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Thursday 1 December 2011

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer and the Myth of Man's Dominion


Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals (detail)
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1803-1872), 1839 (Royal Collection, Windsor)

All sciences are odd in some way, but paleoanthropology is one of the oddest. The other sciences that try to reconstruct the past -- geology, cosmology, evolutionary biology -- seek regularities or laws that may tell us what to expect in the future. Paleoanthropology doesn't, and by rights can't. As far as we know, human beings are the only intelligent animals in the universe. Our origins and history are therefore unique; and you can't uncover any laws by studying a phenomenon that has only one instance. People who study human origins sometimes claim that their investigations will shed new light on human nature and so help us understand ourselves and predict our future. But this is wishful thinking. A thing is what it is, no matter how it got that way; and human appetites and impulses are what they are, no matter where or what we came from. Knowing their history adds nothing. If it were proved tomorrow that people evolved from cottontails instead of apes, we should still prefer bananas to clover as an ingredient in pie.

We care about our origins for reasons that have nothing to do with their negligible implications for social practice or theoretical science. At bottom, these reasons are religious or ideological. How we got here may not tell us anything about who we are, but it has a lot to do with what we think about ourselves and our place in the universe.

The opposite is also true. What we think about our place in the universe affects what we are prepared to believe about human origins. For instance, Fundamentalists see the universe as a stage built for presenting the melodrama of human history -- and so they refuse to look at the evidence that the star actor has been offstage for 99.99 percent of the play so far.

: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (
1803-1872), 1837


As late as 1946, the great American paleoanthropologist W. W. Howells could write that hunting "may not be of any great significance" in human evolution. But by the early 1960s, it was generally agreed that nothing else was half so significant. "Whether we love hunting or hate it," wrote the ethologist Valerius Geist in 1975, "eulogize its blinding passion or condemn it, hunting was the force that shaped our bodies, moulded our souls and honed our minds."

These are strong words; but hunting is a topic that stirs strong emotions nowadays. For many modern hunters, it is a quasi-religious experience that is intrinsically good and uplifting (Geist, an enthusiastic hunter, describes it as "an intercourse with nature"). Others regard hunting as flatly evil: deplorable in itself and bound up with a perverse itch to slay that gets expressed in murder and warfare, as well as blood sports. Neither of these attitudes is very old. Throughout most of Western history, hunting has been more prosaically viewed as a source of cheap (and generally illegal) meat for the poor and of innocent amusement for the gentry. In European literature before the nineteenth century, the huntsman is typically a carefree, enviable figure with a touch of Robin Hood about him; it is the butcher, not the hunter, whose name is synonymous with bloody violence.

In the mid-1800s, the currents of Romanticism tore the stereotype of the Jolly Huntsman apart into two contrasting images: one pretty, the other nasty. The pretty image assimilates the hunter to Rousseau's Noble Savage and casts him as a mystic seeking oneness with nature in the wilderness. It goes back at least to Cooper's Deerslayer stories, and a debased version of it is familiar to us all from the hokum surrounding frontiersmen like Daniel Boone. The nasty image is of greater interest, because it shows up as part of a new set of attitudes toward animals and nature.

File:Edwin Landseer. Hawking.JPG

Hawking: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1832 (private collection)

Organized opposition to hunting can be traced back to the Puritan religious movement. Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic denounced cruelty to animals, not exactly as a sin but rather as an imprudent indulgence that encouraged cruelty toward people. (As Macaulay quipped, Puritans hated bearbaiting less for the pain it gave the bear than for the pleasure it gave the spectators.) Similarly, hunting was seen as a bloodthirsty amusement conducive to murder.

The focus of such sentiments began to shift to the animal itself in the mid-1700s, as the Cartesian barrier between man and animal crumbled under the surge of Romanticism. "As they [animals] partake of some measure in our nature," Rousseau wrote, "they ought to partake of natural right. "Every animal is an end in itself," declared Goethe.

But before the Victorian era, it was rare to find animals personalized as animals and opened up to human empathy. From the outset, the new tendency was associated with ambivalence about hunting.

