Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Steve Irwin and Nietzsche: Life as Art

A couple of nights ago the Animal Planet channel aired the last Steve Irwin episode and a special on his life. The special was not very special, though it was amusing to hear his daughter Bindi popping out phrases worthy of a professional commentator; also a bit eerie that she displayed so little negative emotion talking about her deceased father. Makes you wonder how and when she was coached for these interviews. But what I really want to say is about Steve Irwin himself. What the whole show made me think of is this Nietzschian idea that you should make your life a work of art. I consider this in general an extremely dangerous idea from an ethical point of view, since it encourages people to base their actions on some "aesthetic" decision about the shape of their own lives rather than on any standard of moral responsibility toward others. For most people, living by rational moral principles is enough of a challenge that we don't need to throw our aesthetic sensibilities into the mix.

But if one were to make one's life an artwork, I suppose Irwin's life would be a positive example of how to do it. That is, one can see the relish with which Irwin approached his work with extremely dangerous wild animals, as well as the ingenuity of his methods of dealing with them. And much of it was in the service of human interests as well. When you see him with his children you get the sense that they too form part of his Animal Planet. So you have this kind of rounded life where everything fits into place, a bit like an artwork: the relationship betwen the parts grows out of a conception of what one wants to say, and this infuses each action with meaning. Each part has a beauty of its own as well as a purpose in the larger system. And rather than speaking to the audience as an outside entity it draws you into it until you too become part of the living sculpture.

This is why his approaching deadly animals appears almost casual, a fact that at times drew some criticism, as it can give the wrong impression. You should teach people to treat these things with respect, indeed fear, one wants to say; not an enthusiasm for contact bordering on a sort of libido. A year ago my girlfriend and I went to the Everglades. An alligator was resting on a bank along a walk, and we decided to each pose for a picture next to it. It was over in a few seconds, but afterward I couldn't help feeling that we had both done something extremely stupid. We knew nothing about these creatures; it was not so unthinkable that it could have turned around in a flash and taken off one of our hands, or worse. But Irwin seems to have had an almost aesthetic relationship with such creatures, fondling horribly poisonous fish and "apex predators" as if he were somehow in tune with their psyches. It was this gift that let him make his life a tableau of man's relationship to life forms that appear alien. This is more than a metaphor for our relationship to "alien" human forms as well.

I don't want to get too carried away with this, but I think it is about as close as one can come to life as art without completely losing one's moral bearings. "Don't try this at home", I'd like to say; for most of us, it is sufficient that we live according to some set of straightforward principles, be it "respect all living creatures" or "treat others as you would like to be treated by them" or whatever. But those who are motivated by a kind of love of life and contact with nature as Irwin was might well be able to cross the line into an aesthetic life without getting into a morally dubious self-centered ethic. A few weeks ago I wrote about surfers and skiers who cling to a kind of right to commune with nature. Irwin, you might say, represented the apotheosis of such sentiments, where the "right" is raised to the highest level of spiritual union and pervades every aspect of what one does.

Let that stingray remind us that a life of devotion comes with risks. Better yet, let it remind us that what is a risk to the rational observer is just another part of the tableau once that separateness from nature is bridged by an aesthetic involvement in life. I guess this was his message.

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