27 Mar 2006

Prig Meets Pig

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Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan

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.

Jose Ortega y Gasset
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.)

Shooting victim

9 Feedbacks on "Prig Meets Pig"

Steve Bodio

The article was edited by the NYT and far more PC than the book. in the book he takes apart AR types and ultimately condemns them as more cut off from nature than any hunter, and calls the meal that he has with the cuts of pig that he has killed (and eats in the company of Siclian hunters and New Jersey Italian mushroomers) “the best of my life”. I think that is quite a distance to travel for an urban Jewish professor! (Incidentally only just arrived at Berkeley).


I bought the book, but it just arrived, and I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Pollan’s (ultra high cost) effort to emulate Thoreau’s cabin has been widely derided as well. Where was he before Berkeley, Brookline?

I have a Jewish doctor friend from Yale, who lives in Sioux City, and is a keen hunter He particularly likes bow hunting. Of course, he’s quite mad. You have to be to live in Iowa.


Ricardo Rabago

Hello Everyone:

If interested Organically Speaking a Seattle base website has released a conversation with Michael Pollan podcast (audio conversation).

Some Podcast Show Note Questions:

Q) Why the price difference between conventional food and organic and how do we go about bringing down the Organic prices?

Q) How can small local organic farmers remain local in a capitalistic system?

Q) What is the “Food Web” you briefly touch on your book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.


All the best,

Holistic Conversations for a Sustainable World Who Share Your Passion for:

* high quality organic food
* natural, sustainable lifestyle
* ecology
* holistic health

Michael Christopher

Interseting perspective (Michael Pollan) but ignorant. As a non-hunter, that experienced a 14 day hunting experience in South Africa, I have found José Ortega y Gasset’s writing to be reflective and accurate in the deepest spiritual sense. The most believeable in philospophy and life are those who have been there. Food for thought…

Maria Eugenia Mayer

I would like to go hunting myself, but with arrows or spears, and only if I were trained on how to use them efficiently. I feel like an urban primitive and despise the disparity between the high-tech weapon and the animal’s ability to defend itself. That notwithstanding, I’d still, if only once and to know the experience, hunt a boar, deer or large bird, with a rifle. I like game meat and, if killed swiftly and fairly, a hunted deer is as good as a FARM-executed deer (do they stun them with electrodes?)


You’d be surprised just how well animals can defend themselves by evasion and flight. Out of a box of 25 shotgun shells, I’ve known doves to defend themselves quite successfully against 23. You commonly don’t even get a shot at the ruffed grouse who flushes right behind, startling you so thoroughly you nearly drop your gun. The beagle pack I follow kills two or three rabbits a year, and our fox hunt, if I remember rightly, killed one all last year. Deer need killing by any means necessary. There are just too many of them around these days.


Bob Mattie

I think that Mr. Pollan has taken an ever so tenative, yet irretractable, into the truth of who he and all of man are. The remorse and shame felt after the hunt when looking at the picture I can only assume is misplaced respect for the animal taken. I applaud his willingness to venture into this arena shunned by the more “civilized” or “evolved” men. He will forever be different for it.
I am completely aware of the fact that in order for me to survive, something else must die. I am at peace with that. I find that I am at my most serene when afield. Everyday fades into the background, and life comes into perspective that cannot be gained elsewhere. This may seem overly romanticized, but is the truth of it.


bob mattie: i think it’s romantic in the best sense, and that it’s the truth. why can’t it be both? i can remember the deepest serenity i felt going back to my childhood when i used to hunt frogs and turtles and fish. the wilderness, nature, isn’t romaticized (overly or otherwise) by people who experience it live. i think there are many who don’t recognize this: who for various causes didn’t experience it enough because of how or where they lived.
also what you say about peace and death is very interesting and also very true, and i believe it echoes the line we have from faust. it’s a very beautiful-romantic feeling to draw peace from death…and so important that without this ‘insight’, let’s call it, the human being struggles very hard to maintain his sanity.
to stay – unmelted.
but journalists: what do you expect from journalists? or from writers who write to see themselves writing….urban, hyperconscious, specular man is no modern: just a symptom and a reaction. nothing too important. but it would be interesting to read the essay by ortega…

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