February 25, 2010

Hunting Attitude, Part II

In days of yore I had the dubious fortune to manage a busy magazine department in a now defunct book chain. There were many worthy publications fighting for a place of esteem. Among the more memorable of the less well known were Bowhunter magazine and its diminutive counterpart Junior Bowhunter. In prime English fox hunting land, these American interlopers were seriously out of place. The overfed white folk of middle America were on parade, with their ripping yarns about bows and arrows. Stag hunting, which to your average Englishman sounds like the search for a pre-wedding pub crawl, was pictorially laid out in all its gory glory, with all kinds of wonderful opportunities to blood your own young. One notable prize competition offered some seriously pointy hardware for the best kill by the under twelves. Photographic proof required.

I must say it was all very gung ho: more Rambo than Horse and Hound, and about as far removed from the manly ethos of hunting as it could be. Where is the sport in a bow with a laser sight? Robin Hood would have been an entirely different proposition had he been so armed. How strange that the country that gave us Bambi, and all the Disneyfied sentimentalism that comes with it, has a hunting culture that does not have a meaningful connection to the animal. Hunting is steeped in historical, cultural and ritual justifications that might be employed to counteract the crass activism of those animated by doe-eyed cartoons, but I can’t see it here. If it is really just point and shoot then what is the point in shooting?

Shooting with guns begs the same question. There will no doubt be objections raised here, but frankly I refuse to acknowledge anybody who goes about with a gun as a gentleman, unless he happens to be duelling, conducting a just war, or engaging in fair play. Hunting in America may be alive and kicking, but bungling about shooting at anything that moves while sporting combat camouflage simply won’t cut the mustard. The battue was decried even in its heyday, and the chaps who partook of that at least had the good grace to wear tweed. Why was it decried? Because it was not fair. Manly men do not stack the deck, load the dice, inject steroids, or kneecap ice skaters. If you are insistent on killing animals, then venery – a term I use because hunting and sexual gratification have always been linked – should offer a sporting chance to the quarry. Hunting, where it is thought worthy, is the pitting of wits: the reasonable against the sly. A hunter struggles for his advantage in a terrain better suited to his target. His success, if he is successful, is the reward for his prowess, not the result of his superior weaponry. Perhaps a sensible reconnection with the hunting ethos, for all those who proclaim their right to bear arms, would be to roll up their sleeves and chase their lunch with their bare arms.


  1. Doctor,

    before you can explain to me how unmanly Richard Francis Burton was, I shall defend men with guns, though I wonder why nowadays they seem to need a defense. Gentlemanly fairness, I submit to you, is only a necessary illusion; let us not raise it to higher graces than that, as it will not bear such close scrutiny. Perhaps people who really like what we call society are different to Sir Burton. To have become so, they must have ousted duelists, who could make society a saucy affair, in their own way; but they had some awareness of one another's skill, which may have or ought to have played a part in choosing when to have been mortally insulted - as opposed to mortally wounded - but to suggest that it was not the more hot-blooded who involved themselves so is to beg the question. Among such people, skill ought not to be confused with luck.

    Back to our own society, formal rules are there for a very good, if modern reason, but they cannot offer anything except the illusion of equality. Inequality we see in its natural ways endlessly displayed in endless variation, one particular event after another. Equality, to the contrary, seems the domain of the general. The one is more obvious, the other more abstract. We suppose that formal rules are inherently good, insofar as they show us what world really is like and, as it turns out, it's not such an ugly sight - but we do suppose that they are inherently good.

    In reality, no sane man - one who prefers surviving and winning to their opposites - wishes to give the animal a chance to kill him, much less escape; our awareness of our situation suggests that taking some risks is inevitable: organizing the risks and adding panache to them are necessary measures for the preparation of glory, but are hardly justifiable in themselves. It is just that without them courage and madnes would seem impossible to differentiate. One applauds the slyness of the fox, or his sagacity, in literature; one lauds one's adversary's gameness after one has defeated him. It is in both cases self-serving to behave so and condescending - I do not mean to say anything bad in saying this, but our acting the way we do is very much acting. Gentlemanliness holds men to certain standards and thus proposes to defy accident or chance, which are part of nature, while relying on virtues which are also part of nature; it proposes to effect the mating through an art we call education.

  2. As an aside, doctor, Bambi was written by a Jewish Hungarian art critic who lived in Vienna. It was translated in English by that elusive and fascinating American Whitaker Chambers, whose great sensibility to nature and animals is worth investigating, if you should ever encounter his 'Witness'.

  3. No such account of Capt. Burton was in my mind.

    The sane man, in this context, would wish that his quarry had the wherewithal to escape so that his victories when they came were worthy. Historically there has been no better proof of the validity of hunting prowess than the fact of humanity's limited success at it.

  4. I also see this problem with guns, but I would go further into the matter of facility, as they seem to level the playing field, most obviously by no longer excluding women; they also discriminate between the dexterous and the strong, between the keen eye and the brawn. All these matters are worrisome, perhaps, and interesting for our society and circumstances, but they eliminate the importance, indeed the possibility of gentlemen, so I shall leave them aside. Are you yourself not implying, in saying that anyone could point a laser, which makes them equal in that respect - that that spoils everything?

    The art of hunting with guns reduces the difference between what hunting used to be and what we call killing people. There do all its problems start, there must its greatest strength be found. If you suggest gentlemanliness requires some illusion of equality between quarry and hunter, I reply that it also requires the awareness of inequality and its ruthless exploitation. I am sad that these words have acquired such connotations in our sensitive regimes, but I do not fear the use of them and will not be shamed from my point. If my analysis holds, you are suggesting hunting shows the gentleman at play: hence the need for fairness and equality, else one might be thought cruel rather than playful - consider the conflicting feelings the image of a cat playing with a mouse excite in us. Gentleman being playful involves either action or leisure - and in this case action: it is therefore a play that is not very different to being serious and must be imagined as a preparation for being serious. Xenophon suggests that hunting prepares man for war in his treatises on the matter; in his discussion of the education of Cyrus, he mentions again and again how hunting parties - elaborate, thrilling exercises to keep the men in shape and give the youth their first kill. The psychology, as Xenophon describes, is revealing: those men are imagining themselves in the Trojan War even as they are hunting lions and deer. When they have to move from hunt to skirmish in the border regions of the Empire - the location itself is telling - they do it automatically, but with glee, acting as if they had always been preparing for this, or had been fitted for it by nature.

  5. Try duck or goose hunting my Friend...and see how difficult it is to be successful...the deck is not stacked and it is often a pursuit won by the pursued. Ducks fly very fast and are very wary...as are geese.
    When one hunts in a marsh or along the Bay...one certainly is in terrain better suited to the quarry than the hunter. Most of the hunters with whom I consort are true Gentlemen...so I indeed take umbrage to the tenor and premise of this post.

  6. My dear Mr. Sportsman,
    You will note that I allowed room for exceptions - those engaging in fair play - and I shall assume your case to be one, though I shall respectfully decline your generous offer to give it a try. I presume that your intent is to eat what you kill, and that you only kill what you can reasonably stomach. I presume also that you revere and respect your quarry, observe the gamut of ritual traditions, and behave as if the gun is an object of skilful execution (as it were), and not a mere instrument of domination. The history of shooting game is full of examples to the contrary, and this is part of my premise, which I stand by.


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