Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pigs in the Parlor

Irish Americans may recall this quaint phrase as signifying being "shanty," that word in turn from bog-Irish "sean tí/ teach" or "old house," the shack ("teach" again?) being the opposite of what the "lace curtain" Kennedys and their bootlegging ilk aspired towards. The connection of people and beast in domestic prelapsarian harmony reminded me of a swapmeet depiction that I originally commented upon a year ago in a post here, "A Steak the Size of My Head."

My dear wife opined upon my supposed identification with our poor animals and contrasted, fittingly if snidely, the juxtaposition of my blog sentiment with my bog appetite. Niall and I were finishing off an enormous slab of meat for dinner one spring back. While he and the (who gave up her vegetarianism as one of her first practical acts once we courted, and once she saw me try to eat the salad which she'd
set before me innocently) wife and Leo (who to his credit lasted a few weeks a while back as a non-carnivore back from the Minnesota State Fair's carnival displays of penned carne and deep-fried carnage) happily polish off four foots, since I left for Ireland last summer and decided not to eat quadrupeds, I now find myself relishing but the sizzle on the grill that's a sign of bustle in Her New Kitchen.

But, it's a today but a whiff of nostalgia for my knife-clutching, fork-ready first half (I hope) of my mortal span. Still, I have not succumbed. What's the point of this decision? After all, I long have characterized myself as an dependable consumer of roast beef and spuds.

Each time I ride the Blue Line back towards downtown amidst the industrial wasteland that's Southeast L.A., I can see a neatly painted cow on the right and a pig on the left, each in a circle above the sign across from the Vernon station. They sell themselves, in fleshly fashion.

Today, on that same train, I took in "A Short Digression on the Pig, or, Why Heaven Hates Ham." This is an aside in Christopher Hitchens' elegantly casual screed god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It's as if Voltaire's commissioned by Vanity Fair-- which when stuck waiting for a haircut or a dentist, I turn to and peruse Hitchens' column. Like his journalism, it's both rather haphazardly erudite and of course very witty in that British sense which I suppose from my glimpses into Auberon Waugh (via his son's memoir Fathers and Sons of that literate clan reviewed by me here last week) remains a perogative more of the British Fourth Estate. The late Bill Buckley notwithstanding-- and he certainly proved no less than the Kennedys his aplomb at imitating his forefathers' rivals as the lace curtain Irish bested the scions of Fleet Street as well as at the Court of St. James in flair, wit, and connivance.

Back to the swine in Vernon, he reminds me in his patient gaze, in a human manner lacking in his bovine counterpart, of Hitchens' aside. I will review his dogged attack on the multifarious follies done in the name of religion after I finish it. Meanwhile, my own digression. Other pork products emanate from this corrupt blue-collar burg. For, Hoffy can be smelled here if you drive a few streets over down Soto. And, more vividly still as those harsh scents fade away another block, you see the murals.

Farmer John, when I was a kid hearing Dodgers on the radio each spring, chortled in the voice of Vin Scully their slogan: "Easternmost in Quality, Westernmost in Flavor." This elegant conflation of Kennedy-Buckley heirs/airs to the manor/manner born that we yokels out in El Lay associated with the Brahmins, Back Bay, and Boston Baked Beans (in a can), with the down-home, indigenous, and therefore folksy canned appeal of we (sub)urban pioneers on the continental frontier proved a memorable adline and a potent phrase. Les Grimes in 1957 and Arno Jordan in 1968 brushed that sylvan setting for pig and human on the side of the Clogherty Meat Co. (Walter O'Malley's Dodgers hire Scully and shill Clogherty: the Irish diligently slop Dinty Moore as purveyors of ribs, hams, or sausage to the he-men corralled in cities of Big Shoulders watching other beefy men swing bats and pitch balls.) As you drive up Soto, these bright walls surround the meatpacking factory. I have never sniffed the odors there that permeate Hoffy. So, as you pass you're spared any real-world reminder of the fate of particular four legs kept at Animal Farm. Two legs good.

Two pigs looked out of prison bars. One saw mud, the other saw stars. Acknowledging the shift in the proper subject noun, this proverb stuck with me since twelve. It's also Chrissy Hynde stealing from Oscar Wilde. This other painting featured above serves almost as a medieval diptych, or a reminder of the salvation vs. damnation pending pigs. Here, no frolic, only resignation. Two windows, two sets of bars, two pigs.

Hitchens could have employed these depictions to support his own thesis. In his porcine meditation, he suggests a reason-- beyond either the hackneyed "hygienic" explanations advanced by secular Jews that trichinosis by the kosher ban could have been prevented, or the plain fact that the middens of Canaan show neatly Jewish vs. non-Jewish settlement by the presence or absence of pig bones-- for the stern if perplexing (as so much of the Torah thunders and threatens) dietary restriction.

Pigs, Hitchens informs us, if crammed together in sties act like swine. They fight. They make noise. They may be driven to devour not only their excrement but their own young. Yet, with enough space, they stay clean, "arrange little bowers," raise families, and get along with their fellow porkers. Their ratio of brain weight to body weight, a sign of intelligence, nears that of dolphins. Adapting well to their environment, they also appear to have a lot in common by DNA with ourselves: the heart valves, skin, and kidneys all have been transplanted into us. (My adopted mother lived for a while longer with her rheumatic heart thanks to this trans-species borrowing.) A useful animal, it may remind us of ourselves.

