Cases of death by sheer terror, though few and far between and questioned by science, do exist. Lamentably, one more must be added to the record. The distressing news was recently brought to my attention that a giraffe born in a Buenos Aires zoo, aged one year and three months, perished following her transfer to a “private establishment” in the province. According to authorities, the creature, a female of the species giraffa camelo pardalis, “entered in panic upon perceiving unaccustomed noises” her first night at new lodgings in Río Negro, and expired. Anticipating an outcry, the institution subsequently released a public statement designed to prevent legal repercussion; according to the zoo director, the giraffe, named Laura, arrived by means of a “complex and careful operation” involving veterinarians and specialists who worked with the animal, “first in the place of origin to accustom her to a special vehicle designed for her, then throughout the entirety of the journey itself.”
Autopsy results are being awaited to clarify the details of the death. Meanwhile, journalists have time to tease out the moral complications of the case. Laura was utterly defenseless, solo even by the casual standards of the giraffe, a species fond of an individualism of elective affinities, loose and shifting social bonds (they tend to group with others headed in the same direction); when confronted with the sounds of her unseen enemy, she reared up on her hind legs, responding with her own series of complex sounds, mews, moans, snorts, and flute-like cries, an ineffectual and particularly female response to danger (the male giraffe combats perceived threat by extending his neck and transforming it into a weapon he can pummel against opponents); upon hearing noises she grew hysterical rather than assume the ironic mode of thinking and tranquil reflection demanded by the situation (the scientific community is divided over the analytic intelligence of giraffes, physically at least so well designed by evolution, capable of reaching for acacia leaves at heights inaccessible to other animals).
The polemical element at stake in this tragedy, discussed with urgency in local news outlets, however, is not the devastating loss of animal life, but the fact Laura was in the process of being transferred to a private zoo belonging to a wealthy individual. In the eyes of certain periodistas carried away by their own contentious philippics, the giraffe was merely a pawn in a larger narrative involving a rich and capricious collector. It is uncomplicated to imagine the villain they have in mind: the private zoo owner who with a few phone calls to his bank can purchase four hectares of land and order the delivery of hundreds of exotic animals for his personal enjoyment. But as with most commonplaces, things are not as simple as they first appear.
The collector who has chosen to devote himself to the acquisition of objects is not necessarily the crude man driven by lucre stereotype makes him out to be. More likely he is the embodiment of modesty, the incarnation of a certain aesthetic, lacking the amour-propre of the artist. His idea of art is more likely to tend more toward that of the archivist, the arrangement of existing material rather than the Promethean creation of a work from scratch. Often he is marked by the desire for perfection, the obsession with perfect totality. Are we not all familiar with those English murder mysteries in which an eccentric gentleman is driven to kill in order to procure for himself an extremely rare blue butterfly specimen or medieval manuscript? The facts in this case are unclear, but it is not far-fetched to imagine a collector ordered the giraffe to complete his set and awaited it anxiously, and that when news reached him of its decease he was genuinely devastated, for not sentimental but philosophical reasons.
The accumulative archetype is not the only form the desire for perfection can take. At least three different models exist: the desire to complete a missing space (the desire of the collector), the desire to remedy a perceived flaw into homogeneity (the desire of the child), the desire to maintain intact an already-existing perfection (the desire of the conservative). The collector, the child, and the conservative are marginal to the central current of society, existing as part of a world strange and apart, one tangential yet accessible to the life of the normal working adult. Their ideal of perfection is odd, amoral, and occasionally impractical. Moved by purely aesthetic considerations, they are uninterested in both the political and the sentimental. Their idea of beauty frequently involves anxiety, terror, awe, and conformity to a norm beyond.
