INCIDENT NO.12: Daniel Berry
The soul thinks with reference to the body, not with reference to itself,
and space, or exterior distance, is stipulated as well within the natural pact that unites them.
-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception
[ XENIA 1 ]
It is a good thing to gather figs and also not
to pass over in silence the figs in this picture. Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped on vine-leaves; and they are
depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking open to disgorge their honey, some split apart, they are so ripe. Near
them lies a branch, not bare, by Zeus, or empty of fruit, but under the shade of its leaves are figs, some still green and
untimely, some with wrinkled skin and overripe, and some about to turn, disclosing the shining juice, while on the tip of
the branch a sparrow buries its bill in what seems the very sweetest of the figs. All the ground is strewn with chestnuts,
some of which are rubbed free of the burr, others lie quite shut up, and others show the burr breaking at the lines of division.
See, too, the pears on pears, apples on apples, both heaps of them and piles of ten, all fragrant and golden. You will
say that their redness has not been put on from the outside, but has bloomed from within. Here are gifts of the cherry tree,
here is fruit in clusters heaped in a basket, and the basket is woven, not from alien twigs, but from branches of the plant
itself. And if you look at the vine-sprays woven together and at the clusters hanging from them, and how the grapes stand
out one by one, you will certainly hymn Dyonisos and speak of the vine as ‘Queenly giver of grapes.’ You would
say that even the grapes in the painting are good to eat and full of winey juice. And the most charming point of all this
is: on a leafy branch is yellow honey already within the comb and ripe to stream forth if the comb is pressed; and on another
leaf is cheese new curdled and quivering; and there are bowls of milk not merely white but gleaming, for the cream floating
upon it makes it seem to gleam.
[ RHOPOS ]
Plastic water bottles, denim and brightly colored
tee shirts wrapped across the trunks of scrub oaks and box elders, a deflated multicolor beach ball, beer cans crushed and
whole, discarded cartons of Diet Coke and Dr. Pepper, Canadian Mist and Mountain Dew, bald soles separated from their weathered
leather uppers, coaxial wire, spent headlights, rusting car doors, hubs and fenders, sandy anthills red as terracotta roof
tiles, frost in the early morning over carpetweed, wild onion, sow thistle and waterleaf, plastic forks and spoons the color
of fried albumen, AA and AAA batteries disgorging their contents, damp clumps of moss, tin foil, sun-bleached mattress stuffing,
a crosshatched paper box with a half-eaten hamburger, shrink wrap in every conceivable shape and quantity, ballpoint pens
and lighters, countless cigarette butts (Parliament, Newport and Marlboro prevail) and occasionally the charred ends of cigars
of the variety commonly found in gas stations, a yellow bag of Tidy Cats kitty litter, dandelions and nettles, thermos cups
and plastic lids, napkins and lichens, a cross manufactured from white fence stakes soldered together with a plaque reading:
Mary Webb (August 3, 1960 – January 1, 1996), a small meadow upon which several dozen longleaf saplings grow, local
classifieds, PVC paint buckets and artesian wells garlanded with scripture (“He that believeth in me, out of his belly
shall flow rivers of living water” John 7:38), bodies of wild and domestic animals set adrift in grass and asphalt estuaries,
timeless and fleeting.
My creature lay upturned,
head and torso askew in the shape of a shallow crescent: whiskers fanning briskly from an aristocratic snout, taught ears
still flushed with wax, genitalia in resplendent display, and a fierce, annelid, gray tail at least as long the rest of its
body and iridescent, upon close examination, with the cobalt violet and Scheveningen green also found in lingering bruises
and the plumage of starlings. Crouching by it,
near the concrete steps and the still-flowering crape myrtle, I was struck
by the thought that not since I was a young child had I shared so short a distance with a dead or dying animal.
eyes were open, but already coated with the translucent film that glazes the pupil after the body’s expiration, of which
the closest (though still distant) parallel in living creatures is the cataract. Its coat was wonderfully variegated: the
undersides of legs, torso, throat and nates were of a downy buff and incandescent white so pure that the morning light nestled
in it, forming faint cyan patches. The cheeks, neck, shoulders and haunches mixed slate- and straw-hued fur of a slightly
coarser nature. The brow was stubbly and brownish, while the back produced long, dark, graphite hairs that washed over the
outer torso’s mottled, gray complexion. The mouth, a jet-black chasm facing upwards, formed a near-perfect equilateral
triangle dissected by a pair of elongated, chisel-like teeth stained a swarthy yellow by good use.
