SI Vault
Jos� Ortega Y Gasset
September 25, 1972
Thirty years ago Spain's eminent philosopher set down some thoughts about man's enduring pursuit of game. Now, for the first time, his essay has been translated into English
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September 25, 1972

Meditations On Hunting

Thirty years ago Spain's eminent philosopher set down some thoughts about man's enduring pursuit of game. Now, for the first time, his essay has been translated into English

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Anybody who has hunted will recognize that each prey when it appears seems as if it is going to be the only one. It is a flash of opportunity the hunter must take advantage of. Perhaps the occasion will not present itself again all day. Thus the excitement, always new, always fresh, even in the oldest hunter. But all this presupposes that achieving the presence of game is a triumph in itself, and very unusual good fortune. But how many efforts are necessary in order to have this fortunate opportunity, as instantaneous as a lightning flash, take place! The chain of venatic operations unfolds now before our retrospective analysis. And each technique is revealed as a difficult and ingenious effort to force the appearance of the animal, which apparently on his own characteristically will not be there. So, leaving aside the magic used by the primitives of the glacial period, the first act of all hunting is to find the prey. Strictly speaking, this is not merely the first task, but the fundamental task of all hunting: bringing about the presence of the prey.

The Paleolithic tribes of the present—those that live, like those of 10,000 years ago, exclusively or almost exclusively by hunting—are the most primitive human species that exist. They do not have the slightest hint of government, of legislation, of authority; only one law is enforced among them: that which determines how they must divide the spoils of their hunting. In many of these tribes the largest and best portion of the spoils is given not to the one who kills, but rather to the one who first saw the animal, discovered it and caused it to rise and show itself. It is almost certain that this was the "constitutional right" of hunting in the dawn of humanity. That is, when the history of hunting began, detecting the animal was already held to be the basic operation; therefore the scarcity of game is of the essence of the whole undertaking. There is no more eminent proof that this initial labor is the most important part of hunting, and it is understandable that a very accomplished hunter should consider the supreme form of hunting that in which the hunter, alone in the mountains, is at the same time the person who discovers the prey, the one who pursues it and the one who fells it.

So we have come to a monumental but inevitable paradox: the fact that man hunts presupposes that there is and always has been a scarcity of game. If game were superabundant, there would not exist that peculiar animal behavior that we distinguish from all others with the precise name "hunting." Since air is usually abundant, there is no technical ability involved in breathing, and breathing is not hunting air.

More than once the sportsman within shooting range of a splendid animal hesitates in pulling the trigger. The idea that such a slender life is going to be annulled surprises him for an instant. Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanting animal. He does not have the final and firm conviction that his conduct is correct. But neither, it should be understood, is he certain of the opposite. Finding himself in an ambivalent situation which he has often wanted to clear up, he thinks about this issue without ever obtaining the sought-after evidence. I believe that this has always happened to man, with varying degrees of intensity according to the nature of the prey—ferocious or harmless—and with one or another variation in the aspect of uneasiness. This says nothing against hunting but only that the generally problematic, equivocal nature of man's relationship with animals shines through that uneasiness. Nor can it be otherwise, because man really has never known exactly what an animal is. Before and beyond all science, humanity sees itself as something emerging from animality, but it cannot be sure of having transcended that state completely. The animal remains too close for us to not feel mysterious communication with it. The only people to have felt they had a clear idea about the animal were the Cartesians. The truth is that they believed they had a clear idea about everything. But to achieve that rigorous distinction between man and beast, Descartes first had to convince himself that the animal was a mineral—that is, a mere machine. Fontanel le recounts that in his youth, while he was visiting Malebranche, a pregnant dog came into the room. So that the animal would not disturb anyone who was present, Malebranche—a very sweet and somewhat sickly priest whose spine was twisted like a corkscrew—had the dog expelled with blows from a stick. The poor animal ran away howling piteously while Malebranche, a Cartesian, listened impassively. "It doesn't matter," he said. "It's a machine, it's a machine!"

Has anyone noticed the very strange fact that, before and apart from any moral or even simply compassionate reaction, it seems to us that nothing stains as blood does? When two men who have had a fistfight in the street finally separate and we see their bloodstained faces, we are always disconcerted. Rather than producing in us the sympathetic response which another's pain generally causes, the sight creates a disgust that is extremely intense and of a very special nature. Not only do those faces seem repugnantly stained, but the filth goes beyond physical limits and becomes, at the same time, moral. The blood has not only stained the faces but it has soiled them—that is to say it has debased and in a way degraded them. Hunters who read this will remember this primary sensation, so often felt, when at the end of the hunt the dead game lies in a heap on the ground with dried blood here and there staining plumage and pelt. The reaction, I repeat, is prior to and still deeper than any ethical question, since one notices the degradation that blood produces wherever it falls, on inanimate things as well. Earth that is stained with blood is as damned. A white rag stained with blood is not only repugnant, it seems violated, its humble textile material dishonored. It is the frightening mystery of blood. What can it be? Life is the mysterious reality par excellence, not only in the sense that we do not know its secret but also because life is the only reality that has a true "inside"—an intus or intimacy. Blood, the liquid that carries and symbolizes life, is meant to flow occultly, secretly, through the interior of the body. When it is spilled and the essential "within" comes outside, a reaction of disgust and terror is produced in all nature, as if the most radical absurdity had been committed: that which is purely internal made external.

But this is precisely what death is. The cadaver is flesh that has lost its intimacy, flesh whose "interior" has escaped like a bird from a cage, a piece of pure matter in which there is no longer anyone hidden.

Yet after this first bitter impression, if the blood insists on presenting itself, if it flows abundantly, it ends by producing the opposite effect: it intoxicates, excites, maddens both man and beast. The Romans went to the circus as they did to the tavern, and the bullfight public does the same: the blood of the gladiators, the beasts, the bull operates like a stupefying drug. Similarly, war is always an orgy at the time. Blood has an unequaled orgiastic power.

I have indicated that a sport is the effort which is carried out for the pleasure that it gives in itself and not for the transitory result that the effort brings forth. It follows that when an activity becomes a sport, whatever that activity may be, the hierarchy of its values becomes inverted. In utilitarian hunting the true purpose of the hunter, what he seeks and values, is the death of the animal. Everything else that he does before that is merely a means for achieving that end, which is its formal purpose. But in hunting as a sport, this order of means to end is reversed. To the sportsman the death of the game is not what interests him; that is not his purpose. What interests him is everything he had to do to achieve that death—that is, the hunt. Therefore what was before only a means to an end is now an end in itself. Death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting: the killing of the animal is the natural end of the hunt and the goal of hunting itself, not of the hunter. The hunter seeks this death because it is no less than the sign of reality for the whole hunting process. To sum up, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift, he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job and so on and so forth.

In order to subsist, early man had to dedicate himself wholly to hunting. Hunting was the first occupation, man's first work and craft. The venatic occupation was unavoidable, and as the center and root of existence it ruled human life completely—its acts and its ideas, its technology and sociality. Hunting was, then, the first form of life man adopted, and this means—it should be fundamentally understood—that man's being consisted first in being a hunter.

Primitive hunting, however, was not a pure invention of primitive man. He had inherited it from the primate animal from which the human peculiarity sprang. Do not forget that man was once a beast. His carnivore's fangs and canine teeth are unimpeachable evidence of this. Of course, he was also a vegetarian, like the ovidae, as his molars attest. Man, in fact, combines the two extreme conditions of the mammal, and therefore he goes through life constantly vacillating between being a sheep and being a tiger.

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