‘A CRIME OF STUPEFYING PROPORTIONS’

slaughterhouseYule Heibel put me on to the work of J.M. Coetzee, and specifically his new book Elizabeth Costello. The book is about a writer in her later years taking up the lecture circuit, and espousing an unpopular animal rights viewpoint. It’s a slim volume, one that the critics have not been kind to, consisting of eight ‘lessons’, the longest two of which are transcripts of the title character’s lectures on our ghastly relationship with other animals. My reaction while reading it was similar to my reaction to Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: I was intellectually engaged but felt a bit manipulated by the fraud of hiding a political/philosophical treatise inside a ‘novel’. But when I read the following passage I broke into a cold sweat. Nothing I have ever read has so perfectly captured the essence of how I have come to feel, more and more, as I enter the latter years of my own life: a terrible sense of dread, helplessness, outrage, despair, realization that despite all appearances and cultural propaganda everything in our world is not all right, in fact everything is horribly wrong, ugly, and totally out of control:

Seven o’clock, the sun just rising, and John [Elizabeth Costello’s son] and his mother are on the way to the airport.

‘I’m sorry about my wife’, he says. ‘She has been under a lot of strain. I don’t think she is in a position to sympathize. Perhaps one could say the same for me. It’s been such a short visit, and I haven’t had time to make sense of why you have become so intense about this animal business.’

She watches the wipers wagging back and forth. ‘A better explanation’, she says, is that I have not told you why, or dare not tell you. When I think of the words, they seem so outrageous that they are best spoken into a pillow or into a hole in the ground, like King Midas.’

‘I don’t follow. What is it you can’t say?’

‘It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. It’s as if I were to visit friends,and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say “Yes it’s nice isn’t it? Human skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says “100% human stearate”. Am I dreaming, I say to myself. What kind of house is this? Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into your wife’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?’

She turns on him a tearful face. What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her?

At the end of the book, Elizabeth Costello grapples with one of the questions the Internet doesn’t answer: what motivates human cruelty, and whether the writer who writes about cruelty is providing an important lesson in human nature, or instead is in some way complicit in the cruelty and the desensitization of humanity to it, by giving it publicity, new life. This is an issue that is addressed as well in Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words. We have a legacy of incredible cruelty, violence, terror. Is there a point in rubbing our faces in it, in forcing people to face up to the horror of concentration camps, slaughterhouses, chemical weaponry, mental illness, sexual assault and torture, bullying, spousal and child abuse, animal testing laboratories, political interrogations, what happens behind prison walls, the agony of those in continuous pain not allowed to die and without access to relief, the children whose entire lives are consumed in deprivation and brutality, the suffering of crack babies?

Our world, past and present and probably future, is full of these horrors, this massive tide of suffering and blood. When we show pictures of malnourished children, when we give them money and food to prolong their lives until the next famine or crippling disease, when I force you to look at the picture at the top of this post and tell you that all of these horrors happen millions of times every day, in every neighbourhood on Earth, is that a wake-up call, probably repulsive and probably ineffective but an important service nevertheless, or is it an obscenity, something no one wants or needs to see or hear or learn about?  Does it serve a purpose to surface, from beneath the thin veneer of civilization and calm, the oceans of blood and the endless crescendo of pain, misery and suffering that our sad, pathetic culture is built on?

Why can’t we come to terms with it? How can we come to terms with it? How can we let it go on? And if we can’t stop it, and can’t bear to face it, then what?

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20 Responses to ‘A CRIME OF STUPEFYING PROPORTIONS’

  1. Philip says:

    Suicide is what some people do… We laugh and love and live otherwise we would go freaking insane. You can go vegan, join PETA, get militant by shooting your local butchers or infecting meat displays with salmonella whatever your conscience will bear.It is a personal choice how one chooses to sustain their life. That is what you do you make a choice for yourself and perhaps your children. You walk the talk, lead by example. You lay claim to the moral certitude of your beliefs and quietly influence those in your sphere of influence.But you cannot take all the suffering in the world and put it on your shoulders because it will kill you. It isn’t a sane response to an insane world.And NEVER EVER get between a fatman and his Micky’D…

