Sunday, March 17, 2013

on Violence, Essay the 2nd

            "In olden times, as I said before, men would sacrifice the fruits of the earth, but not the animals.  Indeed, they didn't even eat animals.  The story goes that during a public sacrifice celebrated in Athens, a certain Sopatrus, who wasn't originally from the area but was farming some land in Attica, had placed some bread and other cakes on the table to sacrifice them to the gods, when an ox on its way back from work came up to the table, ate part of the offering, and trod on the rest.  Seized by rage at what had happened, and seeing somebody nearby sharpening an ax, Sopatrus grabbed it and struck the ox.  When he had killed the animal, his rage subsided and he realized what he had done" (Calasso 309-319).  (Theophrastus, copied by Porphyry.)

            Is it the first act of violence?
            Consciousness.  Self-consciousness.  That I can eat something and wonder about what I'm eating.  That I can feel guilt over what I'm eating.  In the Pacific Northwest, it's easy to forget that most of the world is religious, and in the religious world, food is restricted.  There's the whole Kosher thing for Jews, restrictions for Mormons and Muslims in terms of stimulants and depressants, vegetarianism for Hindus and many Buddhists, variants on vegetarianism for stricter yogis, something about Fridays for Roman Catholics, and on, and on.
            Eating.  Eating and eating and eating, and not eating this, and not eating that on this or that day, and to what animal ancestor can we trace our desire to shape our eating habits?  To none.  No animals avoid eating particular foods out of religious devotion or in solidarity with community practice.  No animals appear to consciously reflect on what they are eating, or on eating at all.
            It is somewhat dumbfounding to me that humans are even capable of looking at a piece of food, eating it, and then reflecting, "It was here.  And now it is no longer."
            And then, of course, out comes the poop, and maybe this is where guilt truly lives.  It is instinctual — an instinct towards health and away from death — for us to avoid feces.  It is the very definition of filth, rivaled only perhaps by pus or human blood once it leaves the veins.  And this is what our bodies transform food into.  From a crisp pear, from the faint-inducing smell of pork cooking (I am a vegetarian, and even I swoon for the smell of pork), from a soothing, belly-filling a pile of shit.
            Sort of an embarrassing transformation we perform, then.
            Is it violence?  Again, I'm a vegetarian, so of course I do think that eating meat is always an act of violence.  Which means the majority of the world's population kills constantly, every day.  Factory-farming may remove the stench from our own communities, but fear not:  the cow is bleeding and twitching to death for you.
            But this is not a polemic against meat-eating, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I do consume dairy.  And while I (faithful liberal Seattleite) do bend over backwards to purchase dairy that is not factory-farmed from animals who would probably prefer to be killed than kept alive to make my milk and eggs, of course I can't pretend to myself.  I eat in restaurants all the time, I loathe the taste of soy milk, and so certainly my money goes to torment animals.
            Then of course we have vegans.  I have many vegan friends, and I appreciate their effort, but then of course if I'm a really faithful liberal Seattleite, I have to ask if the fuel in their vehicles didn't come from a country whose children we're bombing so we can have their petroleum products, if they never purchase anything made in a Chinese or Bangladeshi sweatshop, and if they also strictly forgo honey and silk.
            I'll stop going down that path now, but not because I think that the path starts looking so silly that I feel just fine about eating the aforementioned cow, who has thankfully stopped twitching and just died already.  I do not feel fine about the cow.  I don't feel fine about the laying hens, or the Chinese and Bangladeshi and Pakistani and Brazilian kids working twelve hour shifts for my cute shoes.  As far as I'm concerned, this is the whole point of Lent:  not one damn person gets off the hook.
            Guilt exhausts; this former Calvinist knows.  It won't go away when the Messiah rises from the grave in two weeks, and this is perhaps my biggest ethical problem with even referring to myself as a Christian:  it really doesn't go away.  Everyone keeps bleeding and killing every sorry living thing for their own gain.

            So the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry?  And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.  And its desire is toward you, but you should rule over it."
            Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
            Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?"
            He said, "I do not know.  Am I my brother's keeper?"
            And He said, "What have you done?  The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground.  So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from the ground.  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.  A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth" (Genesis 4:6-12).

            If the earth won't yield its strength to Cain, that leaves animals to be killed for food.  And so the punishment for killing is to go on killing, over and over and over again, for a lifetime the Lord ensures will be a long one.
            Guilt isn't just a feeling; feelings change.  Guilt is a resident within us and our lives.
            It is in the steaming pile of poop.  It is in the milk I put in my coffee at the coffee shop, and in the neatly wrapped packages that arrive from Apple and Amazon and J. Crew.

Calasso, Roberto.  The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.  New York:  Vintage International, 1993.  Print.

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