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"Red in tooth and claw"

by (3268)
Updated October 19, 2014 at 3:02 AM
Created May 23, 2010 at 2:21 PM

There's a bit of a tendency for some of us to romanticize an ancestral notion of "nature" as a sort of harmony, where man flourished in his pure form. This monologue by director Werner Herzog, on "the obscenity of the jungle," reminds us that nature is often violent, predatory, unpredictable, and disordered. I don't necessarily agree, but I find it thought-provoking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xQyQnXrLb0&feature=related

What do you all think?

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4089 · May 25, 2010 at 12:05 PM

@pfw: ah, gotcha. There's a great expression in Quebecois French: "s'enfarger dans les fleurs du tapis" (tr: tripping over the flowers in the carpet). Means getting really nitpicky, and I do it all the time :). Mostly agreed, but I think that ultimately, once you've got to a point where you reject the premise that all things natural are "good", you can start asking yourself what is "good" anyhow and what does it mean in the ecological sense?

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7821 · May 24, 2010 at 7:17 PM

Stupid comment limit. I must note that the above is basically a reductio ad absurdum: if predation is murder and predation is natural, and all natural things are good, then murder is good, a statement no one would agree with. I think the resolution is not to only claim that predation is mere killing rather than murder, but also to reject the last premise of all natural things being good.

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7821 · May 24, 2010 at 7:15 PM

I was taking it to be a moral statement, which I think is what Herzog was going for. The point is to cast it in a way which resonates as evil/wrong for people so that they must re-examine what their romantic idea of nature. I agree completely that applying human mores to the natural world fails, but I think that's also exactly the point being made. Everything is trying to kill everything else, often for no reason a human would accept as justified (see sated cat with mouse). But the natural world is good! Murder == good? So by accepting Herzog's statement, you must reject inherent natural good.

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4089 · May 24, 2010 at 5:37 PM

Actually, I should have written "...killing of human beings under circumstances where such killing isn't considered legally justifable (such as self-defence, warfare conducted in accordance with the law of war, execution of condemned criminals, manslaughter, etc.)" Hit Add Comment too quickly :).

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4089 · May 24, 2010 at 5:36 PM

@pfw: actually, my issue with murder here is more legal nitpickery; murder is a subset of killing, more specifically killing of human beings under circumstances (such as self-defence, warfare conducted in accordance with the law of war, execution of condemned criminals, manslaughter, etc.). It's a legal notion, i.e. a criminal offence, not a biological concept, and I think it's falling into the same sort of error as claiming that animals have rights; it's a failure to understand what exactly rights are (or here, what murder is). I'm all for calling predation killing, of course.

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3268 · May 24, 2010 at 4:19 PM

Great discussion!

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7821 · May 24, 2010 at 3:30 PM

I think that's why "murder" works. We want to think that killing for profit or fun is wrong (a crime) but that's the way the world is; predation is exactly murder, and no prey animal would ever, in the moment of its death, argue that it's "just how we live". It would rage at the injustice and cruelty of it, if it could, but it can't because a wolf is chewing on its esophagus and opening its belly before it's even dead. The word "murder" forces you to recognize that predation is truly horrible for the prey, and strips away any lingering romanticism about life and death in the natural world.

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4089 · May 24, 2010 at 1:09 PM

@pfw: oh, absolutely, even if it does lead to the disturbing notion that natural beauty is just a veneer over carnage. That and I'm seriously tempted to quibble over the use of the term "murder" in this context. Murder is a crime; predation for food is just how we live...

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7821 · May 24, 2010 at 1:01 PM

You do have to admit that "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder" is an awesome way to put it though :)

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4089 · May 24, 2010 at 12:37 PM

I think that taking anything a First World urban aesthete says about nature after he's just been massively culture-shocked by being dumped into the Amazon jungle seriously is a risky business. It'll be utterly beyond anything he's ever seen before, and the environmental conditions (heat, damp, smells, bugs, riotous vegetation, poisonous snakes, alligators, pirahnas, locals killing dinner, etc, etc.) are going to be a major stressor. Of course he's going to be overwhelmed by the experience.

To the locals, of course, it's just home. They've lived there all their lives and understand the environment and its risks and would be just as stressed as Herzog was if you flew them to a major city and released them onto a sidewalk at rush hour.

Years ago, I owned a log cabin by a lake north of Montreal. One summer evening, I was sitting on the porch with my then wife, a good friend and fishing buddy, and his wife, relaxing after dinner, which if memory serves consisted of some brook trout we'd caught earlier that day. The lake was still, reflecting dark pines and the colours of the sunset. My ex remarked on the beauty of the scene, and my friend replied that it might look beautiful, but under the water a struggle for survival was going on that made the Vietnam war look like a picnic, because at least there Charlie wasn't trying to eat you.

