Romain Gary’s letter to an elephant
Our first ‘FOCUS ON’ is dedicated to one of our favourites, Romain Gary’s ‘Letter to an elephant’, first published in March 1968 in Figaro Littéraire. It invites us to find our inner child, to question ourselves about our hyper-materialistic societies which devour everything, animals, plants…even our own humanism.
Literary, emotional and lucid, please take the time to read the letter, it’s truly beautiful.
Dear Elephant, Sir.
You will probably wonder, reading this letter, what could have prompted a zoological specimen so deeply preoccupied with the future of his own species, to write it. The reason of course, is self-preservation. For a long time now I have had the feeling that our destinies are linked. In these perilous days of “the balance of terror,” of overkill and estimates telling how many of us could hope to survive a nuclear holocaust, it is only natural that my thoughts should turn to you. In my eyes, dear Elephant, sir, you represent to perfection everything that is threatened today with extinction in the name of progress, efficiency, ideology, materialism, or even reason, for a certain abstract, inhuman use of reason and logic are becoming more and more allies of our murderous folly. It seems clear today that we have been merely doing to other species, and to yours in the first place, what we are on the verge of doing to ourselves.
We met for the first time almost a century ago in my nursery. We shared the same bed for many years, and I never went to sleep without kissing your trunk and then holding you tightly in my arms, until the day came when my mother took you away, telling me, with a certain absence of logic, that I was a big boy now and therefore could no longer have an elephant for a pet. Psychologists will no doubt say that my “fixation” on elephants goes back to that painful moment of separation, and that my longing for your company is actually a nostalgia for my long gone innocence and childhood. And, indeed, you are precisely that in my eyes: a symbol of purity, a dream of paradise lost, a yearning for the impossible, of man and beast living peacefully together.
Years later, somewhere in Sudan, we met again. I was returning from a bombing mission over Ethiopia, and brought down my damaged plane south of Khartoum, on the western bank of the Nile. I walked for three days to reach water and to have the most satisfying drink of my life, thus, as it turned out later, contracting typhoid and almost dying. You appeared before me among some meager acacia trees, and at first I thought I was a victim of hallucination. For you were red, dark red, from trunk to tail, and the sight of a red elephant sitting on his rear end and purring made my hair stand on end. Yes, you were purring. I have learned since then that this deep rumbling is a sign of satisfaction, and I suppose the bark of the tree you were eating was particularly delicious. It took me some time to realize that you were red from wallowing in the mud and that meant the proximity of water. I edged forward, and you became aware of my presence. You perked up your ears, and your head seemed to triple in size, while your whole mountain of a body disappeared behind those suddenly hoisted sails. You were no more than 60 or 70 yards from me and I could not only see your eyes but feel them, as if my stomach had eyes of its own. I was too weak to run. Besides, my exhaustion, fever and thirst were greater than my fear. I therefore did the only thing that I could do under the circumstances: I gave up. I have given up quite a few times, during the war, closing my eyes and waiting for death, and each time I have been given a medal for bravery.
When I opened my eyes again, you were asleep. I suppose you had not seen me or had taken one look at me and became overcome with boredom. Anyway, you were standing there, your trunk limp, yours ears collapsed, your eyes closed, and I remember that tears came to my eyes. I was seized by an almost irresistible urge to come close to you, to press your trunk against me, to huddle against your hide, and there, fully protected, to sleep peacefully forever. The strangest feeling came over me: I knew it was my mother who had sent you. She had relented at last and had given you back to me.
I took a step in your direction then another. … For a man as utterly tired as I was, there was something strangely reassuring about your huge, rocklike sight. I knew that if I cold touch you, caress you, lean against you, you would give me some of your life force. It was one of those moments when a man needs so much energy and so much strength to overcome and to prevail that he thinks of God. I have never been able to raise my eyes that high, and so I stop at elephants.
I was quite close to you when I stumbled and fell. And then it happened. The earth shook under me and the most terrifying sound of a thousand donkeys braying at once with a lion’s voice turned my heart into a captive grasshopper. As a matter of fact, I screamed too, and my yell had all the frightening strength of a two-month-old baby. The next thing I knew I was running like a champion rabbit across the clearing, yelling at the tops of my lung, and it seemed that some of your strength had indeed been transmitted to me, for never has a half-dead man come to life quicker and run faster. As a matter of fact, we both were running, although in opposite directions. You were trumpeting away and I was shrieking away with the voice of blind fear, and as I needed all my energy and could not waste any of it on controlling all of my muscles … but the least said about that the better. Besides, one has to pay something for one’s bravery. After all, I had scared an elephant.
We never met again, and yet in our thwarted, restricted, controlled, indexed and repressed existence, the echo of your irrepressible thundering march through the open spaces of Africa keeps reaching me, awakening a confused longing. It sounds triumphantly like the end of acceptance and servitude, an echo of limitless freedom that has haunted our soul since the beginning of time.
