African elephants in literature — lessons in exploitation and compassion



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Dan Wylie, Rhodes University

About 15 years ago I was in a Minneapolis conference centre, about to deliver a paper on elephants in Southern African fiction, when I encountered a curious local in an elevator. When I told her that one of my subjects was Wilbur Smith’s thriller, Elephant Song, she enthused,

Oh, I just loved that book; I contribute every year now to the Hohenwald Elephant Sanctuary.

I didn’t tell her that my paper critiqued the novel for being exploitative, and grossly sensationalist. Despite its title, the book is only tangentially interested in elephants – at least in comparison with Dalene Matthee’s famous Circles in a Forest, perhaps South Africa’s most eco-sensitive novel ever.

There’s no telling what people will get out of their reading. Even in our era of super-saturating graphics and television, photography and film, literature still has a considerable effect on public perceptions of environmental issues. Until very recently, of course, reading was the primary mode of information transfer. Many attitudes towards, say, elephants were established through literature, and persist in other media today.

This is the purview of my new book, Death and Compassion: The elephant in Southern African Literature. The book takes the region south of the Zambezi as its stamping-ground. It explores how various genres of literature reflect attitudes towards elephants. It takes literature in a broad sense, probing beyond the standard fiction and poetry into non-fiction forms such as hunting accounts and game-ranger memoirs.

Each chapter asks questions crucial to our understanding of our place in the natural world. It does so conscious that this understanding is the great problem of our times, superseding and enveloping all more localised and political squabbles. What is the relationship between science and compassion? Why do men hunt? How do we educate the young about animals, the environment and us? What sense of “community” might include wild and even dangerous animals?

Conflicting emotions

Elephants raise the conflicting emotions involved in humanity’s ongoing struggle to balance exploitation and well-being, damage and compassion to a particularly intense pitch.

Can we look to indigenous cultures for guidance, as conveyed by rock art, folktales and proverbs? The rock art is relatively opaque, while oral productions are now so refracted through translation into modern literary media that it’s hard to be sure what the originals’ attitudes towards elephants might have been. Reverence, awe, and taboo are evident enough, but it seems that animal compassion is an invention of modernity.

Compassion, at least as it emerges in this literature, seems to develop in response to destruction. It strengthens belatedly but proportionately to the catastrophic decimation of wildlife under invading white firepower, and the consequent sense of loss. I found the chapters on the 18th Century travel accounts (from Pieter Kolbe through François Le Vaillant to John Barrow), and the later nineteenth-century hunting accounts (from Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming to Frederick Courteney Selous) the hardest to write.

The unremitting slaughter related by these adventurers is stomach-turning to say the least. Not that the hunters were oblivious to an ethical issue: without exception they engage at some level with already-nascent arguments for compassion.

Without exception they find literary methods to evade or suppress any emotions which impede the drive to kill. The genre is distinguished by its evasive manoeuvres designed to avoid thinking about it at all.

The adult fictions, from H. Rider Haggard to Wilbur Smith, are little better, being largely gratuitously gory adventure-tales which come to centre repetitively on a duel-like situation: single hunter versus great old tusker. It seldom ends well for the elephant.

Still, a shift becomes discernible in mid twentieth-century novels. “Conservation” is gaining traction, so the novel, just as it had migrated out of the hunting account, now drifts into some commonalities with the modern game-ranger memoir. The ranger becomes the hero, saving the tusker from poachers.

Of course, shadowing all this is the ivory trade. It had existed for centuries, drove most of the early slaughter and drives the renewed slaughter today. In some estimates, an African elephant is being killed every 15 minutes.

Ironically, because of the colonial-era establishment of game reserves like Kruger, southern Africa’s elephants so flourished that that other side of slaughter – the organised “cull” – for a time became the management tool of choice. The ethics of culling preoccupy both late novels and memoirs by rangers, scientists and managers (such as Caitlin McConnell and Lawrence Anthony).

