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.

It is difficult to understand how anyone, except in this kind of irrational vision, could see a cruel aestheticism in our desire to alter plant growth and the flow of water. The case, for most of us, is quite different when we consider animal and human pets. The family dog, spayed to make a more docile domestic creature, and the castrato, unmanned to sing more beautifully, are feeling, sensitive beings and as such subject to cruelty in a meaningful sense of the term. The first is often loved, the latter certainly admired, but both are soon forgotten when they cease to amuse us. Goldfish and horses are bred to please us, but their health may well be impaired, and the process of breeding is often very rough. Then, too, there used to be dwarfs and fools at courts, and seraglios to amuse despots. These people were not compelled to do what they did because it was good for them: they were servants of a special sort. Tuan seems to think that their masters felt some affection for them, but cites no evidence. There is no reason to suppose that fools were liked more than the factory-farmed animals of the present. But agribusiness is not Tuan’s subject. It is delicate cruelty that arouses his anger.

The stories Tuan tells are not new. Anyone who has read books on landscape gardening, the work of Konrad Lorenz, or Ariès on children, will be perfectly familiar with most of his examples. Some illustrations are trite, like Nora walking out of her doll’s house. What is quite interesting is that most of the horrors he records are things of the past. One might therefore expect him to rejoice in the present when, as he admits, there are far fewer occasions for the abuse of affectionate power. We no longer keep dwarfs and fools. The zoo and the circus remain, but these don’t necessarily qualify as pet displays. Tuan thinks they do, since they give the spectator so much pleasure, but is that the same as affection? In any case, they don’t, even in Tuan’s eyes, provide quite the same sort of fun as the older forms of Oriental and European play. He is not reassured, however. The modern age has brought about the ultimate victory of the mind over the body; our preference for culture over nature is more arrogant than ever before; and no importance is attached to the growth of humaneness since the 18th century. He does not argue, as Foucault did, that this apparent kindness was really just a new type of restraint and coercion: he merely asserts that it is insignificant. At times he hints that equality among all living beings might improve matters, but in the end it seems that neither friendship nor equality can meet the need: only disinterested affection or love will do – which, when one considers the record Tuan has presented, hardly seem plausible. But then in his view nothing can be expected of rational actors that would mitigate the havoc they create.

Why are books like this one so popular now? Not many of those who agree with Tuan will care that his tale, in keeping with his distaste for rationality, is completely incoherent. The situations of a favourite dog, a beautiful garden and a circus are totally different and the emotions they arouse have nothing in common. A human entertainer is not like a pet rock. Nor is it always true that domestic animals suffer more than wild ones, or than people. The family dog will be given a painless death when he is old and infirm, in the arms of his owner, which is more than we are permitted or willing to do for each other. In Tuan’s book obsolete and prevalent practices are jumbled up for mere effect. There is no awareness of the historical and social context of any practice; cock-fighting in contemporary America is treated as if it were exactly the same thing as it was in the 17th century when both law and popular opinion accepted it. We are asked to feel responsible for what was done long ago as if it were being done now and for alterations of objects as if anguish were being caused to a sentient being. Though Tuan is quick to detect the maudlin sentimentality of royal hunters who spent a fortune on a favourite deer, he does not recognise that his whole book is an exercise in sentimentality. We are meant to shed tears, as he so evidently does, over the wrongs inflicted long ago upon Chinese goldfish, but in so doing we, the truly tender-minded of the world, are implicitly absolved from having to think about what really goes on around us: we can forget about politics and the actual violence that engulfs vast numbers of people every day. If we were less cruel to animals we wouldn’t come to be less brutal to each other. There is no evidence to support that hope, just as kindness to human beings does not translate into humaneness to animals. Nor will laments about one or the other produce any improvement in our conduct all round. If one thinks only of cruelty to rocks and birds and dwarfs without even mentioning the victims of war and famine, one has made a choice, and it is not as obviously a morally self-justifying one as Tuan and those who share his views believe.

I am not saying that we ought not to be considerate to animals, nor suggesting that a humane concern for their welfare is simply an escape from more important obligations.

