Animals and the Sporting Life
A lecture given in the Birkbeck Lunchtime Lectures series, 3 June 2009
Man is the unnecessary animal, he says to himself. This is not to say that there is no necessity for him to be, for that is true of all animals and probably all forms of being. ‘Why did you ever have me?’ Samuel Beckett’s Hamm laments to his parents. ‘We didn’t know it would be you’, replies his mother Nell. Even if there is a need for there to be being of some kind, there is never a need for any particular being to be the being in particular that it is. I did not have to be; if there had to be being, it did not have to be me; in fact, it had to be this way, that it did not have to be me. But man, so he is wont to tell himself, is the creature who has made a necessity of his non-necessity, the creature defined by the possibility of aware acceptance of the necessity of his non-necessity.
As usual, man assures himself of his distinctiveness in this respect, as in so many others, by claiming that in this he is distinct from all other animals. Animals too are unnecessary, but they are not formed in such a way that their non-necessity can become a necessary condition of their being. As we might put it, they do not have a relation to their non-necessity. Man is formed in fact from the question he asks himself of his being, born and borne out in what Giorgio Agamben has called the ‘anthropological machine’ of this self-questioning (Agamben 2004, 37). Though the whole being of man turns on and forms around the question ‘what kind of being might be mine?’ philosophers have tended to find a particularly intense and defining expression of this self-questioning in the exercise of privileged kinds of non-necessary action, such as art, sport, and the cultivation of style. It is commonly said that the realm of the aesthetic is constituted as this paradoxical necessity of that for which there is no need, this arbitrariness which is essential to our being, and some have included sports and games in this category. Jean-Paul Sartre writes that the goal of the actor or sportsman, is not to possess himself as an object but rather ‘to attain himself as a certain being, precisely the being which is in question in his being’ (Sartre 1984, 581).
The human practice of hunting foregrounds these questions of the necessary and the gratuitous. Philip Stubbes spoke for many Puritans in his condemnation of all kinds of sports and pastimes, including hunting, in his discussion of which he distinguished clearly between the necessary killing of animals, and the gratuity of hunting:
If necessitie or want of other meats inforceth vs to séek after their liues, it is lawfull to vse them in the feare of God, wt thanks to his name: but for our pastimes and vain pleasures sake, wée are not in any wise to spoyle or hurt them. Is he a christian man or rather a pseudo-christian, that delighteth in blood? (Stubbes 1583, )
Stubbes did not mind the occasional use of hunting for recreation, but was appalled by the ‘the continuall vse therof daylie, hourly, wéekly, yéerly, yea all the time of their life, without intermission. And such a felicitie haue some in it, as they make it all their ioye, bestowing more vpon hawkes and hounds, and a sort of idle lubbers to followe them in one yéer, than they will impart to the poore members of Christ Iesus in vij. yéers, peraduenture in all the dayes of their life’ (Stubbes 1583, ). In fact, hunting gets off more lightly than other, less aristocratic pastimes, such as football, of which Stubbes said that ‘it may rather be called a fréendly kinde of fight, then a play or recreation. A bloody and murthering practise, then a felowly sporte or pastime’ (Stubbes 1583 ), since it encouraged ‘enuie, malice, rancour, cholor, hatred, displeasure, enmitie and what not els? and sometimes fighting, brawling, contention, quarrel picking, murther, homicide and great effusion of blood’ (Stubbes 1583, ).
This question of necessity recurs in the discussions of the recent legislation regarding blood sports. The Hunting With Dogs Act which came into force in 2005 banning foxhunting in Britain was aimed principally at outlawing the infliction of cruelty on animals, which was often defined as ‘unnecessary suffering’. As Emma Griffin has argued, the focus of this legislation, like that of previous efforts to ban or mitigate the hunting of animals, is not on the suffering or wellbeing of animals as such, for, if that were the case, there are many other arenas in which the suffering inflicted on animals would have to be regarded as far more intense and systematic and that therefore would make much more deserving targets. Rather it is on the moral offensiveness of the taking of pleasure in, or deriving of sport from the suffering of animals: the need for humans to kill animals is accepted, but the line is drawn ‘at making sport out of the process’ (Griffin 2007, 233). It seems to be this which makes the suffering unnecessary, and therefore offensive – though this rests upon the uncomfortable assumption that other kinds of suffering are in fact necessary. But necessary according to whom, required by whom? I think of Belacqua Shuah’s horrified discovery in Samuel Beckett’s story ‘Dante and the Lobster’ that lobsters are boiled alive: ‘it was going alive into scalding water. It had to’ (Beckett 1970, 21).