The Arab Tent
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
(1803-1872), 1839 (Royal Collection, Windsor)

The first signs of this show up in the art galleries during the 1840s. Hunting scenes in eighteenth-century European art had generally been mere excuses for painting still lifes of dead game or portraits of the rich on horseback. But in the work of Victorian painters like Landseer and Courbet, the focus shifted to the suffering of the quarry: writhing otters impaled on spears; exhausted foxes screaming in terror at the advancing hunt; and red deer by the metric ton, dying or stiffening in death with their pointed faces frozen in masks of noble agony. At least some of these works were intended to stir feelings of pity and indignation at man's treatment of wild animals. Such feelings could be wrung from an audience of unprecedented size, as new printing techniques allowed every middle-class Victorian family to hang chromolithographs and steel engravings of Landseer's pictures in the parlor as household icons.

Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1832 (Tate Britain)


As mammals go, human beings are peculiarly slow and defenseless. Language and weapons make us terrible adversaries, but we don't have them by instinct; we have to be nursed, guarded and schooled by our elders through a painfully long infancy. From Anaximander on down, everyone who has tried to cook up a naturalistic account of our origins has stumbled over this fact. If the first humans sprang into being full-blown, who taught them to speak and make tools and feed themselves? If they evolved out of more typical beasts, why did they lose the swiftness and natural strength that help such beasts survive? This problem was thrown in Darwin's face by the Duke of Argyll, who wrote that "the human frame has diverged from the structure of brutes, in the direction of greater helplessness... a divergence which of all others it is most impossible to ascribe to mere natural selection."

Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1803-1872), 1839 (Royal Collection, Windsor)


A myth, says my dictionary, is a real or fictional story that embodies the cultural ideals of a people or expresses deep, commonly felt emotions. By this definition, myths are generally good things -- and the origin stories that paleoanthropologists tell are necessarily myths. They are myths whether they are true of not, because they embody a fundamental cultural theme: they define and explain the critical differences between human beings and beasts. Whatever such stories single out as important factors in our origins become important parts of our self-image. Conversely, such stories won't be listened to unless they account for the human particularities that we think are crucial markers of humanity. They will be listened to most carefully when they echo other themes from the culture of their time.

The hunting hypothesis -- the myth of Man the Killer Ape -- captures a deeply felt perception of human beings and their technology as antagonists of life. Whether or not the the hypothesis fails, the underlying perception is correct: Homo sapiens is a real threat to life on Earth. Probably any intelligent animals would be, no matter how herbivorous. Intelligence, at least of the human sort, involves making internal models of the world and acting on them. When they diverge far enough from reality, they become madness. Science is cumulative; every year, we know more and can do more than the year before. At present, we can barely manage to destroy ourselves, but as we learn more about the workings of life and the universe it will become steadily easier and cheaper to sterilize the planet. Madness isn't cumulative -- in the long run, it always runs afoul of reality -- but it has proved successful in the short run. So long as cumulative knowledge remains at the service of specific madness, it seems inevitable that in the near geological future -- say, within 50,000 years -- life on this planet will be extinguished. Whether terrestrial life will ultimately survive probably depends on how soon we establish it elsewhere and how vigilant we are in the meantime.

Matt Cartmill: edited excerpts from"Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad": Man's Place (if Any) in Nature, in Natural History, Volume 92, issue 11, 1983


Van Amburgh and his Big Cats
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1879, after a painting
in the collection of the Duke of Wellington (published in London Art Journal, 1879)

Low Life
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
, 1829 (private collection, London)

Original Sin

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world: they had dug a pitfall
And caught a mammoth, but how could their sticks and stones
Reach the life in that hide? They danced around the pit, shrieking
With ape excitement, flinging sharp flints in vain, and the stench of their bodies
Stained the white air of dawn; but presently one of them
Remembered the yellow dancer, wood-eating fire
That guards the cave-mouth: he ran and fetched him, and others
Gathered sticks at the wood’s edge; they made a blaze
And pushed it into the pit, and they fed it high, around the mired sides
Of their huge prey. They watched the long hairy trunk
Waver over the stifle trumpeting pain,
And they were happy.

