31 October 2010

Eardrum of a lion

A few days ago I finished reading Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall for the second time, and began re-reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Yesterday, in one of those peculiar coincidences that leave one wondering whether synchronicity amounts to more than mere peculiar coincidence, I came across William Dalrymple’s review of Under the sun: the letters of Bruce Chatwin. Fascinated, and drawn in by Dalrymple’s excellent writing, I read the whole thing and noted several passages that stood out for various reasons — for example, Chatwin’s assertion that, “The function of an artist is to work for a) himself b) to leave something memorable, for the future, to shore up the ruins”, caused me to wonder whether “shore up the ruins” reflected an idea similar to that underlying The Ruins of the Moment.[1]

But one quotation struck me with a particular force. In a note to his wife Elizabeth, Chatwin mentions a consignment containing “...a number of highly precious possessions, including a dried chameleon and the eardrum of a lion”.

Although never intended for publication, that phrase seems to me to sum up much of the quality of Chatwin’s writing — the eccentric, particular noticing that recognises the importance of seemingly random and insignificant things; the awareness of the artefacts, qualities and ostensibly peripheral things that give places their substance and moments their flavour.

The phrase keeps working on me. Driving back from town early yesterday afternoon I kept thinking about the last sounds heard by that eardrum. The drip of blood from the body it shared onto the dusty ground? The gurgle of its ruined lungs? The approaching footsteps then the momentary explosion of sound before the silence of oblivion? I thought about all the sounds heard by that eardrum: the rasp of a mother lion’s tongue on a cub’s fur — the fur on its shared body? The giggling of gathering hyaenas; the roaring at night across savannah; the strangled choking of an impala as its eyes fail; the crack of bone and the knock of a dead dragged hoof against a miombo trunk? All that history, all those sounds, gone.

Who would remove and save the eardrum of a lion, and for what purpose?

The best purpose for the eardrum of a lion is indisputably to allow a lion, alive and wild, to hear. Everything else is at best ancillary. But perhaps, among all those ancillary purposes for this eardrum, the best is to have allowed Chatwin to recognise its significance so those who read his phrase could remember and wonder — not just about Chatwin, but a particular, now immortal lion.


1. I did find it curious that Dalrymple quoted several features of the book that had been noted almost two months earlier in a shorter review by Olivia Lang in The New Statesman. (Dalrymple's review was published on 27 October; Lang's had been published on 7 September.) Coincidence? Cryptomnesia? Or were these the only stand-outs in an otherwise humdrum miscellania?

1. This lioness was one of two hunting an impala at night in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. She walked by our open jeep, so close she seemed almost within arm's reach.
2. My copies of the books.

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

How beautiful and how poignant.
However does anyone acquire the eardrum of a lion, and what a wealth of thought it triggers?

pohanginapete said...

RR, I have no idea how one acquires one, other than that one has to notice it in the first place. This seemed to be one of Chatwin's great talents.
   I imagine there's an entire book in that eardrum.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

of course - it very much used to be the done thing to have strange memorobilia of one's hunting or days in faraway places - so i can guess that the eardrum is a victim of man's desire to show off

I wonder, though, if future generations will look at all the junk that we aquire and think "what a bunch of nutters"

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie — I think that's a pretty good guess about the views of future generations (if there are many). I suspect every generation looks back at its predecessors and shakes its head.

20th Century Woman said...

I guess people just like to collect bits of critters. Sometimes their heads are mounted on wall plaques. Saving the lion's eardrum seems more delicate than making its skin into a rug.

I am reminded of a friend in graduate school who was writing his dissertation on something about the male reproductive tract of the possum (American kind) and he used to save the testicles (they looked like little marbles), embed them in plastic resin and make them into earrings for young ladies he fancied.

pohanginapete said...

20th Century Woman, I think you're right. The urge to collect seems strong in some people
   A friend of mine did something similar with beetles — he'd knock copulating pairs into liquid nitrogen, which froze them instantly in flagrante delicto; he'd then embed them in resin and turn them into pendants and similar items.

Brenda Schmidt said...

"All that history, all those sounds, gone."

Wow. What an evocative post.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Brenda :^)

Lydia said...

the rasp of a mother lion’s tongue on a cub’s fur...brought tears as I read. No one's writing in the blogosphere touches me quite as yours does.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Lydia.