Animals have been removed from sport, as part of the process whereby sport has become more and more the means of marking man’s way of standing out from nature, that is, his willing coinciding with his condition as the unnecessary animal. In one sense, this is to protect animals from the indignity and humiliation of being treated as mere playthings. But by the same token, it quarantines animals from the sphere of play, from the anthropogenic privilege of nonnecessity, for this is reserved by and for the animal that gives itself the unique right to put itself in play (and for that reason squeamishly forbids itself the vulgar self-indulgence of playing with its food). Cruelty to animals is also sometimes known, tellingly, as ‘abuse’. But to abuse an animal is not to use it in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose; rather, it is to do something other than merely use it, implying as a normative background that animals are fundamentally there for human use.
One of the awkward obstacles to this way of thinking is the fact that animals are not in fact excluded from the realm or possibility of play. One of the most influential theories of play, first articulated at the end of the nineteenth century in an influential book by Karl Groos (1898), was that it is to be regarded as a means by which an animal can rehearse or enhance skills under simulated conditions that will be necessary for it to sustain its life. Such definitions may involve the assumption that such playful behaviour in animals may stop well short of the putting of oneself in play that is thought to be uniquely characteristic of human animals. It may be in the nature of certain animals to play; but it is only the nature of the human animal to want to play with its nature, to put its nature in play. And yet there have been those who are less certain of this categorical distinction, like Michel de Montaigne, who asked himself, in a marginal annotation to his ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’ in 1588 ‘When I play with my cat, how do I know she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?’ (Montaigne 1991, 505) – ‘Quand je me joue à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle’ (Montaigne 1965, 452).
The expression ‘blood sport’, the earliest usage of which is recorded from 1895, does not, as we know, refer to a sport in which blood may be spilled: otherwise football, rugby and even table tennis, at which I once got a nasty nick from the edge of the table, could be regarded as blood sports. It refers to a sport in which the spilling of blood, or the harming of living creatures for which it is the synecdoche, is the aim (and it is for this reason that boxing can sometimes be said to qualify as a blood sport, for, in this sport uniquely, the infliction of injury is the aim and not the accidental outcome). The point of the phrase is that it seems oxymoronic, since the taking of pleasure in suffering has come to seem the very opposite of sport. However, it has to be said that this is the outcome of a very long process, in which the idea of sport has slowly become unpicked from its association with aggressive or cruel actions. From its earliest usages in English, to ‘sport’ has meant both to ‘disport oneself’, in which the principal idea is that of turning aside or deporting oneself from serious matters, and to mock or make merry at some object other than oneself. The word embodies an ambivalence: to make sport out of suffering is a scandal, and yet sport has been strongly identified for many centuries precisely with this process: as Shakespeare’s Gloucester complains, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport’.
Indeed, we might say that the very turning, deporting, or perversion of sense that is involved in deriving pleasure from pain is at the heart of sport. While seemingly unable to participate in that process, the animal has nevertheless been indispensable to it, precisely because it is its suffering that is required.
In order to understand this, we should take note of a fundamental ambivalence involved in the sport of hunting. Defenders and advocates of hunting have for centuries represented it as natural to man, or a sign of the continuity of man and nature. Even Montaigne, who was revolted by cruelty to animals, remarked that ‘We go out to hunt animals: lions and tigers go out to hunt men; each beast practises a similar sport against another: hounds against hares; pike against tenches; swallows against grasshoppers; sparhawks against blackbirds and skylarks’ (Montaigne 1991, 516) – though we should note that the English translation I am here quoting forces the issue a little, for Montaigne writes, not precisely of animals who practice sport, but ‘ont un pareil exercice les unes sur les autres’, ‘exert themselves similarly one against the other’ (Montaigne 1965, 462). But the sport of hunting involves a complex mixture of the natural and what might be called the para-natural, the natural minimally deported itself into the ‘natural’. We might perhaps recall that in the expression ‘a sport of nature’, a translation of lusus naturae, a joke or freak of nature, which came into use in the early seventeenth century, to signify an accidental or anomalous departure from natural law, or, as it were, a game that nature plays with itself. (The word ‘freak’ itself originally referred to a whim or trick rather than a deformity – the OED suggests that it is perhaps cognate with Old English frícian, to dance.)
