Nature and Madness

Paul Shepard (1982)

After nearly ten thousand years of living with apprehension about food and the binding force of its psychic disablement, it is not surprising that civilized people find it difficult to understand the absence of such worries among hunting-gathering peoples, making them seem careless and imprudent. The repressed distrust of the mother and the maternal earth can then be redirected onto those blithe savages, picturing them as unfeeling for the well-being of their families and coarsely inured to hunger and the other imagined afflictions of a brutish life. This scornful fantasy is easily enough projected upon the rest of brute creation, making it easier to believe that all animals are insentient.

It is not only an abstract Mother Earth who is the victim of this psychic deformity, but all wild things. Characteristically, farmers and townsmen do not study and speculate on wild animals or “think” them in their poetic mystery and complex behaviors. With civilization, typically fewer than twenty kinds of plants and animals in one village were tended, herded, sheltered, planted, cultivated, fertilized, harvested, cured, stored, and distributed. Sacrifice and other ceremonial activity were restricted accordingly. Even the gradual broadening of agriculture to embrace many more kinds of organisms left it far short of the rich cosmos of the hunter. Civilization increased the separation between the individual and the natural world as it did the child from the mother, amplifying an attachment that could be channeled into aggression.

The farmer and his village brethren assumed an executive task of food production, storage, and distribution that would weigh heavily on them for the same reason that all executives wear out their nerves and glands: responsibility in a situation of certain failure - if not this year, then next, or the year after that. Being held responsible for things beyond their control is especially crushing for children, for whom the world may become hopelessly chaotic. They, in their chores of goat tending or other work tasks, like the adults who managed the domesticated community, were vulnerable to weather, marauders, pests, and the demons of earth and air. Blights and witherings were inevitable, bringing not only food shortage but emotional onslaughts. The judgment is guilt, for which the penalty is scarcity.

In such a world the full belly is never enough. Like the dour Yankee farmer who sees in the clear blue sky of a Vermont spring day “a damned weather-breeder,” abundance would only set the mark by which shortage would be measured.

But quantity was not the only variable. As the diversity of foods diminished the wild alternatives becoming scarcer and more distant from villages the danger of malnutrition increased. It is widely observed that domesticated varieties of fruits and vegetables differ from their wild ancestors in carbohydrate/protein/fat ratios as well as vitamin and mineral content. Where selection is for appearance, size, storability, or even taste, some food value may be lost. Virtually all the processes that aid storage or preservation have a similar price in decline of quality. The point is that the lack of food is not the only spur to a kind of trophic obsession, but the hungers of those who are superficially well fed might also add to this general picture of chronic preoccupation with food.

The argument can be made that anything that fixates the individual’s attention on food can be associated with ontogenetic regression. I mean not only the infantile impatience to eat and the whole alimentary oral-anal romance to which he is so responsive, but the typical conservatism of older children and adolescents the first, perhaps because of a sensitivity to strong or strange new flavors; the second, because of a psychic state in which the groping for a new selfhood is partly one of recognition of codes that identify a group. Teenagers are the weakest gourmets because they have not yet achieved a confident-enough identity to free themselves to develop personal preferences. The young are wary about what they eat, probably for adaptive as well as culturally functional reasons.

The young of hunter societies are probably cautious too, and certainly such cultures had a highly developed sense of food taboos. Nonetheless, the small foraging band ate dozens of kinds of flesh (including invertebrates) and scores of kinds of roots, nuts, vegetables, and leaves. The idea that this range was born of desperation is not supported by the evidence. There were certainly seasonal opportunities and choices, but apparently to be human is to be omnivorous, to show an open, experimental attitude toward what is edible, guided by an educated taste and a wide range of options. As among all peoples, what is eaten or not eaten had cultural limits among hunter-foragers, but these did not prevent somebody in a group from eating at least some parts of almost anything.

