Into what spaces epicurean voiding might catapult the mouth. Here’s where I’m headed: the violence of the (meat-)eating act, at once caparisoned with paints by would-be chefs and romanced by the hunter (and shopper), is intimately connected to violence et de ore—the diatribe, the rain of insults, the easy expletive, the dressing down. Shape the body of the other into a nugget or grind, consume it dumbly, and the mouth becomes a ready embrasure. Fire.
And were the eating act more mindful, I propose that pause blooms out.
Begin with direct correlations: a great deal of our parlance—our aphorism, really—trucks in the denuded animal. In-out pabulum. “Pig” frames the slovenly or overweight (a convenient kind of portmanteau), “fox” the clever or sexy, “dog” the blindly loyal or low, “insect” the pejoratively diminutive. Telling in our confused naming of the metaphorically animal (how, for example, does one understand “man’s best friend” as low?) is its simplification: for better or worse, the lion’s life, when named, is noble and brave (“heart of a lion,” “the lion’s share”) the snake’s dubious (“she’s a snake”). This reduction is fused to our refusing the animal a faceted otherness.¹ A refusal by imperative, since breakfast will be upset by reckoning with—not simply recognizing—the fact that bacon is a pig, and that pig is more intelligent, by numbers, than Fido underfoot or baby in a bassinet. That the canvas for all your loving interactions across a table has a dead body as its basis, a dead body likely harrowed in every moment of its living before death, a dead body well aware of its executioner’s motive as its haunches press the hallway.
That’s all. That’s the wager for your dinner encounter.
Are we surprised that much of the meat-eater’s life is a matter of call-and-response? She is led by a leash like any lamb: eats gristle at age four, aspires to slim thighs a few years later, on to work schedule to marital life-event to television preference to ire at poorly made lattés. Rationality has protracted the length of her hallway walk, but has not elevated it. She fails to see that the casual brutality of her (wickedly defended) right to “the tasty” is mirrored by the adorable programming that makes her bystander to every hour she owns.² Her obedience is adorable.
The act of meat-eating is prime in our violence-machine because it is happily, imperatively invisible: why, who would grease the material consumption gears were McDonald’s to be without customers? Feminists decry female treatment with cutlet in mouth. Gays and blacks moan with speciesist concern, prepping hamburger.
Do I honestly equate beating one’s husband to eating a McDouble? Violence for violence, yes. As progenitors of abuse go, the McDouble is your culprit—the factory farm is. Eat up.
Let’s go again: at the center of contemporary modern human socialization is the violence of animal consumption. That violence spills down every avenue—how does one not see a connection between the selective historical compassion that excludes the being of pig for bacon and that which excludes the female being for sex? It’s rather baffling, frankly. Our pedestrian maunderings through the byways of life are punctuated by snapping at our fellows, therefore, with unfocused appetite: mastication, coitus, right cross, lambasting. The act of reflection, beginning with reflecting on our most basic consumptive violence—that of eating—is, I postulate, one way out of appetite’s repetitive desperation.
The vegan is not a hero. As I’ve mentioned previously, the vegan in modern society is complicit in a circle of material ingestion that victimizes both animal and plant: shoes, cars, belts, gadgets—even electricity and housing. But a vegan lifestyle does bring one’s sustenance-source back to wakeful consciousness. In my experience, that reclamation—recognizing, without excuse, how blind and routine the eating act can become, how blindly routine each day can become, the suffering endured by a chicken to turn it into a parceled “nugget,” fuel for the thoughtless day before us—infects an afternoon. One sees the haggard steering legs of his friend for what they are. One sees the degraded telegraph of television “drama” for what it is. It becomes impossible to suffer advertisements. A kind word suddenly costs the heart much less.
For fear of my discussion’s insufficiency, I want to share a snippet of J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, wherein his protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, nears concluding a similar—but more rigorous—argument:
If I do not convince you, that is because my words, here, lack the power to bring home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature, of [. . .] animal being. That is why I urge you to read the poets who return the living, electric being to language; if the poets do not move you, I urge you to walk, flank to flank, beside the beast that is prodded down the chute to his executioner (65).
A friend once attempted to bait me on this topic³—spun a tale of a bird native to Portugal that, provided with limitless seed, will feed until it cannot move, and then is cooked alive and eaten as a delicacy. There welled in me an unmerciful heat. The ebon thing beneath my civility, my appetite for wrath, my disgust for programming—these things searched the room for a pike. Strange then, that, following his display, my voice asserted simply this: Don’t ever speak to me again.
After all, we share a mouth in common, he and I. Nothing more.
¹ One mustn’t imagine the lion or fox is done a service by our aphorism because that aphorism paints it pretty. The reduction to aphorism is always a reduction of dimensions of being, and thus a path to easier abuse.
² One becomes conscious of programming’s casual, indefatigable press in moments where one’s unique being is rejected by rote: at the DMV; in the clutches of a hungry car salesman; waiting for attendance on a telephone helpline. Man balks here because his ear is suddenly punched-through with a number—he becomes the farm cow. When his waiting pain is assuaged, he returns happily to the queue of less obviously offensive routines, offends those beings whom he can offend or dominate without fear of recourse.
³ The commonness of this mode—attempting to challenge a vegan or vegetarian by embracing the violence of meat-eating, reveling in it, making of it a jest—has always struck me as sadly revelatory: first, revelatory of how little honest compassion there is even between “friends”; next, revelatory of how a kind of Freudian “reaction formation” defense mechanism keeps one from honestly examining the fixity of meat-eating in our readable sociability—our childhood “inheritance.” I have not met a meat-eater who can defend her act on high ethical bases.