José Saramago and the Elephant

This morning, the Portuguese newspaper Público reported that the rights to José Saramago’s estate had been granted to the Andrew Wylie agency, a company known for negotiating exorbitant sums for its clients and for transforming allegedly progressive cultural figures into the kind of money-grubbing upper-crusters they publicly claim to despise. In the documentary José y Pilar, Saramago digresses prophetically about the inspiration for his novel A viagem do Elefante. Having seen, in a European country, the foot of an elephant in an antique shop refashioned as an umbrella stand, he thought of the animal’s birthplace in faraway India and the travails it must have suffered through before arriving at its ridiculous destiny.

FullSizeRenderIt is difficult to see what distinguishes the treatment of the writings of  the lifelong communist Saramago, offspring of a peasant family in Ribatejo, from the indignities suffered by this mysterious animal for the amusement of the wealthy.

In their imaginative sensitivity, Saramago’s meditations on the elephant’s vanished life recollect those of Flaubert concerning the twin of an obelisk at Luxor, stolen away and shipped to France to be erected in the center of Paris:

Perched on its pedestal, how bored it must be in the Place de la Concorde! How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?

Paris obelisk  - sketch of the capstan used to raise it in Paris - from The Architectural magazine

The Dignity of Poorness in World

One of the most curious epiphenomena of the intrusion of internet-based activity into so many areas of our lives has been the proliferation of videos of animals. Jacques Derrida, in what for me is his most deliberate, measured, and beautiful book, L’animal que donc je suis, speaks of the animal as an inevitable other, with particular and withering emphasis on Heidegger’s idea of the animal as weltarm and vindicating the dignity of animals through an invocation of a well-known passage from Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?” It is not the fashion to talk of nature nor of the spiritually inexorable, I am nonetheless sure that the matter of one’s proper comportment in regards to animals is a basic aspect of moral being that can only be avoided at the cost of a mauvaise conscience so consuming as to render one ethically incomplete. The vehemence with which Adorno has been posthumously taken to task for the phrase

The possibility of pogroms is decided the moment when the gaze of a fatally-wounded animal falls on a human being

has a red-faced, blustering nature about it that typifies reactions to an argument that is irritating but philosophically sound; one that is correct, but to the consequences of which one does not wish to be beholden. Anyone who has watched an animal’s impotent wailing as a person holds it in the air by its leash, kicking it until it pisses everywhere in fear, as I have, because I lived for a number of years in proximity to a person who abused animals, will find it difficult to maintain the self-serving illusion that his pain is superior or more worthy of consideration than that of a poor, quivering beast.

The viewing of images and videos of animals on the internet, particularly engaged in mock-human activities or expressing affinities we are wont to associate with the human, although in our hearts we know they are not our exclusive domain, should lead one to question the perversity of a model of existence in which the independent lives of animals are given virtually no place.

Derrida, in the aforementioned book, devotes various pages to the naming of animals and the degree to which animals possess their names. Of course the notion of a name as the rubric for a distinct and irreducible identity is a perversion, the origin of human names, like those of animals, lies in the summons, even today, in many languages, it is customary to explain one’s name by the locution I am called. Beyond this, the name is an evocation of the absent. Many animals have a sense of this aspect of names as well, and will react with excitement or fear when the arrival of a benevolent or cruel figure is announced.

Animal friendship is widely attested to both in ethological literature and in the anecdotes of country people. As I watched this video about companionship and longing, I wondered to what extent the facets of naming and friendship that transcended the understanding these two animals had of them––thus, those known to be proper to “man”––did not serve to denature and disfigure our fundamental relations.

Many of the writers I most admire reserve harsh words for sentimentality, and yet, though I have never taken the time to think this through as I should, I often have the feeling that sentimentality is a more adequate disposition in comparison with emotional and intellectual refinement, which so often consists of discarding naivety in favor of a demeanor mirroring others who are remarkable not for their greater kindness or sensitivity, but rather for occupying some station of which we are envious.

I have not been able to stop thinking about these animals, whether they will always be together, whether they are still as happy as they appear to be at the end of this video, for some time, particularly when I am trying to fall asleep. Most probably, the part of myself that is concerned with the destiny of these animals is far more worthy of cultivation than the part of me that is clever or attempts to pursue a career in letters, but I do not know whether I may ever be certain about this, because I do not know whether I am resigned to the moral hypocrisy upon which the way of life typical of the country where I live is based or whether some day, the shame of this hypocrisy will become too much to bear and I will try, somehow, to live differently.