About that so-called “free lunch”…

by Yule Heibel on January 2, 2004


I’m having second thoughts about whether it is indeed better to kill than to be a hypocrite. I didn’t frame the problem in quite these terms on Dec. 27, but that really is the point I was coming to when I posted a rant that day against industrial farming and bad restaurant practices in Victoria. I mentioned that I have eaten animals I knew in the flesh before we killed them, animals that my parents had raised on farms. (They weren’t farmers at all, but sometimes you do what you gotta do to feed the family.) My father (or sometimes my mother?) would kill a chicken with an axe. Anything larger was sent off to a professional butcher, but that didn’t happen too often, because the sheep were almost as useful alive as dead since we used the wool they gave. I said on the 27th that industrial farms, with their emphasis on needless overproduction, turn animal slaughter into something I can’t condone, but that I could imagine killing the occasional beast myself, especially if it were smallish, even if I knew it beforehand. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not just the killing, although that is a substantial stumbling block in the acquisition of any roast victuals. But if I’m going to consider the murderer-or-hypocrite dichotomy in all its ramifications, I have to consider that killing the animal is merely the first step. Could I do the rest? Would I do the rest? Would I want to do that all the time, nearly daily, just to get food on the table? That — along with my squeamish (hypocritical?) insistence on a small animal, since I don’t see myself taking down an ox — is what has me stuck, wondering if I’m back to being a hypocrite.

Anyone who eats meat but who would shrink from killing and taking an animal apart themselves is a hypocrite. You have to be willing to entertain the consequences — and prerequisites — of your appetites. I assumed that by remembering the farm and the chickens and the lambs — and being honest about having eaten the animals without qualms (well, not too many, anyway) — that I was comfortable with putting myself on the side of murder and pitching my tent on the intellectual highground of the anti-hypocrite. Now I think it goes much deeper than just killing and dying.

We’ve got ourselves a master-slave dialectic here. And that gets to the heart of so many other things.

Supermarket cellophane packaging — and all its spin-offs (processed food, tv “dinners,” microwaveable instant “food”) — has made the slave intermediary in our mastery of daily life invisible, transmuted the slave into something else. When someone killed a chicken on the farm, someone had to pluck it; typically, the women did this. Someone had to dunk it in boiling water and laboriously remove the stubborn hard quills that lodged deep in the skin; this was a task often given to the children. Someone had to scoop out the guts and toss them away. Someone had to take the eggs out (sometimes there were eggs still inside) and carefully put them into a bowl (they typically did not yet have shells), and someone had to remove the inner organs carefully; there was always some vile bitter organ that had to be removed very carefully lest it contaminate the other flesh. Someone had to dispose of all the messy feathers and all the messy other stuff, or do something with them. We’re talking about just a simple fowl here; whatever had to be done (by the butcher) to a larger animal is a challenge to the imagination that would quite frankly leave me reaching for the tomatoes and carrots and beans, and forgetting about the steak. The actual labour of making meat palatable for human consumption is so revolting to most people that they don’t bother thinking about it at all.

We tell ourselves that the supermarket has something to do with hygiene, and in best-case scenarios, I guess it does. But doesn’t the supermarket also act as a kind of hypocritical household in which the masters barely noticed or acknowledged the servants as people (just as the meat is not acknowledged as coming from previously alive and sentient beings), so that we can then pretend that our seeming mastery is a “natural” state of affairs, and not something held together by efforts involving oppression? Or, in the absence of servants (I’m between staff myself these days, kof-kof), wasn’t the cook a link in the master-slave relationship that determined our lives in every detail? The cook, who had to slave (literally) over the foodstuffs to turn them into something the family could eat? Before the supermarket, down on the farm, I am the master over the animal, I kill the animal, then I am turned into the slave again as I labour over its preparation. I am chained to these events day in and day out. Every day the question arises, “What’s for dinner?” Down on the farm, the dialectic went round and round and round.

Enter the supermarket with its illusion that you can escape. Lordly, you waltz in and survey the aisles. You deign to approach the meat coolers, you oversee the packaged cuts. Nothing there reminds you of the act of mastery-murder: the meat is pressed flat against the cellophane, with a clarity approaching the digital images that surround you so often. You choose a cut. In this act, you are sometimes reminded that you are not really a sovereign being yourself, because you might stop yourself from buying the tenderloin at nearly $40 per kilo and instead settle on the cheaper cut of beef, or perhaps on a chicken breast, skinless, boneless. You’re not a total lord after all: there is the purse to consider. But because you’ve bought a “finished,” cleaned cut, your time in the kitchen can be minimised. A steak with some vegetables from the freezer is one of the quickest meals to prepare. Add rice or couscous, and you’re done in 15 minutes. Your feet barely touch the ground, your mastery is so superb: you are an angel, albeit an angel of death.

And what’s missing from the relationship is the slave. But stop kidding yourself: there’s always a slave.