Human beings have hunted animals for a very long time; indeed, as Matt Cartmill’s study of what he calls the ‘hunting hypothesis’ has shown (1993), there are many who are inclined to see the origin of humanity itself in the development of the practice of organised hunting, by a species henceforth to be known as the ‘killer ape’. However, the modern history of hunting in Britain may conveniently be said to begin at the improbably exact date of 1066. When William the Conqueror established his dominion across Anglo-Saxon England, he brought with it a practice of hunting that was new to the country. Previously animals had been hunted mostly through the practice of what was called ‘the drive’, in which beaters would drive animals out of cover into an enclosed space where they could be shot by archers. It would be absurd to suggest that these kinds of hunts were a merely utilitarian activity, designed to minimise the expenditure of effort involved in turning wild animals into comestibles. Hunting was richly overlaid with symbolism for the Greeks, across the Middle East and in the Hebrew Bible (though the Romans thought hunting a chore rather than a glory). Thomas Allsen has demonstrated (2006) not only how long-lived and widespread the practice of the ‘royal hunt’ was, across Europe, the Middle East, India, central Asia and China, but also how intricately it was interlaced with all aspects of social life, and how it created bridges between different cultures. But it certainly seems true that the Norman exercise of hunting which spread throughout England following the conquest brought about the most extraordinary and sustained transformation of hunting, into what was known as the par force hunt. The most striking contrast with Anglo-Saxon modes of hunting was that an individual animal, for preference a mature stag or hart, but it could also be a hare, boar or, later, a fox, was singled out and systematically pursued by a pack of dogs accompanied by hunters on horseback.
Although drive hunting continued, along with the ancient practices of trapping and snaring to kill and capture animals, the par force hunt turned the entire undertaking of hunting into a symbolic performance, with clearly demarcated stages: the quest, or identification of the target animal; the assembly; the posting of relays at various points along the expected path of pursuit; the ‘finding’ or ‘unharbouring’ of the hart; the chase; the death; and the ‘unmaking’, involving a number of rituals for butchering the animal, including especially the curée. This last term, which is the origin of the word ‘quarry’ derives from the old French word cuir, hide or skin, and refers to the practice of disembowelling the hart and reinserting the viscera in the hart’s hide to give to the hounds in reward and encouragement to further pursuits (Cummins 1988, 33-46). Other forms of hunting aimed at minimising the effort involved in converting the raw into the cooked. Hunting here has become a sport because it is no longer precisely or exclusively the practice of tracking or pursuing an animal for the purpose of killing it. It has been disported, or diverted from itself, into something extra, de trop. The term par force, which indicates that which is necessary, is oddly applied to a hunt which has become more and more a pure elaboration of gratuity.
Where the drive hunt was carefully set up to lead the animals into a trap, the place of the kill in the par force hunt was not known in advance. It is partly for this reason, perhaps, that hunting has often been represented as embodying an ancient tradition of a country ‘open to the freeborn, liberty-loving Englishman exercising his rights of way and common’ (Landry 2001, 65). Donna Landry sees the right to roam movement as inheritors of this tradition, even though their proponents are often opponents of hunting. But, in this and other respects, Landry is inclined to take too much at face value the idealised accounts of hunting that she has painstakingly assembled from many sources. For, in fact the free and open space of the hunt was itself a kind of construction. For one thing, one of the most grievously offensive things about hunting for centuries has been the damage inflicted on crops and by cross-country hunters rampaging across private property. William and his descendants set about creating the spaces of open country in which hunting could take place by actually appropriating large stretches of the country, in a process that became known as ‘afforestation’. This was in no sense a returning of cultivated land to a state of wilderness or outsideness (forest is from Latin foris, ‘out of doors’). Instead, it was a drawing in of land to the complex kind of jurisdiction that was required to maintain animals in the condition necessary for them to be available for hunting. The forests were actually set apart from the common law and, in effect, under the direct control of the king and his officers (Griffin 2007, 16-17).
In very large part, this was because hunting required and requires careful conservation of animals which, despite the huge and conspicuous inefficiency in energy terms of the hunt, would otherwise very quickly be depleted. The most effective way in which game can be managed is by enclosing them in parks. The game park is a spatial paradox – a place of wild extensiveness that is nevertheless contained within limits that the quarry will eventually come up against. During the five centuries that followed the Conquest, the forest or wild wood was progressively taken legally and symbolically indoors.
