In the Menagerie
About a hundred years ago, a Danish traveller to Hamburg, Count Schimmelmann, happened to come upon a small itinerant Menagerie, and to take a fancy to it. While he was in Hamburg, he every day set his way round the place, although he would have found it difficult to explain what was to him the real attraction of the dirty and dilapidated caravans. The truth was that the Menagerie responded to something within his own mind. It was winter and bitterly cold outside. In the sheds the keeper had been heating the old stove until it was a clear pink in the brown darkness of the corridor, alongside the animals’ cages, but still the draught and the raw air pierced people to the bone.
Count Schimmelmann was sunk in contemplation of the Hyena, when the proprietor of the Menagerie came and addressed him. The proprietor was a small pale man with a fallen-in nose, who had in his days been a student of theology, but who had had to leave the faculty after a scandal, and had since step by step come down in the world.
“Your Excellency does well to look at the Hyena,” said he. “It is a great thing to have got a Hyena to Hamburg, where there has never been one till now. All Hyenas, you will know, are hermaphrodites, and in Africa, where they come from, on a full-moon night they will meet and join in a ring of copulation wherein each individual takes the double part of male and female. Did you know that?”
“No,” said Count Schimmelmann with a slight movement of disgust.
“Do you consider now, your Excellency,” said the showman, “that it should be, on account of this fact, harder to a Hyena than to other animals to be shut up by itself in a cage? Would he feel a double want, or is he, because he unites in himself the complementary qualities of creation, satisfied in himself, and in harmony? In other words, since we are all prisoners in life, are we happier, or more miserable, the more talents we possess?”
“It is a curious thing,” said Count Schimmelmann, who had been following his own thoughts and had not paid attention to the showman, “to realize that so many hundred, indeed thousands of Hyenas should have lived and died, in order that we should, in the end, get this one specimen here, so that people in Hamburg shall be able to know what a Hyena is like, and the naturalists to study from them.”
They moved on to look at the Giraffes in the neighbouring cage.
“The wild animals,” continued the Count, “which run in a wild landscape, do not really exist. This one, now, exists, we have got a name for it, we know what it is like. The others might as well not have been, still they are the large majority. Nature is extravagant.”
The showman pushed back his worn fur-cap, underneath it he himself had not got a hair on his head. “They see one another,” he said.
“Even that may be disputed,” said Count Schimmelmann after a short pause. “These Giraffes, for instance, have got square markings on the skin. The Giraffes, looking at one another, will not know a square and will consequently not see a square. Can they be said to have seen one another at all?”
The showman looked at the Giraffe for some time and then said: “God sees them.”
Count Schimmelmann smiled. “The Giraffes?” he asked.
“Oh yes, your Excellency,” said the showman, “God sees the Giraffes. While they have been running about and have played in Africa, God has been watching them and has taken a pleasure in their demeanour. He has made them to please him. It is in the Bible, your Excellency,” said the showman. “God so loved the Giraffe that He created them. God has Himself invented the square as well as the circle, surely your Excellency cannot deny that, He has seen the squares on their skin and everything else about them. The wild animals, your Excellency, are perhaps a proof of the existence of God. But when they go to Hamburg,” he concluded, putting on his cap, “the argument becomes problematic.”
Count Schimmelmann who had arranged his life according to the ideas of other people, walked on in silence to look at the snakes, close to the stove. The showman, to amuse him, opened the case in which he kept them, and tried to make the snake within it wake up; in the end, the reptile slowly and sleepily wound itself round his arm. Count Schimmelmann looked at the group.
“Indeed, my good Kannegieter,” he said with a little surly laugh, “if you were in my service, or if I were king and you my minister, you would now have your dismissal.”
The showman looked up at him nervously. “Indeed, Sir, should I?” he said, and slipped down the snake into the case. “And why, Sir? If I may ask so,” he added after a moment.
“Ah, Kannegieter, you are not so simple as you make out,” said the Count. “Why? Because, my friend, the aversion to snakes is a sound human instinct, the people who have got it have kept alive. The snake is the deadliest of all the enemies of men, but what, except our own instinct of good and evil, is there to tell us so? The claws of the lions, the size, and the tusks, of the Elephants, the horns of the Buffaloes, all jump to the eye. But the snakes are beautiful animals. The snakes are round and smooth, like the things we cherish in life, of exquisite soft colouring, gentle in all their movements. Only to the godly man this beauty and gracefulness are in themselves loathsome, they smell from perdition, and remind him of the fall of man. Something within him makes him run away from the snake as from the devil, and that is what is called the voice of conscience. The man who can caress a snake can do anything.” Count Schimmelmann laughed a little at his own course of thoughts, buttoned his rich fur-coat, and turned to leave the shed.
The showman had stood for a little while in deep thoughts. “Your Excellency,” he said at last, “you must needs love snakes. There is no way round it. Out of my own experience in life, I can tell you so, and indeed it is the best advice that I can give you: You should love the snakes. Keep in your mind, your Excellency, how often,—keep in mind, your Excellency, that nearly every time that we ask the Lord for a fish, he will give us a serpent.”