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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Of Eliot, Elephants, and Expat Mascots

Valentine's Day is upon us. But before gushing about my beloved el-e-phant and all it means to me, I want to talk El-i-ot, as in George: another extraordinary creature with a prominent schnoz. She is coming to mean a lot to me, too.

Somehow I missed out on the works of George Eliot (the nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans, later Marian Evans) when I was a student.

As an expat in England, I lived in fear that someone would someday expose this lacuna. I tried to make up for it by faithfully watching all the episodes of the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss.

But I still didn't pick up the books.

Years later, I am back in the United States and, Kindle in hand, have decided there can be no more excuses, especially as Eliot's oeuvre can be downloaded for free. While I have yet to tackle Middlemarch, I'm now halfway through The Mill on the Floss.

And I've already made some significant discoveries.

For all these years, I've missed out on Maggie Tulliver — a lively and free-spirited child, as smart as a whip, said to be based on Eliot herself. As the daughter of the man who owns the mill on the River Floss, Maggie is the novel's protagonist.

I've also missed out on an exchange that could have enhanced my understanding of why people travel.

Courtesy The Dunktionary
I refer to the scene toward the start of the novel when Maggie pesters her father's head miller, Luke, to tell her whether he's read any books apart from the Bible. He confirms he hasn't, so she offers to lend him one of her picture books, called Pug's Tour of Europe:
...that would tell you all about the different sorts of people in the world, and if you didn't understand the reading, the pictures would help you; they show the looks and ways of the people, and what they do. There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.
When Luke owns up to having a low opinion of Dutchmen, Maggie says: "But they're our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures."
Animated Nature, by William Bingley
(available from Google Books)
Seeing that Luke has not been swayed by her appeal, Maggie wonders if he might like to take a glance at Animated Nature instead:
...that's not Dutchmen, you know, but elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish, and a bird sitting on its tail — I forget its name. There are countries full of those creatures, instead of horses and cows, you know. Shouldn't you like to know about them, Luke?
To which Luke responds that he "can't do wi' knowin' so many things besides my work" as that's what "brings folks to the gallows."

Now, I have to hand it to Maggie. For a youth who has spent her short life in the provincial St. Ogg's, she really knows her onions. She understands the basic reasons why people might venture to other places: to see and get to know their fellow-creatures.

Plus can I hear Eliot gently mocking us by insinuating that we sometimes conflate our fellow humans with strange animals? ...

Hang on a second, a kid is tugging on my arm. Goodness, it's the insatiably curious Maggie. She says she has a question for me:
Why an elephant, ML? Why not a kangaroo or a civet-cat, which are also featured in Animated Nature?

I'm not used to interacting with fictional characters, but what the heck, makes a change from talking to myself:
Maggie, you have a point.

Like the elephant, the civet is native to Africa and Asia, two continents that remain inscrutable to many of us Westerners.

And the first Europeans who saw kangaroos did not know what to make of a creature that has a head like a deer but without the antlers, and that stands on two legs like a human but hops around like frog. They could come up with only one word for it: "astonishing."

Wait, there's another voice cutting in. No way: it's GEORGE!!! She's saying she has a question for me, too:
As you know from making it halfway through The Mill on the Floss, Maggie has a strange and twisted relationship with her doll. Could it be that you, too, have an elephant toy or figurine to which you have a preternatural attachment? Perhaps you keep it hidden in your attic ...

ML's elephant collection
Ahem, George, I haven't got an attic, but I suppose you might mean metaphorically?

I don't mind telling you that I've collected a number of elephant objects, but only since the launch of this Web log last year. I find one or two of them colorful or cute, but that hardly qualifies as an elephant fixation.

Besides, I've met people who are far more elephant besotted than I am: VĂ©ronique Martin-Place or Beth Lang, for instance.

And then there's Ona Filloy, a New Zealander who lives in a Victorian house in Brisbane. She and I have exchanged several messages about her elephant curios: a magnificent ebony-and-ivory elephant head and lamp ...

Oh, wait. George is looking impatient. She wants to ask another question:
Then why, perchance, did you settle upon the elephant as your mascot for experiencing life in other parts of the world?

Hmmm... For such a formidable intellect, I find her a bit nosy (hahaha). Still, let's see if I can impress her:
George, I thought you'd never ask!

I could give lots of reasons, but here are three you should find compelling:

1) By reviving the expression "seeing the elephant," I'm hoping to put the trials and tribulations of the modern-day traveler in perspective.

You see, today we have the luxury of traveling in vehicles that fly even faster than birds. But even though this makes life so much easier, we are constantly grumbling about it.

We forget that our counterparts in your century, who came up with the expression "seeing the elephant," had it so much worse.

