‘The Jungle Book’ as a ethics of Deleuzian becoming

I always feel like Deleuze and Guattari are yelling at me. Get up! Stop doing, thinking, feeling the same old shit again and again! Create your own freedom! They throw out a bunch of strange ideas, hoping one of them might catch fire and create in us a new kind of desire—something weird, something liberating.

One that runs consistently through their work is the idea of ‘becoming’. They prod us with many possible and increasingly obscure becomings: becoming-woman, becoming-animal, becoming-molecular, becoming-imperceptible. Their point, I think, isn’t to lay out a list of things we should ‘become’, but to point towards those things we must overcome: the many diagrams of power we come to not only participate in, but actively love and desire; the stale subjectivities we try so hard to reproduce from the packet, but which lead only to our own subjugation. They want us to not only destroy these boring desiring machines, but to create a million others to take their place. Their call to becoming is the most consistent and most practical strategy they offer to achieve this.

Early in my PhD, I treated myself and went and saw the remake of The Jungle Book. I couldn’t help but think how damn deleuzoguattarian the story was. The story’s central tension, of course, is a young boy’s place within the jungle. Mowgli, abandoned as an infant and raised by a pack of nice grey wolves, must negotiate his ambiguous relation to the jungle. Is he human or wolf?

We soon learn that the Law of the Jungle forbids humans from the jungle. They are destructive, exploitative, greedy; they upset the jungle’s careful balance. But Mowgli knows no other place. So he finds himself lodged uncomfortably between two worlds, seemingly belonging to both and neither. He vacillates awkwardly between radically different ways of being—some expansive but destructive, others stifling but more stable. But nothing seems to work, he can’t find his place, and he can’t figure out what he’s meant to be.

I left the theatre thinking: I reckon this is kind of what Deleuze and Guattari want us to do. Their calls to becoming direct us exactly to this kind of experimental engagement with our own subjectivities. So, that week, I wrote an essay about it. It was an essay I wrote for myself, to help me think through more concretely what becoming really means—and also to avoid working on my actual thesis, which had exactly nothing to do with the children’s classic story, The Jungle Book.

In the perhaps longwinded essay, which I’m posting here now, we follow Mowgli’s journey through the jungle, trying to understand the transformations that his many becomings entail: his becoming-wolf; his becoming-man; and the final scene in which he overcomes both wolf and man and becomes something entirely new. His journey is one of creative self-transformation, in which he overcomes ‘from-the-packet’ forms of subjectivity—and it illustrates exactly what Deleuze and Guattari spent ages telling us all to do.

1. Becoming-wolf

The Jungle Book, both its original novel by Rudyard Kipling and its various film renditions, is composed entirely of a series of encounters in which Mowgli must solve problems and learn new bodily capacities. We follow him through a sequence of encounters with various characters of the jungle—snakes, tigers, bears, monkeys, elephants. Along the way, he forms new alliances, develops new intensive affects and movements, takes on new ideas and values. And at each point, we learn something new about the jungle and Mowgli’s often uneasy relation to it.

We are introduced to Mowlgi as a young boy, having already spent most of the first decade of his life living with the wolf-pack. He was abandoned in the jungle as an infant, rescued by the very stern black panther Bagheera, and taken to the grey wolves, who took pity on little Mowgli. He was then raised with the other wolf cubs, taught the laws of the jungle and the way of the pack. In this way, he becomes a wolf child, a kind of werewolf.

But this tidy story glosses over the actual transformations that occur. For Mowgli’s entrance into the wolf pack does not take place just when it is decided he can stay (which is occurs in a formal meeting among the pack). Rather it is a complex, ongoing series of affective becomings. In short: Mowgli must take a line of becoming-animal—of becoming-wolf.

It is easy to imagine that becoming-animal means becoming ‘an’ animal. But Deleuze and Guattari are clear that becoming-animal is not about imitating an animal. Putting on a wolf suit, walking on all fours and howling at the moon would never make Mowgli a wolf—much less part of a wolf pack. Imitation reaffirms what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘molar stabilities’. Molar forms tend towards structure, repetition and stasis. ‘Wolf’ and ‘boy’ are molar categories, and imitation seeks a clean line from one molar category to another.

Instead, Deleuze and Guattari want us to think things in flux, to destabilise these rigid molar stabilities and seek true change—the creation of the new. Mowgli’s entering of the wolf-pack is a process which calls for the augmentation of his bodily affects—his speeds and intensities—and the learning of the Law, which gives structure to both individual wolves’ and the pack’s affects. Mowgli’s becoming-wolf takes place through alliance rather than imitation, which involves “effectuating the same diagram as the pack, occupying the same problematic as the pack,” as Adkins explains.