.........................Meanwhile the intense color and nobility of sunrise,
Rose and gold and amber, flowed up the sky. Wet rocks were shining, a little wind
Stirred the leaves of the forest and the marsh flag-flowers; the soft valley between the low hills
Became as beautiful as the sky; while in its midst, hour after hour, the happy hunters
Roasted their living meat slowly to death.

...................................................These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.

Robinson Jeffers, from Original Sin, 1938, in The Double Axe and Other Poems, 1948

The Random Shot
: Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873), 1848 (Bury Art Gallery and Museum, Lancashire)


TC said...

In case anyone should be curious about Isaac Van Amburgh, the person in the cage with the Big Cats, he was a kid from Peekskill who went from being a "cage boy" (cleaning up at the Zoo in New York) to fame and fortune as the first of the world-renowned "animal tamers". His instruments of "taming" were multiple; including a crowbar, used in the fashion of a baseball bat.

The top Landseer painting of Van Amburgh and his stunned menagerie is a detail from his chef d'oeuvre, commissioned by Queen Victoria (by whom both he and young Mr Van Amburgh had been "taken up").

A bit of circus history on the "brave" ex-cage boy:

"The introduction of performing wild animals to the circus arena was also an American innovation, inspired by one Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1801-65) of New York who is credited with being "the first to enter a cage of jungle beasts in a public exhibition," sometime between 1820 and 1833. Legend has it that at the impressionable age of nineteen, he was reading the Scriptures and came across Daniel in the Lion's Den, and thereupon promptly decided that his one and only true vocation was lion tamer. His dream came true at the Zoological Institute's winter quarters in New York when he walked nonchalantly into a cage of snarling, ferocious beasts and began lashing them into obedience to the thunderous applause of spectators. His unique style was destined to become so appealing to the public that it would be mimicked by countless other animal tamers. Dressed in jungle fatigues, and wielding a whip and firing blanks from his pistol, he would stride into the cage, deliberately baiting and taunting the animals to bring out as much ferocity and jungle savagery as he could, whereupon he would proceed to bully them into submission. His pièce de résistance was forcing the lions to approach and lick his boots as the ultimate sign of his conquest and the animals' abject subservience."

Nin Andrews said...

Really interesting to think about--nature, human nature, our history . . .
And our reflection, always a product of our times, as you say.
As smart as we might or might not be, I don't think logic can outrun greed, or find a solution to the problem we are to this poor planet. . .
If only we could do something about our own nature. It seems crazy how crazy we are.
The lion tamer, creepy, but a great image of how we see ourselves- as somehow able to whip things into shape by force of our alpha will.

Anonymous said...

I've been going back and forth this morning about whether the final stanza of what you cite from Jeffers' poem is more consolation or curse.

Lally said...

What a great post Tom. Brilliant selections to force contemplation of our nature vs. "nature" etc. I haven't read Jeffers in years but he was a big favorite when I discovered him while I was in the service, pre=GI Bill education, an autodidact taken with his honest repulsion at so much of what humans are and do, later seeing that as too easy, or maybe facile. This quote though makes it clear I had him wrong both ways and makes me want to pick him up again. Thanks. And by the way, do you know Walton Ford's work? He's an amazingly skillful artist reinterpreting the Audabon tradition of wildlife painting with a more realistically violent and sexual twist that counters Landseer's more romantic version of animal realities.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ah, Jeffers, at one of his most bleak moments.

"all are deserved"

The poems title, "Original Sin," seems to serve at least dual, perhaps even triple, purpose. The cleansing of original sin as being only via death certainly puts paid to any spiritual solution.

Even in his bleakest moments, still he gives us some crumb, if qualified:

"we might remember Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;"

Cruelty, vicious cruelty, be it physical, emotional, or psychological, is the one trait that wakes us often in the early hours and allows no further rest.


TC said...

"If only we could do something about our own nature. It seems crazy how crazy we are.
The lion tamer, creepy, but a great image of how we see ourselves- as somehow able to whip things into shape by force of our alpha will." (Nin)

Well, that brutal and extremely creepy cage boy, it appears he spent many years getting even with the animals for the indignities he may have suffered in cleaning up after them. The bit about his techniques which I've quoted is merely the icing on a pretty disgusting cake. Further details enhance the first impression. He starved the animals before beating them. A miserable wretch indeed. Is he representative of Homo sapiens?

