Friday, November 25, 2011

Hitler and Vegetarianism

Hal Herzog, who has already discussed this issue in his blog, and I got into a fight in front of an entire class of undergraduate students.  Hal has graciously claimed responsibility, saying of the altercation (which, I should add, was all in the spirit of academic debate), "It was my fault.  I used the Nazi animal protection movement to illustrate how a culture can twist human moral values in weird and tragic ways."  And this proclamation is true; Hal's position, astutely supported via a very comprehensive body of scholarship, is that people have some really conflicted and, as would seem to be the case in terms of the Nazis, some very contradictory views about the value of life, human and non-human alike.  Indeed, Hal's written a brilliantly accessible, illuminating, and thoughtful book about this subject, which, when last I checked, was ranked as the #14 best selling book on Animal Rights on Amazon.

Back to our fight: what Hal's blog doesn't cover about that altercation is what I was saying prior to his interjection that "Hitler was a vegetarian."  I was following Hal's lead, after he'd read from his book a particularly graphic passage about the lives of factory farmed hens.  I stood up and started talking about my veganism and then realized that no one was listening to me at all.  Everyone looked vaguely traumatized by what they'd just heard; indeed, they should have been traumatized.  I backed up, and we talked about how the information that Hal had conveyed had made the students feel.  One said, "kind of guilty about having just eaten Chick Fil A for lunch."  Yeah.  So we processed.  Then I showed the vegan police scene from Scott Pilgrim to lighten things up a bit.

Yeah, I've posted this clip before.  But I can't get enough of the "Gelato's not vegan?" "It's milk and eggs, bitch" sequence.

And then I went back to me, to why I am vegan and how my animal rights position is also the source of many of my scholarly endeavors (and, by the way, this is a topic that I NEVER discuss in class, so doing so was weird for me.  Doing so made me feel vulnerable, because I have a pretty good sense of the kinds of questions -- and the kinds of attacks -- that generally follow such disclosure.  And that's part of why I keep my personal politics -- at least in any overt sense -- out of my pedagogical practice).  My work as a postcolonial scholar is, in many ways, premised on my belief that human beings learn to "other" human beings because they are able to dehumanize them -- to treat them like animals.  And they are able to do this because of what I've termed the "primary binary opposition" of human/animal.  

My belief is that this distinction, the primacy that we ascribe to human beings and the subjection we dictate to non-human animals -- who clearly think, feel pain, and learn, activities in which humans participate as well -- is the foundation upon which we constitute all other binary thinking.  And in the context of such dualisms, one side of the binary is necessarily coded as inferior (think man/woman, white/black, culture/nature).  In order to illustrate this point, I shared a copy of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus in which Spiegelman depicts the Jews killed during the Holocaust as mice.

From Maus (copyright 1986)

The Nazis gassed the Jews using Zyklon B, a pesticide used to kill rodents -- mice and rats. In depicting the Jews as mice, Spielgelman's novel illustrates the way that the Nazis dehumanized the Jews.  They treated them like rodents, and rodents fall into that category of animals that we, as a species, hate.  And this is the point at which Hal interjected that Hitler was a vegetarian.

OK, you can read Hal's blog about the Nazis and their animal rights agenda.  And you can read my argument below about how Hitler wasn't a vegetarian.  But before you go any further, what you should know is that whether or not Hitler was a vegetarian is a red herring to any thoughtful discussion about animal rights, about ethical vegetarianism, and about a life committed to recognizing the interconnectedness between human and animal life.  Hitler's supposed vegetarianism has been thrown up at me so many times that it makes me tired to think about it.  And generally, I don't even bother to take it on: people who bring up Hitler's vegetarianism, generally speaking, do so to undermine an ethical vegetarian position.  They do it to indicate that vegetarianism is highly flawed: how could vegetarianism be a good thing if someone as bad as Hitler practiced it?  

My sense is that Hitler has a lot in common with most of us, if we dare to examine Hitler as a human being.  And that might be more than we're willing to do.  But I responded badly to Hal's assertion.  I said, "no he wasn't."  And then we went from there, back and forth, each offering the evidence we have at our disposal, until I finally acquiesced.  And I only acquiesced because I could tell that we were causing the poor students to freak out a bit.  

To digress for a moment: there's a scene in Nikos Kazantzakis's 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese's 1988 adaptation of it during which Jesus, who has stepped down from the cross, raised a family, and grown old, confronts Paul, who is preaching the story of Christ's resurrection.  Jesus approaches Paul and says that Paul is telling lies about him, that none of the things that Paul claims are true.  Paul responds that he has built the truth out of what people need to hear.  He says, "you know, I'm glad I met you, because now I can forget all about you.  My Jesus is much more powerful." 

Scorcese's film with Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul. Oh, and Juliette Caton as that annoying angel thing.  By the way, all the evil people in this film have British accents (David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate); all the good guys sound like they're from the Bronx.

When I saw this film in the late 1980s, it made me understand Christianity in a way that, at least momentarily, made me want to believe -- and it made me want to be an English major, because I realized for the first time in my "I-was-raised-Methodist" life the power of fictional narrative to create truth.  And I bring this up because it's a point that I keep returning to with regard to this Hitler business.  I strike this comparison not to offer any kind of moral connection between the historical figures of Hitler and Jesus but to posit that mythologies arise -- for better or worse -- out of the human desire to explain and justify human behavior (again, for better or worse).  The mythology surrounding Hitler's vegetarianism is a case in point; positing that Hitler was a vegetarian serves to undermine an ethical vegetarian position.  It assumes, naturally, that vegetarianism is corrupt because Hitler was a vegetarian and Hitler was corrupt. 

