There is a line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wee 1943 book The Little Prince that caught my eye the other day: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” It is such an interesting term this notion of taming. The tension surrounding what it means to be human is ultimately bound up (pun intended) in this notion of whether we are to be tamed or allowed to go native if you will. From the Age of Reason onward, this tension is framed by a longing for recovering that which is lost as Western culture moved further into a technological dependence. In his 1734 “An Essay on Man”, Alexander Pope romanticised his view of the Native Americans this way:
o, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv’n,
Behind the cloud-topp’d hill, a humbler heav’n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac’d,
Some happier island in the wat’ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.
While there was this eighteenth century longing for a seemingly simpler age, as Western culture entered the twentieth century, the call was to be more than merely civilized as seen in Frederick Nietzsche’s calling forth to humanity to embrace the Übermensch (Superman/Overman). In his 1896 masterwork, Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche sees the call of the Übermensch as merely our destiny in that all things seek to transcend their natural state as humanity leaves behind the Victorian age and embraces the twentieth century:
“I teach you the overman [Übermensch]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth…. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” – Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, 3–4)
And yet Western culture has become deeply suspicious of taming. If you are a naturalist, taming evokes snuffing out the carnality and majesty out of something: powerful Elephants reduced to mundane circus tricks, horses that once ran free now walking in slow circles at children’s petting zoos, dogs shackled to leashes and trotted around paved sidewalks while suburbanites yak away on cell phones.
Going back to The Little Prince, taming is something of another order than what Pope and Nietzsche are fixated on. Taming is making a tie to something, a tether, a bond. It is way to give boundary to our life so that we can not merely walk away from our commitments and choose to stay put, be present, and ultimately to love. Taming in not taking the divine spark out of something, but rather releasing ourselves to the imaginative possibility that goes beyond what we can see with the naked eye. In The Little Prince, a downed Aviator encounters the little prince in the Sahara desert. the Aviator is asked by the little prince to help him find his lost sheep. He fears that the sheep will be eaten if he is not cared for and pleads with the Aviator to ‘draw’ his sheep so he can see it and know that it is cared for. After some failed attempts to draw a ‘real’ sheep, the Aviator finally draws a simple box, which he explains has the sheep inside – that the sheep must be seen with imagination and not mere realism. The prince proclaims that this is perfect and feels that the sheep is now indeed safe.
To be tame is not a bad thing. It is a commitment to being with each other rather than being wild for the sake of ourselves. In a nutshell, this is my deep concern with the neo-manhood movement that is going on after John Eldredge and Mark Driscoll. This push to find our humanity in beating our chests, buying vintage 4×4’s, and taking the world on through power and will is certainly something that Nietzsche hoped humanity would embrace and many Evangelical males have – think Übermensch with hair gel, soul patch, and screamo CCM blaring out of the tricked-out Tahoe. Rather than being “Wild at Heart”, can we find some hope in binding ourselves in full presence with those we are called to care for, to embracing rather than running wild, and waiting for what God has to show us in imagining a new way of life rather than seeking a savage realism?