An only-too-common journalistic meme today features the metrosexual hero dipping a sensitive toe into the dangerous (and profoundly alien) waters of manliness. Our sissified hero goes hunting or visits a shooting range. He actually handles (and fires) a gun. He finds that he is enjoying himself, and begins to understand why people hunt or shoot.
But, then, before it is too late (and he has to join the NRA and start voting Republican), in a final moment of clarity, lovingly depicted in purplest prose, the author regains politically correct control of himself. Unlike such insensitive clods as Samson and David, Odysseus and Achilles, Xenophon and Arrian, Balzac and Shakespeare, Ivan Turgenev and Ernest Hemingway, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, our modern urbanist is too morally sensitive, too sophisticated and intelligent, too ironic to condone guns or hunting.
The latest account from the field, in yesterday’s (26/March/2006) New York Times Magazine, is provided by Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan.
Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, or nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes, my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a. . .wait: what was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall. I am the alert man…
Since there’s nothing he can do to make the encounter happen, the hunter’s energy goes into readying himself for it, and trying, by the sheer force of his attention, to summon the animal into his presence. Searching for his prey, the hunter instinctively becomes more like the animal, straining to make himself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. Predator and prey alike move according to their own maps of this ground, their own forms of attention and their own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter.. . .
wait a minute. Did I really write that last paragraph? Without irony? That’s embarrassing. Am I actually writing about the hunter’s “instinct,” suggesting that the hunt represents some sort of primordial encounter between two kinds of animals, one of which is me? This seems a bit much. I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Hemingway and Ortega y Gasset and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I never could stomach the straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground — a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect. So it is for Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, who writes in his “Meditations on Hunting” that “the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them.. . .” Please
And yet here I find myself slipping into the hunter’s ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega y Gasset. It may be that we have no better language in which to describe the experience of hunting, so that all of us who would try sooner or later slide into this overheated prose ignorant of irony.
José Ortega y Gasset
Irony — the outside perspective — easily withers everything about hunting, shrinks it to the proportions of boy’s play or atavism. And yet at the same time I found that there is something about the experience of hunting that puts irony itself to rout. In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing. But there it is: I enjoyed shooting a pig a whole lot more than I ever thought I should have…
In this, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting: it puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter, and while I’m sure there are many hunters who manage to avoid their gaze, that must take some doing…
..we are left standing there in the woods with our uneasiness and our disgust, and disgust’s boon companion, shame. I did not register any such emotion in the moments after shooting my pig, but eventually it dawned, or fell on me, like a great and unexpected weight. It happened late that evening, when, back at home, I opened my e-mail and saw that Angelo had sent me some digital pictures, under the subject heading “Look the great hunter!” I was eager to open them, excited to show my family my pig, since it hadn’t come home with me but was hanging in Angelo’s walk-in cooler.
The image that appeared on my computer screen hit me like an unexpected blow to the body. A hunter in an orange sweater was kneeling on the ground behind a pig the side of whose head has erupted in blood that is spreading like a river delta toward the bottom of the frame. The hunter’s rifle is angled just so across his chest; clearly he is observing some hoary convention of the hunter’s trophy portrait. One proprietary hand rests on the dead animal’s broad flank. The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing an ear-to-ear grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame. But the bloodied carcass was right there, front and center, and it rendered that grin — there’s no other word for it — obscene. I felt as if I had stumbled on some stranger’s pornography. I hurried my mouse to the corner of the image and clicked, closing it as quickly as I could. No one should ever see this.
What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling? I can’t for the life of me explain what could have inspired such a mad grin, it seemed so distant and alien from me now. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that the man in the picture was drunk. And perhaps he was, seized in the throes of some sort of Dionysian intoxication, the bloodlust that Ortega says will sometimes overtake the successful hunter. And what was I so damned proud of, anyway? I’d killed a pig with a gun, big deal.
Like the image of the two filthy hunters I’d caught in the convenience-store mirror earlier that afternoon, Angelo’s digital photo had shown me the hunt, and the hunter, from the outside, subjecting it to a merciless gaze that hunting can’t withstand, at least not in the 21st century.
The pig got shot, and the prig went home to Berkeley to scribble and emote. Personally, I would say that Mr. Pullan’s merciless gaze of Modernity is as fatal to the truth as a properly aimed 130 grain .270 round is to California feral pig. Pullan thinks he speaks for the enlightened spirit of human progress. In reality, his irony is a only a fashionable pose, and his voice only the voice of conformity echoing the infernal spirit which denies:
Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
(Faust I, Vers 1338ff. / Mephistopheles.)