Man, the Sky, and the Elephant

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Man, the Sky, and the Elephant

Preface to an Italian translation of Pliny’s Natural History (Turin: Einaudi, 1982).

In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, for the sheer pleasure of reading, I would advise concentrating on three books: the two that contain the main lines of his philosophy, which are the second (on cosmography) and the seventh (on man), and—as an example of his jumping back and forth between erudition and fantasy—the eighth (on the animals of the earth). We can of course find extraordinary pages everywhere. For example, in the books on geography (III and VI), on aquatic zoology, entomology, and comparative anatomy (IX and XI), botany, agronomy, and pharmacology (XII and XXXII), or on metals, precious stones, and the fine arts (XXXIII and XXXVII).

Pliny has, I think, always been used chiefly for reference, both to find out what the ancients knew or thought they knew on any particular subject, and to pick up oddities and eccentricities. From this point of view one cannot neglect book I, the summary of the whole work, the interesting thing about which is the wealth of unexpected juxtapositions: “Fish that have a pebble in their heads; Fish that hide in winter; Fish that feel the influence of the stars; Extraordinary prices paid for certain fish.” Or “Concerning the rose: 12 varieties, 32 drugs; 3 varieties of lily: 21 drugs; a plant born from one of its own tears; 3 varieties of narcissus: 16 drugs; a plant one dyes the seeds of so that it produces colored flowers; Saffron: 20 drugs; Where the best flowers grow; Which flowers were known at the time of the Trojan War; clothing that rivals flowers.” Or yet again: “The nature of metals; Concerning gold; The amount of gold possessed by the ancients; The equestrian order and the right to wear gold rings; How many times has the equestrian order changed names?”

But Pliny is also a writer who deserves to be read at length for the calm movement of his prose, animated as it is by admiration for everything that exists and respect for the infinite variety of things.

We might perhaps distinguish a poetical-philosophical Pliny, with his feeling for the universe and his love of knowledge and mystery, from the Pliny who was a neurotic collector of data, an obsessive compiler who seems to think only of not wasting a single jotting in his mastodonic notebook. (In using written sources he was omnivorous and eclectic, but not without a critical sense. There were some things he accepted at face value, others that he simply recorded, and still others that he rejected as obvious fantasies. It is just that his method of evaluation appears to be very unstable and unpredictable.) But once we have recognized these two faces of Pliny, we have to admit immediately that he is always one and the same man, exactly as the world he aims to describe in all its variety of form is one and the same world. To achieve this aim, he did not hesitate to plunge into the endless number of existing forms, multiplied by the endless number of existing ideas about these forms, because forms and ideas had for him equal right to be part of natural history and to be examined by anyone looking into them for an indication of a higher “reason” that he was convinced they must contain.

The world is the eternal and uncreated sky, whose spherical, rotating face covers all terrestrial things (II. 2), but it is difficult to distinguish the world from God, who for Pliny (and the Stoic culture to which he belonged) is one God, not to be identified with any single portion or aspect of him, or with the crowd of characters on Olympus, though perhaps with the sun, the soul or mind or spirit of the sky (II. 13). At the same time, the sky is made of stars as eternal as he is; the stars weave the sky and yet are part of the celestial fabric: aetema caelestibus est natura intexentibus mundum intextuque concretis (II. 30). But it is also air (both below and above the moon) that looks empty and diffuses the spirit of life here below, and produces clouds, thunder, hail, lightning, and storms (II. 102).

When we speak of Pliny, we never know to what extent we should attribute the ideas he expresses to the author himself. He is in fact scrupulous about inserting as little of himself as possible and sticking to what his sources tell him. This conforms to his impersonal concept of knowledge, which excludes individual originality. To try to understand what his sense of nature really is, and how much of it consists of the arcane majesty of principles and how much of the materiality of the elements, we have to cling to what is undeniably his own: the expressive substance of his prose. Look, for example, at the pages concerning the moon, where the tone of heartfelt gratitude for this “supreme heavenly body, the most familiar to those who live on earth, the remedy of darkness” (“novissimum sidus, terris familiarissimum et in tenebrarum remedium” [II. 41]), and for all that it teaches us with the rhythm of its phases and eclipses, joins with the agile functionality of the sentences to express this mechanism with crystal clarity. It is in the pages on astronomy in book II that Pliny shows himself to be something more than the compiler with an imaginative flair that he is usually taken for, and reveals himself as a writer possessing what was destined to be the chief quality of all great scientific prose: that of expounding the most complex subject with perfect clarity, while deriving from it a sense of harmony and beauty.

