Early on in Watership Down, the rabbits happen upon a curious warren. The burrows are large, but there are few rabbits. And those that are there, while large and in good health, seem to have grown docile and reliant upon food given to them by a local man. They no longer know how to fight, or to trick. When Dandelion recites a story of El-ahrairah, he’s met with a tellingly cool reception:
“Very nice,” said Cowslip. He seemed to be searching for more to say, but then repeated, “Yes, very nice. An unusual tale.”
“But he must know it, surely?” muttered Blackberry to Hazel.
“I always think these traditional stories retain a lot of charm,” said another of the rabbits, “especially when they’re told in the real, old-fashioned spirit.”
“Yes,” said Strawberry. “Conviction, that’s what it needs. You really have to believe in El-ahrairah and Prince Rainbow, don’t you? Then all the rest follows.”
“Don’t say anything, Bigwig,” whispered Hazel: for Bigwig was scuffing his paws indignantly. “You can’t force them to like it if they don’t. Let’s wait and see what they can do themselves.” Aloud, he said, “Our stories haven’t changed in generations, you know. After all, we haven’t changed ourselves. Our lives have been the same as our fathers’ and their fathers’ before them. Things are different here. We realize that, and we think your new ideas are very exciting. We’re all wondering what kind of things you tell stories about.”
“Well, we don’t tell the old stories very much,” said Cowslip. “Our stories and poems are mostly about our own lives here. Of course, that Shape of Laburnum that you saw – that’s old fashioned now. El-ahrairah doesn’t really mean much to us. Not that your friend’s story wasn’t very charming,” he added hastily.
“El-ahrairah is a trickster,” said Buckthorn, “and rabbits will always need tricks.”
“No,” said a new voice from the further end of the hall, beyond Cowslip. “Rabbits need dignity and, above all, the will to accept their fate.”
Of course, it turns out that the area is snared, and that the man is feeding them for the purposes of slaughtering. The local rabbits are aware of this and have accepted it as a trade-off for the kind of cushy life they lead. This has had the effect of divorcing them from the traditional sources of meaning in rabbit-kind: they are no longer capable of relating to stories of heroism, or to the virtues of rabbit life. And it’s fine, as long as they don’t dwell on their lot in life too much.
This reminds me of the passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he speaks of the “Last Man.” You do not need to find the man’s philosophy agreeable to recognize what he is cautioning against:
“They have something of which they are proud. What do they call that which makes them proud? Education they call it; it distinguishes them from goatherds. That is why they do not like to hear the word ‘contempt’ applied to them. Let me then address their pride. Let me speak to them of what is most contemptible: but that is the last man.”
And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: “The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough. But one day this soil will be poor and domesticated, and no tall tree will be able to grow in it. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir!
“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.
“Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.
” ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks.
“The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.
” ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.
“Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.
“One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
“No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily to the madhouse.
” ‘Formerly, all the world was mad,’ say the most refined, and they blink.
“One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled – else it might spoil the digestion.
“One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
” ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”
Nietzsche is portraying the insipidness and bland conformity of a culture which has come to see material well being as the greatest good. Passion and great acts are beyond the last men, because they entail suffering, the worst evil. They sit disconnected from history, able only to see it as a great madness which gets progressively less insane until it culminates in themselves. It’s a rather narcotic kind of existence, and when it becomes too tiresome, there’s always, “much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.”
How much of this works as a scathing portrait of our modern consumerist society?
Nietzsche’s own philosophical reaction to this was wrong. And, ironically, his willingness to throw away the True and the Good have only exacerbated things; how many self-proclaimed Nietzscheans are really closer to the ubermensch than the last man?
For the Christian, the paradox resolves itself thus: humans were not ultimately made for just this world, and an existence which prizes worldly happiness above all else will always seem degraded.
The other thing that struck me was how Watership Down relates the sorry state of the warren through their indifference to the old stories. It reminded me a lot of my days as an English major, where so much effort was put into disassembling the canon.
Deconstruction, insofar as it aims to point out the moral or logical blind-spots of a genre, is relatively innocuous. Even Tolkien does it. But the sort which does so because the true, the good, and the beautiful have become problematic for it is poisonous. The kind of literature which survives it is always boring, because it always has nothing to say. And I had to read so much of it.
My point isn’t a longing for the Good Old Days, when things were Real, but rather that art, philosophy and religion all respond in various ways to the questions of the human condition. You may not agree with all the responses, but if you’re unable or unwilling to recognize the questions as your own, then you’re in a bad way.