Such compassion makes sense, however, only as part of a general rejection of cruelty, and not in the context of a collection of injustices which must inspire disgust with mankind and create no real interest in the actual condition of animals. The history of the effort to protect animals against human cruelty is replete with such intellectual confusion. We now know this, and much else, thanks to Keith Thomas’s remarkable Man and the Natural World, which also shows that protests against man’s treatment of nature began earlier and were more common than had been supposed. The most powerful and literate early voice is Montaigne’s, and even he was not always sure whether it was a disdain for men or pity for animals that moved him. When he argued that animals were mankind’s moral superiors in just about every significant respect, he was merely putting us down. His ‘cruel hatred of cruelty’ was not, however, limited to species other than his own. It found its main expression in a scathing attack on religious fanaticism, and in long meditations on the moral possibilities and limits of politics. The politics of damage control that he proposed are not heroic, and given that he lived in the midst of constant carnage, he was often overwhelmed by disgust, not least at the conduct of Europeans toward those whom they regarded as savages. But though he certainly had a streak of primitivism in him, Montaigne (unlike Rousseau) never thought that when men reason they become depraved animals. And even Rousseau, who felt that among civilised people even pity was merely a self-satisfied sort of vanity, did not give up, but turned to politics, upon which, he claimed, everything now depended. He did not resort to Pope’s famous ‘what’er is best administer’d is best,’ nor to Pope’s extreme loathing for man, but at least Pope didn’t think that his garden was also an abattoir, even if brutal man was but a ‘vile worm’ and a rational spoiler. It is not far from this to Nietzsche, who also loved animals, but called for a new assertion of the human will to power. Tuan with his decided love of vitality may even owe him something, for what he proposes is a form of humaneness that can readily absorb a martial ethos, and worse.

If one looks at the literature of animal rights and animal liberation with these considerations in mind, it is difficult not to have misgivings. Here the language of politics is applied to wholly unpolitical beings and relationships, replacing in the process the older and more appropriate vocabulary of kindness, generosity and service, as if these were somehow inferior virtues. The difficulty of ascribing rights to sentient creatures who by definition are incapable of conceiving of a social claim against others is that it reduces rights to a mere metaphor. There are moral claims that are not rights, while the assertion of rights has historically made sense only as a demand for political protection, for constitutional institutions and, above all, for procedures that secure individuals against specific violations, especially at the hands of the state. To call for rights is to call for effective justice – otherwise it is just another protest word rendered meaningless by over-use and vagueness – and to speak of rights without tying them to their necessary institutional purposes and procedures is to empty them of all political force. It is not even clear why animals would benefit from an ascription of these enfeebled rights. Nor does it seem very constructive to brush aside the only feelings that have ever done anything significant for children, animals, and the helplessly retarded and senile – compassion and pity. To turn away from these morally effective sentiments in favour of a notion of depoliticised quasi-rights does not seem any more promising than Tuan’s nostalgia for a prehistoricai state of loving mutuality between man and beast. Charity is not justice, but it is not its inferior, and there is nothing to be gained by confusing the two.

There are many reasonable ways of arguing in favour of a greater concern for animals and the natural environment in general. There may, for instance, be a teleological order in which, as rational beings, we have a special responsibility that makes us the guardians of the natural world. There are the interests of future generations to be considered. One may regard it as deeply destructive of human character to allow oneself and others, especially children, to indulge in acts of cruelty. One may believe that God’s creation is sacred and imposes upon us a reverence for all living beings. There are many more similarly plausible notions about our moral duties to nature. None of these views, however, allows us to forget political realities and the cruelties that we routinely inflict upon other human beings. From Afghanistan to Zaire the story is the same: torture, terror, disappearances, imprisonment without charges – in short, a violation of the most elementary rights of human beings, as the reports of Amnesty International make clear. There has been a shocking decline in public standards, for while the last century saw the disappearance of torture, it is now commonplace. And that is nothing compared with the ravages of civil wars and of religious and communal struggles fought with modern ‘conventional’ weapons. Under these circumstances it is neither prudent nor humane to linger over the humiliations of pets.

To think about bonsai trees rather than about the victims of terrorism may be convenient. It may also be a response to the collapse of ideology. Tuan’s nature-loving primitivism is merely one of many apolitical causes. What eupeptic American sociologists once called ‘the end of ideology’ did not, of course, bring the end of fanaticism and the reign of common sense which they seemed to expect. It is, however, a fact that, with the possible exception of feminism, there has been no new ideology since the 19th century. It is not now a growth industry. Even the strongest hold-out, nationalism, has been reduced to mere xenophobia, tinged with racism and religious rage. Intellectual Marxism is now an academic discipline of mind-numbing abstraction, while the war between the haves and the have-nots is fought in terms of a few of its remnant slogans. The authors of the New Fabian Essays of 1952 feared that apathy and disorientation would follow the loss of the old ideological structures: their fears seem close to being fulfilled both in the US and in Britain. Those perfect explanations and trustworthy guides to all the contingencies of the future neither convince nor organise any public at all. Instead, one sees a gut Right and Left with nothing to nourish them except a rancid mutual loathing. It is not a temper in which discussions of alternative policies or serious political deliberations are likely to flourish. Within this context Tuan’s book should be seen as a symptom rather than as a contribution to any sort of intellectual consideration of the relationship of people to their natural environment. Its stories of pet-making make it easy for us to enjoy the pleasures of indignation without having to think about what really is happening to us here and now. It offers a substitute for political thinking and a means of tolerating the ideological vacuum.