I was most taken,
however, by the rodent’s lithe, splayed legs. Viewed from a certain angle, the rear extremities, with their long and
silky paws, resembled the upturned hands of painted saints and beggars whose palms and fingers seem to stretch, so gracefully,
towards heaven. The front limbs, though more compact, were no less delicate, being as exquisitely defined as the hands of
newborn infants which, to everyone’s amazement, return the slightest touch with a tight, determined grip, whose force
can only be attributed to their formidable thirst for life and human contact.
In the weeks that followed, I began
to wander, half-knowingly, through a periphery of shunned things and spaces, taking inventory along city streets, state parkways,
medians and curbsides, exit ramps, driveways, country roads and alleys.
Louisiana’s high ground and bayou country
brought forth armadillos, red-tailed hawks, chickadees, pigeons, house cats and cattle dogs. The Mississippi Pine Belt, with
its mild weather and its snaking tractor-trailers loaded with the trunks of slash and loblolly pine, yellow poplar, sweetgum
and hickory, sacrificed its white-tailed deer, a turkey vulture and a weasel, squirrels, skunks and hares. Kentucky and Tennessee,
with their folded country and blushing foliage showed much the same, adding chipmunks and raccoons to the litany of unfortunates.
Missouri, Indiana and Illinois, significantly colder than the prior states in the late months of November and December, proved
more protective of its kind, bestowing a sparrow, a field mouse and the ubiquitous opossum.
[ IN THE ANIMAL’S COURT ]
The testimony showed (1) that the Rabbit,
having declined to volunteer, was enlisted by compulsion, and (2) deserted in the face of the enemy on the eve of battle.
Being asked if he had anything to say for himself before sentence of death should be passed upon him for violating the military
law forbidding cowardice and desertion, he said he had not desired to violate that law, but had been obliged to obey a higher
law which took precedence of it and set it aside. Being asked what law that was, he answered, “The law of God, which
denies courage to the rabbit.”
Verdict of the Court: To be disgraced in the presence of the army; stripped of
his uniform; marched to the scaffold, bearing a placard marked “Coward,” and hanged.
testimony showed that the Lion, by his splendid courage and matchless strength and endurance, saved the battle.
of the Court: To be given a dukedom, his statue to be set up, his name to be writ in letters of gold at the top of the roll
in the Temple of Fame.
The testimony showed that he had broken the divine law, “Thou shalt not steal.”
Being asked for his defense, he pleaded that he had been obliged to obey the divine law, “The Fox shall steal.”
Verdict of the Court: Imprisonment for life.
The evidence showed that he had spent many days and
nights, unwatched, in the paddock with the poultry, yet had triumphed over temptation.
Verdict of the Court: Let his
name be honored; let his deed be praised throughout the land by public proclamation.
Court: Prisoner, it is charged and proved that you are poorly contrived and badly constructed. What have you to say to this?
Answer: I did not contrive myself, I did not construct myself.
The Court: It is charged and proved that you have
moved when you should not have moved; that you have turned out of your course when you should have gone straight; that you
have moved swiftly through crowds when the law and the public weal forbade a speed like that; that you leave a stench behind
you wherever you go, and you persist in this, although you know it is improper and that other machines refrain from doing
it. What have you to say to these things?
Answer: I am a machine. I am slave to the law of my make, I have to obey it,
under all conditions. I do nothing, of myself. My forces are set in motion by outside influences, I never set them in motion
The Court: You are discharged. Your plea is sufficient. You are a pretty poor thing, with some good qualities
and some bad ones; but to attach personal merit to conduct emanating from the one set, and a personal demerit to conduct from
the other set would be unfair and unjust. To a machine, that is—to a machine.
-Mark Twain, The Damned Human Race (Excerpts)
They lay there in absolute silence: liminal and prophetic, like all
things that go unheeded but linger, as if suspended in a persistent, intermediate landscape.