Perception of elephants

In most recent works, the relatively new perception of elephants not just as mobile repositories of ivory but as emotionally sensitive, uniquely communicative and socially complex – almost human, even a model for humans – achieves unprecedented prominence.

This is especially so in fiction for children, in which compassion and empathy seem more acceptable, as if they are merely childish motivations for action in the world. A disastrous stance.

Poachers and ivory traders are unlikely to be persuaded by literature. Nevertheless, understanding stories – those of the murderous as well as of the compassionate – is vital to generating the critical mass necessary to save natural environments and their multiple denizens, from elephants to herons, from octopi to ants – and ourselves – from the myopia of Mammon.

Compassion alone, unanchored by economic and legislative power, is unlikely to reverse the tide of environmental destruction, but without cross-species compassion, we are surely lost.

Death & Compassion: The elephant in Southern African Literature is published by Wits University PressThe Conversation

Dan Wylie, Professor of English, Rhodes University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lessons on Scholarly Reading


The link below is to an article that takes a look at some lessons on scholarly reading.

For more visit:
https://www.chronicle.com/article/Lessons-on-the-Craft-of/244134

How the moral lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird endure today


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Gregory Peck and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Universal Pictures/IMDB

Anne Maxwell, University of Melbourne

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.


Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the classics of American literature. Never out of print, the novel has sold over 40 million copies since it was first published in 1960. It has been a staple of high school syllabuses, including in Australia, for several decades, and is often deemed the archetypal race and coming-of-age novel. For many of us, it is a formative read of our youth.




Read more:
‘Great books’, nationhood and teaching English literature


The story is set in the sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb in 1936 – 40 years after the Supreme Court’s notorious declaration of the races as being “separate but equal”, and 28 years before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. Our narrator is nine-year-old tomboy, Scout Finch, who relays her observations of her family’s struggle to deal with the class and racial prejudice shown towards the local African American community.

At the centre of the family and the novel stands the highly principled lawyer Atticus Finch. A widower, he teaches Scout, her older brother Jem, and their imaginative friend Dill, how to live and behave honourably. In this he is aided by the family’s hardworking and sensible black housekeeper Calpurnia, and their kind and generous neighbour, Miss Maudie.

It is Miss Maudie, for example, who explains to Scout why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Throughout the novel, the children grow more aware of the community’s attitudes. When the book begins they are preoccupied with catching sight of the mysterious and much feared Boo Radley, who in his youth stabbed his father with a pair of scissors and who has never come out of the family house since. And when Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman, they too become the target of hatred.

A morality tale for modern America

One might expect a book that dispatches moral lessons to be dull reading. But To Kill a Mockingbird is no sermon. The lessons are presented in a seemingly effortless style, all the while tackling the complexity of race issues with startling clarity and a strong sense of reality.




Read more:
William Faulkner diagnosed modern ills in As I Lay Dying


As the Finches return from Robinson’s trial, Miss Maudie says: “as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that.”

Despite the tragedy of Robinson’s conviction, Atticus succeeds in making the townspeople consider and struggle with their prejudice.

Atticus Finch delivers his closing statement in the trial of Tom Robinson in the 1962 film.

The effortlessness of the writing owes much to the way the story is told. The narrator is a grown Scout, looking back on her childhood. When she begins her story, she seems more interested in telling us about the people and incidents that occupied her six-year-old imagination. Only slowly does she come to the events that changed everything for her and Jem, which were set in motion long before their time. Even then, she tells these events in a way that shows she too young to always grasp their significance.

The lessons Lee sets out are encapsulated in episodes that are as funny as they are serious, much like Aesop’s Fables. A case in point is when the children return home from the school concert with Scout still dressed in her outlandish ham costume. In the dark they are chased and attacked by Bob Ewell the father of the woman whom Robinson allegedly raped. Ewell, armed with a knife, attempts to stab Scout, but the shapeless wire cage of the ham causes her to loose balance and the knife to go astray. In the struggle that ensues someone pulls Ewell off the teetering body of Scout and he falls on the knife. It was Boo Radley who saved her.

