October 2010

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Reading A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities

Today I started crying a bit on the walk home from the library. I was carrying heavy bags, I hadn’t eaten enough, I was watching slow-moving tourists plod down Fifth Avenue in the heat, and I wondered if they were in love with each other, and I wondered if they were happy with their visit to my city, and then suddenly I was all weepy about some dead unicorn. Well, it wasn’t a unicorn, really. It was a delicate, forest-dwelling Laotian ox, with two horns. A saola, known to scientists for less than twenty years. Yesterday I was watching YouTube videos of weird Japanese commercials over someone’s shoulder, and then there it was, a news item about the pseudoryx nghetinhensis, with a picture of the bummed-out looking little creature tied to a wooden fence. Some locals found it, captured it, and then it died. In a best case scenario, there are a hundred of these animals left in the wild. It’s just as likely that there are only twelve left.  

I was reading Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, with all its different kinds of wrongness, and then I opened up Durs Grünbein’s Ashes for Breakfast right to that poem, “To an Okapi in the Munich Zoo,” but it was only near 37th street that I burst into unexpected tears. I was thinking, What kind of human life do those tourists have?, and, Why can’t we just leave the okapis and soalas and oryxes alone?, and I was thinking how no human being, no rare animal, no common animal, is an “8” that will eventually turn into a “6” when it gets older -- there is no “top one percent.” So I don’t have to just face that I am not in the “top one percent of women” -- we are all tens out of ten. Each unique! Each important! Really, people of all kinds fall in love! And really, there are unicorns out there! It’s just that they have two horns. And we keep killing them.

And I thought, Shit, why am I ranting to myself? A close friend instructed me to get the Lori Gottlieb book out of my apartment and then burn some sage. But she can’t protect me from the world of bad news out there -- from all the wrong definitions and faulty premises and pernicious “facts” and sketchy statistics, from what some stranger has picked out to write down and tell me. It’s not that deterministic thinking doesn’t function like truth. The problem is that it does -- pseudofacts function just like facts in our minds when we believe them. And there are so many more beautiful, exciting, varied ways to look at the world.

Among the many excellent reasons to study history -- natural history, unnatural history -- is to remind ourselves that prevailing beliefs in any given culture at any given moment are usually batshit crazy. At best, they are optional, but they are almost never harmless. They often delude us and limit us. They usually serve to fit us into the herd, like Procrustes’ unfortunate visitors who got their limbs hacked off or stretched out so they’d fit into his iron bed. When I was reading Marry Him, I thought about a letter from the famous seductress Natalie Barney to her lover: “Yesterday I rode twenty-eight kilometers looking for something of beauty, tired of my surroundings. I saw pipes, stones, old women, cows and sheep. One sheep refused to walk with the herd and was beaten. Am I like that sheep? Yes.” Natalie wasn’t just talking about being a lesbian, although of course homosexuality was falsely classified as a mental disorder until decades after she died. She was talking about her persistent, threatening refusal to settle, her belief that life should be art.

I also thought about Queen Medb in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, who tells her husband how she rejected marriage proposals from the envoys of a whole bunch of kings and their sons: “I turned them all down. I asked a more exacting wedding-gift than any woman ever before me -- a man without meanness, jealousy, or fear… I never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.” There’s another great scene where a beautiful woman poet prophesies Medb’s defeat, and Medb just keeps arguing against the prophesy and repeating the same question, like a teenager shaking a Magic 8-Ball over and over again until she sees “Without a doubt.” Medb was a bit much -- she wanted a bunch of her allies killed off just because they pitched their tents faster than she could, and it irked her -- but I wish I could be more “powerful in warfare, fight, and fray” than I am. It would be pretty scary to tell Queen Medb that she was “not exactly Angelina Jolie.” Even Medb, though, lived in a world shaped and confined by her own beliefs, her own ideas of what was true or what mattered, her own iron bed to fit into.

In a culture of whacked-out theories and bad advice, we’re probably happiest relying on our own intuition. In a thousand years, if we haven’t gone the way of the saolas, how will the literary relics of our own empire look to readers?

“I am not an expert on ancient history and have rarely presumed to express an opinion on the validity, intention, or importance of the Roman or Greek writers quoted or cited in [this] book,” writes classicist J.C. McKeown in his introduction to A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire. “As it happens, I personally find it hard to believe that a six-inch fish could have held back Mark Antony’s flagship during the battle of Actium, or that Milan was founded because a woolly pig was seen on the future site of that city, or that the phoenix appears every five-hundred years, or that touching the nostrils of the she-mule with one’s lips will stop sneezing and hiccups, or that fish sauce is an effective cure for crocodile bites, or that any Roman emperor was eight foot, six inches tall. I strongly suspect that goats do not breathe through their ears, and that there are no islands in the Baltic Sea inhabited by people whose ears are so enormous that they cover their bodies with them and do not need clothes. I do not myself wear a mouse’s muzzle and ear tips as an amulet to ward off fever, nor do I know precisely how one might attach earrings to an eel.”

Pliny the Elder, author of Natural History, is always one of my favorites. He tells us that if a person whispers in a donkey’s ear that he has been stung by a scorpion, the affliction is immediately transferred to the donkey; that hyenas imitate human speech and can learn to pronounce a shepherd’s name, so they can call him outside and tear him to pieces; that putting goat dung in their diapers soothes hyperactive children, “especially girls.” I don’t know whether anyone ever tested this wisdom, but original readers of Natural History must have thought about it. Pliny reports on manticores, basilisks, and a “one-horned Indian animal with the head of a deer, the body of a horse, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of a wild boar.” He had one thing right about the unicorn, I guess -- “it cannot be taken alive.” All eleven of the captured saolas, apparently, have been dead on arrival. Scientists will have a look at this last one’s corpse. Pseudoryxes will die, pseudofacts will live on, and how can we protect ourselves from phony information -- the idea that we are sick, defective, ripe for a beating because of who we are or what we want? Keep being curious, I guess. Keep hope alive. Keep being unique. Ignore the facts, maybe, or rewrite them, or see them in a new way. Keep letting rare things live.

McKeown tells a “wonderful, but apocryphal” anecdote about Ovid. His father was beating him for persisting in writing poetry when there was no money in it, and Ovid cried out, “Parce mihi; numquam versicabo, pater!” (“Spare me, father, and I’ll never write verses again!”) Which scans as iambic pentameter.

So many of the facts we have left -- Pliny’s facts, other facts -- are accidental or purposive lies, however entertaining. But living, breathing ungulates are true, whatever we call them. And living, breathing human beings are true, however someone rates them. And Ovid’s poems are true, the way all poems are true, and maybe love is a little bit true too, like the saola, like a misnamed creature that dies when it’s trapped.

"To an Okapi in the Munich Zoo"
by Durs Grünbein (trans. Michael Hofman)

The clank of a steel door, and the ignominious entrance
Of the heraldic beast, trembling, because it’s feeding time,
And the keeper wants to knock off, and the beastly onlookers are laughing…
These are things not writ in any unicorn legend. Okapi—
The word is from jungle languages, now themselves extinct,
Insufficiently tall for the savannah, this patient, rust-colored
Throat merits its pellets of straw, and its locked stall at night.
Because the free range world will be strange to him,
As strange as to the bemused visitor
This combination of giraffe and zebra,
Equally remote from the familiar childhood cutout of either.
One more ruminant from the olden days, a sentry
Planted along the zoological roadside, as though to warn
Against the pathos of the exotic throwback.