Great Creatures

Christopher Small

  • Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams
    Cape, 175 pp, £9.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 224 02642 9

Whitman doesn’t supply any of the fragments selected by Heathcote Williams to shore up his poems. You won’t find, in Leaves of Grass or elsewhere, more than passing allusion to whales or elephants. Williams, a child of the late 20th century’s technological manipulations and separations, looks long and longingly at animals, not so much as they swim or graze or galumph there within an observant loafer’s eye-range, as in books, photography, the shamelessly ingenious intrusions of the field-video. The catalogues of Sacred Elephant sometimes have a Whitmanesque cadence:

  when it was thought the elephant
Could best be experienced
By putting it into a forced labour camp,
Or by killing it
And packaging bits of it as billiard balls,
Umbrella stands, rosary beads,
And book-ends in its own image ...
Then it became geared to the mass market ...

But the copiousness of Williams takes another form – derived, it seems, chiefly from advertising – which collects and collates all possible persuasive devices. These large, glossy and eye-catching books – Whale Nation, concerning the cetacea, last year, now turning to the proboscidea – are productions of which the maker, never present in the first person, appears not as the solitary singer but as the impresario.

That they are indeed persuasive has been demonstrated: the belated European ban on imports of ivory could well be attributed in part to the impact of the elephant poem, broadcast a couple of years ago as work in progress, upon troubled consciences and a consciousness of green votes. The final version is now presented with a full orchestra of publicity, a crescendo louder even than that struck up by the whales’ salvation army. And no harm in that – or if harm, to be outweighed, one hopes, by good. Abolition of the slave trade (described at one time as traffic in ‘black ivory’) was achieved with mixed motives and by mixed means, including the most extravagant sentimentality.

As to form, both these long poems are divided into two parts. The second section of each is a large assembly of quotations, from a miscellany of authors ancient and modern. The first part might be reckoned to be the poem proper. But it is not really like that. For one thing, the texts are highly selective, by no means a survey of ‘the literature’. Why no Orwell, why no Kipling? The ‘authorities’ support one another, often repetitiously (thus one account may reappear in slightly different versions). Nothing objectionable in that: we’re not looking for ‘scientific’ evidence, although Williams uses it, along with evidence of other kinds. The two parts are as intimately complementary as verse and gloss in The Ancient Mariner. The only essential distinction is that of the beautiful, astonishing, revolting photographs which lavishly illuminate both, only those in the first part – the poet’s ‘own words’ – are reproduced in colour. Whether casually or by subtle intention, an interesting point is being made.

What is known as ‘animal concern’ (concern for and about animals) is all the go, and for reasons easily seen: the accelerating advance of human predation and exploitation, which has been going on since Eden, is beginning to make many if not most of us worry a bit about the way we treat the brute creation. It is a highly fashionable anxiety, issuing in a series of calls to rescue this or that species from extinction or (rather less often) from domestication. We hear about these matters every day. Are these poems, then, nothing more than auxiliaries to such campaigning, so easy to join, so hard to make effective? Should they be lumped together with advertisements of the more amiable sort?

Several professional philosophers have lately set themselves to ask questions concerning animals, our feelings about them and possible duties towards them; whether living creatures other than human beings can be said to have ‘rights’; what – if we do say so – we understand by that; whether concepts such as soul or conscience have any application to those whom it has been convenient, philosophically speaking, to think of as machines; and what we ought to do about it all. One of the most incisive and successful of these philosophers, Mary Midgley, supplies a number of pregnant quotations in Sacred Elephant from her own book Beast and Man (1978). She has indeed so much to say on the subject that one is in danger, when attempting to discuss Heathcote Williams’s work, of arguing with her instead. Her essential case is first that human beings are animals, and it is disastrously misleading to draw an absolute line between mankind and other species; second, that it behoves us to cherish and to study other animals in order to learn about ourselves. That was also Whitman’s point – the pay-off lines of the passage already quoted say that animals

bring to me tokens of myself, they evince them
                  plainly in their possession.
I wonder where they get these tokens,
Did I pass that way huge times ago and
                negligently drop them?

Consider another saying of Mary Midgley’s – for her, a preliminary formula, but placed at the end of Sacred Elephant as almost the very last words: ‘Had we known no other animal life-form than our own, we should have been utterly mysterious to ourselves as a species.’ If human beings had no knowledge of ‘other life-forms’ they would not be able even to conceive of themselves as a species. And yet this utterly impossible hypothesis – that humankind is absolutely and unequivocally on its own, and that ‘animals’ are merely objects in motion, or machines – this supposition has actually been entertained, has been and remains a received idea. To believe it, along with other impossibilities, is convenient: it narrows things down, and allows good Cartesians to get on with the proper, exclusive study of mankind. It is also flattering to megalomania, and there is plenty of that around. But it leaves the difficulty, or mystery, untouched – the one about human beings, what we are, where we came from, where we are or might be going.

