Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crimes against nature

Apropos of poets laureate, I was the other day listening to a recording of Ted Hughes reading February 17, which describes in horror-porn detail the botched stillbirth of a lamb.

I pulled against the corpse that would not come
Till it came
And after it, the long, sudden, yolk-yellow parcel of life in a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

An impossibly tough (in all senses of the word) act for Andrew Motion to follow, Hughes. I admire him, though you couldn’t describe his poetry as enjoyable. A brilliant wordsmith but with more than a hint of what you might call The Hemingway Syndrome, ie. an over-eagerness to proclaim his rugged masculinity, presumably as compensation for his unmanly vocation.

But I do like Hughes’s brutal, unromantic take on nature. I have mentioned before the idea for a TV programme cooked up by me and my old man called Isn't Nature Disgusting?, in which the anti-Attenborough host would encounter various of God’s excreting, stinking, parasitic, disease-bearing creatures, and would greet each one not with wonder but with undisguised repulsion. Come to think of it, that nature-nausea is what Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist is about.

You could argue though, that Hughes’s mangled lamb kebab is not about ‘nature’ at all. Farmed sheep are no more natural than hedge sculptures, if you define ‘natural’ as being ‘all that in the world which is not man or created by man.’ Of course, this definition may not leave us with very much that is natural, at least on Planet Earth. ‘Rural’ would be a better word for the Hughes world, and rural is terrible enough for city-slickers.

One of the countless ways you can divide up religions and worldviews is between those that Buddhistically see man as fundamentally part of nature; and those that draw a critical line between man (above nature, and with a soul) and animals (all soulless, even dolphins). Interestingly, whichever line you take, the ever-increasing scientific revelations about the natural world present problems. For unless you’re someone who happens to find excreting-stinking-parasitic-disease-bearingness wondrous in itself, it is a lot easier to feel one with nature from a distance.

Which brings us inevitably to the ichneumon wasp, that astonishing creature which goes around laying parasitic eggs and robbing people of their Faith. The ichneumon, as all good Darwinists know, kills its caterpillar prey in such a uniquely repulsive and indifferent way that Charles himself finally gave up on God, saying “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”.

The ichneumadon wasp sure is a cold, nihilistic bastard, but he’s undoubtedly Natural. Darwin couldn’t reconcile that with a Nature-creating God, even if man is separate from nature. And who wouldn’t want to be separate from nature, if nature is that meaninglessly cruel wasp? Screw Buddhism, we’re better than that. But of course Darwinist science itself has humbled man by putting him firmly back into nature, which means we’re fundamentally made of the same stuff as the ichneumadon. But we must be different, mustn’t we? And if we are different, then what are we? And if we’re not, whence comes our disgust?

Alas, all we can do is weep at the wasp, as the Sea of Faith drifts out of touch,
Well yes, says the caterpillar,
but that doesn’t help
me much.

10 comments:

Dick Madeley said...

Honoured to be in your blogroll. Trust I'm friend not foe. ;o)

Dick Madeley said...

PS. Nice to see you back blogging. You disappeared just when I'd found you last time.

mutleythedog said...

That wasp thing has a good idea if you ask me... not that you did.

Brit said...

Thanks, Dick.

Dick Madeley said...

Such a good post that I had to came back to it. Hughes (and indeed Plath) are two poets that always surprise me by how good they are and always on the cusp of making these moral statements. There’s a bit in Plath that reminds me of this; it’s the shrug of the shoulders at the end of ‘Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea’.

Water will run by; the actual sun
Will scrupulously rise and set;
No little man lives in the exacting moon
And that is that, is that, is that

It runs counter to the ending of ‘Heart of Darkness’, which I hold onto as one of the most profound statements about being human that has ever been. It is one thing to accept nihilism, the finality of death, those absolute positions from where no moral statement can be made (‘that is that, is that, is that’), but it’s something braver to take another step and still fight the battle you know you’ll never win. It’s Marlow’s lie to Kurtz’s fiancé, proclaiming him a romantic despite knowing the truth. Without it, we’re not humanity but a rabble, a braying mob. All poetry, I suppose, comes back to making moral positions and it’s why I have problems with the less structured modern verse. When poetry proclaims form it seems to make a statement against the opposite. Not being a poet myself (though I do try, despite Judy’s mockery), I’ve settled into a comedy rut, which is where Byron (one of my heroes) ended up, choosing satire over melancholy.

Oh, now I’m just getting pretentious. It’s not on. Forget I wrote that. It’s all nonsense and not like me at all... Herring.

Brit said...

Think of England welcomes and indeed, celebrates pretension, Dick.

I believe I catch your drift, though I read Heart of Darkness as being more bleak than that. Or perhaps it isn't. Kurtz sees the truth of fallen but godless man and loses his marbles. Then the main guy goes back and tells a white lie to Kurtz's lady to make her feel better. That's either depressing or uplifting depending on how you look at it.

Dick Madeley said...

I see the 'lie' as being a lie to humanity itself. If Marlow accepts Kurtz's vision of the world, then he cannot go on living. He too must go mad. Even though it's paradoxical, the ultimate moral act is to know there is no morality yet to act as though there is.

Coppola sort of admits this in his recut 'Apocalypse Now', which is his version of Heart of Darkness. It used to end with scenes of a bombing raid, when Sheen's character calls in an airstrike. Coppola changed it to reflect on the character's rejection of the 'exterminate the brutes' line (I'm typing from memory, so I might get the quote wrong). New editions of the film have no bombing, just credits on a black background. It's the same point as to why Marlow lies to the fiancée.

Sorry. Now I am going on. Just love the book... I'll now retreat quietly to my blog. ;o)

Hey Skipper said...

Darwin couldn’t reconcile that with a Nature-creating God, even if man is separate from nature. And who wouldn’t want to be separate from nature, if nature is that meaninglessly cruel wasp? Screw Buddhism, we’re better than that. But of course Darwinist science itself has humbled man by putting him firmly back into nature, which means we’re fundamentally made of the same stuff as the ichneumadon. But we must be different, mustn’t we?

Must we see it one way or the other?

Presuming normal color vision, it is easy to tell red from blue.

However, it is impossible to find the dividing line between the two.

Hey Skipper said...

BTW -- thanks for resuming blogging.

One Lileks-quality talent just isn't enough.

Brit said...

Thanks, Skipper. It ain't going to be daily though. But then who is these days?