Olivia Durif

Snails (A Translation)


ISSUE 40 | HOLD OR BE HELD | MAY 2014

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Snails

     Ash heaps are home to hot embers, but snails love the cool earth. Allons-y, they move along, their whole bodies stuck to her. They take earth with them, eat her, shit her. They ride the earth and she rides them. This is interpenetration in excellent taste. Active and passive are so entwined. Ingestion and expulsion coalesce in an act of mutual holding: nourishment and purification.
     (There’s more to say about snails. Their wetness, for one, so clean and self-assured. Cool blood. How they reach.)
     It’s remarkable that a snail can’t leave home without moving forward. Rest inspires retreat. Modesty forces the snail to keep going when, as if by accident, he reveals his naked and vulnerable form. Or is it that exhibition excites progress?
     In dry times, snails hide out in ditches where their bodies contribute to the the dampness they seek. They flirt with other cool-blooded critters—toads, frogs. But getting out of these orgies is another story. More credit to them, I say, persistently getting into situations so sticky to leave.
     It’s worth noting that while snails do love dampness, they don’t like places where atmospheric proportion leans too heavily in favor of water, like swamps or bogs. They’re moderate creatures who prefer firm ground, so long as it’s rich and loamy.
     Snails are gourmands not only of earth, but also of vegetables and green-leaved plants, engorged with water. And they know exactly how to eat them, too: leaving the spines behind, cleaving out the tenderest bits. Salad butchers.
     Who are these grave-dwellers? They mess around with subterranean morbidity, but always with the intention to escape—loyal vagabonds. And after all, whether in dusky, unsure ditches, or in the broad daylight of garden paths, home is safely on their backs.
     It’s a burden sometimes, carrying this shell around, but they don’t complain; they’re glad to have it. Imagine how miraculous: no matter where you are, to have the capacity to go home and defy unwelcome visitors. The comfort is well worth the struggle.
     Snails drool with pride over their clever adaptation. How convenient! How is it possible that I can be so sensitive and vulnerable, and at the same time so well armed against intruders, so possessed of my happiness and tranquility. Whence a snail’s admirable self-confidence.
     I’m at the same time so earth-bound, so easily moved, so slow and enduring—so good at un-sticking from the ground and returning to myself. Après moi le déluge, indeed. The kick of some foot might send me rolling who knows where. But I’ll always right myself, hold fast to any clod and on it, find my pasture: earth, my easy bread.
     Snails know how good they have it. But their drool of pride leaves its mark on everything they touch; they blaze a silvery trail. These tracks might fatefully signal some predator’s hungry beak. Ay, there’s the rub! The old question, to be (vain) or not to be, the risk.
     The snail is very much alone. He doesn’t have many friends, but he doesn’t need them to be happy. He’s friends enough with the earth—he loves all of her parts with his whole body: her leaves, of course, and her sky towards which he raises a proud head. Grandeur and slowness, wisdom and pride, dignity and indignation.
     I’m not saying that snails are like pigs. They don’t have those petty little feet that trot around in a panic, or that shameful escapism—the need to flee, to stay held together in one piece. The snail is more resistant and more stoic. More methodical and dignified, and certainly less greedy—less capricious. Watch a pig abandon a scrap of food just to throw himself onto another. A snail may be gluttonous, but he’s not nervous or hasty. Snails are voracious, sure, but they don’t fear leaving things behind.
     There’s nothing more beautiful than this way they travel—so slow, so sure and so discrete. A snail’s patient crusade honors the earth precisely in how effortless he makes the journey look. Little ships with silvery wakes. It’s a majestic manner of progress, especially when you really think about their soft, tender eye-stalks.
     Can you tell when a snail is angry? They lack gesture, of course, so examples would be hard to come by. But I imagine that anger is the rare state in which snails do get a little hasty. I bet their flocculence intensifies. That proud drool. Anger and pride are expressed the same way. Whence comes the confidence that their imposition on the world shines more than the tracks of other animals.
     The expression of their anger, like their pride, sparkles when it dries, and also leaves a dangerous mark, a way for predators. What’s more it’s ephemeral, won’t even last through the next rain.
     It’s like this with all creatures who express themselves completely subjectively, unapologetically, by trace. That is, they don’t care to erect cairns more permanent than they are.
     Snails aren’t blighted by such a need. They are sooner heroes—whose lives and works are art—than artists, who fabricate art works.
     My point is this: what snails have to teach us, which isn’t even particular to snails but is a lesson taught by every creature who carries home on his back: this shell, part of their being, is at the same time their work of art. Their home—their life—both is and outlasts them.
     This is the kind of role model a snail is. Saints, they make their life (the road to self-perfection) a work of art. Their secretion is made by the same means as it is seen. There’s no inside versus outside. Their necessity, their needs, this is where the art is—the work of it, making a life. There’s nothing disproportionate, nothing exterior to their physical selves. Everything is necessary, unavoidable.
     Thus, the snail cuts man’s work out for him. Big ideas come from the heart. Perfect yourself morally and you’ll write some good poems. Ethics and rhetoric marry in the ambitions and desires of wise men.
     But saints how? In perfect obedience to their nature. Know thyself. Accept yourself as you are. Be in accord with all of your vices. In proportion with your capacities.
     But what is the essence of man? Speech and morality. Humanism.

Escargots, Francis Ponge (1942)