Creating empathy for distant suffering is always a challenge. But what if the distance is not only one of geography and culture but a species distance? What if there is no shared language or medium of communication and the empathic gesture must interpolate the voice and point of view of the suffering subject across the species divide? Lynn Nottage has undertaken this challenge in order to bring attention to the mass killing of elephants, a species being driven to extinction by a resurgent ivory trade.
Drawing her facts from Damon Tabor’s exposé, “The Ivory Highway,” Nottage sets out to dramatize the links in the chain that take us from the magnificent elephant to a prized work of art.[i] Moreover, by creating an aesthetics of empathy, Nottage evokes humanitarian discourse. Cultural historian Thomas Laqueur notes that humanitarians seek to establish for their audience a clear causal narrative of the harm so that the audience will arrive at an understanding of how to break that chain of events and fix the wrong.[ii] Nottage adopts this method of humanitarian narration as her play lays out the steps in the process and shows how various actors are implicated.
In Mlima’s Tale complicity spreads literally on the stage in the form of white ivory dust, which touches every agent along the way who benefits from the crime. Even those who resist being implicated ultimately become part of the chain. This logic of inevitability that sets in comes from an after-the-fact type of thinking whereby the “hot” presence of Mlima’s magnificent and outsize tusks compels everyone who comes in contact with them to move them along. The elephant is already dead and the tusks have an unavoidable physical reality. The strong demand for them further down the chain presses various actors to participate in the illicit trade. Although money is made at each juncture, those implicated don’t always get involved because of money. Those who refuse to deal are then implicated by some ruse. Disappointingly, they ultimately choose to avoid responsibility and look the other way, facilitating the progress of the tusks to their destination.
However, by making Mlima’s spirit present all along this chain, spreading the ivory dust and haunting us with his lament and warning, Nottage imbues the movement of the tusks along the chain with the full implications of the crime. The tusks are not just an object to be handled. They hold the presence of the individual elephant who is of such stature that he carries with him an entire species, and with it a continent’s memory of a time before its brutal exploitation. Thus, Nottage bucks the danger of recounting a collectivized violence that blurs individual deaths. Tabor’s informants characterize what is going on as a “war,” indicating the scale and degree of violence. The numbers justify this: 25,000 killings in 2011, and double that number in 2012. But the numbers alone don’t allow us to see the extent of what is lost.
Nottage aims at animating the species, relentlessly driving at what the characters refuse to recognize: the value of the art created from the tusks correlates with the extent of the violence perpetrated on the elephant. The elements that render Mlima’s killing exceptional (the largest, most resistant individual animal, the longest hunt, the most gruesome act of separating the tusks from the body, the riskiest journey) all contribute to the value of the art object at the end.
The true subject of Nottage’s play is voice: how does the elephant speak, how does it maintain a dignified and resistant presence in the tale of its violent destruction and exploitation? Through voice rendered in poetic language and music, Nottage reverse engineers the ivory carving: the object that emerges as the extraordinary work of art at the end of the play is imbued with the restless spirit of Mlima. Thus the audience encounters the object feeling the violence entailed in its creation. To destroy the aesthetic desire that gives ivory objects their monetary value Nottage transforms them into something unbearable, marked forcefully with the violence perpetrated to create them.
The resurgence in value of ivory and its desirability in the last decade coincides with China’s economic ascendency. Just as the ivory trade accelerated exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century as Europe reaped the riches of its industrialization and extended its global reach, so China’s economic ascendance puts its mark today on the fate of the elephant. As Nottage shows us so well in the closing scenes of the play, the ivory carving is a pretender in contemporary China: it is marketed for its uniqueness yet it functions as a desirable commodity that must be replicated. Ivory is a must-have item for each nouveau riche household. Experienced as high end consumption, the desirable carvings should not be antiques, but new. Thus they signal their reproducibility even, paradoxically, as one-of-a-kind carvings, illustrating the power of money to produce whatever one desires. The carvings express the commodification that they simultaneously deny through what literary scholar Simon Gikandi has called, in reference to slavery and European taste in the eighteenth century, the “project of taste.”[iii] The “project of taste” aims at dissociating the highly prized cultural object from its materiality and the history that produced it, which for both slavery and the hunting of elephants is exceptionally violent (Gikandi 17).
As we see, the artistry of the carver does not provide a signature for the work the way a Picasso, for example, derives its value as the creation of the painter. Oil paints and canvas don’t hold monetary value as such. For sure, the carver in the play has a sense of his own tradition and importance. But the ease with which he accommodates the illicit material, accepting a thinly constructed story about its provenance, makes him, in Nottage’s eyes, another link in the violent chain. Indeed he is perhaps equally pernicious to the violent poachers. His carving, his handling of material rendered sentient to pain by Nottage, is an extension of the physical violence perpetrated against the elephant.
That works of art are haunted has become a commonplace idea. In one sense, representation is never fully accomplished, and thus it is haunted by its ideal. Or, in a different formulation, art is haunted by the presence of its precursors. In our own moment of rapidly changing media, older media remain as haunting traces in the ways we use and read the digital. But philosopher Jacques Derrida probably articulated the sense in which haunting is most meaningful to Nottage’s play.[iv] The specter disrupts our sense of temporality: it makes its presence felt but it is out of time. Although one might think it gives a presence to the past, it unsettles us more profoundly by asserting the presence of something discarded, left out, which now returns and becomes present even if not fully manifest. The specter also, therefore, shapes our sense of the future, of our teleology. Its mournfulness inhibits us and provokes a nostalgia for a future that might have been possible if we had not become aware of the specter.
Ivory carvings haunt everyday city life in Athens, Greece, June 1, 2019. Author photo.
Nottage knows that the politics of distant suffering can create intense empathic responses that do not necessarily inspire meaningful action. This is the challenge of the humanitarian discourse from which she borrows, giving the victim voice in an appeal to a potential savior. Nottage aims at something more, however. She wants to destroy the desire for the aesthetic object, to make it feel dangerous to those who covet it, cursed as it is with the violence that generated it. Each chip on the pliable white surface of the tusk, material that permits a great degree of detail to emerge, producing flawless depictions of highly intricate figures or scenes graced with the luminosity of white, should be felt as a cut in sentient tissue.
Eleni Coundouriotis is Professor of English and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Connecticut. Her scholarship focuses on the engagement of literature with history in the postcolonial novel and human rights narratives. She is the author of Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography and the Novel (Columbia UP 1999) and The People's Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony (Fordham UP 2014), a study of the war novel in sub-Saharan Africa in the context of humanitarianism. In other work, she has addressed how literary texts complicate philosophical definitions of human dignity, and explored the testimony of rape victims, the figure of the child soldier, the narrative contours of histories of the human rights movement, and refugee narratives.
[i] Tabor, Damon. “The Ivory Highway” with photographs by Andy Mahr. The Men’s Journal. March 2014.
[ii] Laqueur, Thomas W. “Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative.” In Lynn Hunt, ed. The New Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. 176-204.
[iii] Gikandi, Simon. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.
[iv] Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994
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