There is a fundamental ambivalence in the act of hunting. Its primary aim is the promise and proof of the subjugation of nature. It therefore involves, not just an action – the action of pursuing and killing an animal – but a performance, which is to say an enactment of the meaning of an action. The hunt is both a form of action, and something acted out. As Matt Cartmill observes, the meaning of the hunt is that it is ‘an armed confrontation between humanness and wildness, between culture and nature’ (Cartmill 1993, 30). In the hunt, the human recognises itself as an active exception from nature. But the hunter is not simply or straightforwardly outside or on the other side of nature. For what characterises hunting is that one hunts nature with nature – typically with the accessories of hounds, hawks and horses, though sometimes with more unexpected animals, such as cheetahs (Cummins 1988, 31). One is necessarily a participant as well as an opponent. Not only this, but the mythology and symbolism in which hunting is so richly laden frequently construct the pursued animal as the mirror as well as the other of the hunter.
Of no quarry is this more true than the deer, or its favoured form, the hart, the name given to a male red deer in its sixth year. Strict conventions grew up regarding which stags were in fact acceptable, based on an extraordinarily intricate codification of the growth of its antlers. In order to be regarded as worthy of hunting, a hart had to have ten tines, or branchings of its antlers; if deer had not attained this condition, they would be known as ‘rascal’ (Cummins 1988, 32-3). The hart was subject to many different kinds of allegory. It could be thought of in religious terms as the soul, pursued by base desires and wickedness, or even as Christ persecuted by the Jews. In the legend of St Eustace, popularised in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend of about 1260, a Roman general is out hunting and follows a stag until it eventually stood at bay on a high rock and addressed him:
and whanne the herte sawe that he followed hym with alle his power / Atte last he wente upon an hyhe rock and Placidus approchynge nyghe thought in his mynde how he myght take hym / and as he beheld and consydered the herte dylygently/ sawe bytwene his hornes the forme of the holy Crosse shynynge more clere than the sonne and thymage of Cryst/ whiche by the mouthe of the herte / lyke as somtyme Balaam by the asse spack to hym sayenge / Placidus / wherfor folowest me hyder / I am appierd to the in this beeste / for the grace of the / I am Jesu Cryste whom thou honourest ignorauntly / thy almesses ben ascended up to fore me / And therfore I come hyder / soo that by this herte that thou huntest I maye hunte the. (Jacobus de Voragine 1487, f. 342)
Placidus immediately embraced Christianity, taking the name of Eustathius. This kind of encounter became very common in stories of the hunt, in which, typically, a king or knight gets drawn into a thicket by his pursuit of the hart or hind and loses his bearings: disorientated and separated from his companions, the animal may speak to him or change its form, or vanish, or, as for example in the ballad ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’ (Child 106), all three. Here the king chases a hind to a glade containing a grave, whereupon the hind vanishes, but then seems to reappear in the form of a dove
Great silence hung from tree to sky
The woods grew still, the sun on fire
As through the woods the dove he came
As through the wood he made his moan
The dove weeps tears of blood and reveals to the king that one of his serving men is in fact a woman whose child has been slain by her wicked stepmother. Such episodes make the essential feature of the hunt the occasion of metamorphosis, in which hunter and hunted change places. In such encounters, the religious and the sexual communicate closely, as romantic pursuit and the pursuit of souls enter into and transform each other, assisted by puns on heart and hart, venery, venison and venereality, grease (the hart should be taken ‘in grease’, meaning when it is fat) and grace.