There are a few conclusions about what Herzog and my friend were driving at that I've come to over the past few years, while hunting and fishing and reading up on those topics: the world is not a warm safe fuzzy place and doesn't care about us; our hopes, fears, needs, ambitions, consumerist wants, personal comfort, safety or survival; we only think it does because we live in one of the most safe, sheltered, comfortable, sterile, unnatural environments ever, where one of the greatest threats to our own personal survival is our appetites. This is why so many modern urbanites are so horrified when they're confronted with the reality of where their food comes from.

The world is made of food. You need to eat food in order to live. It sucks to be food. Everybody is food. You are no exception. You might as well just get used to the notion and enjoy the view while you can.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d
4089 · May 24, 2010 at 5:37 PM

Actually, I should have written "...killing of human beings under circumstances where such killing isn't considered legally justifable (such as self-defence, warfare conducted in accordance with the law of war, execution of condemned criminals, manslaughter, etc.)" Hit Add Comment too quickly :).

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d
4089 · May 24, 2010 at 1:09 PM

@pfw: oh, absolutely, even if it does lead to the disturbing notion that natural beauty is just a veneer over carnage. That and I'm seriously tempted to quibble over the use of the term "murder" in this context. Murder is a crime; predation for food is just how we live...

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff
7821 · May 24, 2010 at 7:15 PM

I was taking it to be a moral statement, which I think is what Herzog was going for. The point is to cast it in a way which resonates as evil/wrong for people so that they must re-examine what their romantic idea of nature. I agree completely that applying human mores to the natural world fails, but I think that's also exactly the point being made. Everything is trying to kill everything else, often for no reason a human would accept as justified (see sated cat with mouse). But the natural world is good! Murder == good? So by accepting Herzog's statement, you must reject inherent natural good.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d
4089 · May 24, 2010 at 5:36 PM

@pfw: actually, my issue with murder here is more legal nitpickery; murder is a subset of killing, more specifically killing of human beings under circumstances (such as self-defence, warfare conducted in accordance with the law of war, execution of condemned criminals, manslaughter, etc.). It's a legal notion, i.e. a criminal offence, not a biological concept, and I think it's falling into the same sort of error as claiming that animals have rights; it's a failure to understand what exactly rights are (or here, what murder is). I'm all for calling predation killing, of course.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff
7821 · May 24, 2010 at 1:01 PM

You do have to admit that "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder" is an awesome way to put it though :)

03aeff8d87a3b53a449b5b8e9158da98
3268 · May 24, 2010 at 4:19 PM

Great discussion!

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff
7821 · May 24, 2010 at 3:30 PM

I think that's why "murder" works. We want to think that killing for profit or fun is wrong (a crime) but that's the way the world is; predation is exactly murder, and no prey animal would ever, in the moment of its death, argue that it's "just how we live". It would rage at the injustice and cruelty of it, if it could, but it can't because a wolf is chewing on its esophagus and opening its belly before it's even dead. The word "murder" forces you to recognize that predation is truly horrible for the prey, and strips away any lingering romanticism about life and death in the natural world.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff
7821 · May 24, 2010 at 7:17 PM

Stupid comment limit. I must note that the above is basically a reductio ad absurdum: if predation is murder and predation is natural, and all natural things are good, then murder is good, a statement no one would agree with. I think the resolution is not to only claim that predation is mere killing rather than murder, but also to reject the last premise of all natural things being good.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d
4089 · May 25, 2010 at 12:05 PM

@pfw: ah, gotcha. There's a great expression in Quebecois French: "s'enfarger dans les fleurs du tapis" (tr: tripping over the flowers in the carpet). Means getting really nitpicky, and I do it all the time :). Mostly agreed, but I think that ultimately, once you've got to a point where you reject the premise that all things natural are "good", you can start asking yourself what is "good" anyhow and what does it mean in the ecological sense?

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7821 · May 23, 2010 at 4:46 PM

Awesome.

I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of believing that there is some rhyme or reason or "harmony" to the natural world and "natural" ways of living when the reality is just as Herzog puts it: we are all little bits of life engaged with each other in a daily fight to continue being, a fight that we all inevitably lose.

"Grok" didn't invent fire and shoes and agriculture by accident or for the hell of it.

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4089 · May 25, 2010 at 12:29 PM

Coincidentally, I just stumbled across this review of a book called Deadly Kingdom: When Animals Attack, by Gordon Grice: http://trueslant.com/markdery/2010/05/21/when-animals-attack-on-gordon-grices-deadly-kingdom/

"“A peculiar fallacy accompanies this urge to touch the wild: people feel, somehow, that nature will not hurt them because they are themselves approaching it with a kindred feeling,” writes Grice.

This is the extravagant self-regard of the naked ape, convinced that all of creation smiles on him; that wild nature is his helpmate or playmate, buffoon or bogeyman, raw resource for capitalist exploitation or metaphoric mirror, in which he can see himself and his society more clearly. As Deadly Kingdom makes abundantly clear, that is cosmic presumptuousness, a sometimes fatal narcissism."

I'm going to have to look it up.

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