When an elephant gets drunk it flaps its ears vigorously, a cooling device to reduce body heat occasioned by the ingestion of alcohol. Humans, on the other hand, have trouble flapping ears or, indeed, wiggling them, drunk or sober.
Such knowledge -- which as the Psalmist says is too wonderful for me -- is a reward of time spent with Desmond Morris, author of the new "Body Watching" and of numerous other works including "The Naked Ape," which has sold 8 million copies thus far.
We had lunch at Maison Blanche, where he ate boar, and where he was supposed to peer about the room to comment on curious body features of the other diners. He and I, needless to say, have quite standard shoulders, necks, etc., but then the other diners did, too; at least, Morris gave them a once-over and found nothing in them worth remarking upon.
"Now we should talk about your book," I said, for it is a curious thing that authors so rarely wish to talk about their book nowadays, contrary to what you may read elsewhere. Whether this is because their books bore them, or because they relish a captive audience and like to explore other topics than the book they have written and are thoroughly sick of, nobody knows.
"Yes, I do agree," he said, "and perhaps I should say on the matter of the elephant who is not in the book that he gets drunk from eating fermented fruit. Elephants get drunk more often than you would think."
"But I thought when elephants did their ears it was a hostile sign, presaging attack," I said, for I have long since learned there is no point talking to anybody about a subject of your choice, when he is on fire to tell you about elephants, or whatnot.
"Nine times out of ten, he's drunk," Morris said. So watch it, next time you're in the bush and see these enormous ears in motion, for God takes care of drunks and you're at a disadvantage.
Morris, like most Englishmen, likes gardens but was handicapped for many years by the possession of a Chinese water deer that ate everything, with a particular fancy for rose bushes.
"Of course that was all my own fault," he said, settling back and touching his slicked-down hair (a style fairly common among Englishmen, for whom a little dab does not do at all) with the air of one who has a substantial tale to tell.
"I was simply observing, in this zoo, that the Chinese water deer could with benefit be tamed a little, if only to avoid panic when people came round; but the curator said this was impossible, and I committed the error of saying I did not see why not, if you got them really young and treated them kindly and so on.
"Then the curator noticed a newborn fawn, the umbilical cord still attached, and he went over and got the creature and handed it to me. Well, I had no choice, so I took it home."
His wife, of course, hit the ceiling, in the common way of wives who fly into dithers with the introduction of pleasant animals, so the next morning Morris lost no time retrieving the deer to take it to a place equipped for the raising of young animals.
"Don't you dare touch it," cried his wife (who in the manner of wives had had the requisite nine minutes to fall in love with the animal). "You see how terrified it is."
The upshot was the Morrises kept the water deer for 10 years, nearly 11, coming within a few weeks of the longevity record for the species.
"The garden in north London had to be enclosed with a fence nine feet high, and it was almost complete except for a short section. I was out there with the workmen, giving advice on the last few feet of fence, when whoosh, to my horror, the deer sailed over and was gone.
"Of course we searched everywhere, and got a bulletin out on the radio. No deer. Then somebody reported he was seen browsing on bushes along the underground subway which is above ground in northern London. For a whole month I got up before dawn and rode up there with the conductor. It seemed a dead loss. Then, after about 30 days of this, one morning we did spot the deer along the tracks. He picked up his little hooves Morris demonstrated avoiding electric rails and other dangers, so I leapt out and caught him in a sort of enormous butterfly net. Had to cut it to get him out.
"Back in the garden he strolled about, as if he could not understand what all the fuss had been for. We had no more trouble with him. But he did eat everything in the garden; it was either the deer or the garden and we chose the deer."
"Ha, ha, ha," I ventured. "Now about your book . . ."
"There is a rose in China," he said (not in the book) that has a wonderful name. It is called 'Tipsy Imperial Concubine.' "
Ah, so. It sounds gaudy and none too delicate.
"In my youth," Morris said, "I was a surrealist painter. I still paint, but nobody pays any attention. Imagine my surprise to see one of my pictures from years and years ago being sold at auction for a very impressive sum. I asked the auction house about it and they said it was very rare, that picture.
" 'Well,' I said, 'I have a whole trunkload of them.' But they weren't interested. They only want a surreal painting from the period when it was fashionable. As publishers would not want a Shakespearean sonnet unless it was written about 1600.
"We used to have a circular letter. Miro -- people like that. It was a huge circular piece of paper and the letter started at the outer edge and kept on until the words reached the center. That was our circular letter. Well, one of these that I had written came up for sale. I was terrified. Not for what I said about painting, but for what I might have said about other things. We were very informal, you know."
"I follow you," I said. "But that was long ago. Besides, she may be dead."
"She may not be dead," he said.
Well, it was just a thought. Queens have died young and fair, you know. Only sometimes not.
"I am what might be called an enlightened dilettante," he said, alluding to his great range of interests -- science, anthropology, painting, animals, etc.
In an age of tightly focused specialists, many of whom know virtually nothing about their subjects, perhaps we need more dilettantes. Who do know.
"Now your book . . ."
"Oh, yes. Well, I greatly respect the human body and think we should take care of it. But you don't convey this message by preaching. One's instinct, when preached at, is to do the opposite. As in Scotland, when they passed a law saying you couldn't drink at soccer games. The Scots all started injecting three ounces of their whisky into an orange, and now they sit there sucking an orange through the game.
"The true way you sell anybody on anything is to make it seem precious or valuable or wonderful to them. That's what I try to do in the book, make the human body seem fascinating. If we think it is marvelous, then we start taking care of it, without any preaching at all.
"Camels," he started off (they are not in the book), "are often used for racin despised, so then they had to get a third Lhasa to keep the second one company. The first one doesn't want company.
"We had some," I said -- it is unwise ever to take up the lead with Morris, since he then will launch into marvelous tales of Lhasas, and you get even farther from the subject, that is, the book. (The Lhasas are not in it.)
"The white rhinoceros is poorly named. It does not mean white. It is a corruption of the word for wide. It is the wide-mouthed rhinoceros, and named for that width; it has nothing to do with white. They are not in the book.
"We are ourselves juvenile apes," he said (the conversation having somehow got back to dogs), "so we love juvenile wolves, which is what dogs are."
"In the wild," I inquired, "do apes ever show any fondness for young wolves?"
"No, they don't," he said. It's something that comes later. (They are not in the book).
Well, the time passed most rapidly, most agreeably. I saw a fellow in the restaurant raise his arm and scratch his head. This is in the book. Why we do this. The book is full of things such as why we scratch our heads, pull our ears, curl our lips, squint our eyes.
"Once I was in a hotel fire," he said. "Fifteen floors up. The odd thing . . ."
It is not in the book.