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Animals and Humans

August 13, 2012

In the second chapter of Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West, Morris Berman discusses the relationship of humans and animals:

… This is a more reliable mirror” than the mirror per se, not only because more data are available, but also because the nonhuman living world is the most obvious Other around… Human/animal relations would seem to be isomorphic to mind/body relations, or Self/Other relations. To be close to the animal kingdom is to not see the body- that thing in the mirror- as an Other… whereas for many centuries now, and I suspect many millennia, “we” (i.e., our minds) have regarded our bodies as somehow untamed, unruly- animalistic. They give birth, they die, they generate stomach aches and menstrual cramps, they contract diseases, they tingle with excitement, they get tired, and all without “our” voluntary control. Like animals, they don’t “listen to reason.” And so in animal species we see reflections of our own physicality. How we relate to animals over time can, I believe, even more than the mirror, serve as a way into our hidden somatic history… (p.64)

Animal mythologies go back to the earliest Paleolithic societies. Belief in human descent from animals, as well as tales of human/animal transformations, are probably as old as the race, and part of the age-old view of animals as sacred beings. John Berger, in an essay entitled “Why Look at Animals?,” suggests that the mirroring function of the animal is a crucial one because the look of an animal is so unlike the look of another human being. The eyes of an animal  considering a man, he says- and he is explicitly excluding a pet or zoo animal here- are wary, ans man “becomes aware of himself returning the look.” The animal’s silence, and its distance, hold a secret for man, and in Paleolithic times this resulted in the animal’s being seen as a possessor of power. D.H. Lawrence was inspired to write the following lines upon seeing a wild doe, which capture what Berger is talking about:

… I looked at her

And felt her watching:

I became a strange being…

This strangeness we ourselves feel is the result of the power of a nonhuman mirror, and it probably accounts for the fact that the first art, which can be seen in the caves of Altimira and Lascaux, is about animal subjects rather than human ones. (Fig 1 & 2) Otherness is a miracle, for hunter-gatherers, this was a source of celebration and awe, not fear. The fundamental distinction made by humans from Neolithic (agricultural) times onward- about 8000 or 9000 B.C.- was the division between the Wild and the Tame, a distinction not made by human beings for the million or million and a half years preceding the advent of the domestication of animals.

Fig.1 Lascaux, France

Fig. 2 Altamira, Spain

All of this falls into the category of what Paul Shepard calls “totemic culture.” Totemic cultures, he says, assume separateness of animals, a separateness that shakes us loose from ourselves and enable us to see ourselves from the outside. In this way, animals become constituents of the Self. If human identity, as I have argued in Chapter 1, is so heavily shaped by the phenomenon of mirroring, it becomes obvious how different a culture that has a nonhuman mirror available is going to be from one that does not. It is not for nothing that the American poet, John Ciardi, called zoology “the science most like a looking glass”… (p. 65-66)

… Exposure to animals was one of the first experiences an infant in preagricultural societies had, and there was something direct and unmediated about it. This experience broke the homogeneity of human mirroring from a very early age, and this was the case for most of the history of the human race. There is something tedious and narcissistic about a strictly human world, and hunter-gatherer societies managed to avoid this. It is thus no surprise that the first symbols were animal ones; that the use of animal imagery for charting the experiences of the world is universal… (p. 67-68)

… Animal movement, the animal body, was the model of human expression in hunter-gatherer society. It is very likely that Hugh Brody’s description of the hunt among contemporary Indians of British Columbia depicts a very old pattern, psyche, and way of life: “Above all they are still and receptive, prepared for whatever insight or realization may come to them, and ready for whatever stimulus to action might arise. This state of attentive waiting is perhaps as close as people can come to the falcon’s suspended flight, when the bird, seemingly motionless, is ready to plummet in decisive action.” (Brody, Hugh Maps and Dreams Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre 1981 p. 43)

Agricultural and industrial man formulates a plan and then goes about carrying it out. (Herscovici, Alan Second Nature Toronto: CBS Enterprises, 1985 p. 66) Paleolithic men and women took their cues from body feelings and the movements of animals. This was a life of shifting moods rather than demands of the ego. The ego, very likely, was a tool; it didn’t run the show…

The hunting and eating of animals did not contradict the fact that they were regarded as sacred beings. In fact, just the reverse was true…. for the hunt was seen as a sacred activity, an act of communion and reciprocity with the animal kingdom. They understood that death was a part of life; animals occasionally killed men, and men occasionally killed animals. There was no need to take it personally. (Herscovici: 1985, pp. 15 & 60) The tracking and killing of a wild animal requires great identification. To catch it you must learn its habits in your body; you must become it, in a sense; and all tribal cultures have or had rites of wearing animal skins or animal masks.

Similarly, eating an animal was a sign of profound respect. By eating the animal, you absorbed its power, its characteristics… Eating is the most fundamental form of Self/Other relationship, the incorporation of the body of another into your own body. And the cutting up of the animal body, as Paul Shepard says, taught the children of Paleolithic societies about the insides of things, and therefore about their own insides. One’s innards were not a source of uneasiness, but of pleasure. All of this adds up to a reverence for life. The animal was hunted, eaten, worshipped, and, above all, used for transformation. The Plains Indians of the nineteenth century sought animal encounter, or vision encounter, with a wide range of creatures to, to obtain a guardian spirit, and thereby, personal power. The animal could also enter the seeker’s body, it was believed, and become part of his spirit strength. The famous Sioux medicine man, Black Elk, claimed that many of his healing powers came from the bear.(Brown, Joseph Epes “The Bison and the Mother: Lakota Correspondences”, Parabola, 8, 2 May 1983, 7-8 and 11)

We get some idea, then, of how deeply hunter-gatherer cultures were immersed in animal life as an agent of sorting out Self/Other relationships and the meaning of human life. Properly speaking, human life for them had no special significance apart from the animal world. (p. 68-69)

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