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|
...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)
...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? ...
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."
|ML's elephant collection|
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: Véronique 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 ...
I could give lots of reasons, but here are three you should find compelling:
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
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:
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|
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.")
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."