Jonathan. This Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa, a Seychellian giant turtle, broke out of his eggshell sometime around the year 1832, has lived on the island of St Helena since 1882, and – in spite of his double cataracts and anosmia – is healthy and has been crowned the oldest living animal on our planet.
Please note: This turtle was raised in the aftermath of the thunder of Beethoven and Napoleon. He swam in the African archipelagos while Délacroix dabbed his paintbrush, Chopin tickled the ivories and Berlioz set his opium reveries to music. He beat his flippers while freemasons baptised their moss-gold fingers in the chalice of enlightenment, ideological movements were undermined by the next, copper pots boiled, and the pitter-patter of street urchins was heard.
World wars, irreligious religion, the anamorphism of morality; Hitler, weapons of mass destruction, industrialised annihilation; Mao, Mussolini, Milošević; anarchism, fascism, chauvinism; Srebrenica, Dresden, Podgorica; postmodernism, post-colonialism; terrorism, racism, coronaviruses: quite a lot for one tortoise. And how are our strained backs and hunched necks reflected in Jonathan’s eyes? That’s simple; they aren’t. We are cast aside by his blindness. By his grand serenity. His superiority lies in the veil of grime that coats his cornea and its unbearable absence of reflection. Sadistic and somewhat apathetic, Jonathan usually just chomps on his blades of grass.…
Life in the Netherlands has felt stifling ever since the start of the lockdown. For months on end, we wallow in warm sweat in front of dimmed laptops. Nobody sees this, and nobody cares. We are like Jonathan, with our accentuated slack jaw lines and love handles and auras of lethargy. Caution has lulled society into slumber, slowed our collective metabolism… We willingly dissolve into creamy heaps of fat and faeces.
Nor are we Jonathan either. We would never be prisoners of St Helena, no matter how blissfully we might graze there. We live in a state of constant exile, building awe-inspiring towers, lustily tarring and feathering as we go. No, humanity does not rest. We invent new fields of scientific research, oppress minorities, establish societies, gods; a sense of purpose. There is no story to stasis: the gloomy medieval morass was irrevocably overthrown by the splendour of the bourgeoisie and fleshed out with its grotesque romantic ideology. I quote Thomas Mann on the early twentieth century catholic reverence for the suffering of the Middle Ages: “The King’s Daughters who kissed the stinking wounds of lepers, willingly exposed themselves to become infected; the ulcers they contracted they called their ‘roses’; or who drank the water that was used to cleanse abscesses, and swore that nothing tasted quite so good.”
Vomit! What an insidious story, right? The perfect parade of the immutability of asceticism and humanism, momentum and flux. This catharsis is amusing to say the least, filthy and foul at best and emblematic at any rate… Oh, humankind…
So, in times of corona, we modern humans poke holes in our bubbles and throw away our tortoiseshells. We now push new and archaic questions of life under each other’s noses and demand resolutions. But how do we find them?
Those people with searing eyes amongst a tangle of rainbows under the naked sun prophesying the day of ascension: in a similar mushed state of mind as Jonathan; cloaked in white, reconciled to mass ascesis or even mass suicide. And then there are those who flash the bulges on their genitals, their abscesses hollowed out by Jonathan’s beak, that miserable beast. Those who applaud fascism and genocide and spew their copious yellow bile.
Amidst these humanoids lies the more indifferent and less exuberant: the human being. This is what we have to deal with: the silence and boredom that characterise our lives, an absence of narrative, the nuances of our imperfections; the humanness of our nearest and dearest, albeit surely that of our enemies as well. We should acknowledge the infinity of human dualism and the rigidity inherent in our efforts to navigate our complex world. We should sense the struggle of everyone’s crusade for truth.
And thus, love is the resolution; love through acceptance, patience and inclusivity. L’Amour par l’art, l’église de l’amour. Absolution equals resolution. Learning to say sorry is still too much of a masochistic admission of defeat and not yet enough a true expression of altruism. Sorry is too conditional, all too often the vague outline of a vignette of hierarchy and affront. The avant-garde of civilisation, regardless of rank or class, line or pillar, loves and forgives, evens out that contrast, is the merciful echo of another kind of crowned anarchist of more than two thousand years ago. But I am straying into artistic environs. My message: Do not imagine that Jonathan’s gaze is that of the pious Mary, who balms the corpse of her thorn-crowned son with her lukewarm tears. Nor consider Jonathan a beast. Find in his blank and deep gaze the affirmative, relativizing and enlightening meaning of asceticism, and note: Love is the gospel; you are the epistle.