by Gautam Pemmaraju
In Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrain, a “valediction to a world that has pleased him” written as a letter to the 17 year old Marcus Aurelius, the dying Roman emperor imagines parts of his life to be like “dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety”. The corporeal body, its passions and strengths, its appetites and tempers, diminish with time, the sage old man reflects in this fine and complex survey of the ‘landscape’ of his days, and as fevers and fatigues take over, he begins “to discern the profile of my death”,
Like a traveler sailing the archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore…
The emperor, in the “meditations of a sick man who holds audience with his memories”, is no more than “a sorry mixture of blood and lymph”; he is laid bare before his learned physician Hermogenes, who concernedly, and devotedly, administers herbs, mineral salts and reassurances. His body has ‘served him well’, Hadrian informs his young ward, and it occurs to him that although it has been his “faithful companion and friend”, more steadfast than his own soul, it may well be “only a sly beast who will end up devouring his master”.
All men’s days are numbered; such is the nature of things. When, where and under what circumstances is entirely another matter but it is immutable that one must go, be it by disease, “a dagger thrust in the heart” or “a fall from a horse”. Hadrian confronts his imminent demise with great wisdom, reflecting on his accomplishments and failures, his friendships and loves, his excesses and his abstentions alike. In hoary, “marmoreal” prose (see here; see also Mavis Gallant’s Limpid Pessimist, NYRB 1985), Yourcenar invests the emperor with generous, layered thoughtfulness, a pansophy, wherein the unraveling of a successful life is richly intertwined with fine, dexterous observation. It is such an exercise that affords Hadrian “the advantage for the mind (and also the dangers) of different forms of abstinence….when the body, partly lightened of ballast, enters into a world for which it is not made, and which affords it a foretaste of the cold and emptiness of death”.
Mirroring some eastern mystic ideas of ‘conscious exits’ (Mahasamadhi, Tilopa & Naropa’s ‘Esoteric Instructions’; also, Suspended Animation), Yourcenar’s Hadrian reveals further that such ruminations and experiences with abstemious practices have:
…given me the chance to toy with the idea of slow suicide, of decease by inanition which certain philosophers have employed, a kind of debauch in reverse, continued to the point of exhaustion of the human substance.
He further reveals to Marcus Aurelius that his early encounter with ‘death and courage’ was on hunting expeditions as a young boy. He can no longer swim, ride horses, or hunt now, Hadrian writes on, but it was then, at that formative age as he was growing into a young man, that he found the thrills of the hunt, the taste for “command and danger”, the “pity for living creatures” alongside “the tragic pleasure of seeing them suffer”. It was at hunts also that he would evaluate the worth of officials. If he has spared the blood of men, it is possible, the melancholic emperor speculates, that it was because he had shed more blood of wild beasts:
I have found in hunting release from many a secret struggle with adversaries too subtle or too stupid in turn, too weak or too strong for me; this evenly matched battle between human intelligence and the wisdom of wild beasts seemed strangely clean compared to the snares set by men for men.
In Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’Ours, or The Bear (1988), the tragic, untimely death of a mother bear, killed by falling rocks as she pulls out a honeycomb, sets the young cub Youk, frightened, lonely and hungry, adrift, and in search of some security. Confused by the still, unresponsive mother’s corpse, the little Youk looks about, momentarily distracted by a butterfly, which he tries to pin down under his playful paw. As he wanders off, cutely rolling down the side of a hill, animatedly chasing a frog into a pond, Youk later encounters his first night alone. An animated sequence portrays his nightmares, where he is tormented by evil looking frogs. Such anthropomorphisms may seem at odds, but in the context of little Youk’s dilemma, and his cinematic life, it seems but only natural that the distraught orphan has fallen prey to the strange nocturnal afflictions common to human consciousness. Set in British Columbia, in 1885, the film then introduces the two hunters who have spotted the tracks of a large male grizzly. As they set camp, a welcoming fire lighting up a small clearing in the woods, and bearskins offering testimony to their successes thus far, a low angle shot, an unsettling juxtaposition of upright bullets against the night sky and the moon, offers a bleak foreshadow to what lies ahead. This peculiar and haunting film offers many of the same complex thoughts that the dying emperor Hadrian reveals to his successor. The ironies that animate the relationship between man and beast, the bonds of parental love, friendship and companionship, loneliness, desolation, hunger, survival instinct, and the fear of death, these all then belong to the realm of sentient life, and when thrust upon non-humans, reveal our own anxieties.
The big grizzly, shot in its shoulder by the young impetuous hunter keen on a quick kill, makes haste across the valley in search of solitude and safety, and to soothe his wound. It is here young Youk spots the big guy; he approaches cautiously, hiding behind a rock only to slowly emerge with a beseeching whimper. The big grizzly, sitting in a pond, nursing his wound, turns around and snarls in anger and pain, rebuffing the little tyke.
