The language of the animals

Among the old folktales of Italy is the story of how at one time they used to choose the pope. As the taletellers had it, in the days following a pope’s death St. Peter’s Square would overflow with people, and they’d fling a white dove into the air. Whoever the dove alighted on would be pope thenceforward. Even the poorest person on earth, man or woman, it was the dove that chose the new pope. And so the process of choosing was not as complex as it is nowadays. I love the old story of the little boy who knew the language of the birds, you hear the tale here and there all over. Sometimes he knows not only the birds’ language but those of all the animals, the dog’s, the tripi-trapu’s, the wild boar’s, and he talks with all of them. The tale, more or less, the tale goes like this: One morning, just back from the woods, the little boy will tell his father what the birds have said: Tomorrow, or the next day, the father will kneel before his son. The father will rebuke the boy: he’s been wasting his time, listening to birdsong when he should have been working, the father will say, and least of all will he accept the brazen arrogance whereby he is to prostrate himself at his son’s feet. And he’ll throw the boy out of the house in a fury. With neither money nor home, the boy will have to start over from scratch. And in that very way, slowly but surely, listening to the birds, the boy will finally become pope, to his father’s remorse. You don’t see the world from the kitchen of your house.

Anus Mundi

March 11, 2004

In 1941, the Germans proposed renaming Poland “Anus mundi,” the asshole of the world. At that same time, the Polish writer Milosz was writing calm, serene poems, without putting on paper any of the destruction taking place in his country. And when he was asked the reason for that choice—when they took him to task over whether he wasn’t perhaps fleeing responsibility, wasn’t even perhaps looking the other way—he responded that he’d made the choice he had because he was unable to bear the reality, because it was impossible for him to put what had come to pass in Poland into a lyric. For him, words are always on the side of life, never on the side of death. Words resemble a body that even nearing death wants to stay alive; they cling to breath, until the very last moment. In Milosz’s view, the calm, serene words that are spoken in bad times publicly declare on the side of life, and help a person set his house in order, even if the order resembles that of a child’s room.

We need calm, serene words around here. Calm, serene words to solve our problems. Calm, serene words at a remove from the heated expoundings and surface readings, at a remove from vengeance. Calm, serene words to get to the bottom of the problems, and calm, serene words so that we as people will not be used. The Nazis called Poland Anus mundi, the asshole of the world. We need calm, serene words so our entire world may not itself become the asshole of creation.