Saturday, June 9, 2007

Taming the Animal

Reading C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, I was oddly reminded of a passage from another classic of imaginative literature, Antoine de St. Exupery’s The Little Prince. Here it is. The Little Prince has just met a fox.

"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."
"I am a fox," said the fox.
"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."
"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince. But, after some thought, he added: "What does that mean-- 'tame'?"
"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties. . . . One only understands the things that one tames. Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me...Men have forgotten this truth. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

The passage in Lewis that brought it to mind:
“Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only “natural” animal – the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. . . . If the earthly lion could read the prophecy of that day when he shall eat hay like an ox, he would regard it as a description not of heaven, but of hell.” (C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain, 126-30, passim)

I must say something about both passages because I think it no exaggeration to suggest that one of the greatest areas of conflict in our age lies along the axis between “wild” and “tame.” We don’t usually use such antiquated, even charming, words to describe that axis; I doubt that the real estate developer, ripping up a birch forest while dollar signs gleam in his eyes, would for a moment consider that he was in any way establishing ties with the land. If he were feeling noble, the developer might consider himself an agent of Progress, and the buying and selling of land an act of strengthening the economy and making the world safer and more prosperous for women and children, but for him, clearing is an impersonal transaction in which wild and tame as relationship or even friendship figure not at all.

Most Alaskans that I know think that some development is a good thing, but I have seen a lump rise in even the most developmentally inclined throat when a shimmering birch forest is reduced to a gaping, red, pit. (I seem to be alone in shedding tears over the loss of orchards to computer fortunes in my own home state of California.) Love of the Great Land still runs deep in Alaska and, thanks to a large indigenous population, ambivalence toward establishing ties with anything by taming it can be felt in some surprising places and ways.

C.S. Lewis and Antoine de St. Exupery were able to see connection, relatedness, order, comfort and love in domestication, because they were always the ones doing the taming. As males, they were expected to shape the wilderness into their own comfortable image. St. Exupery never explores how the tame fox feels after the Prince promptly abandons him. I know many women who simply laugh at the idea that their husband has any divine right to tame them at all. Therefore, I am hardly surprised to discover that one person who took gentle umbrage with Lewis and his tame animals was no one other than the great Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill, who called it “frankly an intolerable doctrine and a frightful exaggeration of what is involved in the primacy of man. . . . Your own example of the good-man, good-wife, and good-dog in the good homestead is a bit smug and utilitarian, don’t you think, over against the wild beauty of God’s creative action in the jungle and deep sea?. . .I feel your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.” (The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, 301, quoted in Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, Hidden Spring/Paulist Press, 2003, p.138)

As our developer proves by carving up what is wild simply for economic gain, “wild” and “tame” are not just names for animals; each represents a very different ideal. One of the complaints that indigenous people of the North have leveled against white industrial people is that the White Man has deprived them of wild food. Wild food keeps them healthy, they say. To eat what is wild is to live in right relationship with the world that sustains them, while processed food snuffs out the life force within. Wild food says something very different about the cost of life than the cozy world of tame foxes and sheep dogs beside the fire.

When the early missionaries arrived in Alaska villages they found not religion, but a relationship with the animals. In asking an animal to sacrifice its life to feed me, to give me its fur to keep me warm, to envelop me with its spirit, I entered a relationship with that animal at the borderlands between life and death. To receive the willing sacrifice of Caribou who gives his life to feed me and my family is no more and no less religious than receiving the willing sacrifice of Christ who gave himself to be killed so that his life could give life to the world.

Whether I am wild or tame defines my use and stewardship of the earth; it defines my attitudes toward life and death; it declares whether I consider myself to be part of the mysteries of creation or their manager. If I believe that I can manage what is wild, that I can “manage” “end of life care,” that I can run a community like some kind of well oiled machine, I risk substituting myself for God. And as Keith Miller writes in his intriguing guide to Christian formation The Edge of Adventure, “The practical problem with trying to be God is that evidently no one can coerce the kind of universal approval and success the ‘role of God’ calls for.” (p.24) Or as Carl Jung observed, “We have ideas about the godliness of man and forget about the gods.”

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