Another Excerpt from John Haskell’s ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollock’

This is about an elephant, electrocuted one hundred years ago. Her name was Topsy, and she was famous at a time when people were still amazed by an elephant. Plus she did tricks. Wearing a gauze tu-tu she could stand on her back legs, raising her front legs up into the air. She was a star attraction at Coney Island and because of her fame she had her own trainer, a man named Gus, who fed her, bathed her, cleaned her stall and naturally a bond was formed between them. Love, you could call it. Gus knew that love was essential in the training of animals and so he encouraged that love. He gave her bananas when she was good as a way to reinforce their affection. He also had a stick, which he used, but because for Topsy the connection they had was paramount she loved him for the bananas and forgave him for the stick.

When she got older and her novelty wore off Gus drifted away. Other, more important animals required his attention so that by 1900 she was mainly used for heavy labor. He hadn’t exactly rejected her – he would still leave her some food – but he didn’t bathe her, he didn’t comfort her, and he certainly didn’t return her love. That was what she wanted; that was what she was used to. When a person gets used to a thing and then that thing is taken away, the person becomes destabilized, and in that state it’s not too hard to go a little crazy. Topsy didn’t go crazy, but she was hurt and she was sad. And she couldn’t talk about it. She didn’t have the language.

She could think and feel, but she couldn’t express herself because the language inside of her was elephant language, plus it was inside of her. And so, unable to communicate her thoughts and emotions, she started acting out. She was frustrated by her inability to affect her environment and so she became more difficult to work with. Elephants remember so well because their experiences are stored in their bodies, and they have big bodies, and her big body was filled with unpleasant thoughts and emotions. She tried to banish these thoughts and emotions but she couldn’t. She couldn’t deny them or ignore them because she was filled with them, literally.

One day two of Gus’s friends stop by after work. They’d been drinking and they were horsing around, teasing Topsy, and one of them, as a joke, throws a lighted cigarette into her mouth. Because of the structure of the elephant mouth she can’t spit it out; it continues to burn, like a fuse, until suddenly something explodes in her. From her face alone you wouldn’t know. She looks calm and peaceful. From her big, sleepy eyes you wouldn’t sense the rage, and she doesn’t know her own rage, and when she turns, she’s not aware of any particular desire to kill. She’s not actually conscious of hating the two men, one of whom is standing against the main support post. But she grabs the man with her trunk, lifts him up, throws him against the post and there’s nothing except the sound of the snapping of bones. A scream maybe because Gus, who’d been outside, comes into the tent. The other man, the one who threw the cigarette is on the ground underneath her foot and partly out of anger and partly out of her desire to communicate her unhappiness to Gus she raises her foot over the man’s face, and then she lets her foot come down.

First the man screams, and then the foot comes down. And then his head collapses, mixing in with the hay and the dung. Gus, over by the tent flap, is just watching, silhouetted against the light. The first man, still alive, limps away to the edge of the tent and it wasn’t just the cigarette, Topsy knows that. She watches Gus with her large eyes and she wants Gus to know what she’s feeling. There’s no recognition on his face but she’s hoping. Even as she’s surrounded by men with sharp poles she watches Gus to see if he knows what he’s caused. As she is led away in chains she keeps looking back to see if now, finally, he understands.

There was a silent film made of Topsy’s death. It was a one-minute short produced by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company. The camera was there, part of the semicircle of fifteen hundred spectators at the new Luna Park, on January 4. Topsy was standing, surrounded by people. The cameras started rolling. And then the six thousand volts of this new invention called electricity were sent into the elephant’s body. At first nothing happened, then the quivering, then the throes. The smoke rising out of the bottom of her feet. The film captures the muscles of the elephant going limp and lifeless, the elephant remaining upright after the muscles had gone, and then the muscles stiffen, and then the huge beast collapses into the dust. The whole event took about ten seconds and the camera captured almost everything. The difference between the film version and actually being there is that in the film, when the elephant falls to the ground, there’s silence. In 1903 at Luna Lark the earth momentarily rumbled.

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