It is interesting: without being able to track exactly how it occurred, he has found that the part of his identity to which he is most committed, ethically and politically, is his identity as a vegetarian. No other choice in his life strikes him as quite this clear-cut, quite this unsullied by ambiguity and doubt. Not to eat meat, not to raise and slaughter animals solely for the flavor of their flesh: this seems to him the most uncomplicated of ethical stances, the easiest, least fraught way to practice a limited form of compassion in a world where such compassion seems, in almost every other instance, impossibly complex.
The real origin of this certainty, he suspects, has little to do with the various arguments he occasionally trots out in support of vegetarianism, though all of these arguments, and in particular the ecological ones concerning energy, land, and water use, are arguments with which he more or less agrees. Yet he did not become a vegetarian on account of arguments, nor does he expect to convert anyone by means of this kind of debate. No: at the source of his commitment lies something else, something far less reasonable or logical which nevertheless glows inside of him with the small white heat of an unshakable conviction. It is something like the conviction that animals have souls. A ridiculous statement, he immediately reflects; clearly he cannot use this sort of language in an intellectual discussion, and even alone, thinking through the issue for himself, he is surprised and slightly embarrassed that “soul” is the word that comes to him. And yet, anachronistic as the term may sound, it is the only one that seems to approximate what he feels. There is something in animals—in the way they move through and engage with the world, probing it, wholly engrossed and inquisitive and alert—that points, for him, toward a kind of knowing, a method of grasping and making sense of the world which isn’t inferior to our own method simply by virtue of being different than it. When he watches a dog weave across a field, for instance, its snout down, now stopping without warning to sniff intently at a tuft of weeds, now angling sharply off again in a direction he could not have predicted, there is a sense that he is watching a thought unfold in the dog’s body, systems imperceptible to him made partially visible by the dog’s motions. The dog has a world that isn’t reducible to its instincts, its innate drives, and it is this world to which he gains partial access when he watches the dog closely, the dog’s soul (or something like it) rippling in the tensed muscles of its flanks.
One of his favorite pieces of writing, a piece to which he has returned any number of times in the past year, is Lydia Davis’s “The Cows.” The story—if that is what it is—consists entirely of the narrator’s observations of three cows in a field: the way the cows emerge from their barn on any given morning, for instance, or the way on any given afternoon they orient their bodies in relation to the sun. The story fascinates him. He knows no other piece of writing that hews this closely to the lives of animals, openly confessing the paradox of its mission—to render in language that which is language-less—while at the same time refusing to spice up this mission with human drama. The story simply describes, and through this description begins to unveil the faint outline of a mode of being entirely different from our own, a mode of being which has its own ecstasies and apprehensions, excitements and confusions, and to which we have only the most limited of access. At one point, for example, “One [of the cows] thinks there is a reason to walk briskly to the far corner of the field, but another thinks there is no reason, and stands still where she is. / “At first she stands still where she is, while the first walks away briskly, but then she changes her mind and follows. / “She follows, but stops halfway there. Is it that she has forgotten why she was going there, or that she has lost interest? She and the other are standing in parallel positions. She is looking straight ahead.” He knows how some people would respond to this. Anthropomorphism! they would shout. A cow doesn’t “think,” doesn’t “change its mind,” doesn’t have “reasons” for acting the way it does; what looks like “thinking” to us isn’t “thinking” at all, but merely an instinctual, pre-programmed response to a set of measurable stimuli. And yet: “In a moment of solitary levity,” as one of the cows “leads the way out across the field, she bucks once and then prances.” There is a ghost in the machine, he is sure of it. How anyone could look at an animal for even the shortest period of time and not believe this is beyond him.
And so he does not consume meat; he tries to avoid all animal products that come from animals treated without dignity; he has given away all his leather jackets, his leather bags, his leather shoes. But the question remains: is this enough? There are countless people in his life—people whom he loves and admires, family members and deep thinkers and close friends—who have no qualms about eating meat, people who seem to have considered the ethical dimensions of the problem and have reached a conclusion very different from his own. The extreme case is one of his oldest and dearest friends, who has worked for many years as a cattle rancher and whose whole livelihood is therefore organized around the conversion of those regal, playful beings into carefully measured quantities of flesh. He does not want to judge his friend for his practices or his beliefs; he does not want to be a moralist. Yet when he thinks about the animals themselves, those huge bodies crumpling gracelessly to the slaughterhouse floor, the quick flame of their lives reduced at the pull of a trigger to dull and insensate matter, he is not sure that his polite relativism frees him from responsibility, accountability, guilt.
But what, then, is he supposed to do? Plead with the meat-eaters in his life? Lecture them? Exert a kind of moral pressure on them in an attempt to alter their habits, change their values, spoil their pleasure by tainting it with shame? And what right does he have to occupy such moral high ground? He does not eat meat—so what? In his favorite bar the low sofas on which he sits are made of dark, full grain leather, and when he washes his hands in restaurants and public bathrooms he simultaneously lathers them with glycerides, the rendered fat of pigs and sheep and horses and cows. He cannot exist in the world without touching them everywhere, the once-living bodies of animals ground up and boiled down to bind our plastics, clean our fabrics, treat our skin. There is no position of purity, no state of perfect virtue. And yet: it does not seem to him that such inevitable complicity justifies a feeling of indifference toward animals. It does not seem to him that such unavoidable hypocrisy frees him of the burden of taking a stance.
Image Credit: “A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms,” painting by Pieter Aertsen, 1551.