Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On the death of a horse in our culture of myth.

As we all know by now, Barbaro, the subject of a previous post—for which I took some heat, both on and off the blog—had to be put down yesterday. I was sitting at the computer as the news came through, and instantly I had mixed emotions. Mixed emotions? you might wonder. What kind of cold-hearted SOB could have mixed emotions about this? I am not a cold-hearted SOB. As a man who has always loved animals and rooted for the underdog (or underhorse, in this case), I did indeed shed a tear for this horse and what he'd been through, only to die anyway. But I also knew what this meant: that those who loved Barbaro, along with their willing allies in media, would subject us to another round of the mind-killing mythology that has surrounded this magnificent beast since it came up lame in the Preakness last May. And I knew that no one in this culture of ours would take a stand for common sense. We'd just nod solemnly, say our amens, and smile our bittersweet smiles as around us, otherwise intelligent, highly functioning people praised this animal's "gallant battle" for life, expounded on the heroic lessons that this valiant equine taught us about courage and poise, and even told us "what Barbaro and Christopher Reeve had in common."* (I stared unblinking at that last headline for a full 30 seconds before moving on to the next news item.)

Sigh.

Here we have a horse that was universally held up as an icon of invincibility—an example of how, if you just fight hard enough, you can beat the odds. In the end, Barbaro did not beat the odds, and there are several conclusions to be drawn. Perhaps horses do not have courage after all (and really, I'm including the perhaps to be nice about it. We have no evidence that horses feel such emotions as courage). In any case, whatever courage Barbaro did or didn't have was insufficient to overcome a lethal injury. For that is the way of life and death. If you are shot in the head with a shotgun, point-blank, you are almost surely going to die, no matter how courageous or valiant a person you normally are. Courage does not conquer all. No more than "the will to win" causes us to win in the absence of talent and/or the right (favorable) circumstances.

Still, we cannot discuss anything anymore without romanticizing it: whether it's sports, politics, business or, as here, the life and death of a horse that got fatally injured during a race (and make no mistake, that injury was fatal the moment Barbaro suffered it. How do we know? Because he died.) Nothing just happens. Nothing is the simple byproduct of purely physical causes and effects that whir and click altogether apart from human knowledge and control. Everything happens for some larger, mystical reason that's connected up in some way to human motivation or even—my favorite—"karma," that drugged-out 60s term that's making a comeback (no doubt because there are so many formerly drugged-out Boomers in positions of authority and influence). In reality, people, much like horses, win and lose, succeed and fail, live and die, often for reasons that are not, and can never be, understood. Why do we need a "story line"? Why must we surround the visible details of life with trappings and emotional mythologies that simply aren't there?

I know I'm in the minority. Even my wife asked me yesterday, "Look, if it gives people comfort to see things that way at a time like this, what's the harm?" The harm is that it perpetuates an unsubstantiated view of life and its workings that is tearing our society apart at its roots. Little by little with each passing day we are taking our collective eye off the things that really matter—things like hands-on training, provable competence, hard work, logic and related aspects of cogent thought, etc.—in order to put our faith instead in abstractions that can't be measured or even, in most cases, adequately defined—things like "the will to win," "a can-do spirit," and that all-purpose standby, a "positive mental attitude." Of course, the hucksters of happy-talk are eager to keep feeding this crap back to us at whatever price we'll pay.

Yesterday was a very sad day, because a beautiful animal died...an animal that we came to care about, and pull for.

Can't that ever be enough?

* It turns out that if you read the actual story, it does have a point to make about the costs of care in these cases. Still, the piece starts out by drawing a parallel between the "valiance" of Reeve and the racehorse.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your title for this item sounds like a poem by Wallace Stevens or maybe a film by Lina WErtmuller. Interesing if somewhat depressing point of view here.

Steve Salerno said...

I'll take that as a compliment, I suppose (the comparison to Stevens/Wertmuller), unless you're making a comment on the obscurity of it all. As for the depressing element--I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

Cosmic Connie said...

"Yesterday was a very sad day, because a beautiful animal died...an animal that we came to care about, and pull for. Can't that ever be enough?"

Having lost more than one animal I deeply care for, I can truthfully say that the fact that "a beautiful animal died" is more than enough for me. But for the talking heads and the happy-talk hucksters, simple reality is never enough. And as you know, dwelling on the sadness of it all wouldn't be good for ratings, and wouldn't sell books.

I'm sure that several major publishers are already poised to churn out some books about the life lessons Barbaro had for us. And it's probably only a matter of time before one of those "animal psychics" starts receiving Barbaro's messages from "the other side." No doubt Barbaro will have all sorts of wisdom to impart about the earth-shattering events of the day. Naturally, there will be enough wisdom to fill yet another bestselling book.

