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The Guts of Spring

Christopher Benfey
In Roman times, the haruspex was a priest who practiced divination by inspecting animal entrails. The ritual sacrifice of animals, except under carefully regulated conditions (sport-hunting, the slaughter of livestock, the euthanizing of pets) is now strictly prohibited. And yet…

Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin: Still Life With Partridge and Pear, 1748

In the seedier neighborhoods of our cities, or along the unsightly strips leading into our smaller towns, you are likely to find signs advertising the services of diviners: palm and tarot card readers, astrologists and crystal gazers. Missing is the haruspex—in Roman times, a priest who practiced divination by inspecting animal entrails—and for obvious reasons. The ritual sacrifice of animals, except under carefully regulated conditions (sport-hunting, the slaughter of livestock, the euthanizing of pets) is strictly prohibited. And yet, perhaps there are other occasions in our daily lives that invite the attention of the haruspex.

* * *

Three flayed squirrels on the road enact Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion.

In the ancient world, it was the liver, with its mysterious folds and lesions, that was believed to hold the most information. “For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver” (Ezekiel 21:21).

The melting snow-bank slowly yields its hoard: a Sunday Times, buried by the snowplow in January; a flattened can of Red Bull; an opossum’s corkscrew tail.

On the first day of spring, I find a notice in the mailbox: time for my routine colonoscopy. I make an appointment to have my entrails read.

“Gut it out,” we say. This chipmunk did, all across the driveway.

My dog circles the dispersed feathers. It would take a forensics expert to divine what happened to this pigeon.

“I thought you were writing about divination,” my friend said. “What’s with all the road kill?” “Well,” I answered, “you don’t expect me to sacrifice animals myself, do you?”

Haruspicy concentrates the mind, or so D. H. Lawrence claimed in Etruscan Places. “If the hot liver of the victim cleared the soul of the haruspex, and made him capable of that ultimate inward attention which alone tells us the last thing we need to know, then why quarrel with the haruspex?”

In The Silent Woman, however, Janet Malcolm does quarrel with the haruspex: “Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily ravaged, [Ted] Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists.” Thus are the eagles of the Fourth Estate reduced to mere vultures.

Aesop was right. The hare did lose his race with the tortoise. Here lies his carcass, miles from the finish line.

The prestige of the haruspex was already in decline in Roman times. According to Cicero, Cato the Elder wondered how one haruspex could look at another without laughing.

Maybe that’s why Julius Caesar ignored the haruspex’s warning, along with that other omen before the Ides of March, when, according to Suetonius, “a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall.”

Lovelorn Dido hacks open a young cow and “pores over organs, living still, for signs.” Poor thing, it’s as pointless for her to look for the future in steaming organs as to make sense of Aeneas’s dark heart. In any case, she herself will be the next corpse on the altar.

When I turned sixty, I hosted a last supper for my viscera. My beloved heart sat on my right, my liver on my left. “Verily I say unto you,” I said, lifting a glass of red wine, “that one of you shall betray me.”

According to Matthew, Judas hung himself, but he suffered a different fate in the first chapter of Acts: “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” Augustine, as is well known, tried to reconcile the two accounts: the rope broke, etc. But maybe Judas, the opposite of the born-again, had to die twice.

“Bergk says the history of a text is a long carcass.” I was reading Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red late at night. But aren’t all texts carcasses? I thought to myself sleepily. Then, I read the passage again. “Bergk says the history of a text is a long caress.”

In the section on divination in “The Dry Salvages,” T. S. Eliot writes: “Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry.” In an earlier draft, he had written “haruspicate with guts.” “No, I don’t think ‘with guts’ is quite nice!” his friend John Hayward told him.

Describe the horoscope? Why not describe the endoscope instead? “A flexible tube that is about the thickness of your finger…”


The possum was playing possum, but the car ran over him anyway.

“Possum,” Pound’s nickname for Eliot, came from Uncle Remus, alas, with EzPo as Brer Rabbit. Pound told his patron John Quinn that Eliot “has more entrails than might appear from his quiet exterior, I think.”

“If I were to describe the thing I’m interested in,” Joseph Brodsky liked to say, “it is what time does to a man.”

WTF? A dead snake by the road, head touching tail, like the dream of the ouroboros that inspired Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring.

When I was a kid, I found a downed cardinal in the road with a silver band on its ankle. Where had it come from? Florida? Peru? I sent the band to the Department of the Interior. The cardinal, I was informed, had traveled three blocks from where it was banded.

What a strange word “entrails” is. It sounds like a euphemism and the slithery thing itself.

My younger son wrote his college application essay about running over a rabbit. Usually it’s the parents who make the sacrifice so their kids can go to college. In this case, it was the rabbit.

Janet Malcolm listens to a story about Ted Hughes, haruspex: “‘Ted had turned up at Y’s house—he had run over this hare—and he went into the kitchen to dress it. He was there a long time, and finally Y opened the door. He had the hare all spread out, and there was this wild, wild demonic look in his eyes. ‘Scrying’ is a way of telling fortunes by entrails. Y said that when he looked up he was actually… ‘slavering.’ Now, Y wouldn’t make up a story like that.’” Maybe not, but scrying is a way of telling fortunes by looking into a crystal ball.

What a lovely April morning! The deliveryman throws a newspaper in the driveway. But his tires are spreading the news: a dead skunk two miles back.

How awful for Prometheus. But what a windfall for the eagle!

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