Writings : Astonishment


The Periophtalmidae perch themselves on bushes and retract their eyes into their skull, sniffing. Other equally rare fish carry their eyes at the end of an extendible stem: it is as practical as it is attractive. But most can only gyrate their ocular globes in their sockets, often independent of each other.

Without eyelids or folds, the round eyes of the fish express permanent astonishment. Yet such an air of surprise is justified upon meeting sea horses and their slow moving circular figures, incapable as they are of fleeing; but flight would hardly be permitted, given their dignified stance.

And what shall the other fish say of these vertical brethren, with their dignified sadness, imprint of ancient gargoyles?

And what about their moral standards! Not only does the female take the male by thrusting her cloacal sac into the pouch of the latter's stomach, but she also transfers her two hundred eggs to him. The male then fertilizes them, after which he carries them for several weeks: a genuine placenta is formed that makes the father's blood participate in nourishing the embryos. This is followed by a painful delivery rich in suffering and agonizing labor.

If only all ended there! But the damned secretion of gases continues in the pouch after the last-born has been expelled. Sometimes the lips of the orifice get stuck together; the pouch swells up and leaves the male floating with his head upside down, which is no enviable position.


Jean Painlevé, "Etonnement", ca. 1946.