In James Orville Curwood’s book The Grizzly King (1916), on which the film is based, we find these lines in Chapter 5,
He stopped, turned his head, and swore in his low, growling way. Six feet away from him, grovelling flat in a patch of white sand, wriggling and shaking for all the world like a half-frightened puppy that had not yet made up its mind whether it had met a friend or an enemy, was a lone bear cub. It was not more than three months old—altogether too young to be away from its mother… The cub was trying as hard as it could to say, “I am lost, strayed, or stolen; I'm hungry”… Muskwa wriggled and trembled; he licked his lips with his tiny red tongue, half in fear and half pleading for mercy, and in spite of Thor's lifted paw he wormed his way another six inches nearer.
Soon enough, the big grizzly warms up, and in a remarkable and poignant scene, we see Youk licking his open wound.
The debate on attributing human states to animals is a fiercely disputed one; anthropomorphism has limits, many argue, and expositions in science are far different (and relatively specious) than those in popular culture, mythology and religion. The tendency amongst ‘doting animal behaviourists or sloppy evolutionary theorists’ to attribute “intentionality, purpose or volition” in scientific and philosophical literature, Tom Tyler argues (see If Horses Had Hands, Society And Animals, 2003), is to be found commonly enough. Such anthropomorphism is problematic to many Tyler contends, and citing the entomologist John Kennedy, he points out further that it is criticized as “unscientific”, and “amounting to a modern day animism or vitalism”. Two “distinct hazards” emerge here, Tyler writes, citing psychiatrist and psychotherapist Willard Gaylin and writer Stephen Budiansky:
On the one hand such anthropomorphism is in danger of demeaning humans by failing to appreciate their unique traits… On the other hand, it might be argued that we are not doing any favours to the animals either. By focusing on that which the animal shares with the human we are in danger of missing all that is peculiar and proper to it.
(When are we more likely to anthropomorphize? Epley, Waytz & Cacioppo’s On Seeing Human: a three factor theory of anthropomorphism theorizes his question).
The big grizzly and young Youk travel together now, pursued by the hunters, who have now called in a pack of dogs after their horses are attacked by the big bear. Youk learns the ropes from his now mentor, to fish, stalk game, and after a successful kill, the two feast on a caribou, “not in the ravenous way of hungry dogs, but in the slow and satisfying manner of gourmets”, as Curwood writes in his novella. In another beautiful bit of cinema, Annaud’s camera captures the two wild beasts, friends of chance, resting together after the big meal. Curwood describes the scene:
Thor lay down, and for the first time since his hurt in the other valley he stretched out his head between his great arms, and heaved a deep and restful sigh. Muskwa crept up close to him, so close that he was warmed by Thor's body; and together they slept the deep and peaceful sleep of full stomachs, while over them the stars grew brighter, and the moon came up to flood the peaks and the valley in a golden splendour.
Youk cuddles up against the big grizzly, moulding himself against the formidable contours of the fierce, big bear. It is a most touching scene, if anything.
Writing on the hyperrealist work of Jan Peter Tripp in the posthumously published Unrecounted (2004), WG Sebald writes that it goes beyond the trompe-l’oeil suggestion, but instead, takes one across ‘the pictorial threshold’. Tripp manages to “interpolate the third dimension”, Sebald writes on, in his “seemingly unfailing accuracy of the representation”. It is almost as if one encounters, “a disturbing sense” of being tricked by some illusionist. Tripp uses photographs as the starting material but “the mechanical sharpness/vagueness relationship is suspended, additions are made, and reductions. Something is shifted to another place, emphasized, foreshortened or minimally dislocated”. This “perfected illusion”, Sebald continues, seems to be generated in some sort of a heightened (or even altered?) state, wherein, it is not just the artistic skill at work, but instead there is “the intuitive steering of a breathless state in which the painter himself no longer knows whether his eye still sees and his hand still moves”.
Much like the onset of a deathly stasis, a suspended state, or as the wise emperor Hadrian had cause to experience, a progress towards a self-induced death, a slow, incremental and voluntary letting go of life, Sebald too writes here that,
The repeated experience of failing breath in the midst of the utmost concentration on work, of a stillness ever increasing, the paralysis of limbs and blinding of eyes has brought death into the pictures of Jan Peter Tripp.
Describing the layer beneath the surface in Tripp’s work, he writes of it as “the metaphysical lining of reality”, the insuperable passing of time, past and lost alike, “suspended”, and “ephemeral moments and configurations”. The one image amongst the many discussed in the book, that embodies the ‘ambiguity, polyvalence’ in Tripp’s work, in a more obvious yet inscrutable way perhaps, is the image of a dead dormouse, a memento mori of sorts, which he made upon finding the rodent at his doorstep. The artist keeps the tiny dead carcass for seven days, working “in the thick of the chloroform vapour of putrefaction” so as to create the image that conveys “the silent message of the unexpected guest”, and on the seventh day,
…there was a little spasm in the lifeless corpse, and a drop of blood the size of a pinhead issued from the nostril. This was the true end. Embedded in nothingness, with no support or background, this animal now hovers through the air with its bat’s ears erect. The black patch of fur around the eyes has the effect of a mourning cape or of the dark sleeping-glasses of an air passenger on a summer night’s crossing of the North Pole. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.