Michael, I dug around and found Walton Ford: 9 Works at Paul Kasmin Gallery.

The "accumulation of knowledge" between those works and Edward Lear's parrots (of which I was reminded) does show a darker aspect, our more "modern" way of feeling, undermining the brilliance.

Hunt and pecking these Mark Cartmill sentences reminded me how well English sentences can be written. Sometimes one forgets.

The Landseer paintings do suggest and in fact evoke all sorts of ambivalent feelings. Revulsion, sentiment, pathos. He was in his way as technically accomplished a painter as Turner, of whose work his sometimes makes us think. (There are tales of Turner coming back to a painting in an exhibition just before it opened and applying a bright spot of red). The forlorn bottom image puts one in mind, a bit of Caspar David Friedrich. But that equivocal relation with the animals as "subject matter" affects everything so oddly in Landseer. The tensions in the private background of the work perhaps enforce our sense of this queer affect. He was very successful, and then everything fell apart: a passionate (and doomed) affair with a married woman, alcohol, lunacy, penury. One of those parabolically internally-conflicted Victorian lives.

The Jeffers poem, and the book from which it comes, The Double Axe, were turning points that began the decline of Jeffers' popularity. The editor and publisher -- Bennett Cerf, Random House -- had great expectations for a new book that would follow up on Jeffers' earlier success with audiences. But the dark vision that emerged in his new manuscript scared everybody, even before publication. Random House took an extraordinary back-foot stance, including a disclaimer in the book. They treated it not with kid gloves but with an oven mitt. After it came out it was severely reviewed by Yvor Winters, Kenneth Rexorth and other mainline critics. Jeffers had seen into the depths, nobody could bear it. Too much truth. Thereafter he was jettisoned in turn by Modernism, Postmodernism, and all those canonical wisdoms. Once he had been dropped out of the canon, his dark brilliance shone out all the brighter, a beacon.

Of course there are the biographical facts, the stringent Calvinism in the paternal history. The wild weathers of the California coast where he had made his lonely stand, the rocks and hawks, all that surely helped to inform and form his understanding, as well.

Consolation or curse, that last stanza? We've batted Brad's question about the night a bit. It bounces off the wall in the dark, and comes right back.

I was talking about this poem, and about Jeffers, last night, with a Palestinian friend who loves poetry. He proposed that the way Jeffers saw things is a specifically American way. We talked about poets from other cultures, in which the temptation to nihilism and fatalism is countered by a larger sense of community and a less isolating belief system. Out of that conversation came the three posts of poems by the great Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, now just above this.

TC said...


I'd missed your comment before, but these words ring true.

"Even in his [Jeffers'] bleakest moments, still he gives us some crumb, if qualified:

"'we might remember Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;'

"Cruelty, vicious cruelty, be it physical, emotional, or psychological, is the one trait that wakes us often in the early hours and allows no further rest."

I think you're right, there is no spiritual solution to be found anywhere in this poet's world picture. Unless you count in the grand impersonal majesty of nature and the cosmos, as an abiding if perhaps entirely unsympathetic spiritual presence. And there, I see that one might drop the word "spiritual" out of that sentence without much changing the drift. So I guess it's fair to say that the spirit has dropped out of Jeffers' universe (if it was ever there in the first place).

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

All points well taken, Tom.

I believe I made a grievous error in using the word spiritual - it should have been some variation of religious. I was thinking about the dual nature of the title and that "Original Sin," in our mutual Catholic background, can only be overcome through joining the club via arcane ritual ... baptism, confirmation etc.

I do believe that there is a very spiritual quality to Jeffers take on nature, sans humanity, as you point out.

Very intrigued by your friend's suggestion of Jeffers's view being distinctly American. There is monumental guilt in Jeffers, I think - his journey to the very edge of the continent, his love of its bleakness and the stark, punishing Darwinian world. Once he arrived he couldn't help but look back (historically) and forward (prophetically) to humanity and war and destruction of perhaps even the planet.