I can tell my "truth" about Hitler's vegetarianism, and I can corroborate that truth.  Here are a few points that I'm taking from Charles Patterson's 2002 study Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, the title of which comes from "The Letter Writer" by Isaac Beshevis Singer: "in relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka:"

1.  Hitler had irritable bowl syndrome.  His doctor advised him to eat more vegetables, which he did in order to reduce the embarrassing symptoms associated with IBS.

2.  Hitler never gave up his favorite meat dishes, which included Bavarian sausage, liver dumplings, and stuffed game (by the way, pork's not a vegetable).  Here's a quote from one of Hitler's chefs, Dione Lucas: "I do not want to spoil your appetite for stuffed squab . . . but you might be interested to know that it was a great favorite with Mr. Hitler."  Liver and squab: not vegetables.  

3.  According to historian Robert Payne, the image of Hitler as an ascetic was the product of his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels: "Hitler's asceticism played an important part in the image he projected over Germany.  According to the widely believed legend, he neither smoke nor drank, nor did he eat meat or have anything to do with women.  Only the first was true." 

Here's a link to all of the above, plus much more.  Other scholars, including Carol J. Adams and Rynn Berry, have also written to dispel the Hitler as vegetarian myth.  Here's a link to a piece about the New York Times' retraction of a previous assertion that Hitler was vegetarian, which lists a variety of sources as evidence.

So I have my sources and Hal has his, and neither one of us will ever prove anything to the other, I suspect.  Did Hitler ever call himself a vegetarian?  I very much doubt it.  But as Paul says in that scene from The Last Temptation of Christ, my truth, in the overall scheme of what people need to believe, won't matter.  Theoretically, they'll tear me limb from limb to preserve an essential myth, and that myth is that in order to be unlike Hitler, one must eat meat.  It's a tidy justification, isn't it?

"Two Little Hitlers" by Elvis Costello

* And as an aside, there's plenty of debate out there as well as to the vegetarian status of Jesus.  Maybe I'll take that on in my next blog.  Or maybe not.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Anthony Bourdain and Moby in Asheville

The other day, Jason got a text from Mackensy Lunsford, the most excellent food writer for the Mountain Xpress, asking if, as a local chef, he had any questions for Anthony Bourdain, who's coming to Asheville next weekend and who she was interviewing.  We talked about it, and he wrote back to ask a question.  Bourdain's response is in today's Xpress.  You can read the complete interview here. 

Here are some excerpts, including Jason's question:

Anthony Bourdain has not been to Asheville recently, despite rumors to the contrary. But he has a vague understanding of what we're about from a previous trip years ago for a book-signing. "I remember this hip island of enlightenment," says Bourdain, who doesn't recall much else about the visit, including the date. 
And while some may choose to attribute that lapse in memory to Bourdain's purportedly high-partying lifestyle in years past, it's more likely that it can be pinned on the fact that the chef-turned-writer has been, quite simply, just about everywhere you want to be — and plenty of places where you might not.

Bourdain is coming to Asheville again on Saturday, Nov 5, this time to talk about food and travel, and how life in general relates to both. He took more than a few minutes out of his day to chat with Xpress from the back of a car taking him from New York City to Waterbury, Conn. He lost reception several times (lucky for us, he was game about being called repeatedly). Bourdain had plenty to say about vegetarianism, food trucks, hunger and mediocrity.


Plant's Jason Sellers wants to know if you would be willing to visit his vegan restaurant to "quell some of that open animosity with some open-mindedness."

Listen, I'm perfectly OK with vegetarians practicing whatever they want to do. I just think they make for bad travelers. That's what pisses me off. If you're eating vegan for religious reasons, fine. What you do in your home — or hometown even — in the industrialized world, I'm OK with that. That's your personal choice. I think the notion that you can travel — and I'm not talking about Rome or Paris, of course you can call ahead and say, "do you have any vegetarian options?" You can't do that in the developing world without offending people ... It's awkward and hurtful to go to grandma's house and turn down the turkey. I just see it as rude and incurious.

OK, so thing the first: kudos to Mackensy.  There's this nice and not-too-subtle Bourdain's-a-bit-of-a-drunk-and-can't-be-bothered-to-remember-when-he-was-here bit.  Then there's the inclusion of the backhanded compliment that we're a "hip island of enlightenment" in what I can only assume is a state of redneck provincialism, which counts as nothing more than an insult to the entire state of North Carolina.  But I love Mackensy mostly because she's always been supportive of Jason, has always helped him promote his work, going so far as to mention both Jason and Plant prior to introducing Sandy Krebs, the new chef at the Laughing Seed, in an interview that she conducted last week with Krebs.

So back to that Bourdain interview.

First of all, Bourdain's response doesn't really seem to answer the question, to respond to the invitation to break bread and to "quell some of that open animosity with open mindedness."  My friend Lori started a Facebook page devoted to getting Bourdain to Plant.  And I know that there are people out there who will be openly protesting, because of his harsh anti-vegetarian rhetoric, Bourdain's presence in Asheville.  In Jason's question is a genuine effort to engage in dialogue, and it's an effort that is met with complete dismissal.  And not even dismissal: Bourdain's response is a rehash of his tired diatribe against non-carnivous diets.

At least this time, he doesn't invoke the term "hezbollah."

Second -- and apropos of absolutely nothing -- Bourdain goes off on how offensive vegetarianism is to people who live in the "developing world."  We're in Asheville, but whatever.  

Of course, Bourdain's "developing world" argument completely ignores the fact that the Western world, the so-called "developed" world, has historically been the part of the world where meat has been central to diet; in terms of diet, many of the cultures of the so-called "developing world" have been based on a starch with animal protein added only occasionally.  In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams links increased meat eating with capitalism and patriarchy in the West and with racism towards plant-based cultures: “into the twentieth century the notion was that meat eating contributed to the Western world’s prominence” (31).  As support, she quotes nineteenth-century English physician George Beard’s analysis of the superiority of “civilized” meat-eating peoples over the “rice-eating Hindoo and Chinese and the potato-eating Irish peasant” who were all kept in subjugation to the English, which he refers to as a “nation of beef-eaters” (qtd. in Adams 31).