I'll give you two quick examples:

1. Emigrants who set out for California. Perhaps there are some 21st-century adventurers who would prefer to dine with the Donner party than have Christmas dinner in an airport because of flight delays, but I haven't encountered them yet. The Donner party is, of course, just one among many who trekked some 2,000 miles across continent in the mid-1800s in hopes of seeing the elephant. But they are distinguished for their botched attempt at taking a "shortcut" to California, only to get trapped in the frozen wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. (No, you don't want to know what they ate!)

Print of an original painting: "Antietam,"
by Thure de Thulstrup, courtesy The Old Print Shop
2. Young men who fought in the U.S. Civil War. The expression "seeing the elephant" has a secondary meaning of seeing battle for the first time. If today's soldiers could time-travel onto the battlefield of Antietam, the scene of the most brutal hand-to-hand combat in U.S. history, don't you think they'd appreciate their unmanned aerial vehicles even more?

2) The elephant, with its massive size and theatricality, is the perfect symbol for why most of us travel.

As Maggie intimates when she offers Luke her picture books, most of us go abroad because we yearn to see great sights and to be entertained.

As the largest land animal, the elephant is symbolic of that yearning.
It represents the kind of fear-laced excitement most of us will never experience unless we seek it out, which, for most of us unimaginative types, entails venturing to points unknown.

Today we no longer approve of training elephants for circuses. But the same qualities that made the elephant such a successful performer for Astley's Royal Amphitheatre in Lambeth — intelligence, personality, and a certain quirkiness — are also on display in the wild.

Audrey Delsink, who has observed many an African elephant, has a favorite story she likes to tell about a proud elephant bull. She and several others were sitting in a land rover [a kind of horseless carriage] watching as Charles (that's what they called him) tried, but failed, to push over a large tree. Charles looked up, saw them laughing at him, and walked over and pushed a smaller tree right down on top of their car! Delsink claims he then sauntered off with a toss of his head and a self-satisfied swagger.

Notably, the only other animal on Maggie's list that can hold a candle to the elephant in these respects is the ocean sunfish, which with an average adult weight of 2,200 pounds, is the world's largest known bony fish.

But as I think as you can see from watching this little movie (yes, we now have moving pictures!), its antics are less than enthralling:

3) The elephant is super trendy nowadays.

George, welcome to the era where actors, actresses, musicians, sportspeople and other popular entertainers are the new Greek gods. We call them celebrities ("celebs" for short).

Right now among the celebs, elephants are all the rage. Here are some recent examples:

1. Elephants keep turning up at celebrity nuptials. At the end of last year, a celebrity couple included an elephant with an elaborate headdress in their wedding celebration in Los Angeles (the closest thing we have to a Mt. Olympus, which isn't very close since it's terribly flat).

Said couple weren't the first — another pair tied the knot with elephants and camels a few months before them; nor will they be the last.

A celebrity super couple — think of them as our Aphrodite and Ares — are rumored to be planning a Hindu-style wedding to take place this year in Jodhpur, India. Will the groom ride in on an elephant? Ladbrokes in London is offering 10-1 odds.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
2. An elephant is reputed to have bonded very closely with a celebrity heart-throb. A young deity with the face and reputation of Eros says he accepted the lead role in a movie called Water for Elephants because he fell head over heels with his co-star: a 9,000-lb. elephant named Tai.

George, I know you are thinking: so what? There's no reason we mortals should feel compelled to mimic these gods and their frivolities. (This blog even has its own label for that: Dumbo Culture.)

But George, hear me out. You Victorians took for granted your ivory cutlery handles, musical instruments, billiard balls, and other items. Little did you know the toll it was taking on the elephant population. Allow me to share a chilling statistic: in 1831, ivory consumption in Great Britain amounted to the deaths of nearly 4,000 elephants.

George, the sad truth is that as a result of the fashion for ivory, the elephant population is now at risk.

But several celebs are doing their best to change that. One or two of them have recently adopted elephants in support of their conservation.

But I digress. My real reason for applauding the celebs and their predilection for the pachyderm is a matter of self-preservation: I'm hoping to get a celebrity endorsement for this blog.

On that note, and without further ado, I offer my valentine to the elephant. (Yes, George, we still celebrate Valentine's Day, despite dropping the "saint.")
So, George, what do you think of my reasoning? ... Yoo-hoo, George, ayt? ... George, please come back! Was it something I said: about the ivory, about your proboscis? I promise to get cracking on Middlemarch to atone ...

Question: So now it's your turn! Do you think the mascot for expats, rex-pats, and repats should be:
a) an elephant
b) another creature ____________
c) a range of creatures, as in Maggie's book.
Extra credit: Name the bird in Maggie's book that "sits on its tail."


Culturally Discombobulated said...

I often feel that a cuckoo would be an appropriate symbol for me.

Oh, and start with Middlemarch now. Seriously. No Internet until you've finished it.

ML Awanohara said...

