The ostrich as symbol. by Gerardo Muñoz


A couple of years ago I wrote the prologue to accompany the new edition of the almost forgotten novel Vendaval en los cañaverales (La Habana, 1937), by the reactionary writer Alberto Lamar Schweyer. I entitled the text “Avestruces en Niza”, since half of the novel, or almost all of it, takes place in the French riviera, where a bunch of decadent upper middle-class bourgeois couples live off the revenue of a transnational sugar-cane production and exports company based in the eastern part of Cuba. Written at the height of the convoluted years of the 1930s – as political turmoil intensified and the economy plummeted, putting an end to the recurrent developmentalist dream – it was not too difficult to read the ethos of this important work in light of the famous lecture “Cubano, avestruz del Trópico” (“The Cuban, an ostrich of the Tropics”, 1938) by eminent intellectual Enrique Gay Calbó, who deployed the figure of the bird to diagnose the obliviousness to economic reality and the short-term disposition (“cortoplacista”) of the national anthropological subject. The essay has been read, at times, under the framework of a pessimistic outlook towards the aspiration of amending a truly republic after independence, but at the same time, and all things considered, it should be also read as a metaphorical attempt to denote the ethos towards abstraction of the ruling criollo elite that would accelerate its compensations through direct coercion and acerbic pro patria mori rhetoric. Lamar, who belonged to this intellectual class, was able to provide a narrative form to these elements of the national interregnum, without introducing allegorically, the figure of the ostrich. And it is impossible for him to have known of Enrique Gay Calbó’s metaphoric resource, given that the lecture was delivered in April of 1938.

However, the ostrich was not accidental, and some of these details were unknown to me while writing the prologue to the edition (hence this sui generis addendum). Indeed, the ostrich was no exotic animal in the new minted Republic of Cuba, since as early as 1906 there were active ostrich farms in Marianao, Havana, financed by an American company from Arizona [1]. To my surprise, the mini report from The Cuban Review and Bulletin stated that half of the ostriches came from Nice, France. It would make sense, then, why Jean Vigo’s silent beach documentary À propos de Nice (1930) in truly natural fashion, featured a montaje of a fur-dressed lady with that of a strolling ostrich across the Promenade des Anglais, the same boardwalk used by the characters of Lamar’s novel. But what could Vigo’s momentaneous, and almost dream-like ostrich tries to tell us? Unlike Gay Calbó’s bird, the Promenade ostrich is no longer burying her head on the ground, but rather looking perplexed at modern bourgeois world, quite disoriented and visibly alienated among the frenzied crowd of strange and oblivious tourists. This is no world for an ostrich, and the moment she appears on the screen she is gone. Or at least this was Vigo’s playful cinematic gesture: the “new world” of the 1930s was soon going to be transformed into something radically different underneath the gaming, the sporting, and the consumerism.

Furthermore, the ostrich as a symbolic creature occupies a sort of threshold between transitional epochs. In a beautiful book dedicated to the arcanum of this animal in Raphael’s fresco at Sala di Costantino at the Vatican, Una Roman D’Elia reminds us that the idea of the ostrich as the cartoonist semblance of a bird sticking the head in the sand marked the new Renaissance mental structure that separated art and science in a new world now dependent on the self-assertion of anthropocentric conception [2]. However, what was enigmatic and attractive (and it continues to be) in Raphael’s ostrich is precisely an intermingling of the ostrich as arcana that converged mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew and Roman bestiaries, and Christian religious history in a thick living creature that was both a myth and an animal of this world. A true symbol of imagination that brings to an end the modern conception of figurative expression and animal taxonomy. This is why even Saint Augustine could allude to the ostrich along with sirens – “Sirens daughters of ostriches, why should they bless me?” – who were called filae passerum by Plautus because they were imported from Africa, that is, from overseas [3]. The ostrich was the animal of passage between land and sea. In a clear parodic unfolding of symbolic meaning, what at some point cultivated imagination, myth, and the distance with the world was transformed into a large bird for farming, and converted into a metaphor of the deleterious effects if the constitution of reality is ignored.

In this forking of paths, it is true that Raphael’s ostrich is no longer a clear symbol to transmit a myth; on the contrary, it becomes a metaphor open to meaning (a meaning which will soon become extraction: feathers, egg production, zoology, and finally anthropological metaphor). For Roman D’Elia, the ostrich claimed a “higher mystery” in its own evasive force that resulted in the tensions between naturalism and meaning, symbol and representation, justice (iustitia) and the creations of the world. Was the ostrich a pagan incarnation of “Justice”, or perhaps the mannerist morphology of the all-encompassing judge’s majestum, that is both tender and imposing? Or is perhaps is the ostrich iustitia the last form of justice, at the eclipse of this world, that is, an messianic figuration towards the end of days and the banquet of the mythic primeval monsters (Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz)?

As Lois Drewer draws in her interpretation of the three mythic creations from the Talmud: “Once the egg of a Bar Yokani [an alternate name for Ziz] fell and its contents swamped sixteen cities and destroyed three hundred cedar trees. But does it actually throw the egg? Is it not written: ‘The wing of the ostrich beateth joyously’ [Job 39. 13]. The egg [which it smashed] was rotten” [4]. Could the ostrich be understood as the mythical Ziz, who unlike the monsters of the nomos of the Earth (Leviathan and Behemoth), refuses to engage in the depredatory game in order to save itself for the celestial messianic banquet of eternal life? And if this is so, then the ostrich, instead of a creature of this world, is the last animal of the world who takes under its wing the absolute accomplishment of Justice that coincides neither with the principle of the aequitas of nature nor with the constitution of reality, but rather with what is vanquished in the modern spirit: mainly, the erotic mystery of the separation of life and the world. The ostrich was not in itself mysterious, but perhaps more fundamentally a keeper of the eschatological mysterium.

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Notes 

1. “Ostrich Farm in Marianao”, The Cuba Review and Bulletin, Vol.5, 1906, 23.

2. Una Roman D’Elia. Raphael’s Ostrich (Penn State University Press, 2015). 

3. St. Augustine. The Works of Saint Augustine: Sermons on the Old Testament (New City Press, 2011), 410.

4. Lois Drewer. “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz: A Christian Adaptation”, Journal of the Warburg Institutes, 1981, V.44, 1981, 152.

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