I hope you won’t consider me discourteous if I tell you that your size, strength and craving for unrestricted existence make you quite obviously anachronistic. You’re therefore considered as incompatible with modern times, and for all of us who are sick and tired of our polluted cities and even more polluted minds, your colossal presence and the fact of your survival against all odds, acts as a God-sent reassurance. Everything is not yet lost, the last hope of freedom has not yet vanished completely from this earth and, who knows, if we stop destroying elephants and save them from extinction, we may yet succeed in protecting our own species from our destructive enterprises as well.
If Man shows himself capable of respect for life in its hugest and most cumbersome form – now, now, don’t flip your ears and raise your trunk angrily, no insult intended – then a chance remains that China is not pointing the way to our future, and that other cumbersome, clumsy prehistoric monster, individual man, will somehow manage to survive.
Years ago, I met a Frenchman who had devoted himself body and soul to the defence of the African elephant. Somewhere within the rolling green sea of what was known as Tchad territory, under the stars that always seem to shine brighter when a man’s voice manages to rise higher than his solitude, he told me:
“Dogs are not enough. People never felt more lost, more lonely in this man-made world. They need company, a stronger, bigger company than ever. Something that can really stand up to it all. Dogs aren’t enough, what we need is elephants.”
And who knows? We may even need a companion infinitely bigger and more powerful than that.
I can almost see an ironic twinkle in your eyes as you read my letter. And no doubt you prick your ears, deeply mistrustful of every human sound. Have they ever told you that your ear has almost exactly the shape of the African continent? Your gray, rocklike mass has the very color and texture of Mother Earth herself. There is something incongruous and almost girlish about your eyelashes, and your rump is that of a monstrous puppy.
For thousand years you have been hunted for meat and ivory, but it is civilized man who has invented killing you for pleasure and trophy. Everything that is frightened, frustrated, weak and insecure in us seems to find a sick comfort in killing the most powerful of all earth’s creatures. This wanton act brings the kind of “virile” reassurance that casts a strange light on the nature of our virility.
There are those, of course, who say you are useless, that you destroy crops in a land where starvation is rampant, that mankind has enough problems taking care of itself, without being expected to burden itself with elephants, They are saying, in fact, that you are luxury, that we can no longer afford you. Thus is exactly the kind of argument every totalitarian regime from Stalin and Hitler to Mao uses to prove that a truly “progressive” society cannot be expected to afford the luxury of individual freedom. Human rights are elephants, too. The right of dissent, of independent thinking, the right to oppose and to challenge authority can very easily be throttled and repressed in the name of »necessity.«
In a German prison camp, during the last world war, you played, Elephant, sir, a lifesaving role. Locked behind the barbed wires we would think of the elephant herds thundering across the endless plains of Africa, and the image of such an irresistible liberty helped us to survive. If the world can no longer afford the luxury of natural beauty, then it will soon be overcome and destroyed by its own ugliness. I myself feel deeply that the fate of Man, and his dignity, are at stake whenever the earth’s natural splendors are threatened with extinction.
The task of remaining human seems at times almost overwhelming. And yet it is essential that we should shoulder on our backbreaking walk toward the unknown a supplementary burden: the burden of elephants. There is no doubt that in the name of total rationalism you should be destroyed, leaving all the room to us on this overpopulated planet. Neither can there be any doubt that your disappearance will mean the beginning of an entirely man-made world. But let me tell you this, old friend: in an entirely man-made world, there can be no room for man either. All that will be left of us are robots. We are not and could never be our own creation. We are forever condemned to be part of a mystery that neither logic nor imagination can fathom, and your presence among us carries a resonance that cannot be accounted for in terms of science or reason, but only in terms of awe, wonder and reverence. You are our last innocence.
I know only too well that by taking your side – or is it merely my own? – I shall no doubt be labeled a conservative, or even a reactionary, a “monster” belonging to another and, it seems, prehistorical era: that of liberalism. I willingly accept the label, in a time when the new spiritual guide of French “progressive” youth, the philosopher Michel Foucault, has announced that not merely God but Man himself, the Humanist’s Man, is dead and done with forever.
And so, dear Elephant, sir, we are finding ourselves, you and I, in the same boat, pushed by the same powerful wind of total rationalism toward oblivion. In a truly materialistic and realistic society, poets, writers, artists, dreamers and elephants are a mere nuisance.
I remember an old chant sung by the boatsmen of the Chari River in Central Africa:
We shall kill the great elephant. We shall eat the great elephant We shall enter into his belly Eat his heart and liver . . .
Doesn’t it sound strangely like a song of the “red guards” of Mao Tse-Tung’s “cultural revolution”? They announce almost daily their intention of destroying the Western culture, that old “decadent” elephant and all of its Beethovens, Mozarts, Spinozas and Cezannes to mention only a few of the unspeakable “monsters”. In an interview with André Malraux quoted by the latter in his Anti-Memoires, Nehru told the great writer that if he ever went to Peking again, he would take an elephant with him, as a gift to Mao, for elephants are something China has never known and is now missing sadly. And it is true that your absence is conspicuous and ominous in the new Red totalitarian nightmare. You are, dear Elephant sir, the last individual.
Your very devoted friend,
Romain Gary – Le figaro Littéraire, Mars 1968.