I'm sure the producers for Oprah and Larry King are just champing at the bit, so to speak.

Steve Salerno said...

Welcome back, CosCon.

So, is The Secret the big news story in Montana?

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, you nailed it. Barbaro is "on" Larry King as we speak.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks for the welcome back, Steve. And no one I talked to in Montana seemed to have heard of The Secret yet -- at least the folks we were staying with hadn't. They're too busy dealing with real life, I guess. However, I did see some some metaphysical-type airy-fairy stores in some of the small towns we passed through, though the Rev and I didn't stop in. After all, we can see airy-fairy stuff anywhere.

I do think that the life -- and death -- of Barbaro can be the basis of some worthwhile discussions about our values, the nature of attachment and grief, and the bonds we form with our animals. Like you, Steve, I would never dismiss or discount the real love people feel for the animals in their lives. And as Barbaro's co-owner Gretchen Jackson said, "Grief is the price we all pay for love."

Matter of fact, I *would* be interested in reading a book about Barbaro written by the people who really knew and loved him, such as Jackson. For now, though, I only wish we didn't have to listen to all of the inspirational, feel-good clichés along with the "real" story.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, Connie, I too felt a major heart-pang when Mrs. Jackson made that remark, though of course she was invoking Queen Elizabeth, who, some say, was invoking Ovid. It may surprise more than a reader or two to know that I was as avid (not ovid) a follower of the Barbaro saga as anyone not directly connected to the horse; and hey, I dare say I WANTED to think that the horse was "putting up a gallant fight" (if only b/c he was eagerly anticipating his second career out in the field, siring many Barbar-ettes). But I knew intellectually that, well, he was A HORSE. And as my brother-in-law once put it, speaking derisively (albeit colorfully) of his own steed, "All horses wanna do is eat, poop, and screw." Kinda like frat boys.

Anonymous said...

No need for all this high-minded talk, when the lyrics to Mr. Ed already said it best: "A horse is a horse, of course, of course."

Rodger D. Johnson said...

It's sad that Barbaro died. That he's taught us something about survival is stretching it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
Too bad your brother-in-law's experience with horses is apparently limited to those which have been thoroughly "institutionalized" by human handling. I think that if he were ever to view a herd of wild mustangs, running from nowhere to nowhere for no reason beyond simply running, he might perceive what we arrogant humans claim as an exclusive trait: passion. I once spent over an hour on the side of the road North of Las Vegas, so thoroughly enthralled with the spectacle that all thoughts of my journey evaporated.

Perhaps the "inspiration" we may take from this story is to be reminded of the natural drive to survive at all costs, which we seem to have intellectualized away on our path to separating ourselves from the "lower" forms of life. Just a thought...

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, some might say they detect traces of yet another myth here--the conceit of the "noble savage"; I'm not sure, after all, that one wants to oversell the value of aimlessness/atavism, either. But your points are interesting and well taken, all the more so if we start from the premise that ultimate decisions about "instrinsic worth" are not ours to make, as we're necessarily limited by our myopic human perspectives.

There are many days--more of late--when I long to be the wild mustang you describe. I suppose we all do.

RevRon's Rants said...

It is that very longing that has kept me riding motorcycles well beyond my adolescent craving for thrills. No matter if the journey is only a few hundred miles, the destination becomes irrelevant, supplanted by the sensation of riding itself. And I hold no illusions about my "intrinsic worth" - or even appreciation of the experience - being superior to or more sophisticated than that of the mustangs.

Anonymous said...

If an animal psychic really COULD break through to Barbaro, I'm sure the poor horse would have a grreat deal to say about human greed endlessly extending his sufferings. Why couldn't they just let the poor horse die instead of putting him through all that? Selfish bastards. Of course, I felt exactly that way about Christopher Reeve, too.

Steve Salerno said...

I think I was with you--or at least I could see your point--till you brought Chris Reeve into it. I know, he was already "into it" as a result of the headline mentioned in the post. But still...you don't think Reeve wanted to stay among us as long as he did? Whose "greed" was keeping him alive? (I can't say for sure, but I don't think he had much stud value....)

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be obscure. In the case of Christopher Reeve, it's the medical profession's insistence on keeping people alive, at whatever cost to themselves and others, in whatever condition, and against whatever their wishes might be that I'm raving about. I remember Reeve, a vigorously physical man, breaking his neck and dying instantly on that field, only to be "revived" to live a harrowing half-life for decades. I also remember his pleas to be allowed to die when he realized what had been done to him. He certainly came to make the best of his situation, but he was denied a fast and painless death and condemned to a slow and horrible one, just like Barbaro. Thus the parallel.

