The Book Club

The Elephants’ Chastity of Intellect

Most of the elephants in Gowdy’s book, with one exception, are as good as their words. The exceptions have the sparkling effect of showing us that they are honest on purpose. They are animals with the right to make promises.

The elephants are not innocent. No innocent creature can have the right to make promises. A creature with the right to make promises moves through the extraordinariness of the world she builds even as she staggers with as many woes as Job knew: Job wails, but Date Bed “continues on her way, throwing light into the sky.”

And not too much later, is missing in action. The light Date Bed throws is that of white bones, and the white bone of the title is the special one, which, when found, will lead the elephants to “The Safe Place.”

In Gowdy’s book, which approaches, or at least owes something to, the great novels of the 19th century in which a large, louring, and many-shaped space is created within which the characters are fully and four-dimensionally alive. These are not two-dimensional beings, living only to be shot so that we can pity them and despise ourselves. There is enough material here for pity, such as the sustained quotation from the slaughter scene Colin quoted yesterday; but the transcendence of song, vision, and hope is unnervingly set against the banal ways of speech many of the elephants have. These are not Ivy League animals. I think of certain Northeast accents of people who have never learned the gentler cadences. But they might as well be the best of the world’s scholars, poets, and scientists. It is not just that they live for and by knowledge, but that for them, to know is to live; age is a process of knowledge leaking from the bodies of the old cows.

The heroine, a young cow who is named Mud at birth and She-Spurns at the time of her first mating, has a sudden view of an aspect of knowledge that changes everything. She realizes how many of her family she never really knew, including her dearest and without-stint beloved friend Date Bed, and that, “If Date Bed is someone she never really knew, then Date Bed can be lost, and the loss will be no more painful than all of the other losses have been.” And from here it is not long before she wishes that her own calf will be born dead, in order that her friend’s calf might live.

The slaughter passage is the one in which Colin finds himself “tempted to sign off for the day.” From the human race. I find myself wanting to know. In the book, nowhere denied is the assumption that the elephants were slaughtered for the sake of pricey gewgaws–ivory carvings, umbrella stands. I do not doubt that this happens. (Among my friends who knew the animals and people of Kenya at the time that it became a capital offense to kill an elephant, the bitter remark I heard and heard again was that now the game wardens were required by law to commit suicide. The bitterness rang from decades of hearing that something must be done for the elephants, and that someone must be made to stop doing things to the elephants when, so far as the ivory trade was concerned, child molesters had been given jobs watching over young children.)

At one point a friend of mine raged because of a documentary he had seen. I thought I should look into this, documentaries of animals being what they are. And, indeed, I saw countless elephant corpses. They were ravaged by their own natures. (Elephants are at least as hard on their environments as we are.)

And they all had tusks.

Timbuktu and The White Bone do not want me to take time off from my humanity, not even for a day and not even because I am of the same species as those who brought the Spanish Inquisition into being. They make me want to exercise that particular skepticism that Santayana called the chastity of the intellect, a chastity the elephants are forced to find and to translate into light.