If we bring the animals back into this, we see that they are the slaves. And we see that we have paid an army of human slaves to be robotic executioners who daren’t think about the price of their mastery, just as we consumers don’t dare think of ours. We want to believe that mastery doesn’t hurt, or that it only gives us pleasure, and that we never need to see the slaves, and that what we can’t see, can’t hurt us. We tell ourselves that there is no pain, that there are no slaves. But there are always slaves, and there’s always pain.

Money has made the master-slave dialectic seem more abstract, as though it were somehow virtual, not quite real. Once removed, twice removed, digitally removed: hey, if I pay you enough, you won’t scream, will you?

But you can’t pay enough down to keep the slave from eventually revolting, or the master from toppling. Just because you pretend that you’re not in this dialectic — that you’re somehow above it — doesn’t mean you actually are. The invisible slaves, the ones we don’t even see and who we take for granted, are often the most dangerous, and we’ve stocked our food supply with endless variations of the invisible dumb waiter, the invisible downstairs maid, the invisible cook, the invisible farm-hand, the invisible animal. All that invisibility is making itself manifest as endemic obesity, tainted food, a dramatic increase in lymphatic cancers probably due to bovine growth hormones, BSE, waste and pollution on a gargantuan scale, heart disease, early-onset diabetes, industrial farming, and overproduction set on excess. But somehow we still think we’re masters.

I might end up becoming more of a vegetarian not because I don’t want to kill animals, but because my ideology drives me to it. What would Marx make of that, I wonder. Would he say, Hausfrauen Marxismus, dummes Zeug? Or think it’s the logic of the master-slave relationship served on a plate?


Joel January 3, 2004 at 3:36 am

The paragraph about the “invisible slaves” sounds like a theme I’ve been thrashing out in a poem inspired by Elias Norbert’s book on table manners. We’ve just sent the servants away, where we can’t see them dying from the constricted atmospheres inside the factories is the theme of that section.

I haven’t published it yet, but when I get to assembling a chapbook, it will be one of the pieces. Along with “St. Augustine the Hippo”. It’s amazing how one man can louse up a good religion isn’t it? Well, in truth, he had help from Paul and St. Jerome.

Joel January 3, 2004 at 3:37 am

That should be Norbert Elias. Note the hour of the post and forgive me, St. Yule the Victorian.

Joel January 3, 2004 at 3:39 am

Oh and have you read Edward Sapir’s “Culture: Genuine and Spurious”?

Yule Heibel January 3, 2004 at 1:58 pm

Edward Sapir I haven’t read, but Norbert Elias I’m somewhat familiar with. …As for those church fathers, don’t know them well at all — it’s the heathen in me; believe me, I ain’t no saint! I probably know more of the OT than the New anyway…!

I considered dragging Georges Bataille into the mix, especially his stuff on death, eros, etc. (I have a small book of his, all about the connection between sex & death, and extreme [torture, pain] states), but decided against it, in part because there’s too much sensationalising of these topics now. The watered down crap that serves the porno industry just feeds capitalism, it doesn’t critique it anymore at all, so I don’t want to add to that. (I’ll leave that to some of the other folks who avidly link to this stuff and think they’re being so-oo cool when in fact they’re soo-oo stupid….)

PS: I just remembered the name of Bataille’s book: Tears of Eros (Larmes d’Eros, I think).

Yule Heibel January 3, 2004 at 2:25 pm
maria January 4, 2004 at 1:59 pm

Two things:

One: When I was a child, like you, I often had to help with plucking the chickens and geese … whose execution by beheading I just witnessed. For years, every fall, too, the small apartment building in which we lived in Cluj, the residents would get together to purchase a pig, slaughter it (I’ll never forget the shrieks … as I couldn’t watch that) then proceeded to make sausages and other cured things from its carcass. For days I could not get the smell of singed hair and skin out of my nostrils. Did I eat the meat, though? You bet….

Two: I have on my table before me Coetzee’s latest novel “Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons,” which delves into the area — it seems to me — you are exploring here. Although I haven’t read the novel, James Woods’s essay on the book in The London Review of Books certainly piqued my interest (but knowing the effect Coetzee has on me, I was waiting for the holidays to be over before I entered that territory). Anyway, here is a quote form the review:

In the fictions that Coetzee delivered at Princeton, Costello announced that she could see no difference between the Holocaust and the daily holocaust visited on animals by the food industry, that her sensitivity to animal suffering and to the silent complicity of millions of humans was so great that it was as if, when she washed her hands in a friend’s bathroom, the soap wrapper said “Treblinka — 100 percent human stearate.” When the college president asks Costello if her vegetarianism comes out of a moral conviction, she bewilderingly replies that no, “it comes out of a desire to save my soul.”

The point, Woods argues in his review, is that Coetzee wants us to see that suffering is not an idea (which is what you are pointing to, in a way, when you talk about the slabs of meat wrapped in clear plastic) … and that philosophical reasoning has “prevented us from entering the consciousness of animals.” It is the job of the novelist, it seems from Woods’s take on Coetzee, to bring back the narrative (the breath?) into our ideas.

