Uncivilizing

An Essay on the Use of Metaphor in Nature and Madness

In Paul Shepard’s Nature and Madness, metaphors are key to the expansion of his argument and assist in delving deeper into his idea that because civilization is destroying the earth, humankind is essentially developmentally behind. By using metaphors, Shepard enables a relation between the reader and himself that contributes to the focus of the use of the metaphor: to display the disease of human development in the hopes that civilization will learn from their mistakes. Through his appeal to human pathos, sometimes joltingly, Shepard annunciates his claims and brings to light the negativity of “civilizing” nature.

The reoccurring metaphor throughout Nature and Madness is one that brings together both humans and wilderness—the idea that civilization is a child that is developmentally stunted and earth is the mother. Because civilization is destroying nature—mainly through the implementation of agriculture and industrialization—civilization does not understand the consequences or implications of its actions. By using a reoccurring metaphor, Shepard produces an argument that is constantly being recognized by the reader, and because of that, provokes thought as to whether or not they believe that they are contributing to the destruction of wilderness.

Earth is portrayed as the mother in Shepard’s argument and he describes a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and child in which the child’s development is stunted, asking, “What are the consequences of lifelong subordination to the mother?” with the answer that “among them are resentment and masked retaliation, displaced acts of violence, and the consequent guilt”—all of which contribute to the destruction of nature (27). By equating the earth as the mother and civilization as a child, Shepard personalizes his argument and forces an analysis of what society is doing to the environment. He equates the stunting of a child’s growth with civilization and the earth as a mother by questioning “…whether lifelong subordination to a vast Earth Mother might not effect men in similar ways” (28). Shepard’s specific reference to the West is a concrete example of his exploration into the idea of an infantile civilization. By stating “the West is a vast testimony to childhood botched to serve its own purposes, where history, masquerading as myth, authorizes men of action and men of thought to alter the world to match their regressive moods of omnipotence and insecurity,” Shepard furthers the metaphor that civilization is destroying nature (127). Humans are like children with unhealthy relationships to their mothers—they find themselves intent on controlling and destructing, much of which humans have done to nature. Through the use of this reoccurring metaphor, Shepard elaborates on his postulate that civilization is diseased; humankind evolved into an agricultural society, and then “civilized” everything that, in Shepard’s view, did not need to be touched by man and was already stable on its own. By declaring this so harshly, Shepard attempts to conjure up a sense of remorse in the reader (and humankind), calling for a regression to earlier societal days.

Throughout Nature and Madness Shepard elaborates the claim that civilization is unwell—that essentially, humankind is developmentally stunted due to an unhealthy relationship with earth. This metaphor is extended through the work and is an attempt to invoke remorse, and a feeling of change within the reader (or humankind). Shepard’s claims must be questioned with regards to the feasibility of his solution: returning to nature. While the idea of a return to and a mutual respect for nature is appealing, its utopian and idealistic foundations are unrealistic and cover with doubt the undercurrents of Shepard’s work.

Work Cited

Shepard, Paul. Nature and Madness. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1982.