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:


  1. Thank you so much. When is the New York Review of Books going to hire you? Seriously, you write the sort of erudite, wide-ranging and knowledgeable essay reviews that make their nonfiction reviews so valuable. Their fiction reviews are too often little more than a synopsis. They need you! Your work is always enlightening and, as usual, I'm grateful for the introduction to a writer I'd never heard of. Thank you for reading and writing about my novel and for pairing me with Ibrahim al-Koni (and Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc.). Call me a Grateful Reader.

  2. Excellent review of Lefer's wonderful novel. I reviewed it, too, here: but you made lots of good points that I'd missed! I'll check out Al-Koni's work, too. Sounds interesting.