John Lewis-Stempel on anthropomorphism. From “Meadowland: The Private Life of An English Field”

While I have some misgivings about the “lab coated lobby” part (I suspect that the sneering phenomenon Lewis-Stempel describes doesn’t so much emanate from “science Puritans” as simple cynicism, perhaps guided not by scientific thinking but a sort of simulacrum of same [and perhaps with the influence of academic disciplines in the humanities keen to ape the discourse of science and to acquire some of its prestige])

Nevertheless, the final paragraph quoted here does strike me as a strong objection to some of the more strident anti-anthropomorphism comments one encounters. We are embodied beings, and our bodies and brains have much in common with the creatures around us. This isn’t to make a more general philosophical point, but simply to point out a truth about human existence.

Of course, some science Puritan will aver that British nature writing is diseased by ‘species shift’, or what W H Hudson (a leading practitioner) termed ‘extra-natural’ experience – the placing of the author inside the head and body of the being described. The same lab-coated lobby invariably sign off with the dig that ‘nature writing’ and, by extension, ‘nature reading’ are the habit of metropolitans detached from the real Nature of the red teeth and claws.

Every time I hear this argument I wind back my memory more than thirty years, to the little second sitting room of my grandparents’ house in Withington. They had impeccable country credentials stretching back centuries, although admittedly in my grandfather’s case only to the early 1600s. There were no parish records before then.
In the second sitting room, there are only three shelves of the dark wood bookcase; on them are a few respectable novels in paper polka-dot jackets (led by Du Maurier and Somerset Maugham), at least ten books about Herefordshire (I must have read Where Wye and Severn Flow  twelve times by the age of twelve) .. and an awful lot of books by Romany, aka the Reverend George Brammel Evens, a BBC radio broadcaster and writer on nature. There was Out With Romany, Out With Romany Again, Out with Romany by Meadow and Stream, Out With Romany Once More, Out with Romany by the Sea …

There was nothing unusual about that little library. Everybody in the country had books on nature, farming and shooting. Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald for knowledge, James Herriot for laughs. And the worst anthropomorphizers of all are country people. I have never known a sow badger to be anything but an ‘old  girl’, and when the gender of an animal is unknown it is always ‘he’, and never ‘it’.

 

And I wonder, is it really so difficult to enter, in some slight degree, into the mind-frame of an animal? Are we not all beasts?

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