Tuesday, July 19, 2005


You have to go back to Claude Levi-Strauss to understand the current cultural fascination with wild animals. They pervade popular culture: in advertising, in newspaper headlines, in still-current metaphors. So-and-so is a "weasel," or a "snake." Communications and insurance companies use bright-coloured jungle frogs, geckoes and chameleons as props.

Recently, part of southwestern Ontario was terrorized by a giant flesh-eating lizard. Today we learn, with some sadness, that a female peregrine falcon that nested on the top of a downtown Ottawa hotel has had to be put down because of serious injuries, probably due to flying into a building. Meanwhile, two old hunters in South Carolina are in trouble for trapping a rare white, blue-eyed alligator.

Levi-Strauss described an underlying tension between Nature and Culture that defines who we are and how we behave. The two need to be connected, he argues, and their contradictions mediated by myth. But he was (and likely still is--he’ll be 97 this November) deeply pessimistic about our current cultural state of affairs. He felt that the vital connection had been broken, and that humanity is consequently in an entropic state. (In fact he referred to contemporary anthropology as "entropologie:" the two words are pronounced the same in French.) We are uprooted from Nature, we no longer have living universal myths that bring us into relation with the natural world.

If anything indicates the trouble we are in, it has to be the dessicated, ossified, meaningless mumbo-jumbo of church ritual today. And it starts right here: "Then God said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." [Genesis 1:26]

This approach has meant nothing but trouble ever since. The notion of "ruling over" Nature rather than seeing ourselves as an integral part of it leads to the short-sighted "development," pollution, global warming and resource depletion with which we are all too familiar.

But the problem lies deeper than that. The living, breathing experience of myth has been replaced by empty, mumbling rituals and a complicated system of rules and commands. Recently, for example, a bishop refused Catholic communion to a little girl who was unable to eat wheat wafers because she had a rare disease. "Nope, can’t be rice, has to be wheat," said the Church, thereby showing its blithering ignorance of the mythic depth of its own Eucharist ceremony. And of course we have the current posturing and ululating about same-sex marriage, and the continuing emphasis on authority (the current Pope decried Buddhism because it offered "transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations"). "The letter killeth," said Paul in one of his saner moments, but he went on to send a few letters of his own, stern injunctions that set a terrible trend reverberating to this day.

Parallel to this is a series of superstitions: crossing fingers, blessing people when they sneeze, that kind of thing. No altered consciousness there, I'm afraid.

But I'm not just picking on Christianity, I hasten to add. With Islam, and Judaism, and most other world religions (Buddhism excepted--it’s the only religion without terrorists) it's just more commands, more rules, more authority, more deaths, more destruction, more aridity and emptiness.

Why, then, our increasing fascination with wild animals? Is it because we see in them something that we are lacking? Is Nature poised to be rejoined to Culture by a new myth springing from our collective unconscious? Is this a hopeful sign, or just a passing fad?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

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