When I was small, a certain object in my living room fascinated me—a Persian rug. It had an intricate design made of moons, flowers and diamonds; it was perfectly symmetrical, without a single flaw. On hands and knees I studied it for hours, trying to find an error without success. Real Persian rugs always contain at least one flaw, so their perfection does not compete with the perfection of the divine. The same is true of all Islamic art: miniatures, vases, plates. There was no flaw in this one, ergo it had to be false. It was a convenient discovery, as in those days I wanted to be a hairdresser, and experimenting on my own hair was unthinkable. (Dubious forays into hair dyes would only come later.) The rug had a fringe of luminous white silk at both ends, divided into long tassels of approximately five centimeters each; many happy afternoons were spent caressing that fringe. The idea of experimenting with the tassels as if they were hair came as a revelation. I had never cut anyone’s hair before, just looked at lots of pictures in magazines. But it relieved me when I deduced the rug was a fake, just in case.
With a pair of scissors I set about trimming the fringe, which would retain the same form, a centimeter shorter. I went about the business with great care, gauging angles, clipping and evening. Each time I shortened one tassel, I had to level the ones beside it to keep the row straight. When I came to the last I thought I’d gotten it right, before noticing those from the midpoint on were shorter than those at the start. Returning to the beginning I correspondingly shortened the first ones. Trim, snip, adjust—the fringe went on shrinking. The terrible moment came at last when I saw the desired horizontal line had been achieved because there were no tassels left at all. I’d cut away every last one so only stubble remained, knots where the pattern of the rug itself began. Immediately I feared the consequences. It would at least be preferable if the row were completely even. And so I sheared away the few tufts and knobs left until the rug gleamed nudely, hoping no one would perceive the change.
Of course the operation was noticed immediately. My mother cried when she saw what I’d done. “Do you know how much that cost?” she said, going into my bedroom and sequestering my beloved scissors. (Most of the time I used them to cut out glossy magazine photos of famous singers, which I stuck to the walls of the room shared with my sister.) Attempting to escape punishment, I tried to convince her the Persian rug wasn’t authentic. I told her it had no flaws and explained what that meant. It probably came from a factory nearby, a small suburban town in California identical to our own. She wasn’t convinced. “Whatever it was before, it’s definitely flawed now,” she said, looking skeptically at the neat pile of fringe. Fluffed out, it looked like a cotton candy cloud. She took away the scissors and gave me extra dishes to wash for three weeks. After that I avoided the rug; its intricate patterns obviously carried a terrible power in their perfection, an occult power of destruction.
As one grows older one tends to incline toward a third form of perfection, which consists in wanting to keep existing beauty intact. Recently I attended a party at a local university to celebrate its anniversary. An enormous cake, ostentatious in design, was brought out to celebrate the occasion. Its perfection continued unmarred for a long stretch, which began to grow uncomfortable. No one wanted to be the first to rupture the smooth glossy surface of the icing. Its Latin motto and dark blue flag appeared aesthetically immune to human intervention. There the confection rested, perched on its stand on the freshly waxed basketball court, intact and virgin, beyond the reach of all. The same train of thought repeated in scores of different heads. Although a square of cake would undoubtedly be delicious, how could I mutilate an object of such beauty? How could I deface a thing so exquisite, disfigure such flawlessness, desecrate what is immaculate and sublime?
The situation grew unbearably tense. At last someone made the first move, a professor of history. He strode up with a determined look on his face, as if to say that after all, this was not Russia under Stalin, where the first to stop clapping during a ceremony was taken away that night by the secret police. Approaching with his plate, which he balanced on the table, he proceeded to lift the cake slicer and plunge it in. With great decisiveness he cut two columns of sticky squares, vanilla with a layer of dulce de leche. The rest of us, half-hearted distracting ourselves with gossip, stopped and looked on with astonishment. The professor was a man who usually went unnoticed, occupying himself with details of the League of Nations or the invasion of Panama. Now, in a manner entirely unprecedented, he was not the one presenting the great deeds of others but the center of attention. Feeling all eyes on him, he exaggerated his movements, pressing the blade down into the soft sponge. Ten minutes later some sense persisted of perfection surrendered, of innocence irrecuperably lost. I will admit, however, that this in no way detracted from the immense pleasure we took in the dessert.