The unfolding transformation of Mowgli’s bodily affects is shown in the opening scene of the film. There’s a chase. Mowgli and the other wolf cubs are sprinting through the jungle. He’s racing between tree trunks, sliding down branches, swinging from vines—anything to stay with the other wolves and ahead of the ominous thing chasing close behind. But running towards the extremity of a branch of a dead tree, he finds himself falling to the ground and caught by a panther. We soon find out that the panther is a friend, Bagheera; he is teaching Mowgli and the other wolf-cubs how to move like a wolf.

Bagheera is disappointed in Mowgli: “If you can’t learn to run with the pack, one of these days you’ll be someone’s dinner,” he says. He chastises Mowgli for not recognising the tree as dead—that the branch could never support his weight. In this scene, Bagheera is bringing Mowgli in line with the multiplicity of the pack: moving as one with the pack, occupying the same problematic as the pack, responding to the jungle proficiently. Through these exercises, the same speeds, movements and affects of the pack begin to circulate across Mowgli.

The success of this becoming-wolf is demonstrated in a scene in the original book where Mowgli is captured by the monkeys. They swing frantically from branch to branch, throwing Mowgli between them, carrying him towards their crazy monkey kingdom. The monkeys are depicted as lawless—to be avoided at all costs: “the Monkey People—the gray apes—the people without a law—the eaters of everything.” But they take Mowgli for his king, as they can see his great power. He struggles and wriggles himself free and falls to the ground far below. The story’s narrator explains: “A man-trained boy would have been badly bruised, for the fall was a good fifteen feet, but Mowgli fell as Baloo [the bear] had taught him to fall, and landed on his feet.” So he falls not like a man, but like an animal. His body is not contained within the constrictive molar form of ‘human’, which would lack the capacity to fall with grace, but rather has opened itself up to circulate other, nonhuman movements. This falling shows his becoming-animal.

But it is not just Mowgli’s movements and speeds that are shaped through the process, but also his intensive capacity to be affected by the jungle. In the original book, it is mostly Father Wolf who teaches Mowgli the way of the pack. The narrator tells us:

And Father Wolf taught [Mowgli] his business, and the meaning of things in the jungle, till every rustle in the grass, every breath of the warm night air, every note of the owls above his head, every scratch of a bat’s claws as it roosted for a while in a tree, and every splash of every little fish jumping in a pool meant just as much to him as the work of his office means to a business man.

So it is clear that Mowgli’s becoming-wolf is not a question of what Mowgli’s body ‘is’, which will surely never develop fur, fangs, or claws. It is not the attainment of the molar stability of ‘wolf’, which involves simple imitation. Rather, it is about what Mowgli’s body might do. Becoming-wolf is “not based on resemblance or affiliation but on alliance, symbiosis, affection, and infection,” Patricia Pisters writes. The development of this affective alliance or infection is suggested when the book’s narrator explains Mowlgi “would have called himself a wolf if he had been able to speak in any human tongue”.

2. Becoming-human

This line of becoming-wolf is disrupted abruptly with the return of Shere Khan, the tyrannical Bengal Tiger. The reasons why Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead vary across the book and film adaptations. But the central problem remains the same. Although Mowgli would call himself a wolf, and the wolf pack largely treats him as such, the Law of the Jungle is clear on the matter: humans have no place here. Their destruction, their disregard for the Law, is incompatible with the jungle.

And it is here that the central tension of the book intensifies: Is Mowgli man or wolf? Can Mowgli’s becoming-wolf ever lead to him becoming accepted within the jungle? Or does his membership to the molar category ‘human’ exclude him forever? The Jungle and Man stand apart, occupying different logics and laws.

Shere Khan’s motives are not pure here. Again the story differs slightly across the accounts, but it becomes clear that Mowgli as an infant was somehow implicated in the event through which Shere Khan gained his facial disfigurations. Shere Khan is using the Law, which he rarely follows himself, to justify the killing of Mowgli.

The wolf pack fights back. They argue that Mowgli is a wolf-cub—that is, he effectuates the diagram of the pack. “He is our brother in all but blood,” Akela, the Mother Wolf, tells the assembly. But Shere Khan says, nah, it’s not up for debate. The pack will hand over Mowgli or he will take over the pack’s territory by force. Shere Khan proclaims: “You change your hunting ground for a few years, and everyone forgets how the Law works. Well, let me remind you. A man-cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden!”

