Approach in Love and Fear

Jimmie Durham

For a long time there were only plants. Although in their initial ascendancy they killed most of the existing life on earth by releasing large amounts of poisonous oxygen, plants are not basically aggressive. They process sunlight and a few minerals.


When animal life developed its very definition was to move about and eat other life. Without other life to consume, animals die. Therefore animal life developed more and more proficiency in attacking and consuming. First, the mouth evolved; then, concentrated bunches of nerves better to direct the mouth; then, a sense of smell to help the mouth differentiate; then, senses of hearing and sight; then, a continual increase in complexity of the bundle of nerves, organizing into actual brains. Our brains are close to our mouths because their primary purpose is to serve those weapons of destruction.

When I was child, I grieved that we killed any animal which crossed our paths and ate its flesh. We would often pull plants completely from the earth, so that we could consume the roots as well as the leaves. And I saw that we were not the only ones. All the other animals had the same voracious cruelty, We had to cringe in fear. Any animal unable to fear would not be successful. You must kill, and fear death.

Mammals, then, as a strategy for survival, developed emotions. We might say that emotion is the secondary definition of mammalian life. But we cannot say that the emotion of fear is primary. Love and fear must be simultaneous. Because every animal, even your boyfriend, has a mouth with some sort of teeth, one cannot easily permit approaching.

Non-mammalian animals overcome the problem of reproduction by what we call “ritualistic instinct” — patterns of behaviour that automatically trigger certain responses. But mammals have overridden the instinct for reproduction with an emotional (and of course it is also physical – everything is also physical) desire to mate, to have a mate. We have developed emotions of love and of delight in the voluntary denial of fear.

Moreover, mammalian mothers can love and fear for their young. This allows us to produce fewer young so that the individual can be better protected. Those two kinds of love can easily be expanded into a phenomenon that is more important that survival. Recently I saw, on the highway to Mexico City, a stray dog risking her life to try to save another dog which had been hit by a car. Saint Dog – a Holy Dog, but not uncommon.

With humans, every individual is capable of what we call “motherly love,” and we can even extend it to the love of other species. We can love each other and the cat and the mouse. We also articulate it. A fox in a cage knows sorrow and grief for the dangerous freedom of her lost home, and I can miss individual hickory and black walnut trees and the little translucent salamanders of my lost home, even as I remember the constant death and suffering. We live under such a beautiful curse, all the more a curse because we find so much beauty here. What is there other than this physicality? Not “transcendence,” not “heaven.” but our knowledge of the intolerable situation and a love for all.

From A Certain Lack of Coherence, Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, Kala Press, London 1993, edited by Jean Fisher.