Another lesson about what it means to be truly brave is delivered in an enthralling episode where a local farmer’s dog suddenly becomes rabid and threatens to infect all the townsfolk with his deadly drool.

Scout and Jem are surprised when their bespectacled, bookish father turns out to have a “God-given talent” with a rifle; it is he who fires the single shot that will render the townsfolk safe. The children rejoice at what they consider an impressive display of courage. However, he tells them that what he did was not truly brave. The better example of courage, he tells them, is Mrs Dubose (the “mean” old lady who lived down the road), who managed to cure herself of a morphine addiction even as she was dying a horribly painful death from cancer.

He also teaches them the importance of behaving in a civilised manner, even when subjected to insults. Most of all Atticus teaches the children the importance of listening to one’s conscience even when everyone else holds a contrary view: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule”, he says, “is a person’s conscience.”

The continuing value in Atticus’ belief in the importance of principled thinking in the world of Black Lives Matter and the Australian government’s rhetoric of “African gangs”, is clear.

Atticus’ spiel on “conscience” and the other ethical principles he insists on living by, are key to the enduring influence of the novel. It conjures an ideal of moral standards and human behaviour that many people still aspire to today, even though the novel’s events and the characters belong to the past.

Lee herself was not one to shy away from principled displays: writing to a school that banned her novel, she summed up the source of the morality her book expounds. The novel, she said, “spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct”.

Fame and obscurity

When first published the novel received rave reviews. A year later it won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, followed by a movie version in 1962 starring Gregory Peck. Indeed, the novel was such a success that Lee, unable to cope with all the attention and publicity, retired into obscurity.

Interviewed late in life, Lee cited two reasons for her continued silence: “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”

The latter statement is doubtless a reference to the autobiographical nature of her book. Lee passed her childhood in the rural town of Monroeville in the deep south, where her attorney father defended two black men accused of killing a shopkeeper. The accused were convicted and hanged.

Undoubtedly influenced by these formative events, the biographical fiction Lee drew out of her family history became yet more complex upon the publication of her only other novel, Go Set a Watchman, in 2016. Critics panned it it for lacking the light touch and humour of the first novel. They also decried the fact that the character of Atticus Finch was this time around a racist bigot, a feature that had the potential to taint the author’s legacy.




Read more:
Review/ Has Go Set a Watchman helped topple the notion of the white saviour?


Subsequent biographical research revealed that Go Set A Watchman, was not a sequel, but the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Following initial rejection by the publisher Lippincot, Lee reworked it into the superior novel many of us know and still love today.

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The Conversation

Lee gave us the portrait of one small town in the south during the depression years. But it was so filled with lively detail, and unforgettable characters with unforgettable names like Atticus, Scout, Calpurnia and Boo Radley that a universal story emerged, and with it the novel’s continuing popularity.

Anne Maxwell, Assoc. Professor, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

From My Armchair: 11 August 2012


I really didn’t think I’d get too much read this week, but as you will see from the list below I have been able to read a fair bit.

I was able to get The Hunger Games trilogy completed, which is good given the DVD of the first movie will be out in a week or so here in Australia. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so getting the books read prior to the movie was something I wanted to do.

This coming week I’d like to get a few more books read – I’ll see how I go.

 

Social Networks, Web Applications & Other Tools

Not a lot done on social networks or web applications this week. I have added a few books to Goodreads, that is about all really.

 

Currently Reading:

Currently, I am reading the following books:

Discipline of GraceDiscipline of Grace, by Jerry Bridges

I’m hoping to actually make some good progress on this book today and tomorrow. I read it once or twice before, but not in a while. Looking forward to getting into it. Jerry Bridges is usually very good to read.

 

CollapseCollapse, by Richard Stephenson

I’m just over halfway through this one, but it is a fairly long novel so it will take another day or two to complete at least.

