Living in the kinds of apartments I do means mice, often. House mice, one of the world’s most successful species—whatever that means—don’t care how much money we pay for our apartments in Park Slope, in Back Bay, in Bay Heights, Bay Slope, Slope Heights. They love the tenderness of the wood floors beneath our 1920s radiators; they love the dusty corridors behind our bookshelves. Even if they are not inside our rooms, they are in our basements or walls, in most of our buildings, most of the time.
There is an art to removing mice from an apartment. Cats are not as effective as folk wisdom would have us believe: some cats are good “mousers”; most are not. The typical urbanite response of “putting out a few traps” to “catch the mouse” is woefully inadequate, not least because no one ever has a mouse—mice are social animals like humans or dogs, not loners like cats of prey. We also seem to be inadvertently breeding trap-resistant strains of mice: these little acrobats are the stars of internet videos, tip-toeing their way into peanut butter as night-vision cameras look on. Stopping up holes doesn’t always work, because it is an invitation for new holes; mice are artists of direction, intimately familiar with the geography of walls and cabinets—indeed, this is why they and their rat cousins love mazes so much. The best solution appears to be the one-two punch of an aggressive, almost exorbitant, trapping regimen followed by the plugging up of entrances. You must kill all the mice who have “knowledge” about your apartment; you must wipe out an entire mouse culture.
Before I knew this I made the mistake of setting out a single sticky trap in my living room as a kind of mouse detector. My girlfriend and I had spotted a scout rounding the corner one evening as we watched Lost. That night the gaps between the floor and floorboards that were not already filled with steel wool got some steel wool of their own. In a few days we started to sleep better, but just to be sure we set out that single sticky trap along the wall. Two weeks went by before I heard my girlfriend’s gasp from the front room.
The mouse was sprawled out on its abdomen, all four limbs pointing away from its body as if pulled there by ropes. At first I wasn’t sure that it was even alive: with its entire lower half glued to the plastic, including the bottom of its head, there was nowhere to move—would I even be able to tell if it was breathing? Do mice close their eyes when they die? As I got closer and closer, hovering over it, it moved, trying again what it had surely tried hundreds of times already: it jerked its body from back to front, propelling itself and the plate of plastic forward and backward, like a canoe without an oar.
Having a captive living mouse in your apartment is a bit like seeing a sick raccoon limping down the street during the day, or a giant squid tossed up on a beach: a creature that thrives on darkness is suddenly there at your disposal, available for pushing or prodding or experimentation. You could talk to it, you could tell it jokes; you could set it down on the couch to watch TV with you. We did none of those things, but we never forgot that we could have, even as we went hunting for the tools of extermination.
We had a large mallet made of hard rubber, which I figured would be perfect for the job. But I couldn’t simply deliver a blow in the open: the force of it would send blood everywhere. So I picked up the mouse and its boat with a pair of rubber gloves and put them inside a plastic grocery bag. But surely one bag was not enough—it would tear, right? I wrapped another one around.
I stepped out into the stairwell, looking for a harder striking surface. The linoleum there was fine, but I could hear the neighbors rustling next door, so I thought it better to go outside. On the way downstairs I passed another resident of the building, who didn’t seem to notice, or care, that I was wearing yellow rubber gloves and carrying a mallet and a plastic bag. Out on the New York City street I waited pointlessly for a gap in foot traffic, the bag next to me on the stoop, the mouse thinking who knows what. I decided to go back upstairs. Ten minutes had passed.
Only when it finally came time to bring the mallet down—on the linoleum after all, not that it matters—did it occur to me that I had no way of knowing if I would be able to hit cleanly. I couldn’t see through two plastic bags, and that left only one option, an option I could not bring myself to choose, or even think about for very long: to lay my hand on his body, to wrap my hand around him, like holding a nail in place to drive it home. He would wiggle, right? He would protest somehow, and I would feel the bones of his back through his skin. He would, in some way or other, respond to my touch. I couldn’t do it, and so he and I didn’t do it, and we just got on with the thing.
The first blow must have missed his brain, because I heard a squeak. It was oddly cut off, as if his lungs or larynx had suddenly filled with blood. Maybe if I had been closer to him I would have heard a little mouse gurgle, or some miniscule sputtering. I hammered again, about seven more times, covering a circle around where I had hit before. There was no more noise—but what did that mean? I was sure I had to open the bags and look, but I was also sure that the injured mouse, his limbs somehow unstuck by the pounding, would limp out onto my hands and then the floor, dragging blood with him, contaminating me and accusing me with his eyes. I unwrapped the first plastic bag. The inner bag had torn and blood had leaked through into the outer. I unwrapped the inner bag and found him, or at least found something. It was a mass of fur and flesh, a jumble of vaguely organic material, the kind of thing you occasionally see nature do on her own, like when a cat gives birth to a foot with some teeth attached. I guess you could say the hammering had been successful, then—there was nothing more to do with that mouse. What was left went into the trash downstairs, and the rubber gloves went with it.
A few years ago I stopped being a vegetarian, started eating a lot of meat, and lost about fifteen pounds. I had heard about paleo dieting from my brother, and it was good to me: that late-twenties pudge on my stomach and lower back more or less melted away; my skin got clearer; I no longer needed to take a nap every afternoon after lunch. I enjoyed looking in the mirror again. And all I had to do—to make a long story short—was to take the bread out of my diet and replace it with meat.
Yes, I was an ethical vegetarian. But when I first took the leap, drawn in by the promise of weight loss, I was somehow able to put my reservations on hold. Within a few weeks they seemed to disappear entirely. Spreading butter on top of my beef, or wiping the animal fat off the sides of my kitchen sink, I was charmed. It was as if my body had hijacked my mind: I stopped internally citing Genesis 1:29—God only gave us plants and fruits to eat—and started up with Cain and Abel instead—God accepts the little lambs of the shepherd Abel, and not the fruits of the farmer Cain. And after years and years of my own vegetarianism, I caught myself sneering at vegetarians, annoyed whenever I had to accommodate them. I was a man obsessed. The thing about obsession, however, is that it tends to wear off. As time went by, the old concerns found their way into my consciousness bit by bit. And then one day I destroyed a mouse with a hammer.
Vegetarianism has been the official diet of polite society for some decades now. Even those who eat meat acknowledge indirectly in one way or other that it is unhealthy. Some indulge occasionally and carefully, figuring that if they keep the frequency down they won’t die young, and won’t be denying themselves one of life’s little pleasures. Some stick to the relatively benign choices, like salmon and chicken breast—meat that is light on the plate and light in the belly. All, however, assume that no meat, or very little, would be best, and all assume that the ideal diet looks like what Whole Foods tells us it looks like: quinoa and olive oil, walnuts and blueberries, and a lot of what is green and bright and scratchy. No one in the last forty years has thought that eating a steak every day was a healthful, or even non-insane, course of action. No one until now, that is. This is the scandal of paleo: that someone—and not just anyone, because it is your friend, or your relative or your co-worker—is making the case that eating a steak every day is a perfectly normal thing to do. And not just a perfectly normal thing to do, but the best thing to do, and, by the way, what you should do. If you are not already a paleo eater, then you have had your ear talked off by one. That friend or relative or coworker has trapped you in an elevator or a moving car, and has preached to you. You were told to change your ways; you were warned of your corporeal damnation. And it was awkward. If we were once unified in our ideas about health, we are not anymore. There is a schism within the class of readers and chatterers.
