Sex, Death and Empathy

By | March 24, 2008

Simon KingLast night we watched a programme about the wildlife photographer and television presenter Simon King. His life has been dedicated to photographing the natural world. His passion is unquestionable, his sympathy for the wildlife deep and compelling, and he (by his own admission) is one of the luckiest men alive to have such a career. Not that luck has much to do with it in his case. He’s worked long and hard, knows his subjects and knows his craft.

Two segments of the programme struck me in particular because they made me consider how important empathy is in our interaction with the world.

The first was the footage of orcas beaching themselves to catch sealions. That in itself is remarkable footage; What makes it disturbing is the sight of the orcas tossing the still living sealions out of the water, releasing them and playing with them before devouring them. I like most people regard cetaceans in general as highly intelligent and gentle animals. Yes killer whales are carnivores, but most predators kill for food, they don’t literally, play with their food. It’s not a pleasant site and I can only attribute their use of the dying prey and toys in game of macabre water polo as due to a total lack of empathy.

At the other extreme some humans (a species that is capable of the most horrendous cruelty, despite its intelligence) was shown displaying an empathy for a prey animal than I have ever seen before. An African tribesman was shown pursuing a Kudu on foot for 30 kilometres in the midday heat until the antelope collapsed and the hunter despatched the animal with a spear. Not very empathic you might think, but the man then spent time carrying out rituals on and around the animal to show his respect for his fallen foe before finally butchering the carcass. Rather more respect than I feel I show when I buy a shrink-wrapped slab of anonymous cow flesh from the supermarket.

Empathy is key to forming relationships and while not all relationships are as extreme as that between predator and prey there is one that verges on this. The interaction between two human beings when they fuck. There’s a word, fuck, should it be “make love”? I don’t necessarily think love has to come into it but there certainly has to be an interaction on a level more profound than the mechanical act of penetration, ejaculation and orgasm.

Maybe it’s intellectual, or perhaps a lust born from deep physical attraction. Whatever the motivation there has to be an exchange of something more than bodily fluids.

Is this the difference between porn and erotica? Porn is the mechanical, the means to an end by the most direct route, erotica on the other hand leads you by the hand and via a route devised by its creator leads you towards the ultimate conclusion. A conclusion that you may not have foreseen and by a pathway that you have until that point never travelled before.

To write erotica takes an understanding of the reader that is deeper than the need to cum. I write stories, some of which can be regarded as porn others which I like to think of as adult fiction or erotica. I know I enjoy writing the erotica more, even though it consumes more time and requires my head to be in the right place.

So you may now be wondering about the elephants in the title. Just a rather amusing piece of trivia. When Simon King was a boy he wanted to be an elephant. Apparently it took a great deal of persuasion to convince him that no matter how much he wanted to be a paciderm it wasn’t to be.

Tags: Simon King, empathy, sex and death