AR Makes the Scene: Bestiaries as a Source of Animal Symbolism in Medieval iterature, Brechtbau, Tubingen, November 20
The guest-lecturer Luuk H. took the stage to subdued applause at 8 p.m., which might as well be the middle of the night, deep in the empty Brechtbau in near-empty lecture hall 036. The audience was nervous and unsettled, but not because they expected exciting revelations from Luuk: It was more that Luuk's hosts in their graciousness (all were charming and some were conspicuously beautiful) had seen fit to provide the public with lots of red wine, sherry, and pretzels, and the red wine and pretzels, but especially the red wine, were taking a major hurting from a burdensomely loquacious and cocky person unknown to us all. It amazed me to encounter a novel crank. I thought I'd already seen every conspicuous person in Tubingen several times. But there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Fighting his way against the stream of questions from the crank like boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the previous slide, Luuk managed to purvey facts that were both delightful and embarrassing. Why exactly have I never read a 13th-century bestiary? The lacuna shames me. I learned, for example, that bears cubs are amoeboid blobs before being "licked into shape" by their mothers; that lions are born dead, and breathed to life on the third day; that pelicans kill their young out of irritation (all that squawking) before (obviously) reviving them on the third day with a sprinkling of maternal blood; that migratory geese, whose sudden and unexplained appearances mystified early naturalists, were held to have developed in "barnacles" (cocoons, more or less) hanging from tree branches over water. When the barnacle is ripe, the goose falls down, bobs about for a minute, and flies away.
Luuk's specialty is Latin bestiaries produced in England. Their authors relied on the Physiologus, mostly Pliny via third-century Alexandria, and Isidore's seventh-century encyclopedia. Until I saw Luuk, I confess that I thought Diderot had come up with the idea of encyclopedias, but I guess it was Isidore. The Physiologus moves quickly from summary description to separating the sheep from the goats. Partridges, we are told, steal eggs and are Satan, and that's all a person really needs to know. It is only in medieval bestiaries purged of moral didactic content, yet produced in and owned by monasteries for some reason, that we learn the truth: To egg-stealing we must add deception, cowardice, willful sodomy, homosexual rape as a dominance gesture, and females so lustful they can conceive by smelling a male on the wind -- "a cunning, disgusting bird," as T.H. White translates helpfully in his 'Book of Beasts,' recommended by Luuk as the most entertaining bestiary in print.
Luuk said he'd seen critically ambivalent accounts of every animal but the pelican. Everybody loves the pelican, all the time. Nobody ever draws it with a pelican's beak, though, so I think they might have been mixed up.
By the sixteenth century bestiaries were out. Luuk doesn't know why, but probably the Renaissance bourgeoisie, which wasn't born under a rock, didn't want to hear about unicorn hunts or the dangers posed by basilisks. They were more into commodities. He made some terrible jokes about the unicorn, and in the discussion afterwards mused, as if it were some kind of question, "Was Kafka a Protestant?" He said the bestiaries ignored the flood and related issues (you may recall that no fights broke out on the Ark because God first endorsed meat-eating only when placing the first rainbow in the sky), but I don't necessarily believe him.
A. of Z.: Breichat Gaash
Kibbutz Gaash is mostly known for its Sabbath shopping opportunities, but behind the mall, beyond the houses and the swimming pool, lies a tiny nature reserve, the famous pond of Gaash. It is certainly an odd place to have a persistent natural pond, a hundred yards from a high bluff over the Mediterranean. Once I tried to see it. They make it difficult to get close. "Out of consideration for the nesting birds," I thought, but then after struggling through weeds, reeds and barbed wire, I saw that the pond seems to have been altered a bit, with bulldozers probably, to make one side resemble a beach, not that you'd want to swim in or even sun yourself next to such a stagnant, greasy pit. The bluffs around Gaash are wonderfully beautiful from above, probably because there's no way down to the beach. Paths to the beach draw cars and dirt bikes and those little four-wheeled things so horrifying I don't even want to think about them, but suffice it to say that under my dictatorship, they will be forbidden, as will jet-skis and audio equipment for private use drawing more than ten watts. Other than the blazing white sand, blue sea filled with black rocks, plants and eerie shapes in eroded clay, the highlight of the bluffs is a dog's grave. It's a few years old but carefully tended, which makes sense, as I'm sure people who knew the dog must walk by it regularly on their way to look at sunsets.