He does this without ever leaning toward abstract speculation. Pliny always sticks to the facts (what he considers to be facts or what others have considered to be such). He does not hold with an infinite number of worlds because the nature of this world is already hard enough to understand, and infinity would scarcely simplify the problem (II. 4). Nor does he believe in the music of the spheres, either as a din out of earshot or as inexpressible harmony, because “for us who are in it, the world glides around both day and night in silence” (II. 6).

Having stripped God of the anthropomorphic characteristics attributed by mythology to the immortals of Olympus, Pliny is forced by the rules of logic to bring God closer to man by means of the limits necessarily imposed on His powers. In fact, God is less free than man in one case, because He could not kill Himself even if He wanted to. Nor does He have any power over the past, over the irreversibility of time (II. 27). Like Kant’s God, He cannot come into conflict with the independence of reason (He cannot prevent two plus two from equaling four), but to define Him in these terms would lead us astray from the natural immanence of His identification with the forces of nature (“per quae declaratur haut dubie naturae potentia idque quod deum vocemus [II. 27]).

The lyrical or lyrical-philosophical tones dominant in the earlier chapters of book II correspond to a vision of universal harmony that does not take long to fall to pieces. A considerable part of that book is devoted to celestial prodigies. Pliny’s science oscillates between the intent to recognize an order in nature and the recording of what is extraordinary or unique: and the second aspect of it always wins out. Nature is eternal and sacred and harmonious, but it leaves a wide margin for the emergence of inexplicable prodigious phenomena. What general conclusion ought we to draw from this? That we are concerned with a monstrous order entirely composed of exceptions to the rule? Or else a set of rules so complex it eludes our understanding? In either case, for every fact an explanation must exist, even if for the time being this explanation is unknown to us: “All things of explanation that is uncertain and hidden in the majesty of nature” (II. 101), and, a little farther on, “Adeo causa non deest” (II. 115), “it is not the causes that are lacking”—a cause can always be found. Pliny’s rationalism exalts the logic of cause and effect and at the same time minimizes it, for even if you find the explanation for facts, that is no reason for the facts to cease to be marvelous.

This last maxim concludes a chapter on the mysterious origin of the winds: the folds of mountains, the hollows of valleys that hurl back blasts of wind after the manner of an echo, a grotto in Dalmatia where one need only drop a light object to unleash a storm at sea, a rock in Cyrenaica that only has to be touched to raise a sandstorm. Pliny gives us many of these catalogues of strange facts unrelated to one another: on the effects of lightning on man, with its cold wounds (among plants, lightning spares only the laurel; among animals, the eagle, according to II. 146), on extraordinary rains (of milk, blood, meat, of iron or sponges of iron, of wool or bricks, according to II. 147).

And yet Pliny clears the ground of a lot of old-wives’ tales, such as comets as omens (for example, he refutes the belief that a comet appearing between the pudenda of a constellation—was there anything the ancients did not see in the skies?—foretells an era of moral laxity: “obscenis autem moribus in verendis partibus signorum” [II. 93]). Still, each prodigy presents itself to him as a problem of nature, insofar as it is the reverse side of the norm. Pliny holds out against superstitions but cannot always recognize them, especially in book VII, where he deals with human nature. Even concerning easily observable facts he records the most abstruse beliefs. Typical is the chapter on menstruation (VII. 63—66), but it must be said that Pliny’s views all accord with the most ancient religious taboos regarding menstrual blood. There is a whole network of traditional analogies and values that does not clash with Pliny’s rationalism, almost as if the latter were based on the same foundations. Thus he is sometimes inclined to construct analogical explanations of the poetic or psychological type: “The corpses of men float face upward, those of women face down, as if nature wished to respect the modesty of dead women” (VII. 77).