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Reading this made me think instantly of the title of one of Charles Handy’s books, and the story behind the choice of title – don’t know if you would have seen the front cover of the book.The book is “The Empty Raincoat”, which I believe was published in North America as The Age of Paradox The picture on the front cover of my copy is a representatioon of a bronze staue in Brussels, of “an empty raincoat”. Charles said it brought to mind, for him, all the business men walking through Victoria Station at rush hour, with drawn, ghost-like looks on their faces. He realized, with a sudden shock, that for all intents and purposes, a goodly proportion of the raincoats walking pasyt him were empty.I too wonder about the insanity of business and money above all else, and the vicious merry-go-round we are all invited to face each day. It scares me. My perception of the sheer size and ubiquity of the infrastructure of the capitalist system makes me very apprehensive about the extent of dystopia I (and we) will view and to some degree or other, become anesthetized to in my lifetime.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip: Fine writing, Mr. Vassar. If putting all the suffering in the world on one’s shoulders is not a sane response to an insane world, what is? If you wake up from a wonderful dream and find yourself in hell, is it really sane to just manage the best you can? BTW, great photos on your blog lately — belies Camille Paglia’s Salon.com rant yesterday that blogging is just text, text, text in need of an editor.Jon: I’ve ordered Age of Paradox and it will be interesting to see what’s on the cover when it comes in. I wonder if Handy read Eliot:Unreal cityUnder the brown fog of a winter dawnA crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many –I had not thought death had undone so many.

  4. Philip says:

    Dave each of us has to answer that question in our own way. NO ONE (as far as I know) has succeeded in solving the worries of the world for everyone else otherwise we would be living the dream wouldn’t we? As far as I can tell it goes back at least as far as Siddartha, even when he found the answer it didn’t stop the suffering for all only for himself.I am surrounded by like minded individuals we think it is fucking crazy that there is hunger and suffering and people in need of medical care here in our city/state/country/continent/world yep we all agree that it’s the shits. One of us has to go take the kids their mothers, the other has a date, another has an appointment with a client, shit I just sit here and finish another drink. Yep the world is the shits.

  5. Indigo Ocean says:

    To live a life of truth and balance is always the challenge. We are connected, each affecting the whole, and yet we are also independent actors. We have free will and yet there are consequences of the choices we make. We cannot escape choice, and yet lacking complete information, must again and again decide only half understanding the nature of the choice we make, let alone its full consequences. We are fragile, mortal beings striving for an immortality that depends upon assurances of cause and effect while in fact the only assurance is that our story will end in death. We are at war with the very nature of our lives. Not wishing to be animals, not wishing to be mortal, we engage in a psychotic level of reaction formation. We run towards that which we fear and dive in, becoming the killers because we fear death, becoming the rapist because we feel powerless, becoming the terror before it consumes us in madness.In our attempts not to go mad, we have completely lost our minds. Yet we look about us and see that the lunatics are in fact running the asylum. Now, having seen, we face the ultimate choice, one each of us must finally come to, alone.Will we take the blue pill and join the dance of the macabre with the masses or will we take the red pill and live outside the illusions of safety conferred upon the members of the pack? Will the social animal walking alone into the wilderness rather than taking the knife to the innocent doe, whose eyes reflect his own soul, within the rites of passage of his society? “Where does my courage end and my vulnerability take over?” To this, only you need know your answer – and live it.

  6. Mike says:

    What worries me is that the possibility may exist, sometime in this century, for a single human to pretty much wreck the planet and/or kill all human life. Perhaps a gray or green goo scenario.Maybe Kosko’s ‘chips are destiny’ is the answer. Humanity’s children may survive, but they won’t be human.Until then, recognition, outting, and exile of psychopaths seems to be one path.

  7. Yule Heibel says:

    Great comments. I eat meat, but I hate shopping for it. It’s getting to the point where I think I’d be “happier” in a perverse sort of way if I went out and hunted something down myself. It’s the delivery of “food” that I can’t take anymore. I accept that humans are omnivores by nature, and that they can evolve to something better by eschewing meat, and there are lots of days when I don’t eat any meat, followed by a day when I have a steak. I seriously could accept that if I kept chickens, I could chop the heads off one or the other and prepare it for dinner once in a while. Really. But what I’m getting viscerally disgusted by is the delivery of our industrially produced food. The massive amounts of dead flesh on display in the supermarkets seem to talk to me — maybe I’m going nuts. I talk back to them. I can’t believe I’m seeing all this meat in pieces: I imagine the endless stream of hogs and cattle and chickens in batteries behind the cling-wrapped mountains of bits-in-pieces. It really is sickening. It’s revolting surplus (and waste, which comes out excremental), in-your-face, every time you go to the store.So, it’s systemic, as far as I can tell. That is, it’s something in addition to a moral choice of eating meat or not. (Someone with real philosophy credentials will take me to task probably, but this is the best I can do right now to express my sense of things.) I can’t make this a question of rejecting people because of what they eat, but I can make it a question of rejecting a system of production. That’s what I mean: to me it’s a systemic problem with capitalist production producing for the sake of production, which is pretty much the description of abnormal cell development, aka cancer. I also think (used to think??) that we can change this, though, and do it without having to alter “human nature” or a person’s inclination to bite into a chicken drumstick. Perhaps what Coetzee does with ElizabethCostello is to make meat production & consumption into a flashpoint or focus for all of our cancers. I’m completely in agreement with you Dave, about feeling this dread, this dis-ease over whether it will be possible to change things for the better in time. It’s as though we’ve gone beyond what physicians call “self-limiting” conditions to breakdown. If I have an ear infection, I don’t need antibiotics: this is a self-limiting condition. But we’re all on antibiotics now because we’re all hypochondriacs and scream for meds. But I think we really have reached — and crossed — a threshhold that takes us beyond self-limiting. Before reading your entry, I was thinking about recent predictions that we’ll encounter alien life within the next 25 years. What if they were meat-eaters, too? They could fcuking farm us, that would be a weird payback. Would they exempt the hunters? The first nations people who still take only what they need, and instead just round greedy us up, who take everything all the time? How could we explain ourselves to these hypothetical aliens, or defend ourselves, given what we’ve done to every other species on the planet, and to each other? Maybe that’s why some of us are going crazy: we know we’ve run out of defenses and excuses. And we know there are billions elsewhere in industrializing countries who are going to adopt our ways as soon as they can. And we will not have a defense for how we’ve acted.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Yule: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber, is a story about aliens who quietly capture and raise humans for food, which is frozen and shipped back to the Mother planet. They use abandoned family farms to hide their operations. It’s all done behind closed doors because ‘people — both Earth’s and our planet’s, don’t want to see it, they just want the benefits of it.’