Third: "vegetarians make for bad travelers," says Bourdain.  My sense is that stupid arrogant carnivores make for bad travelers when they turn down the hospitality of their vegan hosts, eh?  Oh, and both Jason and I have been to this so-called third world and eaten vegan and had really significant discussions with people we've supposedly offended.  Anywhere on the planet, I imagine, people are, and should be, willing to talk about what they eat and why they eat it just as much as they should be willing to engage in any other political discourse -- and in our experience, they have been.  

People elsewhere -- people in the "developing world" -- aren't such children that they need protection from differences of opinion, or differences in diet; they don't need to be championed by the patronizing impulse of someone like Bourdain.  What he does when he makes his pro-developing world argument is to speak for the developing world.  And don't let Bourdain's rhetoric convince you that food isn't political -- or that it's only political in the sense that veganism functions as a silencing of other perspectives; the opposite seems to be more accurate.  Vegetarianism and veganism function as affronts to Bourdain's white male carnivorous Western privilege: his speaking for other cultures is more of a silencing than an act of communal eating.  

Anthony: pretend to give a shit about "other" cultures.  Use this argument to sound like a humanitarian.  Gorge yourself on the foods of "other" cultures.  Come home.  Get drunk.  Talk shit.

Then: "What you do in your home — or hometown even — in the industrialized world, I'm OK with that." And then: "it's awkward and hurtful to go to grandma's house and turn down the turkey. I just see it as rude and incurious."  Grandma doesn't live "in the industrialized world?"  Fallacy from tradition much?  Just cause something's been the case, it should always be the case?  People have always eaten turkey, at grandma's house (in the industrialized world); therefore, people should always turkey at Grandma's house.  

Perhaps a bad analogy: I had a great uncle who died when I was about 15.  When I was very young, he sat me down and made me repeat after him: "eeny, meeny, miny, moe.  Catch a nigger by the toe."  As I said, I was very young.  I did what he asked.  What's the harm, right?  He'd always used that word, I suspect.  Refusing to repeat after him would have been "awkward and hurtful."  

I can't help but think of a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving when reading Bourdain's quote above.  Thanksgiving, the holiday with which I (and I would imagine most U.S. citizens) associate turkey and grandma, is based on a colonial model of genocide.  Turkey, likewise. At least in its current, often factory farmed incarnation.  The Meleagris gallopa, wild North American turkey, was a symbol of sacrifice for many native peoples: "the spirit of turkey is free, and opens up the channels between us and others on a meaningful level."  Open channels allow for communication, even about such subjects as why one might not want to eat turkey.

Oh, and "rude and incurious"?  That's what you are, at least in the developing world, if you don't eat meat.  Sounds more like Bourdain than anyone: rude not to respond to Mackensy's question.  Incurious not to take Jason up on the invitation.

Anyway: I did an internet search for "Moby contact information."  Moby will be in town for Moogfest tomorrow.  We called the number that came up. The person who answered is no longer his agent, but he forwarded our invitation to break bread on to Moby's current representation.  That was yesterday.  

Today, we got a call letting us know that Moby will be at Plant for lunch tomorrow.  All it took was an invitation, an offer to break bread, here in the "first" world.  And this is not a plug for Moby...except that it is.  Thanks, man.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why Margaret Atwood Should win the Nobel Prize in Literature

I came home last night after dinner with friends (at Plant, of course) and collapsed on my sofa, wanting nothing more than to watch something mindless on television.  So I flipped channels, landing first on 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s self-proclaimed "action movie with a guy who can't move," the story of Aron Rolston's ordeal trapped by a boulder that falls and pins his arm to the wall of a canyon in Robber's Roost, Utah. I've seen it, several times, so I flipped more, and caught the end of Sean Penn's Into the Wild, an adaptation of Jonathan Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless, the Emory University graduate who abandoned his family in 1990 and headed into Alaska, where he eventually died. 

McCandless's last self-portrait

I sat there watching for a minute, thinking the rather ungenerous thought that men get immortalized, their narratives becoming part of the mythology of masculine individualism, for doing some stupid, selfish shit.  Rolston went out on his own and told no one where he was heading; early in the film as he prepares to leave his house, his mother calls.  He listens as she leaves a message, asking him to call her.  He ignores it.  McCandless is even worse, as he cuts all contact with his family, leaving them worried and desperate to find him.

And then there's a pang of envy on my part as well: as a woman, I know that I'll never feel free enough to embrace such adventure, however misguided and stupid it may prove to be.  And I feel relatively certain that if I did, and if the results were the same, the narrative that would be told -- if any narrative was told at all -- would be much more lurid, more gruesome (if anything can be more gruesome than James Franco's portrayal of Rolston severing his arm to escape), more about the idiocy of placing oneself in harm's way and less about the spirit of individualism that makes heros of men who do just that.  

The tourniquet and dull knife Rolston used to sever his arm

By the time I got to HBO and Martin Scorsese’s portrait of George Harrison, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, I was just annoyed.  And this is not to say that I don't think Harrison deserves a biopic; my sense is that he does.  But by then I was just tired of the mythology of men, so I kept flipping.  What I landed on finally was a Dateline ID show, something about Canada; I caught the image of a rope on a bed and flashed immediately to the opening pages of Margaret Atwood's 1981 novel Bodily Harm, in which the narrator comes home to find police in her house, men who let her know that someone broke into her home: "we don't think he was a robber. . . .  He made himself a cup of Ovaltine" (5).  They then escort her into her bedroom and show her "a length of rope coiled neatly on the quilt.  It wasn't any special kind of rope, there was nothing lurid about it" (5). 