On rare occasions Pliny reports facts vouched for by his own personal experience: “On guard duty at night in front of the trenches I have seen star-shaped lights shining on the soldiers’ spears” (II. 101); “during the reign of Claudius we saw a centaur which he had had brought from Egypt, preserved in honey” (VII. 35); “I myself in Africa once saw a citizen of Tisdrus changed from a woman to a man on her wedding day” (VII. 36).

But for a tireless seeker such as he, a protomartyr of experimental science, destined to die asphyxiated by the fumes during the eruption of Vesuvius, direct observations occupy a minimal place in his work, and are on exactly the same level of importance as information read in books—and the more ancient these were, the more authoritative. All the same, to forestall criticism, he declares: “However, for most of these facts I would not vouch, preferring to go back to the sources to whom I turn in all doubtful cases, without ceasing to follow the Greeks, who are the most precise in their observations, as well as the most ancient” (VII. 8).

After this preamble Pliny feels free to launch into his famous review of the “prodigious and incredible” characteristics of certain foreign peoples, a passage that was to be so popular in the Middle Ages and even later, and to transform geography into a fairground of living phenomena. There are echoes of it in later accounts of real travels, such as those of Marco Polo. That the unknown lands on the fringes of the world should contain beings on the fringes of humanity should be no cause for wonder: the Arimaspi with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads, who contest the gold mines with the gryphons; the inhabitants of the forest of Abarimon, who run extremely swiftly on feet that point backward; the androgynous people of Nasamona, who assume alternate sexes during intercourse; the Tibii, who have two pupils in one eye and the image of a horse in the other. But the great Barnum presents his most spectacular acts in India, where one can find a people of mountain hunters who have the heads of dogs, and a race of jumping people with one leg only, who when they want to rest in the shade lie down and raise their single foot above their heads as a parasol. There is also a nomadic people with legs like snakes, and there are the Astomoi, who have no mouths and live by sniffing odors. Mixed in with these are pieces of information we now know to be true, such as the description of the Indian fakirs (whom he calls “gymnosophist philosophers”), or else things such as still provide us with those mysterious events we read about in the newspapers (where he talks about immense footprints, he could be referring to the Yeti or Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas). Then there are legends destined to continue down through the centuries, such as that of the curing power of kings (King Pyrrhus, who cured disorders of the spleen by touching the patient with his big toe).

What emerges from all this is a dramatic notion of human nature as something precarious and insecure. The form and the destiny of man hang by a thread. Quite a number of pages are devoted to the unpredictability of childbirth, with the exceptional cases and the dangers and difficulties. This, too, is a frontier zone, for everyone who exists might very well not exist, or might be different, and it is there that it is all decided.

In pregnant women everything—for example, the manner of walking—has an influence on childbirth. If they eat oversalted food they will give birth to a child without nails; if they cannot hold their breath they will have more trouble in delivering; during childbirth even a yawn can be fatal, as a sneeze during coitus can cause a miscarriage. Compassion and shame come over one who considers how precarious is the origin of the proudest of living beings: often the smell of a lately extinguished lamp is enough to cause a miscarriage. And to think that from such a frail beginning a tyrant or a butcher may be born! You who trust in your physical strength, who embrace the gifts of fortune and consider yourself not their ward but their son, you who have a domineering spirit, you who consider yourself a god as soon as success swells your breast, think how little could have destroyed you! [VII. 42—44]

One can understand why Pliny was so popular in the Christian Middle Ages: “to weigh life in a just balance one must always remember human fragility.”

The human race is a zone of living things that should be defined by tracing its confines. Pliny therefore records the extreme limits reached by man in every field, and book VII becomes a kind of Guinness Book of World Records. They are chiefly quantitative records, such as strength in carrying weights, speed at running, acuteness of hearing or of memory, and so on, down to the size and extent of conquered territories. But there are also purely moral records—in virtue, generosity, and goodness. Nor is there a lack of curiosities—Antonia, wife of Drusus, who never spat; or the poet Pomponius, who never belched (VII. 80); or the highest price ever paid for a slave (the grammarian Daphnis cost seven hundred thousand sesterces, according to VII. 128).