The food-producing societies that succeeded the hunter-gatherers attempted to make virtue of defect by intensifying the cultural proscriptions on what was to be eaten in a world where, for most people, there were fewer choices than their archaic ancestors enjoyed. And how was this tightening of the belt and expanded contempt achieved? It was built into the older child and adolescent. It could be frozen at that level as part of a more general developmental check. It may have been inevitable in the shift from totemic to caste thought about animals, corresponding to the change from hunting to farming, in which wild animals ceased to be used as metaphors central to personal identity, to be less involved with analogies of assimilation and incorporation. The growth of self-identity requires coming to terms with the wild and uncontrollable within. Normally the child identifies frightening feelings and ideas with specific external objects. The sensed limitations of such objects aid his attempts to control his fears. As the natural containers for these projected feelings receded with the wilderness, a lack of substitutes may have left the child less able to cope and thus more dependent, his development impaired.

Perhaps there was no more dramatic change in the transition from hunting-gathering to farming than in the kind and number of possessions. Among archaic people who use no beasts of burden, true possessions are few and small. What objects are owned are divided between those privately held and those in which there is a joint interest. Among the latter, such as religious objects or the carcass of a game animal, the individual shares obligations as well as benefits, but in neither case does he accumulate or seem to feel impoverished. The wariness of gifts and the lack of accumulation found in these people are not due to nomadism, for the desire would still be evident. Nor can these characteristics be explained away as a culturally conditioned materialism, as that would beg the question.

This absence of wanting belongings seems more likely to be part of a psychological dimension of human life and its modification in civilization. “Belongings” is an interesting word, referring to membership and therefore to parts of a whole. If that whole is Me, then perhaps the acquisition of mostly man-made objects can contribute in some way to my identity a way that may compensate for some earlier means lost when people became sedentary and their world mostly man-made landscapes. Or, if objects fail to fully suffice, we want more and more, as we crave more of a pain-killing drug. In short, what is it about the domesticated civilized world that alters the concept of self so that it is enhanced by property?

My self is to some extent made by me, at least insofar as I seem to gain control over it. A wilderness environment is, on the contrary, mostly given. For the hunter-forager, this Me in a non-Me world is the most penetrating and powerful realization in life. The mature person in such a culture is not concerned with blunting that dreadful reality but with establishing lines of connectedness or relationship. Formal culture is shaped by the elaboration of covenants and negotiations with the Other. The separation makes impossible a fuzzy confusion; there is no vague “identity with nature,” but rather a lifelong task of formulating and internalizing treaties of affiliation. The forms and terms of that relationship become part of a secondary level of my identity, the background or gestalt. This refining of what-I-am-not is a developmental matter, and the human life cycle conforms to stages in its progress.

Now consider the process in a world in which that Other has mostly disappeared. Food, tools, animals, structures, whole landscapes are man-made; even to me personally they seem more made than given and serve as extensions of that part of the self which I determine. My infantile ego glories in this great consuming I-am. Everything in sight belongs to me in the same sense as my members: legs, arms, hands, and so on. The buildings, streets, and cultivated fields are all continuous with my voluntary nervous system, my tamed, controlled self.

In the ideology of farming, wild things are enemies of the tame; the wild Other is not the context but the opponent of “my” domain. Impulses, fears, and dreams the realm of the unconscious no longer are represented by the community of wild things with which I can work out a meaningful relationship. The unconscious is driven deeper and away with the wilderness. New definitions of the self by trade and political subordination in part replace the metaphoric reciprocity between natural and cultural in the totemic life of the hunter-foragers. But the new system defines by exclusion. What had been a complementary entity embracing friendly and dangerous parts in a unified cosmos now takes on the colors of hostility and fragmentation. Even where the great earth religions of high agriculture tend to mend this rupture in the mythology of the symbolic mother, its stunting of the identity process remains. Although he formulated the cognitive distinctions between totemic culture, with its analogy of a system of differences in nonhuman nature as a paradigm for the organization of culture, and caste or agriculture, which find models for human relationships in the types of things made, Levi-Strauss avoided the psychological developmental implications with admirable caution. But it is clear from the developmental scheme of Erikson that fine mastery of the neuromuscular system, self-discipline of the body, the emergence of skills, and awakening to tools are late-juvenile and early-adolescent concerns. In farming, the land itself becomes a tool, an instrument of production, a possession that is at once the object and implement of vocation as well as a definer of the self.

