A Dog, A Turtle & Robert E. Lee's HorseTuesday, December 19, 2006
One night when I had tasted bitterness I went on to the hill. Dark heather checked my feet. Below marched the suburban street lamps. Windows, their curtains drawn, were shut eyes, inwardly watching the lives of dreams. Beyond the sea’s level darkness a lighthouse pulsed. Overhead obscurity……I sat down on the heather. Overhead obscurity was now in full retreat. In its rear the freed population of the sky sprang out of hiding, star by star.
On every side the shadowy hills or the guessed, featureless sea extended beyond sight. But the hawk-flight of imagination followed them as they curved downward below the horizon. I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness. And on the skin of the little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit. And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolution, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of stars.
Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon 1937.
When I read that in Buenos Aires in 1965, in its first translation into Spanish, Hacedor de Estrellas. with its now famous Jorge Luís Borges prologue, I too soared into the sky and into the extreme limits of the galaxies with the unnamed narrator. The narrator, un-aided by LSD or any other trip-inducing drug went on a voyage that I think has no match in literature. Perhaps by going to the stars, English writer Stapledon could discover something about our humanity. I think he did better with his 1945 novel Sirius. Sirius is a great experiment, a dog “created” by Thomas Trelone which (who?) has the brain of a human. Serius is raised with the family’s daughter, Plaxy. In one of the most memorable parts of the book, this dog with its superior ear for music suffers while Plaxy tortures Bach on the piano. If only Sirius could have human hands to play!
It was there that I caught on that the best way to discover ourselves was by seeking a point outside our body. That point of view, as Stapledon so well demonstrated, could be literary.
Around 1974 it all fell into place when I attended a lecture by Spanish born anthropologist Santiago Genovés Tarazaga at the University of Mexico. He had been on board Thor Hyerdahl’s Ra I and Ra II expeditions. He had been the leader (the only man with a crew of women) in a raft from Africa to America, in the Acali expedition of 1973. Genovés was illustrating the point on the difficulty that historians have in being objective. I became most alert when he said,
“We must not forget that objectivity is a subjective invention of man.”
I have been a sucker since for books like Sirius. Richard Adams is well known for his rabbit family, novel Watership Down . Far better for me, is his 1988 Traveller. The two lld Traveller happens to be Robert E. Lee’s 8-year-old horse, who in the stables of Washington College, Lexigton, Virginia, reminisces with Tom, a domestic cat who is his friend. If there ever was an account of the follies of war and of men this book is it. I read it once a year.
I have a new book to add to my list. I have just finished a delightful little novel, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg, Borzoi 2006. Timothy is a 40 year-old turtle who tells us of life in the 18th century village of Selborne, famous for its naturalist Gilbert White, a pastor who happens to be Timothy’s master. Timothy somehow records, in his own way, Gilbert White’s observations on the plants, birds and animals of this parish in Hampshire. We get some extra goods. As in Stapeldon’s Sirius we find out a bit about ourselves through the incisive observations of a turtle whose first love was a delightfully named Mrs Rebecca Snook. All the descriptions are in correct English with the lilt of a creature who has only two positions in life: 1. Feet on the ground. 2. Feet in the shell. Timothy’s explanation on his fatalistic loneliness:
The sufferings of my solitude Mr. Gilbert White plainly feels. My hermit-like condition. But it is a mammal’s condition of solitude. I was laid in solitude, hatched in solitude, all but conceived in solitude. " One of the first dictates of nature," Mr. Gilbert White notes of maternal affection. But it is only as strong as the helplessness of the newborn. Humans at one extreme. Tortoises on the other.