The Bêtaphysics of Huntingfrom Things That Happen When Reading Rilke
I’m walking along the dried-up river at Le Boulou when a large
hunchbacked animal leaps out of the bamboo bank and jinks past me. The flash of
blood-red pelt tells me it’s a sanglier. Wild boar have been multiplying
in the mountains since they discovered dustbins. As boar are one of the few
animals which humans eat that eat humans, when seen on the streets they are
shot at sight. Sanglier stew is a Catalan ‘delicacy’.
Hardly have I recovered my breath when a posse of men in Day-Glo jackets come crashing through, brandishing guns. It’s the Council out on a cull. They wave me away furiously, bringing to my notice a warning sign on every second tree. My hunting days are not over, I think. I feel hunted.
During high-summer friendly-fire shootings of truffle-hunters regularly feature in the faits divers columns of Le Journal (‘He killed his mother while chasing a wild boar’). The gunfire starts, and either there are other pigs in the woods, or the Council are particularly bad shots, for it continues cracking the air until I get back to town. So much for the poem that was talking in my head.
‘Man can’t stand silence’, Pascal says. ‘Breaking silence is the way of the world. We must make noise to drown it out. Whether it’s talking, stamping our feet, or snoring in our sleep, as long as we can hear something we’re content. If you want to persecute someone you silence them. Saints who wouldn’t conserve their tongues had them cut out. Solitary confinement is the punishment of punishments in prison. There you’ve something to think about that you’d prefer not to, and you’re driven to distractions where there are none. On the other hand, solitude is generally seen as a source of happiness (‘The silence seduces the truth’). Submitting to it means you can drift off and think of nothing. ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’, says Hamlet, adding ‘To me it is a prison’.
Pascal continues, ‘Men will do anything to avoid being unhappy, distracting themselves as best they can. Hunting is a royal example. A hunter acts on an instinct. It’s only the hunted who have to think. That is why we like the chase better than the quarry. A wise chamberlain when he sees his king brooding organises a day out. For blood-sports are peace and quiet by other means, a way of getting out of yourself to avoid facing the realities back home. It isn’t only dumb animals or a ball that men like to chase. In polite society we ride over, or down, our fellow man without a thought when personal ambition declares war. But it’s a sign of weakness and, if you care to think about it, unlikely to make you happy. Better to stay quietly in your room.’
He asks, ‘How can a man distressed by a death in the family, or some dreadful misfortune, go out and happily field a ball and throw it back, bent on winning a game or, if a hare is put in his path, sets off to track it, and serious matters are forgotten. A man born to know the universe, to judge where he stands in it and to do great things, drops everything to divert himself. But the case can be made that if he doesn’t play the game, and stays put with the stresses and strains, he risks being more foolish still, for he is raising himself above common humanity. After all he’s just a man like any other, capable of only so much or so little, neither angel nor brute, and has the right to amuse himself, even if he is a king. That it is at the expense of meditating on whence he came, whither he’s going. Too busy diverting himself, he hasn’t time to contend with his uncertain condition, and contemplate life, death and the state of his soul. Thus missing out on preparing himself to live with what’s to come.’
But Pascal demurs, ‘I’ve studied the abstract sciences and found them so remote from reality that I wandered further from my own state than the mass of men ignorant of them. It isn’t that they know no better. Not seeing the connection between abstract theory and their lives, they ignore the former. It’s me perhaps who should have known better. In order to reconcile with reality our respective states, I thought at least we could find common ground in the study of man. But people were even less interested in that than in geometry, for the study of man, being ethical rather than scientific, is too close to the bone. So what prevails is the view least likely to make you unhappy. That is, it’s better not to know yourself.’
He concludes, ‘We are not at home with ourselves, and prefer to live an imaginary life in the minds of others. It is for this reason that we endeavour to shine, going to great pains to gild the lily. For instance with the hunt, we bring to it characteristics such as calmness, generosity, honesty in order to become master of the hounds. And so for the sake of what others think of us, we squander innate virtues by bestowing them on an imaginary existence, often to their detriment in our real lives.
‘Honour decrees that what we are to ourselves and to others should be one and the same. But out of cowardice at what our neighbour thinks, we sacrifice the reality of our inner self for an illusion that is merely a matter of pride. What we are in essence is made to count for nothing, thus relegating our being to the realm of nothingness…Sometimes, I think, it isn’t a conscious choice We simply can’t think of two things at the same time, and go for the one on everybody’s minds. Fair enough for getting on in the world, but not good for the soul.’
As a Jansenist, Pascal didn’t think much of mankind. But the intellectual kindness towards his fellow man that shines through his second thoughts in the Pensées is almost enough to argue that it’s better to have a one-track mind bent on making a good impression than a two-faced one that serves everybody and nobody, like Kierkegaard’s Janus bifrons, ‘laughing with one, weeping with the other’. I must reread what he had to say about the poets.
In my youth hunting was part of my ‘imaginary life in the minds of others’, and, inspired by Turgenev’s Sportman’s Sketches, which my father read to me, I sometimes borrowed a gun from a friend to aim at a sitting duck, or a woodcock beaten into flight. And I had blood in my hands. Once after waiting for twilight to fall in marshlands scarcely a mile from the centre of town, a darting, fragmenting flock of snipe rose up, and we picked off large numbers of them. Fair game, I thought, until one fell at my feet. When I retrieved it, it vomited grapeshot before stiffening into a feather duster. I decided henceforth that the only honourable way to hunt was to aim to miss.
The next time out, though I lowered the sights, the kickback secured me a direct hit. The pheasant was served for dinner. The glorious plumage plucked, it was a poor thing, scarcely enough meat on it for a sandwich, my sisters laughed. When my mother carved the bird a green acorn was found in the stomach, and nobody wanted to eat it. My mother said as she cleared the plates, ‘Next time Augustus aim to kill’. Irony is always right when it’s well meant.