A great variety of fancy answers has been on offer. One of them boldly takes the notion that animals are machines and achieves consistency by claiming that human beings are machines too. Midgley deals trenchantly with behaviourists; she is inclined to exempt the ethologists from her demolition, because their studies have revealed so much that is beguiling about beasts and revealing about man – Lorenz, unquoted by Williams, is her hero. Discussing the view that DNA is the only ‘immortal being’, she directs attention to what DNA does:

Here is a string of molecules, varying down its length the arrangement of a few common elements. Yet it contains the entire blueprint for every detail of an elephant, and also the power (given suitable nutrients and so forth) to produce an elephant. Moreover the parts of this blueprint will be dispersed and reassembled again to serve for the offspring of this elephant; they will survive it and pass on indefinitely (if all goes well) to generate a further series of elephants to the end of the story. Words fail us. And so they ought to.

That, one may justly expect, is where the poem should take over. Poems, and perhaps especially poems-with-pictures such as these, are supposed to struggle with verbal failure. Sacred Elephant uses bits of Midgley and neglects others (including the passage just quoted), and doubtless for good reason: it would be fatal for its purposes to be too reasonable.

Heathcote Willliams tries hard, and can’t be blamed if he lands in confusion. On the place of elephants in religious belief he says:

            if man is made in an image of a god
Then the Hathi, the elephant, is made only in the
                            image of an animal.

What does that mean? Does it mean anything? It can’t be simply that elephants, along with a lot of other beasts, have provided part or the whole of god-imagery, what is known as theriomorphism, and presumably it means a little more than that when God made elephants he made them like elephants. Something less banal may be lurking here: the idea, dimly expressed – for how could it be stated clearly? – that this particular animal enjoys a connection with the divine which is inaccessible to human beings. And it may be that this is a point at which it is possible to distinguish what Williams is at from the general line of ‘animal liberation’.

It’s not all creatures great and small – in fact, it’s not small creatures at all – that Williams is interested in. He is interested in those which can be called sacred – not because they have been set aside, or sacrificed, by man in a context of worship, but because they regard themselves as such. (How can we possibly know? Never mind.) The poem begins with a list of indications to the effect that elephants enjoy a special relationship with God. Pliny, we’re reminded, described the religious exercises of elephants, and other equally reliable information crops up at intervals throughout. It is easy to make fun of these beliefs, but more important to sympathise, if we can, with the feelings behind them. If a word is to be found for them it is chiefly ‘wonder’.

When people call this beast to mind,
They marvel more and more
At such a little tail behind,
So LARGE a trunk before.

Belloc reminds us how marvellous for small children has always been the first glimpse of an elephant, and the child’s-eye view is one that Heathcote Williams wishes to recapture and commend. It includes the discovery that elephants are funny. That doesn’t give us a licence to laugh at them (circus humiliations being among the human misdeeds described here), and implies rather that they have fun in them. Many observers, including the greatest among Europeans, J.H. Williams (Elephant Bill), assert their powerful sense of humour.

Recognising this, we arrive at a more important element in our perception of elephants: strangely, even grotesquely other than human as they are, they are also like us. Their emotions – some of them, anyway – are guessed to be the same, especially those of affection, altruism, love of justice, on which we pride ourselves most; they suffer from many of the same ailments; above all, with a comparable life-span, they have a chance to reflect upon experience such as can be enjoyed by no other mammal but ourselves. But Williams remarks with bitterness, conscious of the atrocious story of elephantine sufferings at the hands of man, that ‘there may still be many things/The elephant would rather forget.’

So, our notions about this beast, which we’ve been treating in a pretty beastly way for, probably, some forty thousand years, begin to coalesce, poetically, in all their contradictions. Huge, powerful, utterly other than us, uncontrollable (even though we capture, train and chain him) and terrifying in wrath; yet, as we have some reason to believe, benevolently disposed towards us. He begins to sound very like a rough outline of the Deity – and within the outline, what is there? The back-jacket photograph (taken by Williams himself) gives the answer in an inset of the elephant’s eye, looking from the midst of its surrounding wrinkles with infinite shrewdness, calm and humour, directly into ours.

Towards the end of The Way of All Flesh, Ernest Pontifex is convalescent after all his tribulations and on sage medical advice makes a series of visits to the Zoo. The narrator comments: ‘I found the doctor quite right in his estimate of the large mammals as the ones which on the whole were most beneficial, and observed that Ernest, who had heard nothing of what the doctor had said to me, lingered instinctively in front of them – as for the elephants – especially the baby elephant – he seemed to be drinking in large draughts of their lives to the re-creation and regeneration of his own.’

Zoos are dreadful places, a horrible example, once one begins to see it, of man’s all-possessive arrogance. But it must be remembered what Ernest was sent there for: he was to be subject to therapeutic ‘crossing’, Butler’s transference of the term from physical to psychological or, if you like, spiritual genetics. He was, in a word, to renew his soul in encounter with a being other than himself. (If another association of ‘cross’ with healing occurred to Butler he must have repressed it.) The other, in such cases, must also be seen as kin – the doctor is precise in his prescription, and recommends visits only to appropriate animals, those which are ‘sympathetic’. Elephants are the preferred treatment.