There's a beautiful pet cemetery in Fort Monroe, Virginia, next to the Hampton Roads bridge tunnel. It's an old star-shaped fort, with casemates where Jefferson Davis was held prisoner after the fall of Richmond. On the ramparts, pets lie under real gravestones, brave and innocent in death as in life, spared the pleasures of heaven and the torments of hell, like Wordworth's Lucy:
I like cemeteries. In Germany they're awful. The dead rent their spots and what happens to them when the lease is up, I don't know. The resurrection of the body has clear aesthetic advantages -- stones hundreds of years old flaking into anonymity under immense trees, etc. My favorites so far are Genoa, Italy, and Bethlehem, PA (Pennsylvania, not Palestinian Authority, but now I'm wondering whether they're sister cities). There are also three amazing graves in a row in Nyack, New York: Ben Hecht, his wife, and their child, who died first. There is strange poetry on each one, but I forgot to write it down.
for November 4
The Continuing Influence of 'Nightshift'
I wrote, "... a boring, annoying, tasteless concert -- the world's worst improvising guitarist with a fat-assed hairless chick on saxophone, backed up by a slide show and an overhead projector. The slide guy is ubiquitous in Tuebingen, you can't throw a rock without hitting him, but unfortunately there were no rocks in the gallery last night -- he spent about ten minutes showing slides of the interior of a slaughterhouse. Scalded pigs etc . I left in short order and sat outside. Children were present and when I came back in, they were all being actively comforted. What an idiot. The only interesting thing was the overhead projector -- the guy was totally clueless and didn't seem to know what was cool and what wasn't, but he accidentally did some cool things -- just sprinkled water on it, for example, so that you saw a highly magnified demonstration of surface tension -- like 8th grade. In other words, it sucked, but it was full with probably 50 people who all paid $5 (I didn't pay, obviously -- I wouldn't cross the street to see these guys, but it was just two floors down ...). ... I wouldn't normally mention a girl's fat ass, but if she's shaving her head in an attempt to look as ugly as possible for her art, then her ass is fair game, seems to me." Then I thought, "What's the point of telling insensitive people they're insensitive in an insensitive way, and why shoot fish that have been dead for a long time?" I resolved to publish my ruminations, but without mentioning the names of the fools involved nor the name of the venue, and I hereby promise never again to review anything that wasn't nice.
Something Nice or, My Sensitivity
Just to entertain Avner, here's what I would have submitted to the Haaretz Rosh Hashanah supplement if they'd asked me for the opening of my next novel.
ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS
This could be a murder mystery, but I find them morbid. Also, it's in rather poor taste to introduce a death into a work of fiction intended for entertainment. I would hesitate to include even a rape, -- I promise that nothing even remotely unpleasant will happen to anyone in this book. Also, you will not recognize the characters, and nothing that happens will resemble anything in particular. This, my fourth novel, will make use of familiar objects and settings in novel ways, as does the game of rock, paper, scissors. Who has deliberately applied himself to destroy a fully functional pair of scissors with a rock? Who ever covered a rock with paper, instead of the other way around? The novel opens in Jerusalem. It is late July and a young academic is reading 'The Chronicle of Higher Education' while eating breakfast. He sees an ad for a position as lecturer in Princeton. He thinks he has a chance. He is desperate to escape the sound of falling shells. He puts down his butter knife and stands up to swat a mosquito. The refrigerator makes an unaccustomed sound like a VW throwing its clutch and begins to hum loudly. The first third of the novel, entitled "Rock," begins when he picks up the telephone and turns to look out the window. What he sees terrifies him for a moment, but then he gets used to it. Is it terrifying, or not? He can't decide. He compares everything to driving a car on a two-lane road. If you were two meters further to the left, you wouldn't last long, would you? You'd be in the wrong place at the wrong time.