Michael Pollan has been eloquent in his appeal that we change our eating and growing habits. He sums it all up in seven syllables — not quite a koan, nor haiku either, but nevertheless giving off the impression of a wise and ancient teaching:
not too much
A modest proposal from a modest man.
So why does it sound so radical here in Amrika?
On the tzaddik’s yahrtzeit I stopped eating animals. It was a very long time coming. I can hear my friends on both sides of the aisle berating me over it. The veg-folk for having it take so long, and the meat-folk for having let go one of the great tasty pleasures of life. The fact is, I love the taste of meat. But I can’t stand the word anymore.
I think I became a vegetarian because of the word ‘meat’. I finally heard it. Just that, and nothing more.
It’s a word that bothered me very suddenly, listening to an interview on public radio with Jonathan Safran Foer. His new book is entitled Eating Animals. I had just shown Rouch’s award-winning film, Les Maitres Fous, to my night class, and more than any other part of the film, students react to the slaughter, boiling and eating of a sweet medium sized short-haired trusting dog. I’ve seen the film hundreds of times and it gets me every time. I can’t get used to it.
But they also sacrifice a chicken and a lamb or a goat as well. Why is it no one even mentions those? And they break raw eggs upon the Hauka altar of the ‘governor’s palace.’ How come that doesn’t bother anyone either? For that, too, is wasted life.
I think it’s because we think of chicken, lamb, and goat as meat. And meat is something that we eat.
But Foer’s book isn’t called Eating Meat — which would make almost any potential reader defensive and oppositional instantly. The title of Foer’s book is Eating Animals, and that’s something altogether different. When you put it that way, it’s something we really don’t want to do.
That’s the dog in the Rouch’s film — an animal, not meat — and why eating dog is so horrific and unwatchable. We just don’t think of a dog as meat.
It sounds like Foer is stating the obvious here. He doesn’t push the point. But I’d like to push it here. Language matters.
Pollan and Foer share this facility for hard-hitting simplicity in their writing. They’re both reasonable and not fanatics. They both are okay with folks who eat meat. Just not too much. Foer’s soft sell on the radio, I guess just got to me when combined with having just watched the dog sacrifice for the umpteenth time.
I had no problem eating meat.
I had a big problem eating animals.
So. Is this about morality, ethics or ecology? Arguments I’ve been reading since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Nope. It was just about the power of words.
Words, like music, can have this awful power over us that is not quite rational, not quite irrational. We are moved beyond reason. We use words to come up with a reason for our reason. And if we commit to them, we are transformed.
Sure, I do feel different. I’ve had a belly ache for a month, to tell the truth. I don’t think I was designed at all for not eating animals. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong. But I’m gonna hold the course and see how it goes. Not dogmatically (excuse the terrible pun here). No. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But for the first time, it feels right even if it feels awful.
Where do the gummy-worms fit in here. They do fit in, I’ll give you that, but yes, another time. For once again it’s later than I’d like, and my eyes are dry and closing. I’ve listened to Erin’s kaddish tonight and it took me to the Siberian steppe, with only a single tree on the horizon, an ironwood. And there were nomads there, with their sheep and goats. Beloved animals. But over the fire in the fire pit: nothing but meat.
And I hear nothing, nothing but the kaddish.