Slaughter of the Innocents

Ushering children through hordes of ghouls and zombies last night to beg candy from strangers, we finished our circuit and came at last to the home of my brother-in-law’s neighbor.  It was a cabin-like single-story house with a few fancifully carved pumpkins set on the porch and a warm glow seeping from high windows.  We had stopped here the year before and I remembered that the paterfamilias of the place was a sport hunter.  He had decorated the wide, high-ceilinged entryway with mounted heads of antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and more exotic fauna from other continents.

We rang the bell.  The door opened and a pale teenaged girl doled out chocolate bars to our miniature Chaplins and their cousins.  The recollected menagerie still kept congress on the walls around her.  The great white hunter himself stepped forward then and asked, with a leftward jab of his thumb, whether we’d met his newest ‘pet.’  We peered round the corner and were astonished to see a taxidermied giraffe – or at least it’s chest, neck, and head.  It must have been nine feet tall: the leopard-spotted hide, the knobby tufted horns, the impossible girlish eyelashes.  Bwana had gone to some game farm in Africa and killed it himself, then paid what must have been thousands for its stuffing and transport back to the United States.

In the literary court of omnivorous slaughter, Flaubert’s Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller warms the throne.  Flint-hearted young Julian sets out one day from his family’s castle on horseback and in short order dispatches a family of rabbits, a woodcock, some mountain goats and cranes, a beaver, a deer, a badger, a stag, a peacock…

…and after he had slain them all, other deer, other stags, other badgers, other peacocks, and jays, blackbirds, foxes, porcupines, polecats, and lynxes, appeared; in fact, a host of beasts that grew more and more numerous with every step he took.  Trembling and with a look of appeal in their eyes, they gathered around Julian, but he did not stop slaying them, and so intent was he on stretching his bow, drawing his sword and whipping out his knife, that he had little thought for aught else.

I was recently reminded of Flaubert’s story while reading John Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, which centers on a mind-numbing slaughter of buffalo in 1870s Colorado.  With Flaubert, however, the slaughter is more varied (extending even to non-native species), and goes on and on for pages.  It’s comically absurd at first but the long index of the dead begins to sound sinister.  “Sometimes, in his dreams,” Flaubert says of Julian, “he fancied himself like Adam in the midst of Paradise, surrounded by all the beasts; by merely extending his arm, he was able to kill them.”

Being a devoted carnivore myself and willing to admit that meat requires the death of some unfortunate creature, I’m not personally unsympathetic to the appeal of hunting, whether for elk or deer or fowl, at least when the game is close at hand and the intent is to put meat on the table.  But what drives a man to travel ten thousand miles to sight and stalk and kill a giraffe of all things?  It’s like murdering Big Bird or Mr Snuffleupagus.  Certainly, given the size of the target, it’s no special testament to one’s marksmanship.

I wonder if Bwana or his poor pale daughter are ever haunted by nightmares of the dead animals that watch over the door of their home.  I wonder if he ever finds himself at night before his court of trophies, encircled by their disembodied heads, accused by their glassy eyes, cursed at from their bristly, stuffed lips.  I imagine him like Flaubert’s Julian when his prowess fails and he’s surrounded alone in the woods by hosts of mocking animals:

He began to run; the brutes followed him.  The serpent hissed, the malodorous beasts frothed at the mouth, the wild boar rubbed his tusks against his heels, and the wolf scratched the palms of his hands with the hairs of his snout.  The monkeys pinched him and made faces, the weasel rolled over his feet.  A bear knocked his cap off with its huge paw, and the panther disdainfully dropped an arrow it was about to put in its mouth.

Irony seemed to incite their sly actions.  As they watched him out of the corners of their eyes, they seemed to meditate a plan of revenge, and Julian, who was deafened by the buzzing of the insects, bruised by the wings and tails of the birds, choked by the stench of animal breaths, walked with outstretched arms and closed lids, like a blind man, without even the strength to beg for mercy.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Slaughter of the Innocents

  1. Thanks for this, Ian. I’d never encountered Flaubert’s “Legend of St. Julian.” By way of general reply as to the topic, I’ll simply quote, by your leave, a poem of Hardy’s (who was a member of the RSPCA). It appears in the last volume he ever published, “Winter Words” (1928).

    THE  LADY IN THE FURS
     
    “I’m a lofty lovely woman,”
    Says the  lady in the furs,
    In the glance she throws around her
    On the poorer dames and sirs:
    “This robe, that cost three figures,
    Yes, is mine,” her nod avers.

    “True, my money did not buy it,
    But my husband’s, from the trade;
    And they, they only got it
    From things feeble and afraid
    By murdering them in ambush
    With a cunning engine’s aid.

    “True, my hands, too, did not shape it
    To the pretty cut you see,
    But the hands of midnight workers
    Who are strangers quite to me:
    It was fitted, too, by dressers
    Ranged around me toilsomely.

    “But I am a lovely lady,
    Though sneerers say I shine
    By robbing Nature’s children
    Of apparel not mine,
    And that I am but a broom-stick,
    Like a scarecrow’s wooden spine.”

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I can see it now: Hardy posing nude for PETA.

    “By murdering them in ambush
    With a cunning engine’s aid.”

    I like that.

    Funny how the rhythms breaks up a bit toward the end (at least in my reading).

    Thanks, Mark.

  3. Hi Ian,

    Hardy might have thought it somewhat unbecoming so to pose, but his heart certainly would have been in it if he did. A small anthology could be made of poems he wrote in sympathy with animals and against cruelty to them; there are at least a score or two.

    As for furs and “cunning engines”: in the following poem we have the rabbit’s point of view as to the matter, w/ “engine” reduced to its simpler form, “gin.” Yell’ham Hill was near Hardy’s home in Dorchester.

    THE MILESTONE BY THE  RABBIT-BURROW
    (ON YELL’HAM HILL)

    In my loamy nook
    As I dig my hole
    I observe men look
    At a stone, and sigh
    As they pass it by
    To some far goal.

    Something it says
    To their glancing eyes
    That must distress
    The frail and lame,
    And the strong of frame
    Gladden or surprise.

    Do signs on its face
    Declare how far
    Feet have to trace
    Before they gain
    Some blest champaign
    Where no gins are?

    • Ian Wolcott

      If you’ll pardon the puns, I dare say Champaigne is blest, but a place where no gin is cannot be very cheery.

      I recall the usage from the King James rendering in Psalms, the famous line: “the gins of the workers of iniquity.” I wouldn’t wonder if this made fodder for some uneducated street preacher’s anti-gin campaigns in Hogarth’s day:

  4. Thanks for the Hogarth & Psalm 141: “Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me, and the gins of the workers of iniquity.” And having gone back to the latter, I don’t doubt now that Hardy had it in mind.

    As for your puns, well, I’ll not surprise you when I report that, whenever I teach this poem, I often have to explain that it has nothing to do with drinking.

    This was the case more especially in America than in Japan. Having a rather vague relation to what was on the on the page before them, my American students thought the only truly salient features were “gin” and “champaigns,” notwithstanding the rabbit, the spelling (not “champagne”), and the negative in the last line.

    As The Pixies say, “That’s Education.”

  5. Ian Wolcott

    See, and I flubbed the spelling of champagne too.

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