Saturday 19 March 2022

'Scripts co-authored by Nietzsche and Barbara Cartland...'

 In a lecture on 'The Relation of Wise Art to Wise Science', published in The Eagle's Nest, Ruskin describes a bullfinch's nest, the 'first story' of which had been built entirely of 'withered stems of clematis blossom'. These were 'interwoven lightly, leaving the branched heads all at the outside, producing an intricate Gothic boss of extreme grace and quaintness, apparently arranged both with triumphant pleasure in the art of basket-making, and with definite purpose of obtaining ornamental form'.
  Did the bird have any such purpose, or was nothing going on beyond the merely instinctive? Addressing his audience, Ruskin supposes that 'the only error which, in the present condition of natural history, you are likely to fall into, is that of supposing that a bullfinch is merely a mechanical arrangement of nervous fibre, covered with feathers by a chronic cutaneous eruption; and compelled by a galvanic stimulus to the collection of clematis'. Writing at a time when science, as a laboratory-based specialism, was only just gaining force, Ruskin – ever the prophet – could see already the baneful possibilities in a reductionist, mechanistic science divorced from human realities, or indeed the realities of nature as it actually is, living organisms as they actually are. 
  He goes on: 'You would be in much greater, as well as in a more shameful, error, in supposing this, than if you attributed to the bullfinch the most deliberate rivalship with Mr Street's prettiest Gothic designs. The bird has exactly the degree of emotion, the extent of science, and the command of art, which are necessary for its happiness.' This is to reject reductionist and mechanistic explanations of the bullfinch's behaviour, but without embracing anthropomorphism, despite the use of the words 'emotion', 'science' and 'art': the bird has exactly what is necessary to its own happiness, no more, no less, and it is not working for our human delight. It is not, and cannot be, an artist in the sense that 'Mr Street' (G.E. Street, Gothic architect) is. If only the extravagantly praised wildlife documentaries of today were as adept at resisting the lure of anthropomorphism. 
  I came across this quotation (or part of it) in Richard Mabey's Nature Cure (2006), which is at once an account of the author's recovery from a depressive breakdown, and a meditation on the relationship between man and nature. At one point he seeks solace in watching wildlife documentaries on TV. He is, by and large, appalled by what he sees, even in the classier, Attenborough-fronted productions: 'Sequences of carnivores pursuing game seemed like endlessly repeated film-looops, and caricatures of the complexities of life in the wild. Birds had miniature cameras strapped to their backs so that we could 'share their view of the world'. Animated models of dinosaurs and cavemen, acting to scripts co-authored by Nietzsche and Barbara Cartland, sped through agonising family dramas towards their preordained destinies. Almost every programme, however honourably intended, seemed bent on belittling the natural world, putting it firmly in its place.'
  Mabey wonders what the makers of these films think they are doing: 'Do they view the world much as the eighteenth-century makers of 'cabinets of curiosities' did, as a collection of diversions and amusements, to be attractively presented behind glass? Do they really believe that technological translation of the natural world – Slower! Closer! Bigger! – help us understand how we fit into it? Ironically, the aim of what have come to be called 'blue-chip' documentaries is to avoid any sense that human beings impinge on the natural world at all, or are even part of the same biosphere, despite the fact that the whole exercise of commercial film-making, its insistence that nature is all object not subject, its manipulation of storylines, its knowing explaining-away of the complexities of behaviour, amounts to the most comprehensive impingement imaginable?' 
  Amen to all that – and wildlife documentaries have only got worse in the years since then...


  1. Have you seen the 'David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities' series? It's quite good - each episode focuses on two animals with a similar trait and explains how naturalists went about understanding them - so you learn something about the science. Rather different from his usual stuff.

  2. Yes, Attenborough can/could be so good – which makes it all the harder to watch the kind of stuff he fronts these days. I wish he'd retired a while back...