[Aelian’s] on the Nature of Animals

Central Question:What did we understand about animals nearly two millennia ago that we don’t today?

[Aelian’s] on the Nature of Animals

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Gregory McNamee’s translation of Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals was published in July of this year, approximately 1,800 years after we assume the book to have been written. Aelian’s stories are presented in short, species-specific chunks—“Dolphins, I understand, are mindful of their dead”—or grouped thematically: “If a lion eats lion’s-bane, it will die. If you drop oil on an insect, it will die… If you scatter roses on beetles, you will destroy them.” These high-relief profiles do not blend into kinds or kingdoms according to any normative taxonomy, but then nothing in this collection suggests that Aelian ever looked at an animal to begin with. He boasts that he never left Italy or went to sea, where he might have observed, for instance, that octopuses do not couple until they die of exhaustion and that whelks are not led by a king in vertical migration.

McNamee’s edition is designed as a gift book, sized for coffee table or bathroom; each chunk stands alone, no more than a page in length, set apart from the others by stark but friendly animal silhouettes that might have originated as clip-art. The original object, however, would have been one enormous page—which is to say a scroll. The technology of third-century Rome involved more human hands performing fewer and far less robotic tasks, zero electricity, and much less transformation of resources into stuff of finally unidentifiable provenance. For that reason the literary technologies that made reading and writing possible were closer to the natural world: Roman scrolls were made of parchment, often with fancifully decorated wooden rods and linen place-markers. Aelian wrote with a stylus on a tablet, a hinged frame composed of two sheets of soft wax—wax produced not so far away by bees, whom he reported to be industrious but also enchantingly demure, creatures who “dislike foul odors and sweet perfume alike, just as modest young girls do.” Metaphorically speaking, the text was the very surface of the earth, traced on living soil.

Aelian’s language was Greek, the pure paratactic style of Demosthenes: spare, compressed at times to epigram, a conversational sequence of apparently unplanned juxtapositions and transitions—“It occurs to me just now to say something about hounds”—that trace the play of a lively mind. Aelian’s sentences, rendered admirably by McNamee, enact the structure of the book, in which he claimed to have “tried to weave a story that is like a field of wildflowers of many colors, with each animal being a different kind of flower.” The flowers turn up as if spontaneously in various places and dilate in several directions; if there is a system, readers must imagine it.

The word for this literary technique, the wreathing together of rich and intriguing descriptions of the living world, is anthology, which comes from the Greek for “flower gathering or arranging.”The arrangement of flowers has its own numinous sense, its own logic and language, and can still represent—clip-art notwithstanding—a closeness between the human and natural, between literary writer and life without language, between the mind and a field of Roman poppies in full, fiery bloom.

Aelian has been described as a “paradoxographer,” a collector of oddities, anticipating the collectors of early modern Europe who assembled their Wunderkammer and cabinets de curiosités, archives of artifacts and ideas not yet subjected to the strict triage of libraries and museums. Indeed, his snippets range from absurdities to observations, which are on occasion scientifically curious and at times even accurate (in describing symbiosis, for example, Aelian is surprisingly on point). But his entries are also fairy tales, in the looser sense of the Grimms’, Andersen’s, or their antecedent Hindu fables. The far-fetched stories—the housewife berating the lion, the lions fetching the woodcutter—wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary tabloid, or perhaps a certain sort of flash fiction. But one suspects that when people lived closer to animals, some extraordinary things did happen, and part of Aelian’s value here is in his recounting of an oral history of a human age then fading to memory.

Classical divinity equates the natural world with divine intelligence; today that is a political stance. Contemporary culture is more likely to equate divinity with technology: aliens, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames modernity. The Hollywood cliché of heaven is one of sleek white surfaces and wings that don’t work. The absence of the animal spirit is the height of divine style; we are curiosities, smooth and shining, big-eyed and alien, emptied of the tragedy that befell our wild natures and those of all animals. Aelian’s era sought humanity in animals, but the instinct to anthropomorphize was more an act of investigation than one of vanity; the process was one of finding common ground rather than the evolutionary elevation of “lesser species.” We still seek ourselves in animals today, but we are just as inclined, if not more so, to seek nature in everyday design—bicycle lights as “frogs,” cars as “beetles.” It is as if we are no longer looking back at evolution, but looking forward, prospecting, assuming we have exceeded our animal origins and preparing for a human evolution contextualized by technology.

Finally—despite a total dearth of contemporary narrative structure—Aelian’s tales are delectable, satisfying reads because of their larger perspective, the encompassing vision of humans and animals and science and nature as part and parcel of the same character.The animals we know today are pathetic, tragic, and intrinsically political: they suffer, lose their habitats to sprawl and their dignity in oil slicks; they disappear, or they become cute. The animal of Orwell, of PETA, is a reflection of the horror—civilization—that we have visited upon ourselves and upon the natural world. That wasn’t Aelian’s view: his animals are agents, characters dense and twisty with life, in anecdotes and sentences that wreathe like coupling octopuses or face off like predator and prey, or that simply follow their best chances and so avoid the fate of the shrewmouse when it falls into a rut it can’t escape.

—John Reed, Tom La Farge, and Annie Julia Wyman

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