He seemed to be one who could see humanity as the tiny speck it is the bigger picture of the planet. How we, Americans, came to where we are (and how visciously cruel we were in acquiring it) and where we will go now that we arrived at continent's edge.

But I do go on ... suffice to say your friend's POV is most salient and I'm thankful for the turn to the Nizar Qabbani poems.


TC said...


I hear you. We do learn as we go; or anyway, like to think we do.

(I hope that harsh sound I hear in the background when I say "learn" is not the bitter laughter of Jeffers -- no, just the morning rush hour traffic, waking up the critters and sending them scattering back to their day-world hideout holes.)

Anonymous said...

Guys, guys! Remember that in our history most of our food came from what the women and kids found, picked, or dug up. We needed the meat, sure. But it was treat. Those theories about evolution of brain stemming from the stimulation of the hunt, hmmm. Maybe it came from the gatherers having to acquire and pass on a lot of information. Which is the poison root and which the edible one? --Martha

TC said...

That's a good point, Martha. (Although I fear the "guys" dig might throw this off the track a bit. The chief subscribers to those fad "lean-meat" diets have always been "girls" in pursuit of toothpick figures. And it's also true that some "guys" would not eat the body of an animal even if forced. I am one of those -- as is the other "guy" in the house... who's actually a woman!)

Surely the desire for the "treat" diverged from the need. Quite early on. The "treat" lay in the killing and power and dominance that were/are forever the big part of the carnivorous hominid desire-package. And there is an extremely interesting thesis put forward by Walter Burkert in his book Homo Necans (1992).

Homo Necans: Man the Killer

Here's a bit of what I said in that post:

"Making the crucial jump from 'sacrificial ritual with its tension between encountering death and affirming life, its external form consisting of preparations, a frightening central moment, and restitution,' to the altar and thence the slaughterhouse, Walter Burkert contends, enabled man to become the powerful dominant creature he might never have become had he stuck with patterns of scavenging or gathering vegetation to obtain sustenance. Hard cheese for those other species, thus doomed to the desolate eternal fate of being our chattel, our food supply... and otherwise of little interest so long as they stay out of our way."

And quoting Burkert:

"Nourishment, order and civilized life are born of their antithesis: the encounter with death. Only homo necans can become homo sapiens."

Walter Burkert finds the origins of religion inextricably intertwined with the rituals of sacrifice and killing.

And perhaps related here... thinking a bit further about Don's enquiry on the question of the spiritual dimension in Jeffers' poetry, and the distinction in meaning between the terms "religious" and "spiritual", there was a member of a Catholic religious order, Sister Mary James Power, who was at work on a book called "Poets at Prayer", and wrote to him in the early 1930s, asking about his religious beliefs. Here is a part of his reply:

"I believe that the Universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love and there is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one's affections outward toward this one God, rather than inwards on one's self, or on humanity, or on human imaginations and abstractions--the world of spirits."

ACravan said...

I've been carrying this around with me for several days, re-reading and re-viewing the words and pictures. I'm very glad you posted it. I guess I've had two friends – people I genuinely like and admire for their fine qualities – who are hunters (one hunts deer; the other fish) – who have sincerely tried to explain to me in unaffected terms (including lots of mechanical details along the way, kind of like the cliché of men in particular enjoying visits to hardware stores) why they hunt. These are both likeable, impressive guys, but also probably the saddest, stupidest discussions I’ve ever had, ones that have found me mentally searching for the door fairly quickly. By the way, both of these people do eat what they kill. Curtis

TC said...


I too know a couple of hunter-guys, and they too eat their "kill". Not of course that they could not afford other food. And they are great open advocates of and braggarts about their killing prowess. And they know that their boasting and flaunting offends and disgusts me. And that is exactly why they do it. And I don't think they're really nice, likeable guys in other ways. I have heard them boast also of how easily they would shoot down a man, and how happy they would be to do just that, if only it were legal. And they scare me, and on a dark street at night, I would prefer to encounter a posse of gang-bangers, any time.

ACravan said...

I'm absolutely sure my guys wouldn't kill any human and they're not braggers at all. That's one of the things that makes their explanations so weak and so tortured-sounding. They seem to be laboring to over-explain the inexplicable and unjustifiable. Curtis