The animals who are subject to the sport of hunting have entered a forest of signs. The most important feature of this symbolism is the fact of reversibility and repeatability. Each individual hunt leads to the most irrevocable outcome of all, the death of the animal. But this narrative, though always deliciously unpredictable, is also reliably repeatable. Each slain hart is both itself, and the figure of the Hart which it embodies. Indeed, a central part of the mythology attaching to the hart is the belief in its power for magical self-regeneration, and extraordinary longevity. There is a story of a stag killed in the forest of Windsor in the fifteenth century that was found to be wearing a collar reading ‘Julius Caesar quant jeo fu petis/Ceste coler sur mon col ad mys’ – Julius Caesar, when I was young/Around my neck this collar hung’ (Edward 1904, 153). Their extraordinary longevity was explained by the tradition that an old and sick hart could renew itself by the eating of snakes: George Gascoigne renders this account in his Noble Art of Venery of 1575 (following Isidore’s Etymologiae), of how the hart is reborn:
Isodore sayeth that the Harte is right contrarie to the Serpent, and that when he is olde, decrepyte, and sicke, that hee goeth to the dennes and caues of Serpentes, and with his nostrels he puffeth and forceth his breath into their holes, in suche sort, that by vertue and force therof he constreyneth the Serpents to come forth, and being come forth, he kylleth them with his foote, and afterwards eateth and deuoureth them. Afterwarde he goeth to drinke, and so the venyme spreadeth through all the veynes of his body, and when he feeleth the venyme worke, he runneth to chafe and heate him selfe, immediately he beginneth to voyde and purge himselfe, in such sort that nothing remayneth in his belly, comming forth by all the conduites and pores that nature hath made in him. And by this mean he renueth his force, and healeth him selfe, casting his haire. (Gascoigne 1575, 41)
Death is here undone by the symbolic order: indeed, one might say that, in so far as it is other or outside of the symbolic order, death is what the hunt aims symbolically to transmute and neutralise.
This is not the only reversibility that is evident in hunting. Hunting in the seventeenth century produced an efflorescence of technical and ceremonial terms, which one mistook at one’s social peril. Nature is both captured and ramified by these luxurious orgies of designation and discrimination, in their form resembling the arboreal branching of the antlers which were themselves among the features of the deer subject to this meticulous naming of parts. Each stage of the action was carefully choreographed, making the hunt the meeting place of the scripted and the unpredictable, the necessary and the contingent. Values were both invariant and yet reversible. A particularly telling example of this is the ritualistic attention paid to the dung of the stag, which expert trackers conned as attentively as the haruspicator his entrails. George Gascoigne provides a telling image of a selection of stag’s faeces – or fuments, as they were known – being reverently presented to the young Queen Elizabeth (who would remain keen on hunting throughout her life, being prepared to spend all day in the saddle even in her late 60s). He suggests that the hunter might appropriately utter the following words:
Before the Queene, I come report to make
Then husht and peace, for noble Trystrams sake.
From out my horne, my fewmets fyrst I drawe,
And them present, on leaues, by hunters lawe:
And thus I say: my liege, behold and see
An Hart of tenne, I hope he harbord bee.
For if you marke, his fewmets euery poynt,
You shall them finde, long, round, and well annoynt,
Knottie and great, withouten prickes or eares,
The moystnesse shewes, what venysone he beares. (Gascoigne 1575, 96)
Excrement, animality and royalty here seem perfectly reversible and intricately compatible. What is true of the animal’s excrement is also true of its corpse once it has been despatched. Hunting codes called for an elaborate and painstaking ritual of unmaking, with the placing of the cuts, the ordering of the dismembering and the distribution of different portions of the carcass being carefully discriminated (Almond 2003, 75-82). It may be that the ostensible or public reason for this ritual is to display due reverence for the body of a noble opponent: but it also seems designed to prevent the dead body of the animal to slip underneath the net of signification into the condition of undifferentiated surplus, or mere matter.
Perhaps the animal that embodies in itself the metamorphic possibilities of the hunt, is the hare, which in many cultures is regarded as a trickster creature, full of subtlety and guile. Comparing the hunting of hares to the straight cross-country sprinting of the new sport of fox-hunting, one commentator in 1750 praised the ‘endless Variety of accidental delights’ the hare afforded (Gardiner 1750, 2). Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne, who was burnt as a witch in 1662, said that she chanted the following rhyme three times in order to turn herself into a hare:
I SALL goe intill ane haire,
With sorrow, and sych, and meikle caire ;
And I fall goe in THE DIVELLIS nam,
Ay whill I com hom [againe !]. (Pitcairn 1833, III.607)
The hare is also apt to be given complaints at its treatment by hunters, since it was not regarded as particularly good eating:
So that thou shewest thy vanntes to be but vayne,
That bragst of witte, aboue all other beasts,
And yet by me, thou neyther gettest gayne
Nor findest foode, to serue thy gluttons feasts:
Some sporte perhaps: yet Greuous is the glee
VVhich endes in Bloud, that lesson learne of me. (Gascoigne 1575, 178)
There is a Middle English poem, known as ‘The Names of a Hare’, which gives advice to somebody meeting a hare, on how to outwit the animal. In order to avoid ill-luck, and increase his chances of getting the better of the hare, the wayfarer is urged to utter an incantation consisting of a long list of names for the animal (Ross 1932-5). Here is a recent rendering of the poem by Seamus Heaney:
‘The hare, call him scotart,
the O’Hare, the jumper,
the rascal, the racer…
The stubble-stag, the long lugs,
the stook-deer, the frisky legs,
the wild one, the skipper,
the hug-the-ground, the lurker,
the race-the-wind, the skiver,
the shag-the-hare, the hedge-squatter,
the dew-hammer, the dew-hopper,
the sit-tight, the grass-bounder,
the jig-foot, the earth-sitter,
the light-foot, the fern-sitter,
the kail-stag, the herb-cropper.