As it turns out, the Dateline show was about Russell Williams, the Canadian Air Force commander who was jailed in 2010 for rape and murder and some 80 other counts of breaking and entering and stealing women's underwear.  Williams confesses, on videotape, to police, in part, he says, because he is worried about his wife. 

Here's part of the confession.

I thought of Margaret Atwood's poem "Marrying the Hangman," that begins thus: 

She has been condemned to death by hanging.  A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a 
woman by marrying the hangman.  

The women Williams killed: Marie-France Corneau and Jessica Lloyd

Atwood's assertion that women find themselves in the precarious position of depending on men to protect them from men is as much a part of my daily thought processes as is her claim that "men are afraid that women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid that men will kill them."  Atwood's words, her narratives, fictional characters, and politics are so much a part of my everyday existence that they form much of the fabric of my consciousness, indistinguishable, in many ways from my very sense of self.  And this has been the case since I first encountered her work in the form of her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which I read in 1989.  I was in college; I wanted to be a novelist myself.  I read Atwood's work and realized that everything I wanted to say at that point in my life had been said by her already.  And had been said better than I ever could have said it.  Reading that novel destroyed me.  

Reading Atwood's work -- her novels, short stories, and poetry -- has always made me feel this way, that she's somehow already charted the territory that percolates in bits and pieces in the semi-conscious parts of my brain; her writing is by turns terrifying and prophetic, satirical and funny. Atwood plays with language, ever conscious of the power of words, both to create and destroy personhood, nature, and society.  In the poem "You Fit into Me," for example, she takes apart a seemingly innocent image, a clothing fastener, to reveal a disturbing duality:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye  

And Atwood's work is filled with this duality, with the problematic and imbalanced nature of relationships -- heterosexual, national, interspecies.  Her female characters are often initially complicit in their victimization, even as they ultimately cast off such a subject position.  As Atwood's unnamed narrator states at the end of Surfacing“this above all, to refuse to be a victim.  Unless I can do that, I can do nothing” (222). 

I have long wanted Atwood to win the Nobel Prize.  The sheer volume and scope of her writing, its variety, its quality, its prescience, its astute examination of gendered, national, and species based power politics, and its deconstruction, via both satire and scathing critique, of our contemporary world warrant her winning it.   

Perhaps more significantly, though, than even her subject matter, in writing Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Atwood in many ways articulates and, more importantly, authorizes, via a thematic analysis of Canadian literature (based on the inclusion of certain works and the exclusion of others), Canada’s national narrative.  In this work, Atwood states that the central theme in Canadian literature is survival and she locates in Canadian literature four “victim positions”—ranging from denying that one is a victim, to acknowledging that one is a victim, to becoming a creative non-victim. These victim positions, according to Atwood, are universal, “whether you are a victimized country, a victimized minority group, or a victimized individual” (46).  It is, therefore, not only through the trope of survival that Atwood reads Canadian literature and interprets Canadian national identity, but also through the trope of victimization.  Indeed,  in order to survive, one must first be a victim of something else.   

Atwood’s work not only established Canadian literature as the articulation of a survivalist mentality, but it also established Canadian literature as a legitimate entity; Atwood, I contend, "invented" Canadian literature.  As she remarks:
The few dedicated academic souls who had cultivated this neglected pumpkin patch over the meager years were affronted because a mere chit of a girl had appropriated a pumpkin they regarded as theirs, and those who had taken a firm stand on the non-existence of Canadian literature were affronted because I had pointed out that there was in fact a pumpkin to appropriate. (4)
As Atwood notes, teaching Canadian literature “is a political act” (21), and Survival conceives of such literature not only as a mirror for Canadian identity but also as a map, “a geography of the mind” (26). 

I'm currently teaching Atwood's Year of the Flood, her most recent work, and the second in a series of what will be three novels (the first being Oryx and Crake), that explores a potential apocalypse delivered in the form of the BlyssPlus pill, a pharmaceutical that delivers excellent sex and protects takers from STDs...that is, until it kills them.  The work, set sometime in the near future, includes much of what is already familiar -- genetically engineered animals and food, rampant global warming, viral internet pornography -- as it leads us to some logical and horrific conclusions about what might be probable.  As Toby, one of the God's Gardeners, a sect of vegan preapocalyptic hippies, notes, "how easy it is, treachery.  You just slide into it" (217).  After the world ends, so to speak, Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, realizing that veganism may be impossible in the current moment, preaches to his flock, "which is more blest, to eat or be eaten?" (346), even as he entertains the idea that survival may, at some point, depend on cannibalism.

We're told by Ren, another of the survivors, that "Adam One used to say that people can believe two opposite things at the same time" (229), and I asked my students to speak about this idea.  There was silence, and then one offered, "it's like watching 'Toddlers and Tiaras.'  You know it's wrong, but you can't look away."  Good point.  And that's why I ended up watching a TV show about Russell Williams's victimization of women instead of any number of shows about the accomplishments of men.  Men are immortalized, and women are murdered; at least that's what last night's channel surfing showed me.  Men act stupid and become mythological heros; women get killed for leaving a window open...  A man comes in, with a coil of rope, and it's curtains.  And we all revel in the grotesque aftermath.

Atwood's writing acknowledges and then resists this reality; it always has.  Today, I'm happy, I guess, for Tomas Transtromer, whose work I don't know at all, but who, I have no doubt, deserves the Nobel as much as the next guy.  And I'm sorry for Atwood who, I feel certain, deserves it more.  As she says, "a word after a word after a word is power."  Maybe next year.