Clueless, you had me laughing out loud to the point of rolling on the floor with that comment. You realize that if I forgo the Internet for Middlemarch, you won't be hearing from me until June? Surely, that's not what you intended ?!?!

p.s. So you don't know what that bird is either? I was betting on you, 10-1 odds.

Jeffrey said...

'Name the bird in Maggie's book that "sits on its tail."'

Depending on which night of the week, it could be Mable, Blanche, Wanda, . . . Okay. That was weak. (See Joni Mitchell's "Raised on Robbery.")

You a better woman than I (well of course)! I was a literature major and required to read Middlemarch for one of my 19th Century Brit lit classes. I'm pretty sure I still have my paperback copy with a page dog-eared about 1/3 of the way through as that's all I could muster, which completely confounds an explanation of how I've devoured Brideshead Revisited five times.

I'm sticking with the elephant as it appeals to my sense of archaism.

Patrick said...

You should have become an English Lit prof. I had that role briefly and it was not "me." ... As much as I enjoy a good read, never got into the devices, or authors, or character development.... You on the other hand are a natural.

BTW, Luke has a point in thinking of the matter at hand, namely providing for his family in the real world. Worthy of emulation? Maybe not. Worthy of respect? Surely.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks for taking a stab at the riddle of the bird. Here's another one: Why are young women called birds? Because men are called bees! Hahaha.

What put you off finishing Middlemarch, do you remember? Was it all that expository prose, or just the sheer weight of the book, making it hard to carry around or prop up when reading in bed?

I know what you mean about the elephant being archaic, but for me it offers the advantage of harking back to an earlier time while also being au courant (it's become the height of trendiness among young celebs). Very few if any other animals have been such a consistent source of fascination--which for me is what makes it such an apt symbol for the impulse that leads some of us to use whatever means it takes to reach far-flung corners of the globe. We have this craving to be amazed...

ML Awanohara said...

I'm afraid that comment of yours reveals how Japanized you became during your long stay in Tokyo. "I provide, therefore I love you" is what earns Japanese men the lowest ratings on the romance scale.

Speaking of which, Japanese women are bankrupting themselves this Valentine's Day--not for love but for their bosses, for whom as you know they're obliged to buy giri choco.

Kate said...

So glad you found George! I studied Mill on the Floss for A Level, and loved it, loved it, loved it, even with all the literary nit-picking and character autopsies that are deemed necessary. I've since read Middlemarch and Adam Bede (of my own free will, that is) and Silas Marner and Daniel Deronda are lined up on my Kindle as I type.

Much as I adore Jane Austen, it's high time for another woman novelist to come to the fore, if only to stop the what-happened-next-to-Darcy-and-Elizabeth novels -- with or without vampire additions.

ML Awanohara said...

Yes, isn't Kindle a marvel for people who love reading classics?

Funny you mentioned vampires. I almost wrote a line informing George about the recent craze for characters based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is how Robert Pattinson (aka the Elephant Lover, as illustrated above) made his name...

At least I think Bram Stoker's book has been more influential than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? I love Victorian literature but have never formally studied it, one of many regrets...

p.s. Thanks for not calling me "fluff" because I haven't read Middlemarch yet.
p.p.s. So I guess you don't know that bird's name either? I'm truly mystified...

Kym Hamer said...

Could an appropriate mascot for the expat by the Australian Lyrebird? It can mimic anything and therefore is clever at blending in to new environments...

And the only bird I can think of that might sit on it's tail is a peacock but having never read Mill On The Floss, I have to admit this is a wild guess..

Kym Hamer said...

oops and apologies for the rogue apostrophe in it's...

ML Awanohara said...

That's brilliant. I've just been listening to some lyrebirds on YouTube, and what a phenomenal talent it has! I wonder if it's too late to change this blog title to "Seen the Lyrebird"? Or should it be "Heard the Lyrebird"? Or perhaps both, since the bird can boast some very striking plumage?

It's interesting that of the two alternative suggestions made for expat mascots, both are birds. Is this because we so closely associate long-distance travel with flight?

ML Awanohara said...

@Kym, cont'd.
Brilliant guess about the peacock. I just now discovered that there's an old (Arabic) proverb: "A peacock who sits on his tail is just another turkey." (Meaning: If you remain sitting on your bum, you're not going to get to the top. You need to spread your feathers and show people what you've got...)

But does the peacock actually sit on its tail? I'm done some investigation and it seems it does have a "bend" in its tail, which means it can't sit on flat surfaces. Does that give the illusion of a bird sitting on its tail?

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. to the brilliant Kym:
If Maggie really knows her onions, you really know your birds!

Kym Hamer said...

Thinking of the peacock made me think of the lyrebird (or was it the otherway round??) because they both have the whole fancy schmancy tail thing going on...

This is what happens when you have hours on a train and just let your mind wander...tell me the date of your next post and I will schedule another trip to Leeds!

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