The creep-along, the sitter-still,
the pintail, the ring-the-hill,
the sudden start,
The gobshite, the gum-sucker,
the scare-the-man, the faith-breaker,
the snuff-the-ground, the baldy skull
(his chief name is scoundrel).
The stag sprouting a suede horn,
the creature living in the corn,
the creature bearing all men’s scorn,
the creature no one dares to name.’ (Heaney 1998, 209, 210-11)
The poem establishes a choreographic equivalence between the tricksy inventiveness of the naming of the hare and the hare’s own transformations of appearance in its mazy flight, as evoked in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: ‘He cranks and crosses with a thousand doubles:/The many musets through the which he goes/Are like a labyrinth to amaze his foes’ (Venus and Adonis, ll. 682-4). Indeed, the pattern of mobile identifications between poem, speaker and creature seem synecdochic of the metamorphic nature of the hunt itself. The vast amount of literary writing devoted to the hunt has ensured that it was as much poesis as predation, a matter of wordcraft as well as woodcraft.
Perhaps the most striking proof of the transvaluating power of the hunt is the unexpected promotion of the fox that occurred during the eighteenth century. Before this time, the fox had been regarded as vermin. The hunting of other animals was restricted by a succession of laws and requirements, culminating in the Game Act of 1671, with savage penalties, including blinding and castration, for offenders (Griffin 2007, 36). By contrast, anybody could hunt foxes. But the increases of population, leading in turn to the need for more intensive agricultural use of land, meant that the hunting of deer became more and more of a minority pursuit, and, in a remarkable revaluation, the fox was promoted from the condition of pest to that of noble prey, and the ceremonies attached to the stag transferred to it (Griffin 2007, 131). For about the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, hunting in Britain was reorganised around the fox rather than the deer. The instability of categories which hunting can induce is indicated by the traditional license given to students of Christ Church Oxford to bring their beagle packs into the college. This would be a clear infraction of the College rule forbidding entrance to dogs, were it not for the fact that beagles were given the status of honorary cats.
It is possible to make out an argument that the steady urbanisation of the population, along with an ever more distanced and instrumental view of nature and animals, are in part responsible for the growing unease with hunting from the early nineteenth century onwards, which has matured into the majority opposition of recent years. Another of the effects of urbanisation has been the growth of mass-spectacle organised sports in which animals feature less and less. Indeed, we can date the change in the word ‘sport’ to a very short period, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, which is precisely the period when humanitarian and anti-vivisection groups began to exert their most powerful influence. In the early 1890s, ‘sport’ still usually meant hunting. By the teens of the twentieth century, sport was much more likely to refer to organised and intrahuman team games. This reverses a change which took place in the other direction between the mid-seventeenth century and the mid-nineteenth century, in which rural sports became known as games, and sport came to refer ever more exclusively to hunting (Landry 2001, 95-6).
In a sense, then, one might say that the decline in blood sports goes in tandem with an increasing abstractness in human relationships with animals. This has sometimes been made the basis for a defence of hunting, most notably that offered by Donna Landry, who makes much of the ambivalence, indeterminacy and reciprocity that characterised the relationship between hunted and hunted. She finds in the oration put into the mouth of an otter in George Gascoigne’s Noble Art of Venery ‘a practice of ambivalence, elevating ambiguity about the relation between human and animal to an art form. The scientific and the sacramental, the instrumental and the empathetic, are fused’ (Landry 2001, 42). But this is very far from anything that could be called ‘intersubjectivity’ (Landry 2001, 49).