* And I realize that this post has next to nothing to do with veganism.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11, veganism, and memory

I spoke with my mom earlier today about the proliferation of September 11, 2001 news that’s out there at present.  Tenth anniversary and all.  She said, “it’s not like we’ll forget it.  Do we really need to relive it?”  She’s got a point, I think.  But for me, and for reasons that are somewhat vague, I haven’t ever let myself fully experience what I’ve been going through today, ten years later, with regard to 9/11.  I watched this.  It killed me.  The second part in particular.

There are anniversaries...and there are anniversaries. Summer in the year of 2001 is inextricably enmeshed, in my mind, with two major events: my decision to become vegan and the day that the planes flew into the towers in Manhattan.  I had decided, but now, in the retrospect clouded by the plumes of billowing smoke, the screams and melting metal, the people, desperate for escape and air, hurling themselves from hundreds of stories, I don’t remember the exact date that I became vegan. 

I remember that I sold my leather Fluevogs and my Doc Martins on ebay.  I cried to Jason; this felt like a kind of baptism, a kind of secular salvation for me, a woman who had been vegetarian since 1989 and had been volunteering at the Dakin Animal Shelter since moving to Massachusetts.

I got rid of wool.  I went into a major sulk over the loss of fresh mozzarella pizza at Pizza Paradiso in Northampton.  It must have been summer.  It was still warm; my windows were down and I was driving, speaking through tears to Jason about this decision to, as I said at the time, “make my life consistent.”  And it was an important decision, made on a day that I should certainly remember, but the particulars of it are lost to me now, enveloped in what must have come immediately afterwards, the attack, the video images played on a constant unending loop, the deaths.

Everyone keeps saying that there’s no way to forget that day.  And, while I can't forget it, I don’t necessarily remember it either.  That day, that beautiful, blue, warm and peaceful day, I woke up and, I suppose – because this is what I always do – I had coffee. Maybe I went running, but it must have been early, because I remember moving my car from one side of South Street to the other so that repairs could be made on the asphalt near my apartment.  And I remember that the radio was on in my car as I moved it, as always, tuned to NPR, and I knew, at that moment, that a plane had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

I didn’t have a TV.  Seriously.  This was one of the last pretensions that I shed – and I shed it fast after that morning.  I had been taken with the belief that owning a television, that watching television, was something associated with lower life forms. So what happened next?  Here’s where memory fades, at least with regard to time.  I know that I watched the news with my downstairs neighbor Jamie.  I know that I talked to Jason, but I don’t remember the content of that conversation.  And I don’t remember how time unfolded for the rest of the day.

I know that I tried to call Stacy, my friend from Staten Island who lived in New Jersey, who was turning 32 on September 11, 2001.  I suppose that if one lives long enough in a world of mass murder, one’s birthday will, inevitably coincide with something like this.  For me, all there was, at least for a long time, was the coincidence of my birthday with the death date of Aphra Behn in 1689.  But then there was the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.  And my birthday, like Stacy’s, became forever associated with evil and the mortality of my species.

I tried to call Stacy that day.  The lines were blocked.  The world just stopped.

What I remember next is all out of sequence: driving to school.  Driving away from school; UMASS closed at 1 p.m.  Sitting down in the office of Stephen Clingman, my dissertation director, and trying not to cry.  He told me that it was ok.  I said that it most certainly wasn’t.

It was the only day during the five years that I was in Massachusetts, five years marked by impossible blizzards, feet deep snows, ice, extreme cold, that the university shut its doors and let its charges wander without cause.  The planes had flown from Logan.  We were free, and we were implicated.  I left the campus.  The gates at the parking garage were open; no one had to pay.  I went home and ran a 5K at the hospital grounds at Smith College.  It was Tuesday.  We raced weekly, but this day my heart nearly exploded because I felt that I had to run for everyone who had died, everyone who had never run before, everyone who had called out that morning only to die just a bit later.

And that’s all I remember.

In the years that have passed since September 11, since that singular September 11, I have closed my heart and my mind.  I have been annoyed at the perpetual remembrances, the constant calling to the fore the faces of the lost.  I know that there is worse evil in the world.  This holds no candle to the holocaust.  I know about what’s happening in Congo.  And then there is the moment, which is barely a moment.  Even as it is, even as it leaves an impression that I can’t shake ten years out.

 Since my country invaded Afghanistan in some misguided and ill-conceived attempt to right the wrongs of 9/11/2001, the statistics for just how many people have died are hard to find.  But my sense is that we’ve killed – many, many times over – the number of U.S. citizens that died that day.  In fact – and I hate to cite Wikipedia, but when it’s the best source that I find on the subject, I will – it seems that in terms of civilian deaths (think of civilians as those people who were working in the Towers that day), from 2001-2003 we leveled 23,600 people.  My mind wants to continue to forget.

Back to veganism: I think about my country, about what we do, about the narrative that we spin.  I watched a documentary today about the phone calls that were made from people in the towers as the towers were about to go down.  One mother said that she stopped listening to her son’s message, that she had created a message that he didn’t really say, because that message, the one that she’d invented, was more comforting to her.  And that’s the way with history: Ernest Renan said, in a lecture he delivered in 1882, "forgetting . . . is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation."  The narrative that we tell -- even in spite of concrete images and saved final voice messages -- is a narrative shaped by what we remember, certainly, but it's also a narrative of invention, of justification, built just as much on what we choose, consciously or not, to forget.

There are no voices to hear or meld or misremember when it comes to animals.  Every day in the United States, the narrative that we imagine or excuse with regard to their lives and deaths is our own.  I became a vegan in 2001 on a day that I should remember but don't, because the reality of not being vegan was staring me squarely in the face.  And then September 11 encroached, called me forth to see the evil that spurs us onwards in a blind frenzy to win some impossible game.

I know many truths from that impossible year: we are still at war, an invisible enemy is supposedly vanquished, and many, many more humans have had to die.  And I am still a vegan, and this choice will continue to sustain me, will continue to bring me up against impossible murderous adversaries, real and imagined, remembered and forgotten, again, and again, and again.  Happy anniversary.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vegetarian Vampires (again)

OK, so I'm working on this chapter.  And doing so is making me have to watch Twilight, which makes me want to put my head in the oven.

But seriously.  Here's the first bit.  There's much more, but if I put it all up, you'd probably not read it.  You may not read it anyway.  Which is fine.

Vegan Vampires: The Politics of Drinking Humans and Animals in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and True Blood

I used to fancy that life was a positive and perpetual entity, and that by consuming a multitude of living things . . . one might indefinitely prolong life.  – Renfield, Dracula

It is, of course, impossible to discuss representations of vampires in Western culture without discussing Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.  In fact, it is largely – if not wholly – because of Stoker’s novel that “vampires belong to a modern popular folklore that few will admit to believing but that has become part of a way of thinking about and ordering our vision of the world around us” (Hallab 9).  The veritable cottage industry that is the production of literary criticism about Dracula[i] has provided a vast array of theoretical readings of Stoker’s vampire’s symbolic significance within the context of Victorian era England.  As Mary Y. Hallab notes, Dracula has been read as “the tyranny of patriarchy, the power of the corrupt aristocracy or the nouveau bourgeois capitalists; he represents decadent foreigners, Slavs or Jews; he is a homosexual, a social outcast, even a mother, and he is dangerously erotic” (2).  Critics have read Dracula through every theoretical lens imaginable, from psychoanalytic, to Marxist, to feminist, to queer, to postcolonial, and the continued persistence of scholarship about the novel points to its literary, cultural, and psychological significance. 
In this multiplicity of perspectives, there is but one work that examines the novel’s politics of consumption via a vegetarian critical lens. “Love at First Beet: Vegetarian Critical Theory Meats Dracula,” a 1996 piece by J. E. D. Stavick, explores the novel in terms of the ways that it disrupts the food hierarchy present in Western culture, one that “privileges bloody meat, especially beef, over all other food” (24).  Slavick’s essay draws on the vegetarian critical theories of such authors as Julia Twigg and Carol J. Adams in order to trace a Victorian politics of meat – of which Jonathan Harker is very much a part, as he chronicles from the very beginning of the novel the kinds of meat he eats as he travels towards and inhabits Dracula’s castle.[ii]  Through an analysis of the ways that Dracula consumes those who consume meat, Stavick posits a vegetarian theoretical argument influenced by both Marxist and postcolonial theories:
The threat to English consumption is the threat of reverse colonization, which in this text is manifested in the vampire invasion of England by the powerful consumer “Other,” Count Dracula, who threatens England with his violation of the meat hierarchy. (26)
Taking Stoker’s Dracula – and Slavick’s vegetarian critical theorizing of it – as my starting point, I want to examine the vegetarian and vegan politics that are both implicitly and explicitly present in three contemporary popular cultural representations of vampires, Joss Whedon’s 1997-2003 television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephanie Myer’s Twilight saga (2005-2008), and Alan Ball’s HBO series True Blood (based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlene Harris), which first aired in 2008. 
While Stoker’s vampire kills and feeds without remorse on human beings, his late twentieth and twenty-first century counterparts – Angel, Edward Cullen, and Bill Compton – refuse this seemingly essential component of vampiric existence.  Furthermore, while diets devoid of animal products were gaining prominence in Stoker’s nineteenth-century England “under the leadership of such enthusiasts as Sylvester Graham . . . and Ellen G. White” (Stavick 24), vegetarianism and veganism have flourished since that time, and have, as I have indicated earlier in this study, entered the mainstream popular cultural discourse in profound and often contradictory ways that disrupt hegemonic assimilation.  If the figure of the vampire changes over time to accommodate whatever “our society shuns, but secretly demands” (Thorne 4), then vampires that eschew both murder and the consumption of human blood – and in the case of True Blood’s Bill Compton, animal blood as well – point, perhaps, to “our age’s fantasies of non-exploitative tolerance” (Tyree 32).  A chronological examination of these three texts demonstrates how the vegan/vegetarian vampire trope shifts over time as well as how the terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” initially signify weakness, asexuality, or asceticism. But even as they become further and further removed from their original meanings, by the time we get to True Blood, vegan vampirism constitutes a fraught and powerful political stance, one that challenges and disrupts the hegemonic matrix of carnivorous, homophobic sexism prevalent in both True Blood’s fictional Bon Temps – where human beings reverse the discourse and consume vampires – and the very real United States. 

[i] An MLA search for Dracula on June 8, 2011 pulls 677 articles.

[ii] Stavick notes Harker’s notations about what he eats.  For example, on the first page of the novel, Harker comments that he eats “a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good” (11), and later he consumes “egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish” (12).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Plant. Is. Food.

Jason Sellers, that guy that I've been living with for well over a decade, opened Plant today, so most of this entry will be me bragging about him.  Jason is one of those people who just seems good at everything that he does.  He's one of those people I often envy for what appears to be an uncanny ability to do anything well.  Here's a case in point: we were hanging out at the Bywater with friends a few weeks ago.  The Bywater is this really cool concept bar/recreation area on the French Broad River.  I call it a kind of summer camp with booze: in addition to the bar, there's about an acre of land with picnic tables, horseshoe and cornhole games, grills, and fire pits.  You can bring your own food and grill out, sit by the river, play the games.  You can bring your dog.  You can tube down from the Wedge, climb out of the water, and head into the Bywater -- at least that's what a whole cadre of folks had done the day we were there.  I haven't tried it yet, but I will.

