01 December 2010

Meditations on Hunting

One of my most favorite reads is a book called Meditations on Hunting by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. At least once a year I have Enoch Pratt send me down a copy of the first translation of the work. Although I've been tempted to order the newer version, I have fallen in love with this older book and its penciled hunting illustrations between chapters. The book does not go into the details of hunting, but more into the larger topics of why we hunt today when we do not need to hunt to survive and how for Paleolithic man hunting was his occupation. The book also touches on the domestication of the modern dog to the scarcity of game and how it different classes viewed the hunt.

Here is an excerpt of the book from the chapter Suddenly We Hear The Sound of Barking:
Suddenly a dog's bark shatters the prevailing silence. This bark is not merely a point of noise that appears at a spot on the mountain and remains there - rather it seems to extend rapidly in a line. We hear, and almost see, the barking run loose, weaving swiftly through space like some erratic star. In an instant the barking runs over the plains like a lightning bolt. Many different voices follow it, advancing in the same way. The game is seen, raised in dizzying flight like wind on the wind. The entire countryside is polarized, seemingly magnetized. The fear of the pursued animal is like a vacuum into which everything in the environs is thrown. Beaters, dogs, small game, everything heads that way, and even the birds, frightened, fly rapidly in that direction. The fear which causes the beast to flee absorbs the entire countryside, suctions it, carries it racing along behind, and even the hunter, outwardly quiet, is inwardly moved, his heart racing wildly. The beast's fear... but is it so certain that the beast is afraid? At least his fear is not at all like fear in man. In the animal fear is permanent; it is his way of life, his occupation. We are talking, then, about a professional fear, and when something becomes professionalized it is quite different. Therefore, while fear makes man slow of mind and movement, it carries the faculties of the beast to their greatest performance. Animal life culminates in fear. Skillfully the stag eludes the obstacle; with millimetric precision he threads swiftly through the gap between two tree trunks. Nose to the wind, neck arched, he lets swing free the regal antlery which balances his acrobatics, as the pole does for the tightrope walker. He gains distance with the speed of a meteor. His hoofs hardly touch the ground; rather, as Nietzsche says of the dancer, he limits himself to acknowledging it with the point of his foot; acknowledging it in order to eliminate it, in order to leave it behind. Suddenly, on the spine of a low ridge the stag appears to the hunter; he sees him cut across the sky with the elegant grace of a constellation, launched there by the springs of his slender extremities. The leap of the roe dear or stag - and even more of certain antelopes - is perhaps the most beautiful event that occurs in Nature. He lands again at a distance and accelerates his flight, because the snorting dogs are close on his heels-the dogs, abettors of all this vertigo, that have transmitted their delightful frenzy to the mountain and now, in pursuit of the game, tongues hanging out, bodies stretched to their full length, gallop obsessed-hound, mastiff, beagle, greyhound.
Although this is a translation from Spanish, it is still breathtaking. Most of the book is written in this manner, quasi-philosophical musings from well thought out ideas. He also speaks of our evolution from a hunter-gatherer people without skirting around any of the biblical bull. Also in this chapter:
The dog enters domesticity toward the end of the Paleolithic Age, in the later Capsian culture, contemporaneous with the Solutrean-Magdalenian. Its first documented appearance in found in Spain, in the Cave of the Old Woman of Alpera. It seems that it was not yet use in hunting. This happens a little later, at the beginning of the Neolithic Age, in the period called Maglemosian. The dog was, then, the first domestic animal. It is not even certain that man domesticated it; certain evidence suggests that the dog spontaneously approached man. Doubtless the leavings of food attracted him. Perhaps, even more than food, the dog found something else attractive in being close to man: warmth. It is enough to see the happiness of today's dog when he is beside a fire. The coals intoxicate him, and do not forget that man is, first and foremost, the animal with fire in his fist. The manipulation of fire, the success of having it at his disposal, was man's first physical discovery and the root of all the others. Before anything else, he dominated flame; he arises in Nature as the flammiferous beat.
Domesticated by fire?
I think I can accept the advent of domesticated dogs occurred through our ancestor's use of fire. I am sure the people that managed to befriend these canine beasts had many other benefits than simply a hunting partner. They had the protection and intimidation abilities, and maybe a few found the companionship enjoyable. And I am sure that the scraps mentioned above are similar to the scraps my hounds get, as I cannot physically eat every part of the animal. But going back to fire, I've taken Shaman to countless bonfires and he seems to have a natural inclination to hang by the fire. Now he never tries to jump over the flame like I've often done, he does keep his distance. But I have seen the intoxication mentioned above, staring into the flames absorbed.

The chapter goes on to touch topics like MovNat's Zoo Human concept. I am sure no one will accept the charge of being degenerate, but Ortega y Gasset presents his case like this:

From the zoological point of view, the domesticated animal is a degenerate one, as is man himself. In the artificial existence which man offers, the beast loses not a few of his instincts, even though he refines others which man needs and tries to select in breeding. The space left in the animal’s life by the loss of these instincts is filled by teaching and training. But generally this is something that is only trivially and superficially understood. Through training man introduces certain forms of human conduct in the animal. That is, domestication partially de-animalizes and partially humanizes the beast. This is to say that the domestic animal is an intermediate reality between the pure animal and man, which, in turn, is to say that something like reason operates in the domestic animal. That is what has never been pointed out, although it is completely obvious.

Cyprus: U Degenerate!   Prynn: Yo Momma Degenerate!
Later in the book the topic of hunting as an escape, a vacation from the human condition are delved into.

Man cannot re-enter Nature except by temporarily rehabilitating that part of himself which is still an animal. And this, in turn, can be achieved only by placing himself in relation to another animal. But there is no animal, pure animal, other than the wild one, and the relationship with him is the hunt.
Only the wild animal is properly in the countryside, not just on top of it, simply having it in view. If we want to enjoy that intense pure happiness which is a “return to Nature,” we have to seek the company of the surly beast, descend to his level, feel emulation toward him, pursue him. This subtle rite is the hunt.

Simply put, we should embrace our hunting ancestors and grab our gun or bow or spear and hunt (and do not forget your degenerate wolf!). Now I won't go so far as to say find you a club and you will be able to take any woman back to your cave. But maybe we should step out of our cubicles with their artificial light and give hunting a shot.