  9. Yule Heibel says:

    Well, that was inevitable, eh, that a sci-fi writer has already thought this one out? God, how awful…At the risk of taking up way too much comment-box space, I have another follow-up on this whole topic (you’ve really gotten me going here!):Part of my problem (maybe everyone’s?) is that I want to get something for free. If I had chickens, I wouldn’t mind killing one on occasion; if I hunted an animal, I might be able to kill it, too, because I would feel that I was getting something for free or nearly free. The whole industrial food production mess is stoked by this desire to get something for free — actually to the point where what we’re getting for “free” is the look (spectacle) without any of the taste: cardboard tomatoes, Wonderbread, etc. (anaesthesia). Maybe it’s a desire related to some infantile memory: the adult’s joy of shopping, glorious consumerism, etc., as a blessed return to nearly pre-verbal paradise (shopper as hunter, hunting as play, denial of market realities). Our food is very cheap compared to previous epochs, and we are encouraged to spend our money elsewhere on other things, forever deferring payment, always chasing after the dream of getting it for free. Since I have to feed two growing children of nearly adolescent age (you should see how they eat!), and even though I know that food prices are historically low, I resent the “high prices” of organic food — or specialty butchers who deal in humanely-raised organic meat: I’m still hunting on the steppes daily for the “free” stuff. I can’t afford the organics (at least not always), I need the cheap(er) prices of the supermarket chains. At the same time, I keep thinking of the thieving pleasure I feel if I do get something for free — berries in the woods, for eg. And that’s what I want from consumer culture, too: it’s the dream they keep selling me, Something for Nothing. Except that it’s a big fat lying scam, of course. Nothing in the market is free, but we dream of it constantly, and do anything to make it real. In that sense, modern capitalism leverages the gap opened up by the disconnect between our being hunters & gatherers and our being traders.

  10. Kate says:

    Dave, you write such insightful, thought-provoking prose on your site. Thank you.I can tell you that for myself the questions you raise are ones I ask too frequently, I think. I’m reading a book by Katsuki Sekida right now, and though much of it does not relate to what you’ve written here, some does. He was a Zen master who wrote not only about the process of zen but also about how important it is to move beyond the idea that all life is suffering, and that if we don’t, nothing will ever change either inside ourselves or in our society. Just today I read a koan from Sekida’s book that stands as a good reminder, I think, to those of us who find our minds mired in the ugliness of the world:”Spring has come round.A thousand flowers are in their lovely bloom.For what? For whom?”He answers with:”Among the deep mountains and steep ravines, flowers come out unknown to us, and pass away unnoticed. Existence does not exist for others. It is of itself, for itself, by itself.The beauty of nature is the manifestation of existence itself.”There is an idea of peace-building within and without that exists in some contemporary zen study, most notably Thich Naht Hahn’s work (http://www.plumvillage.org). At any rate, you are doing good work by writing, Dave. You are helping to make this world a better one. There’s not much more any of us can do except try. The struggle will always be there, and therefore we must struggle against it, always. Perhaps that’s where the hope is: in our contant attempt to make the world a better place.

