“He thinks in animals, as others think in ideas.”
It struck me today reading The Iliad that Nietzsche’s famous breakdown in Turin, when he supposedly embraced two maltreated drayhorses in the street, acts out in reverse the sequence in Book 17, when Xanthos and Balios, the two magnificent steeds that pulled Achilles’s war-car, stood motionless after the death of Patrocles and wept. They were the offspring of Zephyr, god of the west wind, and the harpy Podarge. Nietzsche would also have known the passage in The Republic where Plato proposed that the man whose nature moved as harmoniously and purposefully as a horse’s must be an excellent man.
Reading about the griffin in Purgatorio XXIX, I was reminded that one of the books which most impressed me as a very small boy featured just such a chimerical creature. I was afraid of it, but the beast was magnificent and compelling, and I read the book over and over again. And admired the illustrations.
In Dante’s great poem, the griffinhalf-eagle, half-lionrepresents Christ in his dual nature as perfect man and perfect God. Stephen Prickett suggests that the griffin is a figure for metaphor itself, specifically for a kind of religious experience whereby the same event must be seen in two different ways at the same time if it is to be understood at all (thus flouting the strictures of Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit visual conundrum). Indeed, the griffin could stand outside the religious sphere as a heraldic symbol for metaphor generally, as a figure of speech perpetually under significant internal tension.
In medieval jurisprudence, inanimate and non-human objects could have murderous taint and malicious intent. If a thing caused death, it was declared deodand, “given to God.” If a horse impaled its rider on a branch, the beast could be said to have “moved to the death” of its master, and castigation followed. Vengeance would be exacted on pigs and boats. Deodand was essentially a ritual of expiation; and it survived in the lawbooks until 1846, when the first death occurred on the railways. The authorities hesitated about taking revenge on Stephenson’s Rocket. And thus the law passed into desuetude.
Far from its being a primitive oddity, we can all feel something of the strange need to deflect responsibility and blame third parties when we knock ourselves on the doorjamb, or cut ourselves with a kitchen knife. Our first instinct is to curse the implement, although the mishap is often ascribable to the wielder. Projection is a very powerful force in the human mind. And what deodand, this most curious relic of common law, suggests is that until only recently there was no place for the notion of death by misadventure.
In Flann O’Brien’s novel The Dalkey Archive, a man called McDadd, a solid tire specialist, administers a fatal beating to another called MacDonaghy after first thrashing his bicycle with a crowbar. “The sergeant gave his ruling at the end of the week. His position was painful in the extremity of pain because he was a close friend of McDadd after office hours. He condemned the bicycle and it was the bicycle that was hanged.” And did you ever see a “bicycle-shaped coffin,” the sergeant asks. “It is a very inconvoluted item of wood-working, you would want to be a master-class carpenter to make a good job of the handlebars, to say nothing of the pedals and the backstep.”
He stroked the spines of books as if they were animals only partially domesticated.
Durs Grünbein’s lingering, in his essay “Zeit der Tiefseefische” (The Age of Deep-Sea Fish), on the horrors of the hatchetfish, armorhead, gulper eel, spiderfish, bristlemouth, and other denizens of the ocean floor which, accustomed to the pressure of the abyssal regions, exvaginate their entrails through their enormous mouths on being brought up to the surface, reminded me of Melville’s take on first and last things in Billy Budd.
He is talking about the eyes of Billy and his tormentor Claggart, just after Claggart has voiced his fateful accusation in front of Captain Vere. “Those lights of human intelligence, losing human expression, were gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep. The first mesmeristic glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the paralyzing lurch of the torpedo fish.”
Economists hypothesize, with the shamelessness of zoo keepers, that all that matters for us as consuming animals is our choice of feeding dishes.
In the bathypelagic zone of the oceans where living creatures are rare, pressures immense, and the dark permanent, the ceratioid anglerfish Haplophryne mollis, known as the phantom anglerfish (it lacks pigmentation), employs an extreme form of sexual dimorphism to ensure reproductive success.
When the male anglerfish matures, its digestive system begins to degenerate, obliging it to find a larger female anglerfish to prevent impending death. A sensitive olfactory apparatus allows it to locate the presence of a free-living female: the male bites the female, triggering the release of an enzyme that digests his mouthpiece as well as the proximate bite-zone, fusing the male with the ventrum of the female. The male then atrophies, losing his digestive organs, and then his brain, heart, and eyes, regressing to no more than a pair of gonads that broadcast their sperm in response to circulating hormones signaling egg release in the female. The females are polyandrous, and will over the course of a lifecycle attract several sperm-donors.
