Unreal Nature

July 28, 2009

Shadow and Light Lie Stagnant

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

… A damp, soft warmth soaks the air like a sponge; a sharp stink, heavy, rotten, forces him to hold his breath; shadow and light lie stagnant in a motionless mixture of days and nights; are these the sensations of a man who peers out beyond the human? Beyond the glass of every cage there is the world as it was before man, or as it will be, to show that the world of man is not eternal and is not unique. Is it to realize this with his own eyes that Mr. Palomar reviews these stalls where pythons sleep, boas, bamboo rattlesnakes, the tree adder of the Bermudas?

But of the worlds from which man is excluded each case is only a tiny sample, torn from a natural continuum that might also never have existed, a few cubic meters of atmosphere that elaborate devices maintain at a certain degree of temperature and humidity. Thus every sample of this antediluvian bestiary is kept alive artificially, as if it were a hypothesis of the mind, a product of the imagination, a construction of language, a paradoxical line of reasoning meant to demonstrate that the only true world is our own . . .


As if the smell of the reptiles were only now becoming unbearable, Mr. Palomar suddenly feels a desire to go out into the open air. He has to cross the great hall of the crocodiles, where there is a line of tanks separated by barriers. In the dry part beside each tank lie the crocodiles, alone or in couples, a spent color, squat, rough, horrible, heavily stretched out, flattened against the ground the full length of their long, cruel snouts, their cold bellies, their broad tails. They all seem asleep, even those whose eyes are open, or perhaps all are sleepless in a dazed desolation, even with their eyes closed. From time to time one of them stirs slowly, barely raises himself on his short legs, crawls to the edge of the tank, lets himself drop with a flat thud, raising a wave. He floats, immersed in the water, as motionless as before. Is theirs a boundless patience, or a desperation without end? What are they waiting for, or what have they given up waiting for? In what time are they immersed? In that of the species, removed from the course of the hours that race from the birth to the death of the individual? Or in the time of geological eras, which shifts continents and solidifies the crust of emerged lands? Or in the slow cooling of the rays of the sun?

— from the chapter The Order of Squamata in the book, Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino (1983)




  1. Reptiles are rather cool: check out Scratchy, the iguana of an artist I did some web work for last year.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — July 28, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

  2. Scratchy is very handsome. It just so happens that the chapter quoted above begins thus:

    Mr. Palomar would like to know why iguanas attract him.

    … The Iguana iguana is covered with a green skin that seems woven from very tiny speckled scales. There is too much of this skin: on the neck, on the legs it forms folds, bags, flounces, like a dress that should adhere to the body and instead sags on all sides. … On the scaly green snout, the eye opens and closes, an “evolved” eye, endowed with gaze, attention, sadness, suggesting that another being is concealed inside that dragon semblance: an animal more similar to those we are at home with, a living presence less distant from us than it seems . . .

    Then there are other spiky crests under the chin; on the neck there are two round white plates like a hearing aid; a number of accessories and sundries, trimmings, and defensive garnishings, a sample case of forms available in the animal kingdom and perhaps also in other kingdoms — too much stuff for one animal to bear. What’s the uses of it? Does it serve to disguise someone watching us from in there?

    Comment by unrealnature — July 28, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  3. We’re so wired to see and interpret facial expressions that it’s easy to feel that with iguanas; their wrinkly eyes and mouth shape give an impression of a wise slight-smile.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — July 29, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

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