As an aside, I worry a bit about the fact that the grounds are laid out as follows: bar, railroad track, river.  Sound like a recipe for disaster to anyone other than me?

No river, here, but you get my point, right?

There's a bimini ring toss game as well, the goal of which is to swing a ring tied to the end of a string in such a way that it lands on a hook attached to a wall.  This is not an easy task.  I stood there and threw the freaking ring over and over and never got it on the hook.  Jason took one practice swing, then a second, then got the ring on the hook.  And then did it over and over.  In exasperated and highly competitive frustration, I gave up and got another beer.

So it's this sort of thing that seems unnerving to me, Jason's ability to do things with such seemingly little effort.  But the truth is something altogether different -- and the ring toss example works to explain it.  I just kept throwing the ring, thinking that if I just threw it enough times, it would land on the hook.  Which it didn't.  If it had, I would have then gone back and then tried to replicate the process by which I succeeded. And that's my method with most things: produce a lot of scholarship, for example, hope that some of it is good, then go back and replicate the model on which the "good" is based, then get bored and move on to something else.  I hang pictures on the walls by trial and error, thereby leaving lots of holes, rather than measuring anything out.  I have a tendency to believe that many things that I do are good enough to suffice and don't necessarily need to be better, to be perfect.

I actually find it odd to write these things; I've always considered myself a perfectionist -- and perhaps in some ways I the ways that have to do with appearances, with wanting to appear competent and capable of everything that I do.  But in many essential ways, I'm not.  I'm happy to let things slip; I'm happy, for example, to paint the bathroom walls without taping the trim, even if it means that I get some paint in the wrong places.  It saves time, even if it's not perfect.  And perhaps this is about being a bit of a risk taker, or being impulsive, or being just this side of dangerous.  Or perhaps it's just about being sloppy.

Not Jason.  Jason's the antithesis of sloppy.  Jason measures everything that he does, and he weighs all the options before acting.  He got that ring on the hook on the third try not only because he considered the problem of the ring and the hook -- the weight of the metal in his hand, the length of the thread, and his position relative to the wall -- before he let it go, but also because he paid careful attention to what he did wrong the first and second times; he doesn't come at things backwards, doesn't allow himself to continue to make errors.  He gets it right because he takes getting it right very seriously -- perhaps moreso than anyone else I know.  And once he gets it right, he keeps working to get it more right.  He got the ring on the hook, but maybe he could get the ring on the hook with his eyes closed.  Maybe he could get the ring on the hook using his non-dominant hand.

So back to Plant: Plant is vegan.  Plant is a restaurant based on an ethical principle to which Jason adheres absolutely and to which his business partners, Leslie Armstrong and Alan Berger, adhere as well.  And that ethic is, in fact, the driving impulse behind the place.  Jason had been a long time vegetarian when I met him in 1997; we became vegan after we moved to Massachusetts in 1999.  And Jason has always been a chef at heart, has always been interested in food and in the politics behind how and what we eat.  He went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet in Manhattan in 2004, and he worked in the city at Candle 79 before moving with me -- very much against his heart's desire to stay in New York -- to Asheville, where he became head chef and kitchen manager at the Laughing Seed.

Leslie, Jason, and Alan.

Jason has been working to get it right for a long time, and he's succeeded in ways that seem inconceivable to me.  And I should know: I've been present for the entirety of his culinary journey.  The food that he's making now is the food he's always wanted to make.  It's delicious, savory, entirely plant based, and incredibly refined in both presentation and flavor combinations.  One of my friends declared, after eating lunch there today, that the space in which Jason works should be declared a holy pilgrimage site.

For Jason, getting it right is still something that can be improved upon; getting it right is just another place from which to start.  And I can't wait to see what happens now.

Oh, and Anthony Bourdain is coming to town, or so the rumor goes.  If he shows up, I'm sending him an invitation to Plant.  Bring it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Coetzee, the Nature of Likeness, and Animals

I have not been blogging, and here’s why: I’m teaching a graduate seminar this summer on the works of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, the writer about whom I wrote the dissertation that later became my first book.  It is keeping me busy.  My initial interest in Coetzee occurred in a PhD graduate seminar – my first PhD seminar, actually – on the works of Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee.  The course was taught by Stephen Clingman, who later directed my dissertation.  Mad props to Stephen.
I took the class because, as an MA candidate, I had read Gordimer and liked her.  I had never heard of Coetzee.

Nadine Gordimer...

...and J.M. Coetzee

While my work has always focused on the African literature of one type or other and on the ways that postcolonial authors and literatures speak back to colonial power (disseminated via not only violence but also through language – often English – religion – always Christian – and education), Coetzee’s work, at least in terms of my reading of it, is more about the politics of refusing to engage with, well, politics.  Initially he was a perplexing source of interest for me, as I had always been inclined to think of myself as a champion of the marginalized (yes, arrogant...I was younger then) and as someone who was in possession of a feminist agenda that required me to be sincerely dedicated to writing about literature by women.  My MA thesis was on Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, and Tsitsi Dangarembga; I had every intention of furthering my work on Nwapa when I went to UMASS.

But my interest in Coetzee and my decision to write about him was based in large part on reading Disgrace, the 1999 novel for which he won his second Booker Prize (he was the first author to win this prize a second time), and The Lives of Animals, his 1997 Princeton Tanner Lectures, which were published the same year as Disgrace.  In essence, his fictional explorations of animal and human interactions, and his philosophical and dialogic musings via the character of Elizabeth Costello about animal rights, vegetarianism, and the limits of the empathetic imagination led me to formulate one of the key tenets of my study on Coetzee, that while we may never be able to “imagine” the interiority of the other – whether that other is animal or human – we should never cease to try to do so.  And, in trying and failing, we should nonetheless respect the alterity of that which cannot be imagined.

I love this poster for the film. Dog collars across the South African flag.  Perfect.

In other words, while I can’t really think my “way into the life of a bat” (77), as Costello claims that, as a writer, she can, I still think that I should respect the bat – * and even go as far as to consider that the bat and I are of the same order of being, deserving of the same ethical considerations.

* That’s my position; I have no idea if it’s Coetzee’s.

Coetzee’s texts engage with – and never firmly state a position – this idea in both Disgrace and The Lives of Animals.  His characters engage dialogically, raising issues but not handing down dictates and truths of any kind.  When Elizabeth Costello claims in The Lives of Animals that “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (65), we get all kinds of outcry from the other characters in the story.  Her daughter-in-law Norma accuses her of rambling, of being confused.  Abraham Stern, a Jewish poet, refuses to have dinner with Costello after her statements, claiming “you misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy.  Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man.  If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews.  The inversion insults the memory of the dead.  It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way” (94). 

And this sort of dialogue – the unanswerable (to my mind) question about the nature of “likenesses” – spills out into a classroom when one is teaching these texts, as was the case with me last night.

I’ve taught Disgrace many, many times since first reading it; my copy is falling apart, full of notes, a complete mess.  You’d think that I would have said, at this point, all there is to say about the work.  And if I haven’t, surely someone else has, as there is so much literary criticism out there on Disgrace that it’s hard to believe there’s anything new to discover.  That being said, I found myself focusing on this question of “likenesses,” and that’s something I’ve never really done before in all the times I’ve read or taught the novel.  There are several reasons, I think, why I went with that lens and not some other.  One is the notion of context again, something that’s been with me since ASLE and the disappearance of Lauren Spierer.

On an intellectual level, ASLE was about presenting on contextual moral vegetarianism.  On an emotional level, it was about processing the narrative of a 20 year-old female University of Indiana student who had vanished, seemingly into thin air, right before I landed in town.  I’ve already written about my academic presentation, and I’ve already talked a bit about Spierer, whose ubiquitous image, appearing all over campus and town, on fliers, on billboards, in the windows of all the local businesses, is burned forever in my mind.  I still search the internet everyday for news about her.  But context is important in her case as well: she’s from a wealthy family, she’s white, blonde, pretty, which is not to say anything other than the media attention that her case gets and that the family can afford to give it is constant.  And I’m all too aware of “missing white woman syndrome,” which is my point exactly.

On July 5, a little over a month after she disappeared, there were numerous stories about a woman’s body found in a creek in Indianapolis, a body that was not Spierer. Several days later – and to find any follow up, one has to scroll through pages of headlines about the body that isn’t Spierer – the woman that was not was identified as Shaneice Nicholson And that was that.  Nothing else.  Mostly Nicholson is not Spierer.  Context matters.  But what do we make of such circumstances in terms of an examination of likenesses?

But back to class: we were discussing Disgrace and I brought up Lucy Lurie’s assertion to her father that “there is no higher life.  This is the only life there is.  Which we share with animals. . . .  That’s the example that I try to follow. . . .  I don’t want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us” (74).  I confess that I sort of share this sentiment; I pointed to this passage because it’s how I think as well: since I can’t know that there’s a higher life, I’d like to live assuming that this one is the one that matters and that I have an obligation to live it, at least insofar as I’m capable, in a way that, as Lucy says, “shares some of [my] human privilege with the beasts” (74). 

One of my students countered, “I like David’s comment better.”  David responds to his daughter by saying, “yes, I agree, this is the only life there is.  As for animals, by all means let us be kind to them.  But let us not lose perspective.  We are of a different order of creation from the animals.  Not higher, necessarily, just different” (74).  So this student’s ideological positioning countered mine (as both were expressed in Coetzee’s novel) and led me back to the question of likenesses yet again.

Disgrace plays with the concept of likeness; the narrative is filled with pairs of words that are similar, yet different – compliant/pliant, moderate/moderated, demand/command – as both the narrator and David Lurie weigh which is appropriate in any given context.  But the novel most clearly presents the philosophical difficulty of establishing likeness via the violence done to the bodies of two racially different women – not unlike Lauren Spierer and Shaneice Nicholson – and in white professor David Lurie’s (possible) realization that the “undesired” sexual intercourse that he forces upon his racially mixed student Melanie is something for which he must seek forgiveness.  This realization comes, if it comes at all, after his white daughter is raped by three black men.  And it comes, I would argue, after he feels empathy for two sheep destined for slaughter by Lucy’s black tenant Petrus. 

If we see Lucy’s rape as more violent – of a different order – than David’s “not rape, not quite that, but undesired” (25) “seduction” of Melanie (which the narrator describes as an event during which she “decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of a fox close on its neck” (25)), then that may be because the narrative’s free indirect discourse is focalized through David. His white male ego is that which orders the fictional world, but his is a position with which Coetzee is not necessarily comfortable.

And if we’re able (as David may be) to see, ultimately, the likenesses between the slaughter sheep, Melanie (the rabbit being slaughtered in the above metaphor), and Lucy (who describes her experience as a kind of slaughter: “you’re a man you ought to know.  When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down . . . isn’t it a bit like killing?  Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards . . . doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?” (158), it is through our ability to empathize.  And it’s through our willingness to accept that beings that look very different – in terms of their races and species – are actually very much alike indeed.


In other news: Russell Brand and Kristin Wiig have been named PETA's sexiest vegetarian celebrities of 2011.  I love both of them, so I guess that's ok.  Right?  This past weekend, I downloaded -- and have been listening incessantly to -- the soundtrack from Get Him to the Greek, which is a fake album by Aldous Snow's (Russell Brand's) fake band Infant Sorrow.

I am totally serious.