7 Apr 2009

Which Wild are We?: Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Ch.8, subsection 2

Paul Shepard

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Chapter VIII: Wildness and Wilderness

Subsection 2

Which Wild are We?

In the late 20th century, many people's faith in human progress began to fade. Will we really triumph over nature? Or will she begin biting back?

Up to now, we had two fictionalizations of human wildness: the Noble Savage and the Cave Man. The savage either lived in his golden age of human perfection, or he had already lost it. The Cave Man is a "slavering brute, lurking at the fringes of humanity itself, destined to consort with the beasts as one of them." (135d) Shepard previously discredited these portrayals.
both images are fictions of ourselves: the first as the lonely outcast of lost paradise, the second as a savage barely emerged from a hairy, grunting animality. For the Greeks, Romans, and Christians, the Wild Man was the product of the wilderness, deficient in morality and every other human virtue, and remains the not-yet-human of the past, above whom Progress and High Culture elevate us. (135d)
Both cases are distortions. We wrongly obtain them from watching "the demented and stupid beasts of the barnyard."
The only hope to escape such gluttony, lust, and violence was through moral rigor, religious salvation, or some kind of social amelioration that would block such destructive impulses. (136a)
Sigmund Freud's brilliant insight into human instincts "was limited to a combative or sexual urge to be suppressed and controlled by rational thought." (136ab) This presents us with "ugly visions of wilderness" and of our selfhood. Hence the modern idea of wilderness does not value the biological ground of our being.
It is predicated instead on esthetics, on a rational ethic of biodiversity, on the concept of a protective enclave for wildlife, or as "recreation." (136b)

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

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