Before I get even more carried away here, I suppose I should read the novel first….

Yule Heibel January 4, 2004 at 2:34 pm

I’ve read reviews of Elizabeth Costello, but can’t bring myself to read it. I recommended the book to Dave Pollard on How to Save the World, and he wrote an entire post on it (because he read the book right away, and it blew him away). But I don’t know if I can do it. When you posted a while ago about having more Coetzee books to read, I almost wrote a comment about admiring your bravery. I tried reading Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians just the other week and had to put it away. There’s something so relentless in the way he explores these themes of cruelty and detachment and torture …it just kills me, I can’t read it. It’s the way he delineates the torturer, I guess. I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading Waiting for the Barbarians not because I didn’t want to know what would happen in terms of plot, but because I couldn’t bear to witness the confrontation between the bureaucratic torturer-interrogator, who is sent from the capital to this fort or outpost, and the narrator, who is a cog in the machine, but who you know is going to get his consciousness smashed in.

When I was very little, I thought that the worst thing that could happen to a person was to go insane. I don’t know why a little girl of 7 or so would think that. Something pretty dreadful also happened to me around that time, though, while playing outside in the wooded land behind the farmhouse, which involved a lot of blood and internal injuries I supposedly acquired by “sitting on a nail.” I know I didn’t sit on any damn nails, and that there were people involved, but the pain was so intense I just passed out, and I have no real memory, just bodily clues. My parents, when I finally showed up at the door after dark, pale and bloody through my dark tights, bathed me and my father took me to get a tetanus shot the next day: I was never examined though, and the “incident” was not talked about. For months afterwards, I considered death. I had one doll I actually liked — Barbara (no Barbie, she was dark, on account of which I called her Rabarbara, which alludes to the German word for rhubarb as well as barbarian). I considered drowning Rabarbara in this drum that collected rain water, but in which I’d also watch sperm-like tadpoles develop into frogs. I eventually defaced Rabarbara and mummified her (using bandages and a paste I concocted from garden stuff) and stuck her in a trunk in the attic. Months later I found her again — and as a true measure of my psychosis — when I unwrapped her she was whole again. The summer passed, xmas came, I set the tree on fire (we used real candles then), my father and remaining sister (#6) had already gone to Canada and my mother was hysterically and depressedly awaiting our departure in the coming March), and then we went to Canada and I never lived in the country again.

I know I didn’t sit on a nail, I can still feel the dumb all-encompassing fear I felt at the approaching danger, and know that I had sat down because I was on the verge of fainting. There wasn’t a nail on the stupid log I sat on.

I have a limit for contemplating human cruelty, and Coetzee manages to tip me over that limit. It’s the stark face of insanity — or irrationality dressed as rationality, the stuff that Adorno & Horkheimer describe so well — made flesh.

But I’ve read the Elizabeth Costello reviews — there’s a lot people can learn from it. I wonder what happened to Coetzee — what he saw or felt or heard — that makes him able to write his books.

maria January 4, 2004 at 2:55 pm

Oh wow … Yule … your “re-membering” of that experience in the woods and in all the ways in which you alluded to its narrative force sent chills up my spine. No wonder you work with pictures!

In the light of what you told me, I totally understand why you can’t read Coetzee. With me, it’s like with that train wreck one happens on … I am horrified by the world into which the tracks of his narrative hurl me, and yet I keep reading him, compelled, as if it were. With each of his books, my sense of what it is possible to write novels about has narrowed. It takes me weeks to “come down” from reading his books (That is why I haven’t read any novels since I finished his two early novellas in the collection called “Dusklands.”).

I do wonder, too, what led him to write like this … especially with his background in computer programming and linguistics. And, more to the point, what does this man do for fun?

Which reminds me… I need to get out of this office, away from the computer and into the sun, which is incredibly bright here today!

Yule Heibel January 4, 2004 at 9:18 pm

It was incredibly sunny here, too, but COLD! Probably a record, totally freezing. First time since coming back here that I needed my winter coat….

I like how you made “re-membering” so graphic — I never thought of it like that before! Well, trust a blog to bring that sort of thing out in a person. And also, who actually clicks through to the comments and reads those? So you can really tell all there! Actually, keeping a blog has been interesting in terms of expanding the boundaries of what I feel able to explore. I would like to write a book — memoir or novel — about all of this someday, because so-called nails aren’t the only deep dark secrets in my rather terrible family. It would have to weave the political and the personal together — and would indubitably flop on the American market. My dissertation, which I reworked as a book and which was published by PUP in ’95, addressed the cultural-political of the postwar period in Germany (not a best-seller, alas: no conspiracy theories for one thing), but I think I might have a thing or two to say about the personal-political. Peter Handke wrote this strange if useful book called Wunschloses Ungl

Joel January 7, 2004 at 1:27 am

Re-membering. Hmmm! I’ll have to use that! I have just the project….

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