The first researchers to examine specimens of anglerfish trawled from the deeps were surprised to find only female examples and initially thought these ventral vestiges were parasites, which they are (in a non-standard sense). These males are another example of what Roger Caillois called instinct d’abandon, although the relinquishing of self-preservation he observed and wrote about was in the male praying mantis.
In his poem “Amenaza” (Threat), the Mexican poet Gerardo Deniz modifies the English verb “jeopardize” in order to create a terrifying new feline creature, the jeopard.
Our unexceptionally torpid meeting at the Ministry of Health on the Castries waterfront was enlivened by one of the beautiful local crested hummingbirds hovering in a flash of madder and indigofera for a few moments outside the plate glass. It made me think of the fabulous plate in Ernst Haeckel’s nineteenth-century bestseller Kunstformen der Natur, which shows about a dozen of these gorgeous creatures in the same poster-space; and then I recalled reading that hummingbirds are only ever hours away from starving to death, such are the metabolic demands placed upon them by the very rapid beating of their wings. At night they reduce their basic metabolic activities to a minimum in order to conserve energy. I left the meeting with inconsequential bits of conversation in my mind, much as in Paul Muldoon’s poem “Humming-bird,” an ornithon of gossipy phrases seemingly snatched on the wing. That was my St. Lucia epiphany.
Paleontologists tell us that no new species was domesticated after the era of animal sacrifices. Were animals domesticated thenthat is, made partially humanin order to sacrifice them, with domestication as a structural by-product of the religious?
At the beginning of his essay “Goya’s Dog,” László Földényi quotes a line from an aboriginal Creation Myth“Once upon a time when the animals were still human.” He remarks that, though the ancient aborigines saw an evident kinship between animals and humans, to suggest today that somebody has something “animalistic” about him is a not inconsequential judgment. It might have been possible for these aborigines to have felt that somebody (what we would recognize as a human) lacked the full qualities of being animal. “The animal is for us the extreme point of humanity. For the ancients, however, the extreme point of animality was the human.”
Rilke in his Eighth Duino Elegy saw animals as looking out with full sight into the “open,” which is written all over them, our eyes being, as it were, turned back on themselves to form “traps” for the rest of the world as it emerges into our visual field. We are still in Plato’s cave, or in a deeper cave behind what we thought was philosophy’s back wall.
Creatures of organized water. I don’t remember much about our biology teacher but I do remember that he insisted on using the plural “octo-podes” to describe the family members of the most intelligent invertebrates. No “octopi” or even “octopuses” for him: the term was Greek. His pedantry even had a moral leaning: “If you call them octopodes, you’re more likely to respect their strangeness than have them thoughtlessly for dinner.” It was from the octopodes that we learned about the axons, and how electrical impulses and nerve contraction function in human beings.
Octopodes flout Herder’s axiom about the natural world: “The softer the animal, the harder the shell.” They have traded the protection of armor for extensibility and mobility. Internally they are without skeleton or cartilage; their only fixed structure is their parrot’s beak. It was from his study of the giant axon in the cephalopod brain that the British anatomist and neurophysiologist John Zachary Young developed his models of the human nervous system; Jacques Lacan was a careful reader of his theory of homeostasis and cybernetics. Octopus vulgaris, it turns out, isn’t the amorph of the animal kingdom, but the neo-Kantian of the physiology laboratory.
Of their three hearts, two irrigate the gills, the other maintains the circulation to their bodies of the copper-rich hemocyanin that is a highly efficient oxygen transporter at cold temperatures. They are genetically programmed to die shortly after reproduction, an event mediated by endocrine secretions from the two optic glands. Young octopodes therefore have little contact with their progenitors, and their skills in negotiating the trials of their existence would therefore appear to be innate. Most of their complex nervous system is extracranial; two-thirds of the neurons are devolved to the flexible arms, which function as muscular hydrostats. They have special brain-extensions called statocysts, which ensure the correct orientation of their body at all times relative to the horizontal. Their eyes have no blind spots since the nerve fibers collect behind the retina to form the optic tract.