As farming shifts from subsistence to monoculture, village specialists who do not themselves cultivate the soil appear. Their roles are psychologically and mythically reintegrated into society as a whole. Smith, potter, clerk, and priest become constituents of the new reality. That reality is for them all like the pot to the potter:

(1) the wild world has reduced significance in his own conscious identity and may therefore be perceived (along with some part of himself) as chaotic;
(2) he himself, like his pot, is a static made object, and, by inference, so is the rest of society and the world;
(3) there is a central core of nonlivingness in himself;
(4) the ultimate refinements in his unique self are to be achieved by acts of will or creativity;
(5) daily labor routine, repetitive motions for long hours at a time is at the heart of his being;
(6) his relationship to others is based on an exchange of possessions, and the accumulation of them is a measure of his personal achievement; and
(7) the nonhuman world is primarily a source of substance to be shaped or made by man, as it was mythically by God.

These are but fragments of the world of the artisan. Gradations exist between that world and totemic cultures. The transition took many centuries before man’s concept of the wilderness was indeed defined by the first synonym in Roget’s Thesaurus: “disorder.”

In the earliest farming societies perhaps there were only nuances of the psychology of domestication. The individual would not see himself as a possession or conceive of being possessed by others until tribal villages coalesced into chiefdoms and he was conscripted or enslaved or his labor sold as a commodity, events that may have been as much an outcome as a cause of the new consciousness. That was many generations in the future as the first harvesters of wild wheat began to save some grains to plant. Yet we see them headed, however tentatively, toward the view of the planet as a thing rather than a thou, a product instead of an organism, to be possessed rather than encountered as a presence.

This attitude connects with the psychological position of early infancy, when differentiation between the living and the nonliving is still unclear. The badly nurtured infant may become imprinted with the hardness of its cradle or bottle so irreversibly that it cannot, even as an adult, form fully caring human relationships. But that is the extreme case. The earliest farmers were inclined to represent the landscape as a living being, even, at first, to conceive life in made things. But as those things became commodities and infancy was reshaped accordingly, the cosmos would become increasingly ambiguous. Attempts to resolve this conflict between the “itness” and the numen of things both the landscape and its reciprocal, the inner self are a major goal of the religious and cultural activity of civilization.

The domestication of animals had effects on human perception that went far beyond its economic implications. Men had been observing animals closely as a major intellectual activity for several million years. They have not been deterred, even by so momentous a change in the condition of man/animal relationship as domestication, but the message has been altered. Changes in the animals themselves, brought about by captivity and breeding programs, are widely recognized. These changes include plumper and more rounded features, greater docility and submissiveness, reduced mobility, simplification of complex behaviors (such as courtship), the broadening or generalizing of signals to which social responses are given (such as following behavior), reduced hardiness, and less specialized environmental and nutritional requirements. The sum effect of these is infantilization. The new message is an emotional appeal, sense of mastery, and relative simplicity of animal life. The style conveyed as a metaphor by the wild animal is altered to literal model and metonymic subordinate: life is inevitable physical deformity and limitation, mindless frolic and alarms, bluntness, following and being herded, being fertile when called upon, representing nature at a new, cruder level. One or another of the domesticated forms was widely used as a substitute in human relations; as slave, sexual partner, companion, caretaker, family member. Animal and human discriminations that sustained barriers between species were breached, suggesting nothing so much in human experience as the very small child’s inability to see the difference between dogs and cows. Pet-keeping, virtually a civilized institution, is an abyss of covert and unconscious uses of animals in the service of psychological needs, glossed over as play and companionship. The more extremely perverted private abuse of animals grades off into the sadistic slaughter of animals in public spectacles, of which the modern bullfight is an extravagant example.

Before civilization, animals were seen as belonging to their own nation and to be the bearers of messages and gifts of meat from a sacred domain. In the village they became possessions. Yet ancient avatars, they remained fascinating in human eyes.

A select and altered little group of animals, filtered through the bottleneck of domestication, came in human experience to represent the whole of animals of value to people. The ancient human approach to consciousness by seeing or discovering the self through other eyes and the need to encounter the otherness of the cosmos in its kindred aspect were two of the burdens thrust upon these deformed creatures. To educate his powers of discrimination and wonder, the child, born to expect subtle and infinite possibilities, was presented with fat hulks, vicious manics, and hypertrophied drudges. The psychological introjection of these as part of the self put the child on a detour in the developmental process that would culminate in a dead end, posted “You can’t get there from here.” pp. 30-39