Mowgli resigns himself to the decision. “Well, if I am a man, a man I must become,” he declares. And with these words the affective alliance is symbolically severed: “Ye have told me so often tonight that I am a man (and indeed I would have been a wolf with you to my life’s end) that I feel your words are true,” Mowgli says. “So I do not call ye my brothers any more, but dogs, as a man should.” It is in this moment that Mowgli becomes man in name and the jungle affectively closes to him.

In both the book and latest film version, Mowgli then leaves the pack to join the nearby ‘man village’, where he was likely born. However, here I’ll follow the film’s version, where Mowgli doesn’t actually make it to the village but is saved and befriended by the cool, hedonistic bear, Baloo. Baloo recognises Mowgli’s great human power, and encourages him to delay his return to the village—at least until the coming winter is through. The least Mowgli could do is gather some honey for Baloo’s hibernation, considering he saved his life.

We soon realise that Baloo operates on an entirely different diagram to the wolves. The wolf pack is strictly hierarchical, with elected leaders and enforced adherence to an inflexible law. For the wolves, this rigid structure makes possible the strong body of the pack, and it ensures the balance of the jungle that sustains them is maintained. This involves a strict code of conduct, which disallows Mowgli’s use of human ‘tricks’. We learn this in an early scene where all the jungle’s animals meet at the watering hole to call a truce due to a drought. Mowlgi is chastised for drawing water using a bucket he’d made from vines and a coconut. The capacity for manipulating the materials of the jungle is incompatible with the law.

So Mowgli grows up equating tricks with being-human and, therefore, with unlawfulness. But Baloo is not too concerned with the law—“rules are meant to be bent,” he tells Mowgli. What matters for Baloo is not the law, but living easily, joyfully—and getting lots of honey.

With Baloo’s permission, then, Mowlgi opens up his body and takes a line of becoming-human. In the book, the narrator tells us: “Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter’s child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it.” Having abandoned the strict rules of the Law and pack, which tightly bound Mowgli’s bodily capacities, Mowgli is now able to experiment with new arrangements of things. The jungle becomes the canvas for his inventions; the trees, vines and earth his materials. He produces new technologies that make the usually arduous job of collecting food much easier. And as a true industrialist, he is capable of doing something before unseen in the jungle: he produces surplus stock.

This all appears great and joyful until the panther Bagheera unexpectedly returns. His arrival brings with it the full weight of the law. Bagheera knows Baloo and his carefree and careless mode of existence, and assumes (correctly!) he’s had a corrupting influence on young Mowgli.

But Mowgli is excited both about his friend’s return and in showing him what he’d achieved in his short absence. We discover Mowgli’s rigged up a complex system of hoists that allowed him to access the previously impossible-to-reach honey; he’s made a suit of armour to protect himself from the bees’ stings; and he’s developed a storage space and system for the huge stockpiles of extra honeycomb he’s harvested. Mowgli proudly exhibits to Bagheera the stacks of honeycomb—all in the name of preparing for Baloo’s ‘hibernation’ (which, we learn, consists mainly of extended napping sessions). It would seem the true joy for Mowgli, however, is in realising his expansive powers. Unlike Baloo, he isn’t really interested in honey—but in creation.

When Bagheera sees all this, we share his horror at the destruction Mowgli has wreaked in such a short period of time. Mowgli’s new becoming has led to the decimation of an entire colony of bees.

This is a key turning point in Mowlgi’s becomings. The strict diagram of the pack was abandoned for unbridled creative joy. But with the Law returning in the form of Bagheera, Mowgli is forced us to realise his creative powers can cause great devastation. No wonder the animals exclude humans from the jungle—they destroy it, while feeling joy in their cruel destruction. Bagheera’s disappointment is enough of a lesson for Mowgli and he resigns himself to returning to the man-village.

3. Becoming-Mowgli

Immediately after this unsettling episode another scene hints towards the possibility of a less destructive future for Mowgli. A herd of elephants are crowded around a watering hole; they are in distress. Mowgli rushes over and discovers the reason: an elephant calf has fallen in, cannot get out, will likely die. He runs back to camp, returning with part of his vine rigging system. Without hesitation he jumps in the hole, ties one end to the calf, ties the other to the adult elephants and instructs them to pull. It works and the calf is freed.
This is significant: we learn earlier that elephants are the most respected animals in the jungle. We’re told they are responsible for the creation of all things; they are demigods. But in this moment Mowgli bows not just to them, but them to him. Baloo and Bagheera watch on. “Maybe not all human tricks are incompatible with the jungle,” we see Bagheera thinking.

