PUBLISHED: THE HILL: Changing America by Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor April 7, 2020
“Today you say that elephants are archaic and cumbersome, that they interfere with roads and telegraph poles, and tomorrow you’ll begin to say that human rights are obsolete and cumbersome, that they interfere with progress, and the temptation will be so great to let them fall by the road and not to burden ourselves with that extra load. And in the end man himself will become in your eyes a clumsy luxury, an archaic survival from the past, and you’ll dispense with him too, and the only thing left will be total efficiency and universal slavery and man himself will disappear under the weight of his material achievement.” —Romain Gary “The Roots of Heaven,” 1958
My grandfather Jacques de Guillebon and the 2nd armored division helped liberate Paris from the Germans on August 24, 1944. A few years later he befriended the remarkable writer Romain Gary. One fought to liberate the world from Fascism and the other wrote a book, “The Roots of Heaven,” in 1958, so revelatory in its scope that it bears singular witness to the crisis of humanity and our depleted relationship to Nature like no other book of the 20th century. There is no more sublime a title in all of literature. Its main hero, Morel, is fighting for the rights of elephants, and mankind’s utter dependence on and need to fight for what remains of these ineffable beings.
“There are moments when it seems a blasphemy for man to try to take the protection of nature into his own hands, when it looks as if heaven itself had decided to tear its living roots out of the earth.”
Gary’s masterpiece is the “Moby Dick” of the 20th century because it pays such transcendent homage to another species, in this case the titans of land, the elephants. In his introduction Gary wrote, “If we begin to accept the dictat of materialistic efficiency alone, mankind might survive, but not humanity.”
For quite a while now we have proven, or tried to convince ourselves, that we are masters of our universe. Only in the last few years do we realize that we have been fooling ourselves. The world has been panicked by an organism few can see. Although the plight of the whales and elephants may seem distant, they are the ultimate arbiters of our future.
Gary, who so articulated the rights of the largest land mammal on earth, was also fighting for mankind’s place in the world. Because without the others, there is “no room for man either. All that will be left of us is robots,” Gary insisted.
Photo credit ©Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson