Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Animal Rites

Confessions of a Carnivore, Diane Lefer

The Bleeding Stone, Ibrahim al-Koni

"I learned long ago that conservation has no victories, that one must retain connections and remain involved with animals and places that have captured the heart, to prevent their destruction." George Schaller

Our relationship with animals is that of rational master to brute creature. Here's Montesquieu:

"Brutes are deprived of the high advantages which we have; but they have some which we have not. They have not our hopes, but they are without our fears; they are subject like us to death, but without knowing it; even most of them are more attentive than we to self-preservation, and do not make so bad a use of their passions." 

This sort of language is uncomfortably like the language used by slave-owners to describe their relationship to their species of property

"[Slaves] enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The Negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon."

Perfect abandon

It has struck me more than once in reading Orientalist texts, white accounts of slaves' lives in the Old South, the literature of animal rights (Peter Singer, e.g.), and much post-modern literary criticism that the key subliminal message of Anglo-Saxon, male, white, patriarchal, mammal writers is--a wistful longing for release from Reason. The burdens of rationality loom large in racist tracts purporting to describe the idle promiscuity of great apes and lesser men...if only we were allowed to throw over the responsibilities imposed by our Christian moral conscience. If only we could enjoy a freely libidinal existence--copulate at will, idle about in perfect abandon, muck about in fecal matter. Freud thought--more or less--that we might enjoy such an existence, though we would rue its un-Victorian idleness and pleasures and therefore wallow in the guilt that we wallow in anyway so--why not? If you've read the extensive social Darwinian racist literature of the late 19th century you know what I mean: all that finger wagging at the irrepressible copulations of the "dusky races;" a less wistful version of Passage to India dressed up as biological truth. Beware their rapacious sexuality, their child-like delight in life! Our immortal soul is defended only by our reason, which comes from God (see e.g. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments). Is it too reductive to write that the history of the West has been waged not between nations or religious persuasions but over the extent to which we are permitted to enjoy being the irrational animals that we in fact are?

Descartes thought animals were soulless--they were, in his view, automatons. Kant may have ascribed to animals a form of conscious perception--the philosophical jury is still out. In his seminal "What Is It Like to be a Bat," Thomas Nagel admits that he has no idea what it is like to echo-locate, but makes a persuasive argument to the effect that it is like something.* There is a bat way-of-being. I couldn't agree more. It's their being mute (in our view) that damns them: but then, it wouldn't be sufficient if bats merely spoke; they would have to speak English. And have the ability to divide the world up into neat piles for further sorting. What happens, after all, when you are said to have "knowledge of a field"? You've mastered a vocabulary. Mute is brute.

Animals: we share the planet with them, we slaughter them by the billions for our gustatory pleasure**, we domesticate them, become attached to them, even, in some cases, love and worship them. But do we take the trouble to think about them? What is like to be one, to be one of my dogs or one of the primates Diane Lefer's character Rae works with at the Los Angeles Zoo?

No truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as men," wrote David Hume, hardly a soft-headed romantic. And John Searle offered that he assumed the existence of consciousness in animals just as he did so in his fellow persons. But these are the views of eccentrics, outliers in a world dominated by homo sapiens. It seems almost perverse to ask, as Diane Lefer does in many different ways: what's the difference between us and them? Between any us and any them?

Jennie, another of Diane Lefer's characters in her picaresque Confessions of a Carnivore--Lefer, I'm pleased to report, is a true original, a wit in the Boswell/Johnson sense--"won't eat anything with a face." A fine rule, especially if you've visited one of the horrifying farms on which chickens or pigs are bred for cellophane and weird taxonomies of the supermarket's meat section. Rae, the carnivore of Lefer's title, does eat meat, ambivalently. I wonder if it's fair to think of Rae as "picar," as "roguish"? In any case, rather like Tom Jones, she is funny and irreverent, and she appears to have an underdeveloped super-ego, or perhaps her animal love has lowered her threshold for human forms of social shame.

Rae speaks a version of the vernacular that I ascribe to Sterne or Fielding:

"The smile was what you had to see. It was not a dazzling smile. It was not a placating smile. It was not a forced, rehearsed, smile-on-command calculated to guarantee the efficacy of some brand of toothpaste or religion. It was effortless. It matched the mildness in her eyes. She could no more keep her mouth from turning up at the corners than a turtle can. It was a pleasant smile. And this in spite of bad bridgework and a couple of gaps."

Lefer specializes in wise-guys, in women (mostly) who can finish your sentences, look into your soul, dismantle your pretensions. Rae doesn't prefer animals to humans--she levels out the difference, she takes everyone from the mad cat-fancier Weezie to her squeeze David to the gibbons Luke and Lulu with deadly seriousness and dollops of irony. And the plot? I don't do plots, and even if I did, I couldn't begin to summarize this one. I haven't read a novel in ages with so much packed into every sentence--Confessions is romp, satire, stand-up schtick, Restoration comedy. All about: gorilla/guerrilla theater, sex and love, driving in LA, standing up for those who have no one else to bother, Buddhism, the Church of Neoproctology (colonics and LA seem to go, well, hand in glove), vivisection, life on the Rez, murder in Tijuana...Diane Lefer has stories to tell, and she's clearly lived on the edges of things and thoughts that most people only read about.

And there's deep ecology, the possibility of thinking about Luke and Lulu in the same way one thinks about a boyfriend or a best friend. Not anthropomorphizing but the kind of simple caring that's not simple at all. Being as curious about a cat's inner life as your own, turning Montaigne upside down: we are the ones who are living without advantage. Prosthetic gods. Pathetic in our belief that we are masters of the universe. Perfectly abandoned.

The same week I read Confessions of a Carnivore I read, in one long sitting, the mysterious novel by Ibrahim Al-Koni (titled in Arabic) Nazif al-Uhajar, The Bleeding of the Stone, published in Beirut in 1992 and apparently out of print in Arabic but now translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley in the indispensable Emerging Voices series of Interlink Books. I can't imagine a book more removed from the contemporary concerns of Lefer's novel, or a book with less of a sense of humor. Al-Koni (or Kuni) has created a spare, harrowing story of a goat-herder's lonely desire to preserve the waddan, a rare mountain goat that inhabits the mountainous regions of the southern provinces of Libya. (The book jacket confuses the waddan with the moufflon, a wild sheep found in Iraq; I parade this recently acquired fact as if I were George Schaller). Asouf has a feral personality--raised in isolation in the desert, he can't bring himself to interact with human beings even to the extent of trading, face-to-face, a goat for a bag of barley. When Asouf is confronted by a pair of sadistic hunters who want to kill a waddan, he does his best to mislead them. The animal, after all, is not only endangered but a living symbol of the desert he inhabits, a talisman representing a dying way of life. The story has a strange timelessness: Al-Koni moves the narrative from past to present in ways that conflate the two; at times one feels pulled back into a mythic world (the parts I liked best), but for much of the novel one is living in the brutal present, men with guns and a taste for meat and murder mindlessly eradicating life because they can do so. As I was reading the novel I thought about the armed militias (if they are that) now roaming the southern portions of Libya and Tunisia. It isn't only mountain goats who are at risk in the violent reaches of Fezzan, but innocent people like Asouf. The ending of the novel confirmed, in its ritualized but senseless slaughter, my feeling that what Al-Koni was aiming for was the depiction of a mythic bond between (some) men and animals, and the fragility of that bond in a world gone mad.

The Bleeding of the Stone introduced me to a writer, a place, and a theme that I had never before encountered. An unsettling book, it complemented Lefer's wry consideration of some of the same questions: what happens when the innocent are confronted by the cruel and indifferent, when the weak face off against the men with guns and clipboards? Who wins and who loses?  I think you can guess the answer.

George Ovitt (4/22/15)

*Here's the Nagel.

**See the title essay in David Foster Wallace's collection Consider the Lobster for an impassioned defense of a creature whose pain would seem beyond the imagination of most people.

