A is for Ox

Prospero’s books shared with the animal the capacity to drown. In a lecture on Samuel Beckett, J.M. Coetzee suggests a similarity between Moby Dick the white whale, and the physical object in which the whale swims: the book Moby Dick. The whale’s body is described as a white wall – a page. Coetzee says that Samuel Beckett’s characters do not have the imagination to dream up something as huge and unknown as Moby Dick – they ‘do not have harpoons’ to assail the white wall – ‘only pencils at most’.

In an essay on Coetzee and Beckett, Peter Boxall notices that Beckett’s Malone, of Malone Dies, strangely, does seem to have just such a harpoon. And he uses it to attack just such a white wall. Malone is in bed telling stories, dying busily, when he drops his exercise-book.

I took a long time to find it. It was under the bed. How are such things possible? I took a long time to recover it. I had to harpoon it. It is not pierced through and through, but it is in a bad way.

So Beckett’s book is like an animal in that it can be hunted and harpooned. But Moby Dick is like a book.

In an article on Ted Hughes, Seamus Perry thinks about how animals in Hughes’ writing are often compared to books. Hughes describes a trembling butterfly as ‘a sealed book, absorbed in itself’. The butterfly is like a closed book because we cannot read what it contains. The analogy also draws strength from the fact that butterflies and books open and close with a similar movement, along a central spine. However, a fox does not look like a printed page, and this is another of Hughes’ correspondences. Hughes’ ‘Thought Fox’, says Perry, offers a ‘tentative exploratory metaphor for fox as poem’. The fox leaves its mark at the poem’s conclusion and the page is printed.

An association between language and animals is old. Our letter A is said to come from an ancient representation of an ox’s head – look at the letter upside-down and you can still see his horns and his pointed muzzle.

Hughes talks about writing as hunting – attempting to achieve something that will only elude you. You catch something by killing it. Then you have a thing but it’s dead. This is especially true for writing about animals. A piece of writing is not a piece of inhabited flesh. Every second of an animal’s life and every cell in its body is essential to it.

A book is an organism in that its parts are dependent on the other parts and each sentence is essential to it. Books are like animals because they can’t be reduced. If a book could be said in fewer words it wouldn’t need writing. There is certainly no need to generate more books – there are already enough books in the world gathering dust. There are too many in my house alone. I wish I could get rid of almost all of them. It is possible that all these paper books will be defunct before long. But for now they are gathering dust, and especially in my house, because I have eczema, which means I create more dust than most people — and because I have eczema I also have asthma (the two conditions usually go together) and because I have asthma I am more sensitive to dust than most people. It is a vicious but rational cycle. Eczema and asthma go together in the bodily constitution. I create more dust than most; I am more sensitive to dust than most. The bookshelf is the harbour for household dust – it is better to avoid disturbing it. Dust comes home to books.

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