Only about one aspect of human life does Pliny not feel inclined to quote records or attempt measurements or comparisons: happiness. It is impossible to say who is happy and who is not, since this depends on subjective and debatable criteria. (“Felicitas cui praecipua fuerit homini, non est humani iudicii, cum prosperitatem ipsam alius alio modo et suopte ingenio quisque determinet” [VII. 130]). If one is to look truth straight in the face, no man can be called happy, and here Pliny’s anthropological survey reviews a whole rank of illustrious destinies (drawn mostly from Roman history) to show that the men most favored by fortune had to suffer unhappiness and mischance.

In the natural history of man it is impossible to include the variable that is destiny. This is the message of the pages Pliny devotes to the vicissitudes of fortune, to the unpredictability of the length of life, to the uselessness of astrology, and to sickness and death. The separation between the two forms of knowledge that astrology lumped together—the objectivity of calculable and predictable phenomena and the sense of individual existence as having an uncertain future—a separation that modern science takes for granted, can be found in these pages, but as a question not yet finally decided, so that exhaustive documentation is called for. In producing these examples Pliny seems to flounder a bit. Every event that has occurred, every biography, every anecdote can go to show that, if looked at from the point of view of someone living, life is not subject to either qualitative or quantitative judgment, and cannot be measured or compared with other lives. Its value is interior, all the more so because hopes and fears of another life are illusory. Pliny shares the opinion that after death begins a nonexistence equivalent to and symmetrical with that which came before birth.

This is why Pliny’s attention is focused on the things of this world, the territories of the globe, heavenly bodies, animals, plants, and stones. The soul, to which any sort of survival is denied, can only enjoy being alive in the present, if it withdraws into itself. “Etenim si dulce vivere est, cui potest essere vixisse? At quanto facilius certiusque sibi quemque credere, specimen securitas antegenitali sumere experimento!”: “To mold one’s own peace of mind on the experience of before birth!” (VII. 190). In other words, we must project ourselves into our own absence, the only certain thing before we came into this world or after death. Hence the pleasure of recognizing the infinite variety of what is other than us, all of which the Natural History parades before our eyes.

If man is defined by his limitations, should he not also be defined by the points at which he excels? In book VII Pliny feels bound to include the praise of man’s virtues and the celebration of his triumphs. Turning to Roman history as the exemplar of every virtue, he gives way to the temptation to reach a pompous conclusion in praise of the Empire by finding the zenith of human perfection in the person of Caesar Augustus. In my opinion, however, the characteristic note in his treatment is not this, but the hesitant, limitative, and disenchanted note, which best suits his temperament.

Here we can discern the questions that arose when anthropology was becoming a science. Should anthropology attempt to escape from a “humanistic” point of view to attain the objectivity of a science of nature? Do the men of book VII matter more, the more they are “other” and different from us, and perhaps most if they are no longer or not yet men at all? And is it really possible that man can emerge from his own subjectivity to the point of taking himself as an object of scientific knowledge? The moral that echoes back and forth in Pliny suggests caution and reservation: no science can illuminate us concerning happiness or fortune, the distribution of good and bad, or the values of existence. Each individual, when he dies, takes his secrets with him.

On this cheerless note Pliny might well have ended his dissertation, but he prefers to add a list of discoveries and inventions, both historical and legendary. Anticipating those modern anthropologists who maintain that there is continuity between biological evolution and technological evolution, from Paleolithic tools to electronics, Pliny implicitly admits that what man has added to nature becomes part of human nature. To demonstrate that man’s true nature is his culture is only a step away. But Pliny, who has no time for generalizations, looks for what is specifically human in inventions and customs that might be considered universal. According to Pliny (or his sources) there are three cultural matters on which all peoples have reached a tacit agreement (“gentium consensus tacitus” [VI. 210]). These are the alphabet (both Greek and Latin), the shaving of men’s beards, and the measurement of time by means of a sundial.