Check out Diane Lefer's web page here:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lebenslüge or Life-Lies

 Forgetfulness by Ward Just

Aquitaine, often billed as ‘the other south of France,’ is a culturally, geographically diverse region in southwestern France stretching from the world-famous vineyards of Bordeaux in the north to the precipitous Pyrenees of the Basque country in the south. It is there, in the south, in the mountainous village of St. Michel du Valcabrère, that this poetic, quietly unsettling novel is set. Thomas Railles, an American artist and former odd-jobber for the CIA, is living happily there in a self-imposed exile with his beloved French wife, Florette, painting, enjoying good food and wine, wandering the countryside, and listening to his favorite jazz records. One day, while he is busy chatting with some American guests in their home after a long and leisurely lunch, his wife sets out for a walk in the nearby mountains, as she is accustomed to do, and never returns. Night falls, the air grows cold, yet she is nowhere to be found. Set in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s blundering ‘War on Terror,’ Forgetfulness is an often poignant mediation on the personal, starkly human cost of the violent, evermore fateful intersection of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and unfettered global capitalism.  

When his wife’s body is discovered on the mountain, Railles learns that she had broken her ankle while hiking and then been murdered by unknown assailants, probably North African smugglers who regularly plied the region’s rugged mountain trails. The story that ensues is that of Railles’ struggle, in a country not his own, to come to terms with his grief and loneliness and to reorient himself in an age increasingly rife with both State and terrorist violence. Finally, Forgetfulness is the story of his own conflicted relationship with the U.S., with what it means to be an American today. Appalled, bewildered, by the events of 9/11 and eager that justice be served, Railles somehow “lacked anger of the sort that swept all before it and became a cause in itself, a way of life, the anger of the American…” Even when later he finds himself face to face with his wife’s killers, four recently captured Moroccan terrorists, he finds he cannot indulge even the urge to avenge his wife’s death, an impulse that—some would say—is both his duty and due. Instead he simply wants to meet the men, to talk to them, to understand what happened to his wife on the mountain that day, and in this way to puzzle back together at least a little of the world he knew.

On September 11th my brother-in-law, Greg Rodriquez, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center where he was working that morning in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd Floor at One World Trade Center. What makes his story remarkable, what makes it especially remarkable, as well as relevant to this post, was the all-but-immediate reaction of his parents. Within days of Greg’s death, before they had even begun to reckon with their loss, their grief, they wrote an open letter to The New York Times called “Not in Our Son’s Name” in which they spoke out against the use of their son’s death as a pretext for the war then already underway. Even in the midst of their suffering, they understood the trap and futility of vengeance. So, too, Just’s character, Thomas Railles, refuses to seek vengeance as the solution to his own anguish and loss, consoling himself instead with the illusion of forgetfulness, a simple lie that allows him to rise each morning and paint, that allows him to live.

Here, for those interested, is a link to my in-law’s short open letter to The New York Times as read aloud by Benjamin Bratt, as well as a link to a trailer for the documentary made about their brave, affecting, and truly inspirational response to their son’s death, In Our Son’s Name.

Ward Just, born in Michigan in 1953, is best known for his novels, A Family Trust, An Unfinished Season, Exiles in the Garden, and The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.
Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Moveable Feast

The Wheeling Year, Ted Kooser

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner

I may have mentioned this 365 days ago, but as a kid, the idea of a rabbit large enough to carry candy baskets to all the well-behaved kids in the neighborhood--a large stretch of Asbury Park, blue-collar Irish and Italian, boys enough for two full baseball teams--creeped me out. Unlike Santa with his benign and perhaps bourbon besotted red cheeks--a person I equated with my German grandfather, minus the red suit--the EB looked eerily like my Aunt Helen, pasty, with an egregious overbite. Helen smelled like roses and gave all of her nephews and nieces quarters instead of candy, which was fine by me. We'd have to dress up and go to church, then there was a big Easter egg hunt at the golf course--real eggs in those days, dyed by the Moms the night before. Even in dour New Jersey it seemed never to rain on Easter, and the day stretched on into deep darkness with the evening meal, processions of relatives, an Easter Promenade on the Boardwalk, and the stomach ache that comes from eating too much candy. Chocolate rabbits, hard boiled eggs, lamb stew, new shoes, and the priest showering us with holy water: what a mess of symbols, all adding up to the idea of life renewed: popping trees (oaks and red maples in front of our apartment), irises redolent of lemon licorice, school's penultimate month, Giants games on the radio, stickball in the street, and, even for a ten-year-old, undefinable yearning.  A moveable feast: medieval European math was pretty much invented for the purpose of locating the correct day for the Paschal feast. I liked it late: in those days there would be snow on the ground all through March, and you wanted it warm for Easter, so the later the better.