But here comes another turn of events (every new scene involves another dramatic turn of events!). Mowlgi learns that in his absence Shere Khan has taken over the wolf pack’s home, he has killed his wolf father Akela, he won’t leave until Mowgli is returned to him. Shere Khan is upsetting the balance of the jungle—hunting in another’s territory and killing for pleasure. Mowgli now realises he cannot return to the man village just yet—the terror against the pack and the jungle will only end with the death of either him or Shere Khan. So he sets off to the man village to retrieve the Red Flower, which is what the jungle calls fire. Earlier we’re told that the Red Flower is the most destructive force possible. It’s considered a human invention, too—a key reason why humans are incompatible with the jungle. “Every beast lives in deadly fear of it,” the book’s narrator tells us, and especially Shere Khan, who in the film version was burnt and nearly killed by it when Mowgli was an infant.

Mowlgi knows the only way he, a small boy, can kill Shere Khan is through his human tricks—he must outsmart might. And the Red Flower is the most powerful force available to him. At night, he enters the man village. The men appear only as shadows flickering around a large bonfire. The flames curl upwards, distorting their silhouetted figures. With hesitation, he snatches a firebrand and runs off back into the jungle. Mowgli does not know how to handle the Red Flower, it terrifies him. And as he runs back to the wolf pack, cinders splinter off, fall to the ground, and the jungle begins to burn behind him.

When Mowgli arrives back at the pack’s territory he is confronted by Shere Khan. Mowlgi wields aggressively the firebrand, declaring he is there to end the tyranny—it will end with one of their deaths! Shere Khan is sardonic. He explains that the jungle is closed to Mowlgi. Look around, he instructs Mowgli, none of the animals can look you in the eye. In the book, Bagheera explains that: “The others they hate thee because their eyes cannot meet thine; because thou art wise; because thou hast pulled out thorns from their feet—because thou art a man.” Mowgli realises he must choose between being man and or becoming something else. So Mowgli casts aside the Red Flower, extinguishing it in the river, and in doing so casts away both the symbol and power of man. By reducing his ‘human’ affective capacities, he aligns himself with the jungle, reentering the jungle as neither wolf nor man but more than both. The gesture galvanises the jungle. The other animals begin to see Mowgli as more kin than Shere Khan.

By now much of the jungle is alight from Mowgli’s careless transport of the Red Flower. The final showdown takes place among the flames. While Shere Khan is being attacked by the other animals, Mowgli quickly rigs up a swing using a vine thrown across a tree. He scales a large, old tree that’s been killed by a strangler fig. Having thrown off the animals, Shere Khan climbs too. He corners Mowgli as he makes his way out to the extremity of a branch. It seems Mowgli is trapped. But as Shere Khan walks towards Mowlgi, the branch of the dead tree snaps under the weight—a clear nod to the story’s opening scene. Shere Khan falls to his death into the fire below, while Mowgli is caught by the clever vine he rigged up, and swings to safety.

Closing: A nomadic ethics

Rosi Braidotti describes Deleuze and Guattari’s work as ‘nomadic ethics’. “Becoming-nomadic,” she writes, “means that one learns to reinvent oneself and to desire the self as a process of qualitative transformation.” Becoming is an ethics of movement and sense, which “stresses the need to act, to experiment with different modes of constituting subjectivity and different ways of inhabiting our corporeality.”

Mowgli knew that neither wolf nor man could defeat Shere Khan. Rather, he had to reinvent himself entirely. And so in this final scene, Mowlgi surpasses the man-wolf dialectic and overcomes both molar categories. He brings together his both wolf and human capacities: his wolf-like capacity to be affected by the jungle and his human-like capacity for invention.

In doing so, he opens the jungle to its ‘outside’. Through Mowgli, the jungle develops a new proximity to humans; just as it is through the pack that Mowgli develops a proximity to wolves. It is at this borderline, this zone of affective proximity, that the jungle itself joins with something else and becomes something new. “Wherever there is a multiplicity, you will also find an exceptional individual,” explain Deleuze and Guattari, “and it is with that individual that an alliance must be made in order to become-animal.” And so Mowgli’s becoming is also the jungle’s becoming.

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