Thinking about bonsai trees

Judith Shklar

  • Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets by Yi-Fu Tuan
    Yale, 193 pp, £15.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 300 03222 6

Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection is not, as its title might suggest, about people who like and love their oppressors. It is an account of the many ways in which the strong torment the weak of whom they claim to be fond. Overtly hostile acts produce victims, but affection also has aggressive impulses and it creates what Tuan calls ‘pets’. In both cases there is an abuse of power, but the occasions for its display are quite different. Simple destruction occurs everywhere, but playful cruelty, according to Tuan, is generally to be found in the aesthetic realm. We are said to be truly free only when we play, restrained neither by necessity nor morality, and it is in this state that we appear to exploit others most cruelly for the sake of our relaxation and amusement. We are told nothing of the value of beauty and its possible edifications. What we get is an itemised indictment of our habitual twisting, torturing and humiliation of the objects of our affection and pleasure. It is at play, not at work, that we do our worst to plants, animals and feeble people.

Power, the ability to remove obstacles to our will and to subordinate others to it, is, in Tuan’s view, not only inherent in affection, it can be exercised upon anything that may be said to live. It is at this point that the peculiarity of the book begins to emerge, for Tuan ascribes life not only to animals and plants but also to water. Moreover he makes no distinctions between sentient and other natural beings. Anything in the environment that can be altered by human exertion is a living thing that can be coerced and abused. A fountain in a garden is a way of forcing water to move upwards against its natural inclination. We have, to please ourselves, reduced it to a pet or plaything. As such, it joins human dwarfs, castrated domestic animals and bonsai trees in a gallery of maimed toys. The real aim of this recital is not to give us an idea of what it feels like to be a pet, much less to explain why we want them. This book, if it is about anything, is about power and especially about its rational misuse, for in the end it is reason that makes us such a menace to the rest of the earth.

Tuan’s deepest sympathy goes out to gardens, especially forced branches and dwarfed plants. The so-called natural English garden is shown to be particularly offensive, because unlike the openly formal kind, its affectation of natural growth is really a demonstration of a ‘proud and ostentatious restraint’ which is a complete betrayal of the true meaning of nature. Any garden is, of course, the work of a civilising intelligence, which is why it appears to be so objectionable. It is a human design imposed upon an area where there was none before: what could such an act be but a violation of nature? All civilisation, we learn, is an extravagant consumption of the resources of nature, and the garden is not even a response to necessity, which might be excusable. It is a luxury and one that pretends, hypocritically, to enhance nature, when, in fact, it despoils it. We are amused, probably sadistically, by the harm we inflict on rocks and flowers and streams when we divert them from their spontaneous course in order to create something that is beautiful. This is no different from the humiliating occupations we impose on the savages who are unfortunate enough to come under our control. For it is not the character or consequences of abusive power, nor power itself, that seem to matter. Indeed power as such is to be admired, since it is to do with positive vitality and efficacy; and even passivity is natural, a part of our general character. It is our unfettered imagination and our rationality, our ability to act purposefully and in accordance with our own plans, that is so destructive and such a cause of suffering to trees, animals and rocks and to other people.

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