Sure enough, the Old English word Ēosturmōnaþ (Latin Eostur-monath) is right here in Venerable Bede--the Paschal month named for a pagan goddess of rebirth--though the more orthodox insist that the feast has only to do with the business of the empty tomb and nothing to do with pagans and Jews.

 Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes...

Eos is of course proto-Indo-European for "dawn." Most of the images I can find in my books and on-line picture Ostara as a flying or hovering female cloaked in white and wielding a flowering branch. Trees surround her, and there are some images with serpents, another symbol of fertility. There's a late 19th century image featuring a flying rabbit surrounded by angels--oh I love these conflations of paganism with Christianity! The bunny appears to come into the story later on, in Middle High German, perhaps as a companion of Ostara--but I'm thinking more of hares in terms of fecundity and carnality: in medieval manuscripts, the presence of a rabbit--a coney--nearly always indicates sexual activity, or at least carnal desire--D.W. Robertson analyzes this imagery in his Preface to Chaucer. The egg, it appears, is a symbol of the tomb--Jesus as the yolk, wrapped in white--I can't remember where I read this so I might be making it up. Purity and sex--how the Christians worked to purge their mythology--all borrowed from pagan sources--of any trace of carnality. Birds and bees and rabbits did it, but not them. "Better to marry than to burn" as Paul put it, "but best is to be even as I am," a virgin. But then there's spring: how to explain away the life that pulses through everything, even Christians? Allegorize it. Not life, but eternal life, not birth but rebirth.

Here's an image, province unknown, that covers several of the iconic themes:

For years, when I lived in civilization, I would attend a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion during Holy Week. Is there any better choral music? And could there be a finer book on J.S. Bach than Gardiner's magisterial Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven?  Listen to this (from page 428):

"As always, the music is the place to find Bach himself...Much as his whole endeavor is to give a voice to others--the protagonists, the crowd, the Gospel writer--his own is always present in the story. We hear it in his fervour, in his empathy with  the suffering to the innocent Christ, in his sense of propriety, in his choices and juxtapositions of narrative and commentary, and most of all in the abrupt way he stems the tide of vengeful hysteria, cutting into Matthew's narration and interrupting it with a chorale expressive of profound contrition and outrage."

Bach's faithful heart at work, as Bruno Walter put it. Here's the opening....

and the entire Passion:

Gardiner's book is full of brilliant insights: "What most distinguishes [Bach's] Passions from operas of the time is the way he does away with the convention of a fixed point of reference for the audience, rejecting the idea of a listener who surveys the development of the dramatic narrative more like a consumer--entertained, perhaps moved, ingesting spoon-fed images, but never a part of the action."

Sitting in church this morning, I nipped a moment here and there during the homily (what has happened to the once-great art of sermonizing?) to partake of Ted Kooser's delightful The Wheeling Year. Like other fine journal-keepers, and (I thought), like Marcus Aurelius, with Kooser I only needed a single paragraph and could then chew on it, like a stalk of longstem prairie grass. Here's the one I masticated this morning, from "April":

"Month of my birth. What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away." 

Perfect.  Kooser is all over the map in this book--tidy observations of the natural world, thoughts on aging, lines that will become part of his poetry. He occupies a small corner of an immense middle America, yet his reach exceeds that of almost any any other poet working today.

"Imagine this bluestem as salt grass, and these crows as a species of gull, and you will know what it's like to live on the coast of the sky, waves of light slapping the barns, splashing the windows with a blue that has come all the way from the other side." 

And then back to the Passion, playing as I type these words:

"Gerne will ich mich bequeman/Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen."*

Happy Spring.

*Act I, scene iv, "Gladly will I fear disdaining/drink the cup without complaining."

George Ovitt (4/5/15)