusions differ is I don’t consider the comparison an insult. Consider, for a moment, the world a rat lives in. It’s a hostile world, indeed. If a rat were to scamper through your front door right now, would you greet it with hostility?
Perrier LaPadite: I suppose I would.
Col. Hans Landa: Has a rat ever done anything to you to create this animosity you feel towards them?
Perrier LaPadite: Rats spread diseases. They bite people.
Col. Hans Landa: Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague, but that’s some time ago. I propose to you, any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Would you agree?
Perrier LaPadite: Oui.
Col. Hans Landa: Yet I assume you don’t share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you?
Perrier LaPadite: No.
Col. Hans Landa: But they’re both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail, they even rather look alike, don’t they?
Perrier LaPadite: It’s an interesting thought, Herr Colonel.
Col. Hans Landa: Ha! However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel. If a rat were to walk in here right now, as I’m talking, would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?
Perrier LaPadite: Probably not.
Col. Hans Landa: I didn’t think so. You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them; all you know is you find them repulsive. What a tremendously hostile world a rat must endure. Yet not only does he survive, he thrives. Because our little foe has a instinct for survival and preservation second to none. And that, Monsieur, is what a Jew shares with a rat. Consequently, a German soldier conducts a search of a house suspected of hiding Jews. Where does the hawk look? He looks in the barn, he looks in the attic, he looks in the cellar, he looks everywhere he would hide. But there’s so many places it would never occur to a hawk to hide. However, the reason the Führer’s brought me off my Alps in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does occur to me. Because I’m aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.

Of course, while the analogy itself is effective the viewer is still (rightfully) unassuaged in their support for the dairy farmer and the Jewish Dreyfus family due to our repulsion toward Nazis and genocide in general, for to us the life of a rat or a squirrel or any other furry and puny creature, even the most lovable and doe-eyed, is nowhere approaching the value intrinsic in human life, or so most people believe.

Still, the point itself is valid in that it underlines a sort of semiotic dialectic on the role of the Rat (or any other sort of pest) in society; they are the philosophical Others of which Hegel and Sartre spoke. They are, due to their capacity for Destruction, shunned by a society which itself favors and identifies with Creation (though they have no problem with destroying to create or creating to destroy)—because they destroy crops, spread germs and diseases, invade households, and are generally nothing more than furry locust plagues, we in the Western world tend to view the Rat as an aberration that must be wiped out before it wipes us out (again).

Go to Asia and you have a very different philosophical worldview in regard to the Rat and its role. In Chinese astrology, the very first zodiac sign on the list is the Rat.

The Chinese Zodiac website makes it known that the Rat is characterized by “[such] traits as wit, imagination and curiosity,” which is about as converse to the Western demonization of rats as one can get, and yet some go even further. Near where India borders Pakistan, the Indian village of Deshnok is home to the Karni Mata temple. A six hundred year old marvel, the temple is the site in which thousands of kabas take refuge on a daily basis. By the way, kabas means “holy rodent,” so if you thought this was some sort of pilgrimage a la Mecca, you’d be mistaken. Except you wouldn’t be, because people flock there too and the rats are revered as destined for reincarnation, as well as for being the vehicle of Ganesh. Ganesh being a giant elephant-man-thing, there is a touch of irony in another Western cliche; that of the elephant fearing the mouse.

It is believed by those who worship at the temple that eating food that has been touched by the rats is a blessing from God. The World Health Organization disagrees.

That the rats in Karni Mata are fed grain and saucers of warm milk (better than some people in India eat, I might add) while the rats in Casa Del C.K.R. dine on poisoned cheese and impending Death really flaunts the scope of cultural division here. The term ‘Rat’ as I have come to understand it has varying connotations in the West but almost all are negative; one can be called a rat for being a backstabber, an informant for an opposing party, or simply a douchebag. Children are often taught to say ‘rats!’ as a substitute for swear words.

Sociologically, what we have to consider is what the rat symbolizes to us. That the rat bears most of the responsibility for the worst pandemic in history is the first factor to be accounted for, and the lasting fear and loathing of the rattus rattus over centuries has ingrained itself into our most primal fibers of being.

When you actually think about it, there’s much soundness to be found in Colonel Landa’s monologue. To those of us in developed countries, rats are generally more of a nuisance than a plague, having done nothing to most of us on a personal level and yet even without reason we still hate their guts.

My case in point, basically, is that cultural attitudes toward a phenomenon, in contributing to whether it is acceptable versus taboo, are on some scale imposed onto us either from birth or very shortly after that. The symbol of the rat being either a god or a devil and its yin-yang oppositional nature is a good example of how memes can work throughout society worldwide. What we perceive and how we perceive it is more often than not the consequence of what our culture allows us to see of the world, blinding us from any real objectivity we might otherwise find.

For the past week, the rats have stopped coming to the house. They’ve stopped leaving droppings, stopped taking cheese out of traps and escaping unscathed. All activity for the time being has ceased. Perhaps the rats have moved on to another house, having learned of the dangers that reside within Chateau C.K.R. Rats possess a creepily-high innate intelligence and are naturally very suspicious of new objects in their environment; it is likely that the traps scared them off. That is to say that this only applies to that particular colony or nest. There will be others lurking about, scurrying and scavenging ad nauseum for the duration of their short lives, who may decide to infiltrate once again, and when they do, I’ll be ready.

Although, readiness aside, I suppose the fact that the traps were unsuccessful this time and they still managed to seize the bait may mean I am merely paying a cheese-and-peanut-butter tribute to the kabas in the long run.

It may not ultimately matter. Rats are among the oldest species on this planet, preceded only by sharks and cockroaches and other prehistoric beasts. They got the first laugh. Chances are they’ll probably have the last one as well.