Facing the Issue


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“For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer

One morning recently I woke up and found I no longer wanted to eat meat. It seemed a sudden and unaccountable distaste. I had seen the images and read the books decrying animal slaughter over the years, and they had provoked the predictable sense of horror but no change in my eating habits. Why would I now, for no apparent reason, see things differently?

I’ve asked myself this question, even hoping that my newly acquired aversion would dissipate. I’ve always found vegetarians annoying. There’s nothing that can reduce the pleasure of a steak dinner like sitting opposite someone eating stir fried vegetables. I didn’t want to be the person who got the vegetarian option at the wedding and whose entrees were served first, with the kosher meals, on the airplane. I don’t travel in vegetarian circles. Sure, people I know have cut back on meat (to lower their cholesterol, to reduce their calorie intake, to save money), but doctrinaire vegetarians were not in my circle. Weren’t those the people who wore clogs and voted for Ralph Nader? OK, I know I’m being antediluvian here and that lots of young, hip people have shot beyond vegetarianism to veganism, and are shuffling around in cool canvas shoes. But I’m not young and hip, and the people I know aren’t either. So my entry into the vegetarian ranks seemed out of character, not only to my friends but to myself .

But what could I do? The very thought of a steak, a hamburger, and even a piece of fried chicken now made me queasy.

Trying to understand, I thought about what had happened recently that might have precipitated this new, animal-friendly perspective. Was it the fact that the Eagles had just signed Michael Vick, and I was staging a personal, unconscious protest against the idea that a man who had tortured dogs would be cheered (and earn seven figures) in my hometown?

Or did my attitude spring from a comment that an animal-friendly friend had made a few days earlier? She had referred to the barbarism of eating something that, as she put it, “had once had a face.”

Her words had brought home, in vivid and poetical fashion, the horror that Vick’s case had possibly set in motion. As it happens, faces are important to me; I consider myself attuned to the drama of the individual face. Each semester, when I meet a new group of students, I pride myself on impressing their faces on my memory. If I bump into someone from that class years later, I can almost always recognize the face that stared up at me in the third row of ENGL315: “Introduction to Shakespeare.”

My friend’s remark also precipitated some additional thoughts I’d had on the subject of the face—namely, that two eyes, a nose, and mouth are one bizarre set of orifices. If I were an alien life form, I would run the other way. Yet animals have this configuration; we recognize and respond to it. We even make distinctions, as we do with human beings, between cute animal faces and ugly ones (which is why most us of won’t eat rabbit but will eat chicken and pig), not thinking about the larger, weirder context in which the face is the norm. Maybe I was spurred to this line of thought by remembering the old Twilight Zone episode, “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which a young woman is operated on for presumed deformity and we see at the end that she is beautiful and her doctors appallingly ugly. Or I might have been inspired by some of the reality shows now on TV. These shows bring home the notion that taste — and from taste, norms of living and ways of responding to others — can differ radically from one’s own, even within the state of New Jersey.

I used to dismiss the argument of the animal rights people who said that the demarcation between the animal and the human is not sharp but fuzzy. Yet suddenly this idea made sense. I had been nudged in this direction by two recent trips abroad — one to France, where I speak the language badly, and one to China, where I don’t speak it at all. Being in a culture in which I had some foothold and in one in which I had none served as a kind of primer on gradations of difference — on the fuzziness rather than the sharpness of demarcation. To have a mode of access into a social group, as I did in France, made the people more comprehensible. To not have one, as in China, made the people seem more essentially “other.” The institution of slavery, the final solution regarding the Jews, the near extinction of Native Americans, and all forms of ethnic cleansing are predicated on this reasoning. Yet to make the leap to animals? In the past, I would have found it extreme and even irrational, diminishing rather than elevating the human. But I wonder now if spending lots of time with cows, for example, would help to diminish their otherness and reinforce my sense that eating them is barbaric (though admittedly, it doesn’t work this way for farmers and ranchers).

