Of the Devil’s party without knowing it

Some further, possibly not very coherent, thoughts carrying on from a previous post. In that post, I expressed my increasing dissatisfaction with TV nature documentaries which, on the one hand, mainly show scenes of predators hunting, or male animals fighting for control of females, accompanied by the kind of tense, exciting, sinister music that I associate with action scenes in movies, and on the other invite us to see nature as something fragile and vulnerable and in need of protection. Why is an orca drowned in a fishing net tragic and pitiful, but a baby seal being tormented by orcas a thrilling spectacle?

I suppose one way of responding to this is by saying that empathy is always selective. In a war, for instance, people tend to be moved to pity by the sufferings of people on their own side, and unmoved by, or even exultant about, the sufferings of those on the other. In these documentaries, the wider concern of the filmmakers is not individual animals, but the ecological web as a whole. To make this vivid, they enlist our pity for a victim of human behaviour that threatens that web, but not for the victim of the endless chain of slaughter that the web itself largely consists of.

However, I’m still left with a feeling that there is something self-contradictory going on -a mismatch between the message communicated implicitly, and the one communicated explicitly. They celebrate the stereotypically ‘masculine’, but then swerve towards the stereotypically ‘feminine’ so abruptly that it is unconvincing. (It comes over rather like the prologue of some old play or novel, reassuring us that the depravity depicted is for our edification and not for our titillation).

And the reason this is unconvincing is that the ‘masculine’ ethos these programmes implicitly celebrate is actually the same ethos that justified in the first place the human destruction of much of the nonhuman world: ‘manifest destiny’, ‘right of conquest’, ‘survival of the fittest’* etc etc. Blake said of Milton that he was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’, because Satan and the fallen angels in Paradise Lost were so much more vivid and attractive than the angels who remained faithful. We are pretty addicted to the ‘masculine’ as the source of drama: the contest, the battle, the striving for mastery. Even feminism, it sometimes seems to me, is more interested in claiming the ‘masculine’ for women than it is in promoting the status of the ‘feminine’, which is to say the nurturing, healing side of being human.

Yet when I look back over my life, it is really the ‘feminine’ things I most value, like reading my little granddaughter her bedtime story and kissing her goodnight. I think that ultimately means much more to me than, say, the slightly hysterical exultation that comes from winning a prize. And it is the ‘feminine’ that will save the world, if it is still to be saved: The ‘feminine’ with the ‘masculine’ in its service, rather than the other way round, as has been the case for pretty much the whole of history.

See also:

An unsung Einstein

* To be clear ‘survival of fittest’ is, in one sense, an evolutionary fact: what I am talking about here, is use of this idea as a moral/aesthetic principle, the turning of description into prescription.

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