The ancient Greeks, I learned
later, had specific names for this family of things. They called them rhopos, literally of waste or filth; and (sliding further
into the pejorative) rhyparos, the sordid and abject. Piraeicus, a painter, achieved a certain renown for his portrayals of
these subjects: barbers’ shops, cobblers’ stalls, stables, farm animals and things of the like, which also earned
him the moniker rhyparographer— an insult. In a mosaic dating back to 300-200 BC, Sosos of Pergamum depicted the remnants
of a lavish meal where fish and chicken bones, bits of meat and empty bivalves, nutshells, pips, and half-eaten fruit lay
strewn across an unswept floor, as if servants had neglected to sweep the triclinium after a banquet. Along with the images
of obsonia, viands; and xenia, provisions and foodstuffs delivered to guests by their Greek hosts, these subjects lay the
foundation for what scholars of occidental art—in a language that reflects the very tenuousness of these matters—still
refer to as the lower or minor genres.
It is said that when the great flood came upon the earth, all the animals
were put in the ark, except the male opossum. A female opossum clambered up the gunwales of the crowded vessel and stayed
there with her tail hanging down the ship’s sides. When the high waters receded it was found that the hair on her tail
had washed away entirely, and ever since then the opossum’s tail has been bare.
Saddened and shamed by the thought
of all the male opossums that were drowned, this female went off alone and coiled herself up, as if dead. She tucked her nose
close by her flanks, and after breathing a long time in this position little opossums appeared in her pouch. Thus was the
The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well
look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will
the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning
The animal scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension. This is why the man can surprise the
animal. Yet the animal—even if domesticated— can also surprise the man. The man too is looking across a similar,
but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension. And this is so wherever he looks. He is always looking across ignorance and
And so, when he is being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him. His recognition
of this is what makes the look of the animal familiar. And yet the animal is distinct, and can never be confused with the
man. Thus, a power is ascribed to the animal, comparable with human power but never coinciding with it. The animal has secrets
which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.
Today the vestiges
of this dualism remain among those who live intimately with, and depend upon, animals. A peasant becomes fond of his pig and
is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the
two -John Berger, Why Look at Animals? (Excerpts)
Even in captivity, Pintupi mothers, like good mothers everywhere,
tell stories to their children about the origin of animals: How the Echidna got its spines... Why the Emu cannot fly... Why
the Crow is glossy black... And as Kipling illustrated the Just So Stories with his own line drawings, so the Aboriginal mother
makes drawings in the sand to illustrate the wanderings of the Dreamtime heroes.
She tells her tale in a patter of staccato
bursts and, at the same time, traces the Ancestor’s ‘footprints’ by running her first and second fingers,
one after the other, in a double dotted line along the ground. She erases each scene with the palm of her hand and, finally,
makes a circle with a line passing through it— something like a capital Q.
This marks the spot where the Ancestor,
exhausted by the labours of creation, has ‘gone back in’.
-Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
We are destined, as the late Jesuit scholar and sociologist Michel
de Certeau observed, to wander outside of things, but not without them: in, through, among and between. Our machines can accelerate
or slow this process, threaten or delight, restore or destroy connections between ourselves and our surroundings. Yet they
all—eventually, and without fail—return us to a common, indeterminate region; a middle place of comings and goings
where life stands still, however briefly: with, because, despite us.
[THE ECLECTIC PHILOSOPHER]
to legend, every morning in the crowded market of an Ancient City there walked an eclectic philosopher, a renowned observer
of Nature, whom many people approached with their most troubling conflicts and doubts.
One time, while a dog was chasing
itself in circles and biting its own tail, to the laughter of the children who stood around it, several worried merchants
asked the philospher what all this commotion could mean, and if it might not be an unfortunate omen.
explained that by biting its tail the dog was only trying to get rid of its fleas.
With this, the general curiosity
was satisfied, and the people left in peace.
On another occasion, a snake charmer was displaying his basket of serpents,
one of which was biting its own tail, eliciting seriousness in the children and laughter in the adults.
When the children
asked the philosopher what might be the cause, he responded that the serpent that bites its tail represents the Infinite and
the Eternal Return of people, On this occasion, too, the pople left satisfied and equally peaceful
-Augusto Monterroso (trans. Marion Iverson)