 

Finished Reading:

This week I have been able to read the following books:

Phantoms on the BookshelvesPhantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet

I completed this book very early in the week and have written a review which can be found via the link below. Probably only really appeal to those of us who are really into books and have a library of our own. I quite enjoyed the read.

See also:
https://atthebookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/book-review-phantoms-on-the-bookshelves-by-jacques-bonnet/

 

Killing CalvinismKilling Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, by Greg Dutcher

This was a great book and one I should read on a regular basis – perhaps once a year. A very challenging book, with many lessons for the church today (thinking of reformed churches).

See also:
https://atthebookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/book-review-killing-calvinism-how-to-destroy-a-perfectly-good-theology-from-the-inside-by-greg-dutcher/

 

Catching FireCatching Fire: The Hunger Games Books 2, by Suzanne Collins

I haven’t as of yet wrote a review on this one – will do soon hopefully.

 

MockingjayMockingjay: The Hunger Games Book 3, by Suzanne Collins

I haven’t as of yet wrote a review on this one – will do so soon hopefully.

 

Purchased & Added to Library:

I again grabbed a heap of free ebooks from Amazon. These are all of the books I’ve posted on my Blog ‘The Book Stand,’ so all posted there I also downloaded for myself. I’ll certainly have more books than I can ever read that’s for sure, but certainly never wanting for choice. No harm in grabbing them while there free and in digital format – if I don’t read them all, what does it matter? At least I’ll have them if I want to read them.

Among the books I actually purchased this week:

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games – Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
In Christ Alone – Living the Gospel Centered Life, by Sinclair Ferguson
Set Apart – Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, by Kent R. Hughes

 

Book Review: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson


Treasure Island was the first major novel of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was first published in 1883 and has remained a much-loved book. First penned as a story for boys, it was as a young boy that I first came across Treasure Island. It was the first real book that I ever read – certainly of my own choice. If I remember correctly, the copy I had was a small book, not much bigger than my hand and illustrated throughout. The illustrations weren’t coloured as such, but I think I may have started to ‘colour them in’ as I read the story several times. The name of the ship, ‘Hispaniola,’ came back to me in one of my first compositions at school. In that early attempt at writing I wrote a story about piracy and a ship called the Hispaniola. I believe I was written into the story, along with several of my classmates, though the original composition has long since been lost and the
plot a thing of the past.

Treasure IslandNot until the last couple of days however, did I take up the novel once again and begin to read the story of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins, and the journey to Treasure Island. It has been a long time now, since that first book I read and my taking it up again. It must be at the very least thirty years and then some by my reckoning. Remembering this book as the first I had really read, was the reasoning behind my picking it up again for another read.It is an easy read. It is not a long read. But it is an enjoyable read. If it is that then the author has achieved his goal in fiction I believe. To be sure there are many things that can be learned in reading a novel and many lessons that can be taught through a novel, but without enjoyment all else is lost. This is a short novel that can be enjoyed greatly.

I read this book by way of a Kindle, which shows that the future of Treasure Island lies assured into the digital future and beyond. I also own Treasure Island in traditional form and as part of a set of works, being the entire works of Robert Louis Stevenson. One day I hope to read more, if not all of this man’s printed contrinution to English literature and I look forward to doing so.

Treasure Island is the classic pirate story, coming fully equiped with the pirate talk which is so popular even to this day and the vivid description of a pirate adventure. The story is a great one that may well bring younger generations to read and pull them away from the Xbox and other gaming devices. It is a short read, with short chapters, which may be a useful tool in getting a young one to start reading – but it is the adventure of a life time for Jim Hawkins that will really draw them in and the promise of buried treasure.

If you have not read Treasure Island, pick up a copy and have a read. It is free in the Kindle Shop at the time of posting this review and well worth spending a couple of hours a day reading this classic – by the end of the week the story of Treasure Island will be completed and you will be the richer for having read it.

Buy this book at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Treasure-Island-ebook/dp/B0084AZXKK/