As with all schisms, the internet is to blame. The modern paleo movement did begin before the digital age: there was Boyd Eaton’s 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Paleolithic nutrition: A consideration of its nature and current implications”; and there were a few books and studies here and there by authors who have now become folk heroes of paleo, like Staffan Lindeberg and Loren Cordain. But the first decade of the new century brought the full force of the internet, and with it a proliferation of paleo theorizing. The ideas of the movement—along with recipes and a whole lot of idle talk—found their way into homes and offices, and before long some of the people in those homes and offices started buying what the internet was selling.
The majority of paleo conversions probably begin with the website Mark’s Daily Apple. Its curator, Mark Sisson, defies nature and common sense in possessing an ultra-sculpted upper torso at over 60-years-old, a torso so persuasive it is plastered on every corner of the site. Those wishing to attain his physique—and some do succeed, judging by the before-and-after pictures—can put into their bodies what Sisson does: a lot of vegetables, a lot of meat, a lot of fats that we used to think were forbidden (butter and beef tallow don’t cause heart disease!), and some potatoes here and there. If we are to believe him, Sisson every day prepares what he calls his “big-ass salad,” the fresh ingredients for which he has stowed in a special refrigerator compartment built into the kitchen counter of his improbably sunlit Southern California home. Dinner is a big slab of beef or bison and some cooked vegetables, with red wine and dark chocolate as occasional indulgences. (Some meat is saved for the following day’s big-ass salad.)
Sisson’s image is not the only one gracing the website. Mark’s Daily Apple has a pre-agricultural mascot named “Grok,” who may wear an animal skin and wield a spear, but who appears—we only have a silhouette—to have the normal, full-sized forehead of Homo sapiens. Grok is the condensation of the evolutionary theorizing that underlies most of Sisson’s recommendations: we should avoid soybean oil and corn oil because pre-agricultural man, a.k.a. Grok, did not have access to them; we should occasionally sprint and “lift heavy things” because pre-agricultural man, a.k.a. Grok, did; and so on, for sleep (remove artificial light from your bedroom, because Grok slept in the dark), sunlight (you need it for vitamin D, and Grok never sat in an office), and stress (keep it short and intense, like running from a lion; Grok never worried about a promotion). Partisans of the website encourage each other to “Grok on,” and often indulge in “Grokfests” back home, which can involve boulder-carrying contests, loincloths and piles of barbecued meat.
Inspiring as the caveman motif has been to many, to others in the paleo world it has been positively irritating. Women, perhaps not surprisingly, are not always comfortable with a narrative that seems to have only two places for them: gathering berries or being pulled by their hair into a cave. About three years ago the paleo movement began a self-criticism from a scientific angle as well, which has led to a widespread de-Grokification (although, to be fair, Mark Sisson himself has been mostly on board). The gist of the revision is this: we should not eat like cavemen because, as it turns out, we are not cavemen. Human beings were not done evolving 10,000 years ago, when agriculture and animal husbandry began to take over the Western world. We are different now: a great many of us human beings, for example, have found a way to keep our small intestines full of lactase—the enzyme that lets us drink milk—well into adulthood. And the bacteria that live in our guts (by some estimates a population ten times greater than “our own” cells) have spent thousands of years happily evolving, adapting to the food we eat. The theoretical shift has been profound enough to be marked by a new name: the movement is now the “ancestral health movement,” the diet an “ancestral diet.” And meat? It has fallen from its pedestal. Bloggers can now admit that they eat something other than raw ground beef: potatoes, say, or buckwheat pancakes, or legumes, or even dessert (provided it is made with lard or cream, of course). The ancestral world is a kinder, gentler place.
If there is a figure emerging as the guide for the new movement, it is Paul Jaminet. Jaminet (feel free to Frenchify that last syllable) is a former Harvard astrophysicist who, along with his molecular biologist wife Shou-Ching, published the cheerily titled Perfect Health Diet in 2010. Faced with chronically non-perfect health, Jaminet decided to spend five years researching biochemistry and nutrition to do something about it, and succeeded. The PHD—so the diet is usually called—bears the impress of Jaminet’s quiet, synthesizing intellect: the diet feels complete in a way that earlier paleo diets did not. Gone is the weirdly particular big-ass salad; gone is the weirdly austere ribeye à la carte. A PHD dinner has it all. There is a portion of meat, usually a pastured ruminant (beef, lamb, bison), gently cooked, about half a pound. There is a modest portion of starch (potato, sweet potato, taro, even rice—the most innocuous of the grains), but always mixed with fat, because starch and fat complement each other nicely in the process of digestion. There is an acid somewhere, like vinegar or lemon juice, perhaps in a sauce; acids help the body break down fat. There are vegetables: fresh ones and cooked ones. And there are fermented vegetables too, because the bacteria in the gut need replenishing. And there is bone stock, consumed as soup, or mixed into the starch. All of the elements work together: a perfect whole.
The real importance of Jaminet’s work, however, might not be a matter of synthesis, but of emphasis. Just as much as any other ancestral nutritionist, Jaminet reminds us what we shouldn’t eat: grains, vegetable oils, sugar—what the blogger Kurt Harris called the “neolithic agents of disease.” But in addition he spends more time telling us what we should eat. Jaminet has convinced the ancestral health movement of the importance of adequate “micronutrition”: making sure we get the whole alphabet soup of vitamins and minerals into our bodies on a regular basis. One way to do this, certainly, is by taking pills—and Jaminet does recommend supplements as a kind of insurance policy. A better way to do it is by eating foods that are rich in nutrients. From the ancestral perspective, the federal government’s well-meaning advice to eat heaps of vegetables every day is insufficient, or possibly even detrimental; vegetables do not really pack the nutritional punch we think they do, in large part because their micronutrients are not easily assimilated by our bodies. The real goods are a group of foods that Jaminet calls “supplemental foods,” and almost all of them come from an animal: egg yolks, liver, kidney, oysters, fish eggs, soups made from bones and joints. Vegetables have their place in a “perfect” diet, sure, but the supplemental foods are the aristocrats of the entire food kingdom. We will need to eat them if we want to be, in one of the ancestral world’s beloved phrases, well nourished.
The shift from paleo to ancestral saw meat fall, then, but it dusted itself off and is here to stay. In the eyes of the ancestral movement, animals just are the special place where nature’s bounty gathers and condenses; the animals have sifted through the world of plants (or smaller animals) and collected for us what is best, storing it up in their organs and bones and embryos. The thought is not without anthropological precedent. The recent reorientation has focused attention on an author who spent years studying the diets of isolated peoples, back when isolated peoples still existed: Weston A. Price. Price is the closest thing the ancestral movement has to a classic thinker, and his 1939 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration the closest thing the movement has to a classic text. The book is a compendium of Price’s travels to little-known and little-visited parts of the world, where he and his wife managed to secure samples of food and saliva, and photographs of teeth, from all manner of “natives.” What Price found—in the Canadian and Alaskan subarctic, in the forests of central Africa, in the remote archipelagos of the South Pacific—was nothing short of miraculous, by our standards at least: the “primitives” were in a condition of splendid health. In every corner of the globe Price uncovered tribe after tribe untouched by heart disease, cancer and diabetes, all with resilient bodies, all with beautiful, smiling faces. For Price this had everything to do with food—and with certain special foods in particular. Every one of Price’s native cultures had its own set of “supplemental foods” just like Jaminet’s: foods they went to great lengths to attain; parts and products of animals that went first to expectant mothers, children and the old, but went to everyone eventually and were universally valued. For the tundra-dwelling Native Americans it was the organs of moose and other large animals. For the Alpine Swiss it was milk (although they ate their fair share of flesh as well). For Melanesian and Polynesian islanders it was shellfish—and here Price has a rather remarkable story to tell. Inland-dwelling groups on larger islands, accustomed to trade with the islanders along the shore for the precious shellfish, sometimes had to resort to cannibalism. When they did, they targeted fishermen, whose livers had built up more of the desired nutrients.
We in the modern West assume that the conquest of nature by the medical sciences has guaranteed us a level of health previously unseen on the planet—if South Sea islanders were eating each other, well then, that was only to avoid starving. But in Price’s mind, the radiant health of his isolated peoples tells a different story. We are the ones in poor health. We are the ones with malnutrition. And Price went even further: We are the ones who are “degenerating.” We are passing down our nutritional deficiencies from generation to generation, and with every generation the effect is worse. We pour millions and millions of dollars into researching the diseases we get—but if we had eaten differently, and our parents had eaten differently, and our grandparents had eaten differently, then we wouldn’t be getting those diseases in the first place. Price’s dramatic conclusion is accepted by many ancestral eaters today, who routinely bemoan their own epigenetic inheritance, or assume that a vegan is simply coasting on the hardy constitution handed down to him by his parents. If the ancestrals are right, then meat plays a much bigger role in human nutrition than we have been led to believe. We may not need a steak every day—but we cannot flourish, it seems, without animals.
I am not sure how much of this I accept, ultimately. At the moment I do find a lot of it convincing, and what I have read about paleo and ancestral is in large part responsible for my eating the way I do. But I have been a devoted partisan of so many diets in the past—vegetarianism, veganism, and even, for one year, a no-mammal policy—that I hesitate to shout this newest one from the rooftops. My mother asks me before every holiday what I am eating; it always seems so self-evident to me, at least until the next time I get this unflattering reminder of my wishy-washiness. And despite my general agreement with the ancestral template I’ve found that attempts to “do my homework,” to be “absolutely sure” about the best human diet, are essentially useless: studies in modern journals try their best to squeeze nutrition into a box, but it just keeps bursting out from the other side. There are simply too many factors to tame; and scientists, despite their best intentions, build their own biases into their experiments, confirming the superiority of their favorite diet in ever-changing ways. Nowadays I let my eyes glaze over when I read the inevitable declaration of confidence from an author writing on nutrition, whether it is the vegan T. Colin Campbell, the “flexitarian” Michael Pollan or one of my own ancestrals. “After years of study I have determined that…”—Let me stop you right there, as they say.
But despite all of my inconstancy and all of my skepticism—and all the hours lost to learning biochemistry—there is something that I am fairly sure of now, and it seems unlikely to change: I thrive on the flesh and milk of animals. I’d like to be able to say that I knew this from the first time I ate meat after my long hiatus: a grass-fed steak from an upscale steakhouse in Chicago, the lofty price somehow justified by the details of my steer’s pedigree on the back of the menu. My body may have been in shock that day—but it didn’t last long. In the following weeks eating meat became a contemplative, even epiphanous, experience. I would take a bite of my steak and then sit still with my hands together in my lap, head turned down, eyes closed and mouth chewing. I imagined I could feel the nutrients warming my heart, and then coursing through my arteries to my extremities. If other people were around it was a little embarrassing. The whole thing felt like falling in love, or finding the film or the novel that stops everything in your life from spinning. Something or other just felt right. It felt like I and the world were made for each other; there was something in the world that was designed for me, and I was finally getting it.
I eat less meat than I used to. At my peak my diet consisted of little else than a daily dose of two pounds of beef. Before long I was down to about a pound, and then half a pound—and sometimes just a quarter of a pound. I took a hint from the downward trend and tried eliminating meat altogether. It didn’t work. In my experiments I found that if I don’t get a minimal amount of meat, or at the very least some chicken stock or beef stock, then I suffer. I feel the same uncomfortable deprivation I felt as a vegetarian, passing by my neighbor’s door while she had a roast in the oven: not just a desire, but something deeper than that. A demand, maybe.
Back in my student days I saw a philosophy professor change his mind about dogs. He had claimed in a lecture that dogs are essentially machines, programmed to make themselves appealing to authorities, and I was rankled in the way you can only be rankled when someone you look up to disagrees with you about something big. Two years later he got a family dog and by all appearances loved her very much. When I ran into him in the park with my own dog, he felt qualified to give me advice on a number of topics, like brands of kibble and the canine need for companionship; he may have even used the word “play-dates.” It doesn’t take much time for love to make you an expert, apparently.
I have been an animal person for as long as I can remember, and that is long enough to have learned that there is no use in trying to persuade someone who isn’t an animal person to become one. You may as well try to persuade someone to become a Republican or a Democrat or to prefer brunettes; persuasion just doesn’t seem to be a relevant kind of activity in these cases. It takes experience to change: real experience, lived experience. My philosophy professor’s transformation from cold-eyed cynic to glowing animal person came about not because he had dedicated more thought to the issue, but because, to put it simply, he had lived with an animal for a while. He felt his way into the new perspective; he didn’t reason his way into it. I imagine his philosopher’s pride took a hit in the process.
But reason still dominates in academic philosophy, and academic philosophy, directly or indirectly, dominates our discourse about animals. From the philosopher’s perspective, the human mind is the measure of all living beings. Whether we should eat animals or not depends on whether or not they live up to our cognitive standards. Do animals possess an authentic self-awareness? Can they use language? If they can, is it only mimicry? Can they use language to refer to itself? Can they press a lever to give a fellow animal a treat? The hoops we ask animals to jump through are always chosen by us, and they always flatter us. The “mirror test,” for example—which chimpanzees pass with flying colors, bless them—challenges its subject to remove an odorless dot of paint from its forehead when placed in front of a mirror. If the animal can recognize that the image in the mirror is itself, and that itself should not have a dot of paint on its forehead, then the animal is self-aware. End of discussion. And yet I consistently fail to be self-aware in a way that my dog succeeds: once she has marked a tree with her urine she knows it, and doesn’t bother urinating on it again. The tree is her mirror, and she smells herself in its glass. I, meanwhile, keep urinating on the same tree.
Even when a philosopher manages to get outside of his mind and into his body for a little while the results are perversely abstract. Peter Singer joined the likes of Jeremy Bentham and Plutarch when he suggested in his 1975 book Animal Liberation that the relevant feature of a living being for moral consideration is not its intellect but its capacity to feel pain. In this most animals do not differ very much from us, and thus vegetarianism comes to seem a plausible position indeed. But Singer’s basic argument—the most important step is to disabuse us of our “speciesism,” our unexamined claim to a special human dignity—lands him, through a series of twists and turns, in bizarre territory: that we are morally justified in killing human infants with hemophilia, or that we should kill one human being to avoid killing 101 chimpanzees. An attempt to recover our fundamental kinship with animals has clearly gone off the rails. Ironically it is that pesky human reason that is to blame: Singer just seems to be overthinking it, doesn’t he?
All of this philosophizing strikes me as beside the point, and it always has. As a result, when I was a vegetarian, and was asked why I was a vegetarian, I didn’t have all that much to say—and that bothered me, because I was supposed to be an intellectual, after all, and intellectuals should be able to justify their actions. There isn’t much good in responding to the question with “go read a few novels by J. M. Coetzee.” I felt I should be able to explain the nature of my connection to animals somehow or other. At the very least I should try. So I kept trying.
What do we mean when we say that we “stand by” someone, or that we should “be there” for someone? Academic fashion tells us that these are metaphors: their original meaning was physical or spatial, but that meaning became, via a gradual transfer, more and more psychological, figurative instead of literal. Has the literal meaning really been lost, though? One of the most touching things I have ever seen was a simple thing, as simple as one person sitting near another person: a girl sitting through her sister’s choir rehearsal. The choir rehearsed in a chapel, and the girl—a twin sister, which is why I noticed in the first place—had set up camp in one of the pews, reading a book and listening to her sister sing. She was roughly college-aged and was in town for a few days; to her it must have just seemed natural to go to her sister’s rehearsal, or unnatural not to. A few weeks later I got a visit of my own, from an old friend. When choir night rolled around he didn’t come sit in the pews; he drove to another part of the city to run an errand. He told me he needed to “maximize” his time. If I was moved by the twins at first I was even more moved retroactively.
Do you really love someone? The next time she falls asleep in your presence—after sex, say, or if you’ve been talking late at night—note what it is that you do. Do you get up and go somewhere else? Or do you stay where you are, reading a book maybe, so that you can be there when she wakes up? If I love you, I want to be around you, it’s as simple as that. Whatever you are doing, I want to be sitting next to you, and whatever I might be doing, I want you sitting next to me.
My dog obviously feels the same way. I took her to a friend’s lake house once, knowing that she would appreciate the water and the walks and the fresh air. The first afternoon I retreated to an upstairs bedroom because I needed to get some work done and couldn’t do it downstairs around everyone else and the television. Aggie came upstairs within ten minutes, shoving her muzzle up against the door. When I let her in she looked at me, whimpered, and then turned her body towards the hallway. She then repeated the whole sequence several times: she walked back towards me, she whimpered, she turned towards the door. I could read her loud and clear. When we got downstairs I took a chair in the living room with all the others. Aggie curled up contentedly on the floor and gave me a look that said, more or less: Don’t be ridiculous. You belong here with us.
Animals are not just proximity experts but experts at body language in general. Your dog can read your body better than you can read hers, because she is reading yours all the time. Chimpanzees failed in their first attempt to learn a human language because they were learning the wrong kind of language; it turns out that chimps don’t really have vocal cords suited for speaking—but they do have the bodily awareness to learn sign language. One of the most intriguing details from Jane Goodall’s writings about the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream is her description of the courtship gestures the males use to lure females away from the group. If the male doesn’t shake that tree branch just right, if he turns away too soon or too abruptly, the female won’t follow, and the chance for a rendezvous is lost. Birds dance for courtship too, and bees dance to tell the hive where the good flowers are. Bodily expertise pervades the animal kingdom. We think ourselves above it, but we are wrong—it’s more important to us than we are willing or able to admit.
The role that body language plays in human social hierarchy is a known quantity: when Koreans bow, or when a man who cares far too much about weightlifting walks down the street, we see it, and we comment on it. But our bodies don’t just stratify us, they bring us together, too. I have long suspected that the “real” reason I am attracted to someone is not the ratio of her waist to her hips or—heaven help us—the symmetry of her face, but rather the way she moves her body. A girlfriend said more or less the same thing to me once: “It’s just something about the way you tilt your shoulders.” Gaits are important, too; I fell in love with Meg Ryan because of her goofy, boyish walk. Touching is even more important. Hands, for instance, can be bridges, for the passage of electricity, or familiarity, or comfort. If a hand is resting on a shoulder then one thing is known for sure: nothing else is. With the gesture, the one who comforts says to the one who is comforted: That weight that you think is resting on your shoulders? It’s not really there. My hand is. This is why a hand on the shoulder in the wrong context can be demeaning. The one who gets the pat on the shoulder (or worse, the head) may not need any help, but the patronizing pat implies that he does—and that the patter is the one who can give it to him. This is only indirectly aggressive. But a hand can be plenty aggressive.
There’s more than one way to kill an animal. Most of these ways involve a contraption of some kind. Cattle intended for human consumption are generally led single-file to a pen, or “stun box,” that can hold them in place while they are stunned by a bolt or an electric shock, after which they are cut open to bleed out. United States law requires that livestock be “rendered insensible to pain” before they are “shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut,” but an exception is made for ritual slaughter, in which the animal dies by “simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries”—in other words, by a cutting of the throat without any previous stunning. Even in halal and kosher slaughter, however, the animals are restrained in a box, or with ropes or poles. They must be, so that a clean, swift cut can be delivered. A steer is stronger than a human being, after all. And yet, and yet—there is still that one thing missing. In all those ritual killings, human hands are almost never touching animal bodies.
I have been hunting before; once I shot a rabbit. There is no need to describe it at length, because it wasn’t troubling at all. It was exciting. But a gun is a contraption, just like a stun box is. It keeps you at a distance. I can’t help feeling that killing something with your bare hands is the real thing, and that using a contraption is a substitute for the complete act—a shorthand. I am fairly sure that the reason I find botched killings so horrifying is that in them we get a glimpse of what the animal would be doing in every killing that is unaided by one of man’s clever inventions. The animal would be resisting. And if an animal is resisting, and you are touching that animal, you will be feeling that resistance. The funny thing about the sense of touch, though, is that it goes two ways. One can see without being seen, and hear without being heard, but one cannot touch without being touched back. So if you are touching the animal then it will be touching you too; and its touching will change in response to your touching—which will then change in response to its. Both of you will be revealed as creatures with bodies that respond to the world, creatures with bodies that move, and you will be revealed as such creatures by each other. Killing an animal with your bare hands forces you to feel—not to see, but to feel—what you and that animal have in common.
In the end the reason I don’t want to kill animals is not that I have made some calculation about the magnitude of pain they feel at death and weighed it against their happiness during life. I often follow the debates in comment sections on the internet, or the more sophisticated versions of those debates from scientists, and all the distinctions leave me cold. They say it is ninety seconds before all the blood drains from the brain of a cow—but they also say it is sixty. They say an animal knows that its fellows are dying behind the doors to the kill floor—but they also say it is blissfully ignorant. The bolt on that stun gun might kill instantaneously—but this might be wishful thinking. The debates aren’t entirely irrelevant. They just aren’t sufficient. The reason I don’t want to kill animals is that the act of killing is itself a bad thing. Put another way, it is not the sort of thing that a human being should be doing. Now, the act of killing is a bad act because it is an animal that it is being killed—because the animal is an animal and it feels pain. Of course. But ultimately it is the character of that act itself that is a problem for me.
This helps explain, for example, why the counterargument to vegetarianism that vegetarians often hear misses the mark: that vegetarians are in fact responsible for more animal deaths than meat eaters, because of all the habitat destruction that agriculture requires. In this case, if there is a link between my dietary behavior and the deaths of animals, it is very tenuous. There’s just no me in that action, as there in fact is if an animal has been slaughtered for my dinner. “You’re still ultimately responsible for that habitat destruction.” That may be true, but at a certain point my concern for shaping the life I lead outweighs those considerations—the same way my concern for a friend might bring me to perform an act of self-sacrifice that is ultimately to my own detriment, and maybe even his, too. Some acts are just beautiful in themselves, and that’s why we do them. And some acts are just ugly in themselves, and that’s why we avoid them.
So the animal has lived a long, happy life on that farm full of grass. So what. Go ahead, let all the various arguments and counterarguments have their place. Yes, I do think that humans are more important than animals. Yes, it might be different if the animal dies a natural death. And so on and so on. But in the complexity of moral reckoning, the ugliness of the act of killing still has for me a kind of sovereignty that is hard to overcome. I just don’t want to use the same hand I use to bless to restrain—to kill something that lives and breathes and fights, just like I do.
As you can see, I’ve gotten myself into quite a bind. After a lot of self-experimentation, and some support from tribes and peoples past, I think I finally know how I need to eat. In particular, I know that it is better for me to eat meat than not to eat it. Not just because I like the taste, or because it is convenient, but because without it I am significantly worse off—so much so, in fact, that when I abstain from meat I feel I am denying my nature, or denying myself the opportunity to fully become what I truly am. On the other hand, I do not want to kill. And not just because I find it unpleasant—I have the strength to do what is unpleasant—but because I think it is morally wrong. I think that in killing animals I deny my ethical being essentially, or at least strain it considerably. Either way, the killing is bad—the highest level of bad.
It appears to me that most people do not have this problem, or at least they don’t claim to. Ethical vegetarians, for one, tend to believe that the ethical way to eat is also the healthy way to eat. This is not surprising, because our health care professionals and our media believe it is healthy, too. Vegetarians often go further: the health they have in mind is not just humdrum bodily health, the firing of the cylinders and the meshing of the gears, but a spiritual health, a holistic well-being. I read my fair share of pro-vegetarian books in my day—borrowed from fellow co-op eaters usually—and they made sense to me: meat imparts negative energy to the one who eats it; meat weighs you down; switching to a vegetarian diet makes your spirit lighter. Thoreau has something very similar to say in Walden (even if he does recommend hunting to young boys): “I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food.” The physical harm that meat causes the body does not end in the body: it reaches up into the spirit.
On the other side of the coin one finds the same harmony of ideals, just inverted. Meat eaters who believe that eating meat is essential to health usually have some kind of ethical account to go alongside their dietary preference (when they are bothering to think about it at all, that is). One option available, of course, is the classic route: the simple dismissal that animals have any rights or feelings or importance whatsoever—or, expressed positively, a firm belief in the uniqueness of human dignity. With the new generation of “foodies” new modes of justification have arrived, which enlarge the palette a bit. There are a handful of guidelines for eating “humanely,” but foremost among these is the vaguely Michael Pollan-inspired idea that we should be “connected” to our food. In 2011, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got connected to his food in a major way when he resolved to spend an entire year eating meat only from animals he had killed himself. Inspirational to the Zuckerbergian enterprise, surely, was the assumption that the born farmers and the seasoned hunters of the world are close to nature in a way that we hysterical urbanites are not. They must, then, be in the right.
The justifications of the meat eaters run even deeper. Every now and then someone on a paleo blog suggests that we say a prayer before eating meat, and hunters debate in forums about whether or not we should be performing Native American rituals over fresh kills. The unifying idea seems to be that the animal died for us; as a result we give thanks. For many self-aware meat eaters, this respect for the animal after its death is just part of a larger, more spiritual conception. Nature is a circle: death is a part of life, and we humans may kill now, but eventually we will in turn be food for the universe. Lierre Keith, an author whom paleos and ancestrals do not read much of anymore because of her unsavory anarchist views, expressed this conception with some elegance in her 2009 book The Vegetarian Myth. She tells of how she was comforted, in her conversion to meat eating, by a nineteenth-century anecdote about an apple tree in Rhode Island: the tree’s roots had snaked their way into some human graves, wrapping themselves around the remains of the bodies and taking the bones for the tree’s own nourishment. This returning of the favor does seem like a kind of justice, and we can imagine extending that justice indefinitely: perhaps that apple tree made an apple from the minerals in those bones; and perhaps some animal ate that apple; and then deposited the seeds in its droppings somewhere far away; and one of those seeds grew into another tree … which wrapped its roots around another human being. And on and on, maybe. The circle is eternity’s favorite shape.
Ethical, healthy vegetarians; and ethical, healthy meat eaters. People who think about what they eat fall into one of these two camps with a suspicious regularity. I can safely say that I have never met an ethical vegetarian who thought he was significantly damaging his health by abstaining from meat; and I have never met a health-conscious meat eater who did not have an account ready to justify his meat consumption (or didn’t reach for one when challenged). I have even seen, several times, vegetarians convert to an ancestral diet and adopt within weeks a new ethics to go along with their new diet, as if ideas were merely superficial, mere tools the body uses to placate the mind—a phenomenon it will no doubt delight philosophical materialists to hear about. (It should also come as no surprise that the new meat eaters have an account for the environmental superiority of an omnivorous diet, too.) Why does it seem so difficult not to fall into one of the two camps? Why can’t we be vegetarians and also believe that we are denying our own nature, like a lion eating a salad? Why can’t we be meat eaters and also believe that we are terrible people, like a person who can’t restrain his desire to molest children, even though he knows it’s wrong? Consider the following hypothetical confession from a vegetarian: “I just cannot live with myself if I kill animals, and that is why I don’t eat meat. On the other hand, I also think that I am denying my nature. I think that I was designed to eat meat, like the lion, but I choose to ignore this, and as a result I am frail.” Why is it so unlikely that we would ever hear such a confession?
This question, although it may not seem so at first, is a deep one. It is one version of a question that human beings have been asking for a very long time. We don’t think about it when we talk about food, usually—but we could. And we probably should.
The Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755 was to eighteenth-century Europe a bit like the attacks of September 11, 2001 have been to twenty-first-century America. It was not just the sheer loss of life that caused the shock in each case—if comparing numbers means anything at all, the Portuguese had it much worse, as tens of thousands were wiped out—but the gory details of each tragedy. In 1755 Europeans were horrified to hear that human beings had met their ends trapped under the rubble of multistory buildings: alone, in the dark, probably an arm or leg pinned to the ground. Many suffered that particular fate on September 11th as well, although dying under a building seems tame by September 11th standards. Few of us will be able to forget watching those who chose to jump instead of burn—a death that no Hollywood screenwriter had ever managed to concoct for his characters.
November 1st brought out the intellectuals too, just like September 11th. But if the God talk was marginalized after 9/11, it was in the very center of the discourse after Lisbon. And not just because people were more likely to talk about God in the eighteenth century. The earthquake, after all, had not been caused by human beings flying airplanes; and not only were tall buildings destroyed, but churches too. There were no people to blame for the evil. God himself, it seemed, had destroyed his places of worship, not to mention his creatures worshipping inside.
Before the year was through, Voltaire—playwright, essayist, man of reason—had anonymously circulated a poem on the earthquake, with the full title “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster; Or an Examination of the Axiom ‘All is Well.’” All was not well, obviously, and that was Voltaire’s point. Voltaire’s particular target was the “theodicy” of Alexander Pope and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: in brief, their attempt to justify the existence of evil in the world as necessary for the greater good that God has in mind. Voltaire would eventually come to attack this idea with humor a few years later in Candide—the protagonist’s Leibnizian tutor Pangloss proclaims this world “the best of all possible worlds” while parts of his syphilitic body fall off—but in the poem on Lisbon Voltaire simply lets his frustration flow onto the page. Was there some reason that Lisbon was punished, rather than London, Paris or Madrid? Was there more sin in Lisbon? Did the good of the whole really require such a loss of life? Would the universe be worse off without swallowing up Lisbon? Voltaire does not claim the existence of God rules out all particular evils—if it did the human propensity for toothaches would have extinguished religious belief long ago. But at a certain point, with a certain mass of needless suffering, the balance tips and the fundamental goodness of the universe comes very much into question.
In August of the following year, Jean-Jacques Rousseau—already famous, but less famous, and considerably younger, than Voltaire—sent a nice long letter to the author of the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, respectfully arguing the opposite position. Rousseau’s gambit was on its surface fairly cheeky, but his intent was serious: the real problem with the Lisbon earthquake, Rousseau suggested, was not the earthquake itself, but the fact that men had built such large buildings for themselves in the first place. If they hadn’t built the buildings, they wouldn’t have been buried under them. Living in the woods, in huts or tents, families would simply have stepped outside when the earth started shaking; and if their huts had been destroyed they would have walked a few miles away and built new ones. To the question often posed in the aftermath of the earthquake—“Why, oh why, couldn’t it have happened in the middle of the wilderness instead?”—Rousseau answered that it probably had happened in the wilderness, many times. We just never heard about it; which proved Rousseau’s point.
Not too long before the letter to Voltaire, Rousseau had published his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which was filled with the kinds of thoughts about human prehistory that would lead someone to make the kind of suggestion about the earthquake that Rousseau did. Man in his natural state, according to Rousseau, was solitary, peaceful and happy. Drifting through his environment without cares, he rarely did anything other than “sate his hunger beneath an oak, slake his thirst at the first stream, and find his bed at the foot of the same tree that supplied his meal.” If male and female human beings happened to run into each other in the woods, they would mate, and if there was a child then there was a child—but as soon as the child could survive on his own the mother unceremoniously sent him packing. There was never reason to quarrel: if someone stole your meal, you could just find another one; and no one could steal your property, because there was no such thing as property. All was well. Sadly it did not end well: Rousseau had a story to tell, and that story was not pleasant. From this original, blissful state of affairs, man tumbled into a gradual, painful decline. With the arrival of families and huts, human beings still had it pretty good; but after the huts came agriculture, and then fences, and then rich and poor, and then politics, and then oppression. Before long, we had stumbled into the tyrannical world we live in today—where, in Rousseau’s grim vision, we all demean ourselves, we all profit at each other’s expense, and we all wish, secretly or not-so-secretly, to cut every throat until the earth belongs to us.
If there is a phrase that will be forever associated with Rousseau—like Thomas Hobbes’s “nasty, brutish and short” or Nietzsche’s “God is dead”—it is “the noble savage.” Rousseau did love his noble savages, but he never used the exact phrase “noble savage”; more important, he never once told us to try to become noble savages. Rousseau was not exactly offering advice when he described those hypothetical primitives living in the woods, immune to the earth’s shaking; true, he probably would not have opposed a resolution to build smaller houses in Lisbon, but he certainly would have opposed a mass egress into the wilderness. We tend to agree with him. Of the untold millions who have either read Rousseau’s book or felt its influence indirectly, precious few have actually destroyed their credit cards and walked into the woods. And yet we love the book and we love its story; we love that noble, primitive fellow sitting under the oak tree. Our imagination just keeps coming back to him. Why?
One nice thing about Rousseau’s story is that it is not an inevitable one: the series of steps that carried us from innocence to corruption were not, strictly speaking, necessary; they could have gone another way. And if we were once originally good, and things could have gone another way in the past, then they might still be able to go another way in the future—the way of justice, perhaps, instead of the way of tyranny. And so Rousseau is the first sociologist, or the first critical theorist; before Marx, before Adorno, he gave us reason to hope that modernity could be escaped. Yet there is something even more reassuring about Rousseau’s story. In the state of nature man fits perfectly with his environment, and he is at peace. The desires and fears that lead to despair and conflict simply aren’t there for him—or if they are then his environment keeps him from getting into too much trouble, like a baby-proofed house. And indeed every time Rousseau senses a potential objection about his primitive man, some disjunction or awkwardness or contradiction, something else slides into place to meet the need: Will primitive man not be helpless in the woods without tools? No; he is stronger than we are because he hasn’t been relying on those very tools his whole life. Is he not tormented by sexual desire? Not at all, because for him the desire only arises when the provocation is present. Will he not die? He will, but he doesn’t fear death; he doesn’t even really know what it is.
We might balk at the details of Rousseau’s portrait, and they are often outlandish—it becomes clear in the footnotes that Rousseau thought the orangutans of southeast Asia were actually primitive men—but most of us probably do carry around with us a conception of human nature that more or less resembles Rousseau’s. We think that we are out of joint with our world, and that it is a messy place, filled with greed and competition and cell phones and global warming; but we also assume that if things were the way they should be, then the world would be simpler, and we would be fundamentally at peace with it and with ourselves. And we find this thought comforting, just as Rousseau does. Even if the modern world is full of conflict, at least we know that when things are the way they’re supposed to be then there is no conflict. At least we know that in our nature there is no conflict. This is the self-conception we have inherited from Rousseau: the world is messy, “the system” is messy, culture is messy, history is messy—but we are not messy, at least not when we are what we should be. Rousseau projects this state of nature—this condition in which everything is as it should be—into the past, as do we generally, thanks to our history books. But that which is behind us is also our nature, and in our nature we are at peace. For Voltaire the Lisbon earthquake proved that the universe is inherently inhospitable, inherently screwed up. Rousseau’s idea turned Voltaire’s on its head: the universe is inherently welcoming, and not inhospitable—we’re the ones who have screwed things up.
Ideas like these, ideas that we carry around with us everywhere we go, tend to be very powerful. They can dictate the way we love, the way we fight, the way we die. They can even dictate—the way we eat. When a vegetarian thinks that in not killing animals he is obeying his nature, and also thinks that in keeping flesh out of his belly he is obeying his nature (by doing what is healthy), it is rare that he has come to those two views separately, as if through an impartial process of experimentation. He holds those two views together because he assumes, with Rousseau, that our nature is harmonious, that in our nature we are at peace. The new ancestral dieter, the ethical omnivore, is no different. It may seem that a natural world in which humans kill animals for food is not a world in which humans are at peace. But the ethical omnivore thinks that the killing of animals, just like the eating of meat, is natural; and therefore there is no conflict in his soul. The Rousseauian assumption tyrannizes his thought, even if he doesn’t realize it: if eating meat is healthiest, if it is proper to our nature, then certainly it must also be true that there is nothing about our nature that forbids killing. With the one comes the other, sure as the sun shines. That is the power of the idea.
And indeed, how could things possibly be otherwise? What kind of a world would that be in which we were asked to abstain from the food that we need in order to be what we are? What kind of a world would that be in which feeding ourselves required us to do what our very being tells us not to? Somehow, for some reason, that just seems wrong. But why do we assume this? Why are we all Rousseauians? Just because life would be unpleasant if we weren’t?
There is in fact another way of thinking about things. Because it is repellent it usually remains inaccessible to us. Every once in a while, though, we catch a glimpse of it—when we are distraught, when something about the world seems infuriating, or when life seems impossible.
In the history of philosophy his other way of thinking generally goes by the name of “pessimism.” It too leads a sort of underground existence, from time to time erupting into the philosophical mainstream, the occasional wretched mood of an otherwise cheery discipline. (Pessimism is probably more common in literature and the arts, where it is known as “the tragic worldview”—ancient Greek and Shakespearian tragedy being two of its favorite haunts.) Other than Arthur Schopenhauer, there are no prominent examples of philosophers who made a career out of the topic. Pessimism exists more as a rare exception within a philosopher’s oeuvre: an essay from Emerson, an aphorism from Nietzsche, a poem from Voltaire. Or it exists as a mere conceptual possibility, something hiding behind one’s thought, or perhaps, more insidiously, something repressed beneath it.
The term itself is not used in the philosophical tradition the way it is used in everyday speech, where it usually refers to a negative attitude about the future in particular. It denotes rather a negative evaluation of everything. But pessimism is not just a contingent judgment about that everything. Pessimism doesn’t just say “hey, things are bad,” or “life is rough.” These sound a little too accidental—as if things might not have been bad, or life might not have been rough. In the pessimistic worldview, life is essentially rough. So perhaps something more like: “In this world nothing is certain, except death and taxes” or “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Though even these don’t quite hit the mark, because pessimism is a particular way of understanding what it means for life to be—pardon me—a bitch. In its best form, pessimism says something about the relationship between man and his world, something beyond the simple claim that our pleasures are outweighed by our pains. Pessimism takes a wide perspective.
Consider the universe for a moment. It is big. It has matter in it, and light. There are a few laws that govern what goes on within its confines: one of them is gravity, which is a handy organizational device, keeping matter together, keeping things revolving around other things. In addition to ice and heat and rocks there are some plants and animals, too. They grow on their own and move on their own, but they don’t make much trouble. Everything is part of the big mechanism: the big clock with its intricate, intertwined parts. The sun lies over the waves; the big fish eat the little fish; the ocean sends its water up to the clouds. Everything is harmonious and tidy. Beautiful, even.
Now ask yourself: If there were no human beings, would something be missing? Isn’t the universe complete without them? Do we really need a creature in the universe that is aware of the universe and not just a part of it? If it were only a matter of awareness, the human situation would not be quite so odd; but this very aware creature is also very temporary. It can produce other creatures just like itself by sloughing off some of its own cells, sure, but it comes with an expiration date, and it knows that, and, with any honesty, it feels that every day of its adult life. This odd little creature is capable of contemplating the beauty of the universe around it, and can make beautiful things of its own, and can think about how much more special it is than the other creatures, and can imagine what it would be like to live in the universe forever—but it nevertheless dies. Does the universe really need a creature like this? Because it seems like a cruel joke. The victim of the joke has been given just enough capacity to appreciate and treasure what it will never have: here is, ha ha ha, the very recipe of frustration. If you want to recreate the human situation, throw your kids in the car and drive them to the amusement park, talking to them all the while about how glorious it is—and then turn around at the entrance. You could recreate the human situation this way, but there’s no need. We’re all living it.
Science, in an act of boldness, declares: “The universe doesn’t care about us.” The religious are just telling themselves comforting lies, we are told; only science has the courage to recognize the truth and accept it. And the truth, obviously, is that the universe is perfectly neutral with respect to human beings. It lets be what will be—sometimes things turn out well, sometimes they don’t. But science, and we the scientific, have neglected a third alternative: that the universe might be neither good nor neutral, but distinctly bad. Not intentionally bad, mind you—the thought that a deity is intentionally harming us would make the world a kinder place, ultimately, because we would assume we were being punished for a reason, which would be a sort of comfort. In the pessimistic view, even this last-ditch appeal to goodness is impermissible. The world is, to the contrary, just essentially, deeply bad. We simply are in a horrific position. Full stop.
Even just grasping the thought is difficult, because we are so accustomed to thinking otherwise. “It couldn’t possibly be that way.” Why not? “A situation like that just couldn’t…” Just couldn’t what? The mind seizes up at the thought, just as it did when we were kids and tried to think about what was outside the universe. When we were kids it was fun, though; now, it’s just nauseating. This, the tragic vision, might be false, or maybe it’s just the way that a bunch of depressed people have tried to ruin the world for the rest of us. But, you have to admit, there are some pretty compelling reasons to live in denial of it—which makes you wonder once again if it is true, and if life and culture and everything else are just part of a great conspiracy to shush the whole thing up.
Death is not the only frustration. There are others that the tragic mode can uncover, to reveal the world in its darkness. Human beings, for example, tend to want things that are fundamentally at odds with each other. And not just little things—humans generally find a way to persevere even if they don’t have time for both a manicure and a haircut. Much deeper contradictions are sown into them, contradictions that plague them for a lifetime, even if they are reluctant to admit it. Take sex, for example. There is a tension in the love life of the American male so widespread that it has become a part of our cultural subconscious, breaking free in comedy routines, self-help books, and good old-fashioned common sense: the difficult choice between the intimacy of monogamy and the novelty and variety of the single life. Men who are in relationships yearn to be single, and men who are single yearn to be in relationships (although men are less likely to admit the latter to other men). What is remarkable about the tension is not its mere existence—that is, again, a bit of common sense. What is remarkable about the tension is both that it is incredibly powerful, and that we are just as incredibly reluctant to admit to its power. Men often destroy their lives in the pursuit of extramarital affairs. And while in the movies the woman who tempts the husband away is normally gorgeous, a younger version of the wife (why else would he cheat?), in the real world men routinely throw their lives away for women they would otherwise not be attracted to. It is uncomfortable to think about, because it shows just how strong the pull of novelty is, and hints at the numbing revulsion the husband must feel for his wife—his wife whom he loves and respects. The tension is so uncomfortable that it gets swept under the carpet whenever it can. Just look at the sex scandals of American politics, which send us all scurrying after carpets. Conservatives, in their clamor for resignations, imply that the one who succumbs to lust is a mere aberration, thus reassuring themselves that the internal struggle is nonexistent for the “normal” man, or the “good” man. The soccer-viewing classes get in on the cover-up as well, with their reminder that the Europeans are laughing at us for our prudery—if only we could let go of our puritanism, then everything would be just fine! We act as if it is only ignorance or luck that keeps us from the solution. But there is no solution.
Social life has more dilemmas in store, and we meet them with equally misplaced confidence. Each of us has developed a strategy, hard won, for dealing with other human beings. Some incline toward toughness; others toward trust. Whatever the strategy, all are certain that theirs is right, and all are certain that everyone else’s, consequently, is wrong. (To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes: we might be willing to admit that other people are more musical or funnier or better at math, but we know we are wiser.) This is a reflection on human vanity. This is also a reflection on human arrogance. For when we think that we are right and everyone else is wrong, we think that there is such a thing as right—and there is no such thing as right, at least not when it comes to other human beings. No matter how suave the social strategy, it will fail, again and again. A thick, Darwinian skin not only keeps love out, it is also tiring to maintain: the dictator sleeps with one eye open. A confidence in human goodness, even if cautious, will still be taken advantage of from time to time. “You have to open yourself up! You can’t be afraid to get hurt again!” True, but you will get hurt again, eventually.
Hope is a nice thing to have. It makes sense that it is our default setting, that most of us carry around the comforting assumptions we do: that we can love without complication, that death is something that happens to other people, that we belong on our earth. It makes sense, too, that the history of philosophy is a nearly unbroken chain of attempts to hope in just the right way, from Plato’s glittering world of Forms all the way to Hegel’s End of History. It makes even more sense that there is such a thing as religion. If all philosophical systems are covert ploys for salvation—and they are—then all religions are overt ones. Faith is the ultimate optimism. It is an assertion that the universe is benevolent and not ruthless, that we belong here, that life is not a nightmare, and, even if it is, then at least we will wake up from it in a world where all the contradictions of life are resolved; in short, it is an assertion that everything, eventually, will be OK. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in God. But he also gave us moderns our secular version of optimism, when he told us about that serene and satisfied primitive, at home in the woods. In Rousseau’s work, one kind of belief that everything will be OK was making way for another: Christ was making way for the man under the oak tree. Our new, secular optimism, in other words, is a replacement for our old, Christian optimism.
Every comforting assumption we have about human nature, then, every automatic thought that hides the contradictions of life from view—every one of these serves the same purpose that religion does. Every one is, essentially, a god. The sexually “healthy” male is a god. The perfect marriage is a god. The perfect social strategy is a god, too, along with its companion deities, the twin theories of absolute human goodness and absolute human evil. Contemporary politics also provides a nice selection of gods: the Bumper Sticker, for example—whether Prius or domestic pickup truck—rests assured in the belief that all of our problems are caused by our refusal to accept the Bumper Sticker’s gospel, and not by deep, irresolvable tensions endemic to human coexistence. (The intellectual’s Bumper Sticker? Hegel.) On and on it goes, from one part of our life to another. How would we get by without our pantheon of gods? They make everything easier. It is no wonder that pessimism is unpopular.
There is a saying I learned from my mother, one of those jokey bits of folk wisdom that I am not particularly good at heeding. “You should never talk about religion or politics at the dinner table.” Short and sweet—and insightful, too. But this jokey bit of folk wisdom threatens to become jokey in an annoyingly cute kind of way, because now there’s another thing we can’t talk about at the dinner table: dinner. With a fluff piece here and a cartoon there, our high-end media outlets are beginning, with small steps, to make us uncomfortably aware that food has become a religious affair. Not that religion chooses to express itself in and through food—that has always been the case. Rather that our attitudes about food have themselves become religious. The surest external sign of this is the general, pervasive craze around dining: chefs are all of a sudden celebrities (and for some reason we want them to talk, not just cook); and the culinary art has become virtually everyone’s hobby, the newest way to show off (instead of expertise in jazz, say, or interior decorating). But these are, ultimately, symptoms: the heart of the matter is that an increasing number of us seek our very identity, or a goodly share of it, in food. For the food-devout among us a diet is not just a way of eating, but a way of life. And because an identity, in telling you who you are, also tells you who you are not, the internet food-o-sphere is becoming a pretty violent place. The comment sections on food blogs are like quicksand: the more you struggle, the more you get stuck—until someone pulls you out to take the kids to school or mow the lawn. Anger is addictive. Especially religious anger.
If the ancestrals are onto something about health, and the vegetarians are onto something about the evil of killing animals, then we finally have a method for all the madness. Why have we gotten so worked up about food? Because food forces us to call on our gods. Every dietary creed is a way of addressing—denying, or covering up, or rationalizing away—a particularly disturbing contradiction: that, on the one hand, we need to eat animals, but, on the other hand, killing animals is inhumane. Mind you, the absolute truth of these two propositions is not required; only the suspicion of their truth. Meat might be healthy; and killing might be wrong. This is the dilemma. What is at stake in it is what is at stake in all the fundamental human dilemmas: our very sense that we are at home in the world. If we find harmony with ourselves in our world, then it can feel like home. If our home requires us to make impossible choices—the animal-loving meat eater sacrificing his ethics, or the animal-loving vegetarian sacrificing his health—then it cannot be much of a home. We do not want to live without a home, so we do what we must: we create our food gods to wish away the problem of food, just as we created our gods of romance and politics to wish away the problems they brought along.
Conditions are ripe for food religion. But maybe it was only a matter of time before we needed to get religious about food anyway. Because the new food religions have to deal with something our old religions did not: an unavoidable omnipresence. It is possible to go to God only twice a year—Easter and Christmas—or thrice a lifetime—for “hatching, matching and dispatching,” as the saying has it. It is possible, especially in the United States, to ignore politics. And it is possible to swear off love, for months, or years, or decades—whatever it takes. But there’s no getting away from food. You eat it, or you die. Our growing awareness of the problem of animals, then, is right up under our noses. It won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
At the first annual Ancestral Health Symposium, in 2011, one of the speakers—Denise Minger, herself a former vegan—asked if there were any former vegetarians or vegans in attendance. Half of the audience raised their hands. I laugh at myself whenever I think of this. Not too long ago I was as vegetarian as one could be, in thought, word and deed; now I am a true-believing member of the “ancestral community.” Maybe we all just need something to belong to, some religion or other—and it doesn’t really matter which one.
We do have to choose, after all. Life is pretty much impossible without choosing one direction over another—we would starve at the crossroads if we didn’t. And life is pretty much impossible without giving ourselves convincing reasons for choosing as we do, even when no choice is a good one. If we were steadily plagued by a visceral, overwhelming awareness of our human condition—our dilemmas, our deaths, the precariousness of our choices—we would be paralyzed. You cannot stare tragedy in the face for very long.
So why look at all then? Why not just rest cozy in whatever religion you’ve found? Well, the tragic worldview does bring with it one conspicuous blessing: sympathy for other human beings. And that’s something we could use more of, at our contentious dinner parties, and on our contentious internet. The silver lining of tragedy is that it belongs to all of us. If we are all subject to the same tragedies, the same ineliminable contradictions, then we see other people not as dullards who haven’t managed to find the perfect solutions we have; we see them as fellow sufferers. Fellow sufferers, and fellow travelers, too—for we are all dealing with the same problems, even if we are dealing with them differently. If we keep a little tragedy in our minds we can welcome others into our homes. We can break bread together. We can say, at the very least: I understand you.
Image credit: Kate MacDowell, “Of Mice and Men”