Octopodes are skilled at either avoiding detection, or being detected as octopodes. Once detected, they have a number of secondary defenses, including ejecting the contents of their ink sacs, which contain a melanin-derived dye, or activating chromatophores on their skin, which change color in response to stress or to communicate with other octopodes. The skin can become rugous, in imitation of coral or a simple rockthe Caribbean reef squid, Sepioteuthis sepioidea, often floats on the surface of the sea with its arms trailing in a likeness of floating sargassum weed. If benign deceit doesn’t work, their arms, when under attack, can detach themselves in a procedure called autotomy, in order to distract potential predators. The suction cups on the arms are equipped with chemoreceptors, so that octo-podes can taste what they touch. However, they are poorly equipped for stereognosis, the ability to form an internal image of what the limbs are handling and how they are positioned in relation to the body; octopodes can only know how they have moved by visually observing their arms. They propel themselves by contractile expulsion of a jet of water, in a primitive siphon-form of jet propulsion, advancing head first with their arms trailing behind.
Aristotle thought they were stupid because they approached a man’s hand if he lowered it into the water. In fact, they are as playful and deceitful as intelligence itself, oceanic dream-darts, masters of the light touch that is barely a touching at all, not formless but sheer, the very quality of wit.
Adjacent to a delicate frangipani leaning over towards an open bookshelf on the veranda of his house in Canggu village near Seminyak on Bali, my friend Richard Oh had put his copy of Frost’s Insect Life and Insect Natural History, where it was slowly being consumed by the objects of its study.
Encyclopedic Reference of Parasitology has a line drawing which illustrates the lifecycle of the freshwater fish parasite Diplozoon paradoxum, first described in his doctoral thesis at the University of Neuchâtel by the Finnish-born naturalist Alexander von Nordmann in 1832, and evidently such a strange creature that he felt bound to associate it with the cryptid wastebasket taxon of Linnaeus’s classificatory system (animalia paradoxa were magical, obscure or otherwise dubious animal species), which was dropped from the sixth edition of his Systema Naturae (1748).
This small ectoparasite, which is a member of the flatworm family or platyhelminthes, attaches to the gills of a host (goldfish, barbel, carp, or other cyprinid fish) by means of hooklets around its mouthpart, and feeds on its blood. Once lodged in the gills, the primitive oncomiracidium stage transforms into the larval diporpa stage. It remains in this juvenile stage for several months and eventually dies unless it encounters another larval worm. When this happens, each diporpa attaches its sucker to the dorsal papilla of the other, an event which initiates the metamorphic union that ultimately brings about sexual differentiation and maturation. Gonads appear; and the male genital duct of the one larva debouches close to the female genital duct of the other, enabling cross-fertilization. The adult stage, which adopts a chiasmatic X-shaped morphology, can live for years in this state of complete and permanent copulation.
It is the only known instance in the animal kingdom of complete monogamy being guaranteed through physical fusion. The phenomenon is known as natural parabiosis: the coming together of the diporpa larval stages might sound like the two separate halves of the original spherical human coming together in their longing for wholeness, as described in Plato’s Symposium, except that sexual differentiation occurs only after union has occurred. This curious flatworm is both double and unique.
C.S. Peirce, the prodigious American philosopher, would have appreciated the analogy too, having developed what he called the “amphex,” a sign in logic meaning “not both and neither nor,” and important in probabilistic notation. Warren McCulloch says that it proved most useful in “representing so-called ‘don’t care’ conditions.”
He set himself up in New York, where he painted the Seven Deadly Sins as Egyptian gods with animal heads.
W.G. Sebald concludes his visit to Michael Hamburger in chapter seven of his Kafkaesque book The Rings of Saturn with a disconcerting dream story related by the poet’s wife Anne Beresford, in which she travels through a dark forest in a limousine. The strange, fluid, exquisite beauty of what seems to be a subaqueous scene is shattered by the narrator’s arriving, as they go out into the garden to wait for the taxi, at what he calls “the Hölderlin pump”: he spies, with a shudder that goes to the quick, “a beetle rowing across the surface of the water, from one dark shore to the other.”
Why should he shudder? Why do we shudder? Because, as Elias Canetti wrote, insects are the true “outlaws”they are the only living beings we kill without so much as a qualm or afterthought. Killing them is a near universal reflex, except perhaps among the Jain and other religious groups in India.
Stanislaw Lem’s futuristic speculations teem with insects, often ominous and repugnant ones: his robotic insects often stand in as representatives of alien life-forms so unlike humans that they are unfathomable. Evidently we decided long ago insects are so unfathomable we don’t have to think about them at all.
One of Darwin’s most radical conclusions was that no amount of detail clearly setting out the genealogy of an individual species could ever come from an appeal to the Platonic idea of that species.
Iain Bamforth’s fifth book of poems, The Crossing Fee, was published by Carcanet this spring. He trained as a physician in Glasgow and now lives in Strasbourg.