Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mother Nature's Son

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
Geoffrey Hill, Genesis.

The thing that defines humanity and separates it from the host of other animals on the planet is not just our opposable thumbs, our bipedal stature, our use of symbols, our society and culture – these things are shared by various other animals, although in rudimentary forms.  What distinguishes us is our divided self, because we are at once a part of nature and apart from it.  Unlike the society and culture of our closest simian relatives, ours have grown so complex and enveloping that we have dissociated ourselves from the rest of nature, and we live primarily in an environment of our own making, an environment that is becoming increasingly virtual.  Like any other animal, we have bodies, urges, instincts, frailties; but we have gotten displaced, dissociated, disembodied to the point that we have a hard time recognizing them or connecting them to rest of our social existence.  They are a problem for us, either to be repressed or attenuated. 

     This creates in us an unquenchable nostalgia for Edens and pastoral utopias that never really existed.  We invest these fantasies with the virtues of harmony, simplicity, organic unity, and moral authenticity.  The idyll was a Roman invention.  Roman writers liked to contrast the simplicity and purity of country life to the corruption of urban life.  But we owe our present reverie of rustic virtues more to the Romantic notions of Rousseau, who made an enemy of culture itself, a thing the Romans would never have done.  They understood that culture, otium, had genuine advantages over nature.  As Hobbes famously observed, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short.  Animals are beautiful, and even loving, but they are murderous (one quality in which we can honestly claim to excel our fellow Earthlings).  We choose instead to celebrate the idyllic connection between human kind and nature in terms of a pacific vision of companionability.  We are fellow travelers on spaceship Earth (and we are too, but we have obliged the rest of creation to ride in 3rd class).

     Our institutions and customs embody this yearning to close the gap: pets, zoos, aquariums, animal fables, even, for that matter, research labs, are all practices that assert our fundamental connection to the animal kingdom.  The transposition of animals into human settings secretly implies that the door to cross back is still open for us too. Thus we indulge a host of benign representations of humans swimming with whales and dolphins, walking the African veldt with lions, riding horses, and generally enjoying all the benefits of the social life in a state of nature.  The centaur is not a grotesque and unnatural prodigy; it is a sign of plaintive wish fulfillment, a metaphor for our desire to be at one with the animals.  And while I dislike the false sentimentality of these stories we tell ourselves, this picture of Edenic peace shorn of blood and hunger and strife (and let it be said that George Adamson, unlike the millions of readers, including myself, of Born Free, was no sentimentalist, because he embraced the “terrible beauty” of nature without idealizing it), I cannot ignore the bitter loss it conveys or the poignant desire that it signals for a home in the order of things.  We are all Mother Nature’s prodigal sons who dream of a homecoming we will never know.