  11. Indigo Ocean says:

    Yule, your comments point to some tough choices that are needed to find personal balance and health within a situation that is out of balance and unhealthy. For me I have eliminated some things in life others would consider de facto requirements for happiness (alcohol and meat consumption, going out for paid entertainment every weekend, financing cars, etc.) and focused my budget almost entirely on housing and food (all organic). For entertainment I look to spending time in nature or with friends at each other’s homes and we don’t require that anyone come with handouts that must be purchased or host with expensive treats. We just value one another’s company. I therefore can afford to pay the true value of real food. My situation is helped by the fact that I have made another choice not in keeping with the norm for human life all over the earth and at every time in human history; I have decided not to reproduce. For people who have strong attachments to any of the things I have sworn off, maybe something else has to give. So the food is from Costco instead of Whole Foods, or something. When I talk to a friend of mine who lives a fully self-sufficient life on his own permaculture farm he says the bottom line breaks down to this: Work more, get less. The part I would add is, even though the quantity is less, have what you get be good for you and savor its value. With the empty nutritional content of mass produced corporate food we also wind up empty of satisfaction which leads us to keep stuffing ourselves, trying to feel full. Yet the calories are real, and our bodies swell up to remind us of this. It was a landmark day in my life when I finally got that giving more is the only way to really get more and that “something for nothing” is an illusion that leads to a bloated exterior and an empty interior.

  12. Jon Husband says:

    Remember the movie “Soylent Green”?

  13. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Some things in life are bad They can really make you mad Other things just make you swear and curse. When you’re chewing on life’s gristle Don’t grumble, give a whistle And this’ll help things turn out for the best… And…always look on the bright side of life… Always look on the light side of life… If life seems jolly rotten There’s something you’ve forgotten And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing. When you’re feeling in the dumps Don’t be silly chumps Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing. And…always look on the bright side of life… Always look on the light side of life… For life is quite absurd And death’s the final word You must always face the curtain with a bow. Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow. So always look on the bright side of death Just before you draw your terminal breath Life’s a piece of shit When you look at it Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show Keep ’em laughing as you go Just remember that the last laugh is on you. And always look on the bright side of life… Always look on the right side of life… (Come on guys, cheer up!) Always look on the bright side of life… Always look on the bright side of life… (Worse things happen at sea, you know.) Always look on the bright side of life… (I mean – what have you got to lose?) (You know, you come from nothing – you’re going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!) Always look on the right side of life… (if you don’t know what this is from – shame on you!)

  14. Kate says:

    Three cheers for Harald!!And Indigo, you’re as insightful in your comments as on your blog. Thanks for your words!

  15. Indigo Ocean says:

    Thanks Kate. I’m happy to have found your blog too. And thanks for the Plum Village link in your previous comment.

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    To all: Thanks for your words of hope, encouragement, and enlightenment. This really is a wonderful community, and I’m honoured to think of you as friends. And P.S. to Harald — Eric is a smart guy, and when he gets serious his whimsical wit is absolutely searing. Trouble is, nobody’s really sure when he’s serious…

  17. Deb says:

    Hi, Dave. I just discovered your blog; I came here to read about blogging communities and I find – this! I was forced to blog about it! Commenting is not expressive enough! I had to get it out there. If you want to see my plug of you and some only tangentially related thoughts I happened to be struggling with at the same time, it’s at http://deboramasweblog.blogspot.com/2003_10_26_deboramasweblog_archive.html#106763114864969146. Thanks for your wonderful blog; I will visit often.

  18. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Dave; I’m not sure whether I’m always serious or not either. I thought that that was true for most people. It certainly is true for much good art. Interpretation left to the observer. Who’s probably not sure whether he/she is being serious either.

  19. George says:

    Only recently did I get to read and enjoy a short science-fiction story: Terry Bisson’s thought-provoking “They’re Made Out of Meat”

  20. DavidByron says:

    The animal thing is tricky and I don’t worry about it because there’s so much more obviously wrong with the world. If you read Tom Regan’s rights-based criticism of Peter Singer’s utilitarian based arguments he points out there are a lot of problems with the blood and pain arguments. For example – if we didn’t eat meat then wouldn’t that mean hundreds of millions of the animals would never live?Death and pain are not so bad. My wife runs an animal rescue (mostly dogs) and the dogs we have, by necessity, are not individually locked up in cement lined cubicles, as is the usual professional way of things in shelters. This means we ocassionally have dog fights and bullying. Very rarely, a dog dies. On the other hand they clearly prefer being together (the cats can take or leave the company of others but not the dogs). We’ve had dogs hurt themselves digging under the fence to get in with other dogs or people… They like being in a pack and acting like bad-asses… barking and running the fence with the dog next-door. It seems like they are enjoying themselves but it’s more than fun. It’s serious stuff for them. On one ocassion one of our permanent residents (ie pet) caught the dog next door in our garden and went for him viciously. I have never really worked out how to break up a dog fight. I suppose the thing to do is to wait until one has won and then pull that one off the other… in theory… so I am pulling my dog off the dog next door and slapping him and shouting at him…. and he thinks he’s just doing his serious work of course.I think people are often like that too.

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