This triad could scarcely be more bizarre, given the incongruity between the three terms—alphabet, barber, and sundial—or, for that matter, more debatable. The fact is that not all peoples have similar ways of writing, nor is it true that everyone shaves; and as for the hours of the day, Pliny himself launches into a brief history of the various ways of subdividing time. But here we wish to stress not the “Eurocentric” viewpoint, which is not peculiar to Pliny or to his own age, but, rather, the direction he is taking. For the attempt to put a finger on the elements that are constantly repeated in the most diverse cultures, in order to define what is specifically human, was destined to become one of the principles of modern ethnology. And having established this point of gentium consensus tacitus, Pliny can conclude his treatise on the human race and pass on to other animate creatures.

Book VIII, which makes a general survey of the animals of the world, begins with the elephant, to which the longest chapter is devoted. Why is priority given to the elephant? Because it is the largest of the animals, certainly (Pliny’s treatment proceeds according to an order of importance that often coincides with physical size), but also and above all because, spiritually, it is the animal “closest to man”! “Maximum est elephas proximumque humanis sensibus” is the opening of book VIII. In fact, the elephant—he explains immediately afterward—recognizes the language of his homeland, obeys orders, remembers what he learns, knows the passion of love and the ambition of glory, practices virtues “rare even among men,” such as probity, prudence, and equity, and has a religious veneration for the sun, the moon, and the stars. Not one word (apart from that single superlative, maximum) does Pliny spend on describing this animal (which is, however, accurately portrayed in Roman mosaics of the time). He simply relates the legendary curiosities that he had found in books. The rites and customs of elephant society are represented as those of a people with a culture different from ours, but nonetheless worthy of respect and understanding.

In the Natural History man is lost in the middle of the multiform world, the prisoner of his own imperfection; yet, on the one hand, he has the relief of knowing that even God is limited in His powers (“Inperfectae vero in homine naturae praecipus solacia, ne deum quidem posse omnia” [II. 27]), while, on the other hand, his next-door neighbor is the elephant, who can serve him as a model on the spiritual plane. Between these two vast presences, both imposing and benign, man certainly appears cut down to size, but not crushed.

After the elephant, as in a childhood visit to the zoo, the review of the world’s animals passes on to the lion, the panther, the tiger, the camel, the giraffe, the rhinoceros, and the crocodile. Then, following an order of decreasing dimensions, he goes on to the hyena, the chameleon, the porcupine, the animals that live in burrows, and even snails and lizards. The domestic animals are all lumped together at the end of book VIII.

Pliny’s main source is Aristode’s Historia animalium, but he also goes to more credulous or fanciful authors for legends that the Stagirite rejected, or reported only to confute them. This is the case both with information about the better-known animals and with the mention of imaginary animals, the catalogue of which is interwoven with that of the real ones. Thus, while speaking of elephants, he makes a digression informing us about dragons, their natural enemies; in connection with wolves (though criticizing the credulity of the Greeks), he records the legends of the werewolf. It is in this branch of zoology that we find the amphisbaena, the basilisk, the catoblepa, the crocoti, the corocoti, the leukocroti, the leontophont, and the manticore, all destined to pass from these pages into the bestiaries of the Middle Ages.

The natural history of man is extended into that of animals throughout book VIII, and this not only because the knowledge recorded is to a large extent concerned with the rearing of domestic animals and the hunting of wild ones, as well as the practical use man makes of the one and the other, but also because what Pliny is doing is taking us on a guided tour of the human imagination. An animal, whether real or imaginary, has a place of honor in the sphere of the imagination. As soon as it is named it takes on a dreamlike power, becoming an allegory, a symbol, an emblem.

It is for this reason that I recommend to the reader who is wandering through these pages to pause not only at the most “philosophical” books (II and VII), but also at VIII, as the most representative of an idea of nature that is expressed at length in all the thirty-seven books of the work: nature as external to man, but not to be separated from what is most intrinsic to his mind—the alphabet of dreams, the code book of the imagination, without which there is neither thought nor reason.