We need to remember the persistent and abiding link between blood sports and aristocracy. Aristocracy here refers to more than the shifting fortunes of a particular class. For we can see at work in blood sports a desire for what philosophers from Nietzsche onwards have identified as an absolute sovereignty, which extends far beyond actual political power. The sovereign will wishes to transcend nature, including and especially its own nature. It is this dynamic which explains the peculiarly intimate mixture of identification and antagonism in hunting, and what Donna Landry approvingly calls the ‘identificatory loss of human distinctness in the chase’ (Landry 2001, 35). The animal must be the hunter’s own ‘natural’ self that is put at stake, and put to the stake. The animal is the external bearer of this internal psychomachia. More than this, sovereignty means the power to command the sign, and to effect the reversals of meaning that are characteristic of the hunt. The hunter affirms and assures his nobility, which is to say his absolute distinctness and autonomy, through the relay of the animal, through the fact that the animal can be made to mean anything. The polymorphousness of the hart, the hare and the fox, depends upon the capacity of the human partner in the transaction to put the meaning of everything in that transaction in play. But the power to effect reversal is radically non-reversible. Sport is a kind of playing with life – playing with the forces of life that might otherwise seem to make you their plaything.
Writers on hunting have rightly observed its ‘sacramental’ nature, depending as it does on a language of the body, a play of signification that is enacted not principally through abstract symbolism, but through the forces and forms of bodies in motion. But, as the word suggests, the sacramental is founded upon a sacrifice. Ultimately, what has come to be seen as the offensiveness of hunting does not depend upon the charge of cruelty, though it may indeed involve considerable pain and distress for the fox or hare. For it is not so much that the animal is put to death through hunting, as the fact that it is simultaneously given its death and deprived of it, the fact that its pain and death are sported with, that is, deported into meaning, into play, into performance. What has become nauseating in hunting is that, like Ted Hughes’s white rhinoceros, the hunted animal has blundered into man’s phantasmagoria and cannot get out.
So the most obscene thing about hunting is its status as scene or spectacle. The hunted animal is made to seem to be a willing actor on the stage of its passion. The staging of atrocity thus becomes the atrocity of staging. One thinks of the story of the nineteenth-century German theatre, the strict regulation of which included a ban on all kinds of improvisation or non-scripted action. One evening, an actor was performing with a live horse, which suddenly dropped a spattering load of dung on to the boards. ‘What are you doing!’ protested the actor. ‘Don’t you know we are forbidden to improvise?’ Improvisation is as impossible for the hunted animal as for the performing animal, for its every twist and turn has been scripted in advance by hunting’s theatre of cruelty – though this term here has a sense that is precisely opposite to that intended by Antonin Artaud, the originator of the phrase, in that here, theatricality is not made more actual and immediate through the passions of the body, but rather spirits away the suffering of the animal even as it insists on it.
The twentieth century has seen a steady growth of sports in which the relay of the animal is dispensed with, except sometimes as partner or participant, for example in archaically aristocratic sports like polo. Sport is still a way to formalise and make graspable man’s sense of his unnatural nature, in the way that Sartre describes. But, during the twentieth century, as Roland Barthes has suggested, sport has become a struggle, not with and against animals, but against things:
in sport, man does not confront man directly. There enters between them an intermediary, a stake, a machine, a puck, or a ball. And this thing is the very symbol of things: it is in order to possess it, to master it, that one is strong, adroit, courageous… to this question of the ancient duels, sport gives a new meaning: for man’s excellence is sought here only in relation to things. Who is the best man to overcome the resistance to things, the immobility of nature? Who is the best to work the world, to give it to men … to all men? (Barthes 2007, 59, 63)
A dominative phantasmagoria of identification between man and animal has given way to a melancholy recognition of the epistemological fissure between man and animal, which means, in part, between man and himself. In modern sport, man must be his own other, relayed back to himself by objects rather than other beings. This recognition may be accompanied by equally noxious effects, for example the sense of alienation from the natural world, and the instrumentalist reduction of organisms to the condition of objects for human use. But it will, I think, be possible and necessary to establish from this disavowal of violent and assimilative identification a less appropriative kind of relation to animals, that would be characterised not by fantasy, magic and desire, but knowledge and acknowledgement.
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