To Draw Old Monuments From the Entrails of the Earth
In civil history, we consult titles, we research medals, we decipher ancient inscriptions in order to determine the time of human revolutions and to fix the dates of events in the moral order. Similarly, in our history—that is, in your history—it is necessary to excavate the archives of the world. To draw old monuments from the entrails of the earth. To collect your debris. To reassemble into your body all the indices of change. This is the only way to fix points in the immensity of space, and to place a certain number of milestones on the eternal route of time.
And so. You are an American mammal.
You have a personal formula for a life of continual enjoyment and action. You say: it is sweeter to vegetate than to live, to want nothing rather than satisfy one's appetite, to sleep a listless sleep rather than open one's eyes to see and to sense.
You say: let me consent to leave my soul in numbness, my mind in darkness, never to use either the one or the other, to put myself below the animals, and finally to be only a mass of brute matter attached to the earth.
You have read somewhere that American mammals must be smaller than their Old World counterparts (rhino, giraffe, and tiger larger than tapir, llama, and jaguar, for example) because the heat is in general much less in this part of the world, and the humidity much greater. You are not chagrined at this charge of lesser stature. You accept the sloth—your sloth—in name and size and shape and description. You call it Megalonyx jeffersoni.
Whereas nature appears to us live, vibrant, and enthusiastic in producing monkeys, so is she slow, constrained, and restricted in sloths. And we must speak more of wretchedness than laziness; more of default, deprivation, and defect in their constitution. No incisor or canine teeth, small and covered eyes, a thick and heavy jaw. Flattened hair that looks like dried grass. Legs too short, badly turned, and badly terminated; no separately movable digits, but two or three excessively long nails.
Slowness, stupidity, neglect of your body, and even habitual sadness result from this bizarre and neglected conformation. No weapons for attack or defense; no means of security; no resource of safety in escape; confined, not to a country, but to a tiny mote of earth. The tree under which you were born. A prisoner in the middle of great space.
Everything about you announces your misery. You are an imperfect production, and scarcely having the ability to exist at all, you can only persist for a while, and shall then be effaced from the list of beings. You are the lowest term of existence in the order of animals with flesh and blood. One more defect would have made your existence impossible. Then let us say that it is sweeter to vegetate than to live, to want nothing rather than satisfy one's appetite, to sleep a listless sleep rather than open one's eyes to see and to sense. Let us consent to leave our soul in numbness, our mind in darkness, never to use either the one or the other, to put ourselves below the animals, and finally to be only masses of brute matter attached to the earth.
Somewhere in Argentina, 2010, you fall in a pit between two rows of corn (or if you like, in Holland between rows of tulips, 1971). First you fall backward stiffly, as you imagine one must when shot from the front. Looking before you at the sky, curtained on the sides by yellowing stalks that are dry from lack of rain, you think to yourself that it is too neat: one does not fall parallel, one must crumple or be thrown across impediments of various kinds.
You stand up. You try again, this time letting your torso be twisted by the impact of the bullet. (You imagine your father shot through a lung or in the heart; your cannot bear the thought of a bullet to the head.) You land among the corn on your forearms which serve to shield your face. Better, you think, but lacking in abandon.
You try a third and fourth time; many times, buckling at the knees or locking them, eyes closed or open, and exhaling with iterations of yelps and cries that bear the phonic mark of words.
Na!, you say.
You wonder who dragged the body to its grave—a commander? a grunt? thirty years ago? thirty-one?—but then realize the grave must come first, and the death topple into it: no one would have pulled at the dead man. Murder and disappearance must be one act combined. You set to digging.
Some hours later you resume the practice of falling, tending to land hard on your seat before the impact of elbow, scapula and head. The jolts shudder your tailbone and make your eyes water. You blow liquid and dirt from your nose, wipe the stuff on a rock on the wall of the trench, and from there look upward at the sky, now bounded on all four sides: a cinemascope of clouds.
But who will fill this grave, you think suddenly; who will heft dirt and shovel a hundred times, then tamp the edges?
The sea!, you remember.
The sea fills itself.
* This monologue takes liberally from Epochs of Nature by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. It is meant to be prerecorded by an actor and then amplified in the space of its installation, or played on individual headsets for audience members. It was first installed in the Great Hall of Mammals at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 2011.