Since I began my new regimen, I have resisted grandstanding, and will still eat meat when it seems the polite thing to do — a small piece of the London broil, a sliver of the leg of lamb, a wing from the roast chicken — as though eating less will somehow diminish the sense of violence to the animal in question. I will eat fish, particularly shellfish, which somehow seem closer to vegetation, but even here I feel uncomfortable — fish, after all, have faces too, though they may be harder to discern or lack the sort of distinctiveness we associate with mammals.

Last night, I raised the issue over dinner with my husband and my friends (among them, the woman who had gotten me started with her reference to animal faces). The two men, committed carnivores, were dismissive.

“We’re animals,” said my husband. “Animals prey on other animals.”

“But we distinguish ourselves from other animals in being civilized,” I countered, “which is why we don’t, except in extraordinary circumstances, eat each other.”

We digressed at this point into a discussion of whether other animals eat their own species (some do, some don’t), which was not to the point anyway. The fact is that going into a supermarket, I was now struck by the rows and rows of packaged meat with their bones and sinews on display. Could one differentiate those sliced and diced specimens from human flesh?

“I’m going to make an all-vegetarian dinner for you,” said my friend.

“Why would you do that?” her husband asked in a mocking tone (non-vegetarians tend to mock vegetarians as a cover for their sense of guilt).

“Because it’s a good idea,” my friend said huffily. “There are plenty of excellent recipes that don’t call for meat.

“But we like meat,” her husband said. “It’s silly to pretend we don’t.”

He had, in fact, hit on what had always seemed to me to mark the difference between the meat-eater and the vegetarian. The vegetarian is a moral theorist and a stoic; the meat-eater, a pragmatist, with a zest for life. In fashion, there is a similar dichotomy between the exploitative/oppressive aspect (the anorexic models,  the underpaid labor, the extravagantly high-priced garments) and the artistry and fun of pretty things—and here, despite my awareness of the former, I remain attached to the latter. So I see the complexity of the issue, believe me. I realize how a vegetarian, by placing limits on gourmet expressiveness and food fun, can look like a prig and a party pooper.

“I like the taste of meat,” I acknowledged to my friend’s husband, “I just find it disturbing to think about where it comes from.”

“You know what they say,” he responded jauntily, “’you don’t want to see how laws and sausages are made.’”

That’s the standard remark, and everyone always laughs. But it’s an amusing insight into the political process, not the culinary one, which is simply there for the analogy. We know we wouldn’t want to see a sausage being made. But then, why would we want to eat something whose origins have to remain hidden? Unlike laws, where some kind of order, even if arbitrary and corruptly established, is arguably better than disorder and anarchy, we can survive very well by eating food produced without bloodshed. Moreover, eating meat, and hiding from ourselves how it gets on our table, trains us in a kind of moral and conceptual blindness that can extend more easily to other things — the making of laws, for example.

As I noted, I have not stopped eating meat entirely. A crisp piece of bacon on the side of an omelet can still tempt me, probably because it is so far in appearance from its source (the reason, I surmise, why Jews, who don’t eat pork in other guises, will often make an exception for bacon). But a new horizon of awareness has opened that cannot be closed again. I wonder if there will come a time when we will be thinking of our meat-eating days the way we think of our slave-holding ones, a comparison that will no doubt outrage some people. But it’s worth remembering that many of our Founding Fathers, though they launched a war in order to gain “inalienable rights” for all, did not think this had anything to do with their owning slaves. Meat-eating, you will say, has been around much longer than slavery (though, actually, this is arguable), but the kind of awareness needed to embrace the animal as a kindred creature may require a longer period of gestation than for the acceptance of our fellow man and woman. If there are degrees of difference, there may also be differing lengths of time required for that difference to be bridged. “We live in society; that’s our horizon,” wrote Henry James. But as society evolves, the horizon shifts; we see further. It seems to me that in a hundred years — or two hundred or a thousand — meat-eating, which some of us revolt against now, may reveal itself to all as barbaric. • 18 August 2009


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.