Steve Salerno said...

Point taken, anon.

Anonymous said...

Wow...The last few posts by Anon seems to bring to light a new level of SHAM.

It seems to me doctors take an oath to save lives. In Reeves's case, they did just that and his life touched thousands of others.

Just because one's will to die is expressed doesn't mean we have the moral obligation to let them die. Quit the contrary, we have the moral obligation to do everything in our power to keep them alive.

There is a much different moral code which is ascribed to human relationships than with animals.

RevRon's Rants said...

"There is a much different moral code which is ascribed to human relationships than with animals."

A code which, in its essence, is borne of the very arrogance that allows us to torture individual specimens and eradicate entire species at whim.

While a physician's oath implies the commitment to preserve life, the foremost element is the promise to "do no harm." Sadly, we seem to be all-too-eager to deny the suffering the right to determine what is most harmful to them, and to abrogate the individual's right to determine his or her own best interests.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Rev!!!! To anyone who's in favor of preserving human life at all costs, I would say this: Until you have witnessed someone you love suffer endlessly and needlessly because of doctors' refusal to allow them to die--or suffered this way yourself--AND you have seen the peace and release, the relaxing of that horrific tightness that habitual pain imposes, that descends instantly on the face of a suffering animal when it is euthanized, shut up. You know not what you do!

a/good/lysstener said...

These are not easy issues and I think people should approach them with more intellectual and emotional caution before making extreme statements. Growing up my family had a beautiful sweetheart of a dog, a golden named Mollie. She was there for most of the years I lived at home and by the time she died at the ripe old age of 15, Mollie was "ready" to go. She was lame, mostly blind, had lost teeth and had chronic stomach problems. In a way I sometimes feel that we kept her alive longer than we should have because we couldn't bear to let her go. But then I think, Who says she wanted to go? Until the very end, she seemed happy enough despite her various problems, and even if sometimes she would yelp in pain when she first got off the floor to greet us, she still kept getting up off the floor, which I assume she didn't HAVE to do, and she wagged her tail and made her happy sounds once she got to us. So who's to say what was best for MOllie?

acd said...

What is so virtuous about preserving life in circumstances where the alternative is preferable? People have a right to life, but they should also have a right to death. As for animals, it is the responsibility of the pet owner to make the decision, for the obvious reason that animals cannot clearly state their will to live, if they have one. The only reason to keep suffering beings alive is for selfish reasons--that is, desiring the animal's or person's company for one's own comfort. If you euthanize a dog, for example, you should not be sitting around wondering whether he/she wanted to live. At least with death you know there is no pain and also no regret on the part of the individual experiencing it. If I go to sleep tonight and never wake up, I hardly think I'm going to give a damn after the fact. So how does that hurt me? It doesn't. It hurts those whose lives would be negatively affected by my absence. On the other hand, if I wake up in a hospital with some incurable condition that is going to cause me pain and inconvenience for the rest of my life, I'd be furious at whoever was responsible for keeping me alive. So if people are really concerned about an individual and what is best for him/her, then they wouldn't be so obsessed with preserving life at all costs.

Anonymous said...

My feelings exactly, ACD, and thanks for weighing in. But I think Alyssa's discussing something else, the inevitable creaks and croaks of old age. I think we should all--beloved pets and people--be allowed to get cranky and crotchety and hobble along into the sunset, hoping we die peacefully in our beds in the conviction that our lives have been full and well lived. This is quite a different circumstance from the horrific accident or excruciating illness you, I, and the Rev have all been discussing, which calls for compassion and mercy on the part of those who can end suffering or at least not pointlessly prolong it. I entirely agree with you that death ends our sufferings and begins those of the ones who mourn for us, but that is as it must be.

RevRon's Rants said...

I have made it clear to my children and to Connie that should some horrible illness or injury happen to me, and they make the decision to keep me alive beyond my own definition of a "quality" life, I will come back after my death and haunt their asses! I think they got the message. :-)

On a more serious note, I jealously guard my right to descend into dotard-hood when the time comes, but if it takes a machine or physically / psychologically devastating treatments to sustain me, I demand the right to see what's on the other side of the door, on a schedule determined by my own body and/or will.

Cosmic Connie said...

Check out the item in the Sun. Feb. 11 issue of "Parade" magazine's "Personality Parade." To say that Barbaro is stable now is an understatement (oh, there are so many potentials for bad jokes here)...

They either send their issues to the printer way in advance, or the editors just weren't paying attention.

Steve Salerno said...

I thought the same thing as I was reading Parade yesterday morning, Connie. In fact, the wife and I enjoyed a decidedly perverse laugh over it.