A Dog, an Elk, the Zone

A preapocalyptic epiphany.


The possibility that there will be no more wild animals, or that they will exist only confined or subjugated, is taking shape before our eyes day by day.

Reactions to the threat of the avian flu that recently spread throughout the world, for example, all conformed to a model in which wildness itself was accused and singled out: Peaceful domestic fowl threatened by hordes of uncontrollable migrators. This will become the accepted schema – even though intensive breeding and all the modes of confinement (the word speaks for itself), far from sparing animals effectively, have been, on the contrary, the direct origin of the most serious epidemics ever known. Between the thousands and thousands of carcasses burned during the years of mad cow disease and the common graves of birds in the new century, what is taking shape is the psychological preparation of humanity for the necessity of total control, a world in which wild animals will be no more than tolerated and in which they too will be, in a way, ‘’in human hands,’’ in allotted spaces that will be more and more restricted or instrumentalized.

The destiny of animals is perhaps just one aspect, and not necessarily the most striking, of the sort of preapocalyptic climax whose contours are refined day after day. But as soon as the hypothesis of a world deprived of animals takes shape, as it did in Chernobyl, in what is called by locals the Zone, we see that this disappearance is configured as mourning, as absolute mourning. Not only on the basis of clear-cut biological solidarities (to recall Einstein’s famous remark on the foreshortened future of a world in which there would be no more bees), but directly for the way in which it is presented, or might be presented, the ‘’thus’’ of a world without animals, a world in which all animal presence – visual, auditory, olfactory – has disappeared.

In Voices From Chernobyl, the book of testimony collected by Svetlana Alexievich (a book that eludes conventional standards and that is for the reader the book of a complete unsealing, a work of naked intensity), the fate of animals is evoked several times. I recall the story of the hunters charged with liquidating the domestic animals that continued to wander around in the Zone, and the way in which these men, whom one imagines a priori to be tough, hardened – some had served in the war in Afghanistan – say that they could not carry out their task, as if they had been confronted with a horrendous injustice, something monstrous from which they had had to turn away, not in order to spare their own lives, exposed as they were to radiation, nor even to spare the beasts, but to save perhaps a principle of evasion, a life, a survival, survival itself, that is, something obvious and untranslatable, something precisely like the vague glimmer in animals’ eyes.

It is clearly not a question of comparing the drama’s effects on animals to its effects on humans. Everything, here, is connected, and not only connected but dragged down to such a depth of disarray that a bottom is reached, similar to the reservoir of existence that Moritz touched with the calf going off to slaughter, the calf into whose eyes he was gazing. There is a glimmer, or the remnant of a glimmer, and the animal holds onto it, is its mute testimony and its panic-stricken mark, and at the very spot where horror overtakes him, the animal buckles under, but in total innocence. The cameraman Sergei Gurin, whose voice is heard at length in this book, says that his life has been changed by everything he saw in the Zone, starting with the mute lesson and the appeal that he heard, coming from a background of obscure life of which animals are the ultimate and faithful guarantors: ‘’A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed. I go to the Zone now, all these years, I see a wild boar jumping out of an abandoned human house, and then an elk. That’s what I shoot. I want to make a film, to see everything through the eyes of an animal.’’

What has become of Sergei Gurin? Where are his films? Who will show them to us? And, speaking of films, how strange it is that in Stalker (which Tarkovski made several years before the Chernobyl catastrophe) the only nonpoisoned gift made by the Zone should be that of the dog, Egyptian-looking, which appears trotting above the puddles and which the ferryman ends up taking back with him.

A dog, an elk, the Zone . . . Between the stories of Acteon or Procris and the irradiated bushes all history stretches out, all our history. The leaping deer that was a phantom in my night remembers, it is translucid, it is still running: in Paolo Uccello’s painting, in Sergei Gurin’s film, the elk’s life is a thought, obscure, like life itself. It came back and it comes back, it goes around in a loop, discourse is unhinged, this had to happen: Our sisters and brothers by blood have kept silence forever. What would the world be without them? The sky without birds, the oceans and rivers without fish, the earth without tigers or wolves, ice floes melted with humans below and nothing but humans fighting over water sources. Is it even possible to want that?

In relation to this tendency, which seems ineluctable, every animal is a beginning, an engagement, a point of animation and intensity, a resistance.

Any politics that takes no account of this (which is to say virtually all politics) is a criminal politics.

Jean-Christophe Bailly is Associate Professor at the École Nationale Supérieure de la Nature et du Paysage, in Blois, France. This essay was adapted from The Animal Side.