There's the rub. Hitchens suggests that the look, the taste, and "the dying yells of the pig, were too uncomfortably reminiscent of the human." (40) "The simultaneous attraction and repulsion derived from an anthropomorphic root." In the pig, we can hear-- as echoed by the workers cringing as they hook the pigs aloft and then slit their throats in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or the firefighters who Hitchens claims eschew crackling and roast pork, our own haunted voices. We, in our love and our fear of the pig, he suggests, see ourselves in an animal. We're spooked by our ancestral human sacrifice and cannibalism. We used to eat if we climb far enough up our family tree "long pig"-- for apparently we taste like pork when cooked enough.

Hitchens warns us: "Nothing optional-- from homosexuality to adultery-- is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash."

This passage shows the range of this study of man's inhumanity to not only man but to the natural world in the cause of religion. Hitchens wonders: why can't the religious fanatics leave us alone? Their very insistence on a received truth they must compel us to accept spurs them on. Not taking no for an answer, they force everyone else to submit to Allah or YHWH and/or Jesus. And, to belabor the obvious, these share competing and contradictory forms of the sole, incompetent, aloof, yet insanely meddling, meticulous, jealous #1 Deity. Who, we are told, loves us so much that He will damn us if we mortals don't surrender to His unfathomable plan. Against this demand a few have been vociferously if still quixotically arguing for centuries, at least in the relative tolerance of the recent West. More will follow on Hitchens and his iconoclastic campaign anon.

For now, "this apparently trivial fetish" of the pig Hitchens employs to demonstrate how "faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world." (41) Humanists, countering the ownership of ethics and lovingkindness often claimed by many religious proponents, do choose to live rightly without the loss of science, the abandonment of reason, or the threat of eternal torment. In Hitchens' view, we can choose not to eat the meat he obviously salivates over. "But this is a decision we can make in the plain light of reason and compassion, as extended to fellow creatures and relatives, and not as a result of incantations from Iron Age campfires where much worse offenses were celebrated in the name of god." His aside concludes with Ralph from The Lord of the Flies. Fearful of punishment as he was stranded among the raving crowd of schoolboy peers on the island, he has the courage to look "in the face of the buzzing, supperating idol (first killed and then worshipped) that has been set up by the mob." Ralph symbolizes the freethinker facing the torchlit thugs demanding his capitulation: "Pig's head on a stick."

In my premature judgment, Hitchens glosses over the use of kosher to separate, that imperative so key to Leviticus and Jewish identity. I favor, whether in Celtic recovery or Jewish practice, the modern follower who takes what he or she finds valuable from the heritage, not as an unthinking gesture to appease a wrathful and capricious power, but as a conscious acknowledgement of one's wish to connect with a rich past. And, to revive that hallowed object or ritual for one's own spiritual nourishment today. Not as a museum piece, a rote task, or a craven posture.

Hitchens, as I'm halfway through the book, I predict applies Ockham's Razor to "the reconstruction of the fables" (thanks, R.E.M.) as he has to the Indonesian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. While some may explain these catastrophes as punishment from an angry God, Hitchens shrugs. Why invent causes without need? Cut to the chase. Keep it simple. Snuff the incense. Toss the candle. We already have explanations. They're based on facts. Our ancestors wrote their scriptures ignorant of them. But we know science. It tells us that we live on an unstable planet with unpredictable weather patterns that have endured long before sodomists, idolators, or pagans walked the planet. Once in a while, the earth shakes and sky swirls.

Heroically (despite the fascination of centuries of theodicy and theology vs. Hitchens' unwavering atheism and formidable intellect), I struggle back from this overwhelming subject. Retreat to an intervening paragraph in the "Digression." Hitchens treats the origin of the Spanish offering of a plate of charcuterie to the Catholic fanatics who used the entreé to torment and nose out the "New Christian"-- was not a "marrano" derived from the word for pig itself, I recall dimly?-- masquerading Muslim or Sephardic fidelity in Inquisitional Iberia. It's a sign of the need for survival among a persecuted minority that may distinguish the subdued Moor or the apostate Jew in late medieval Spain in their aversion to pork.

Today, less traditional Jews as far as I can fathom choose to avoid pork out of not so much any "belief" in Mosaic law, so much as a sign of loyalty to their heritage. Does this mean the sign's empty of meaning? Can one be a humanistic Jew, for example, or a Celtic revivalist who knows full well the Mórrigan's not appearing under the next full moon?

Reconstructionists laud this mental recalibration, and I suppose the Conservative and Reform Jews that choose some modified form of kosher also follow suit. Those who don't may avoid bacon or shellfish out of a fear of annoying Bubbe & Zayde, or when out of range of Chinese restaurants. I'd credit my modified practice of this biblical jot-and-tittle from a three-thousand year-old injunction to that of self-discipline. If nothing else, I promised when entering the covenant to remind myself I'm not an animal and I can control my cravings.

I'm unsure that there's a God, but I did make a commitment in front of the Torah. Speckled with inconsistencies and spattered with ignorance as that patched and contradictory human document remains, it does also record the half-idiotic, half-inspirational attempts of a desert people sunk in the same narrow-mindedness as their neighbors to hack out of their barren existence one of the first groping lurches towards the kinder and gentler modes of thought and deed that Hitchens praises as his cherished exemplar: a precursor of the Enlightenment.

I'm not sure if we're as bold or as ready as he is to cut our ties-- as his secular Jewish mother had-- with our cultural legacy. Again, with Ockham's scalpel aloft, Hitchens urges us to hack ourselves free from outmoded Anglo-Semitic attitudes. The Reconstructionists, to his mind, may erect but a halfway house to full parole from the bonds that kept our ancestors blind from human truth: that we find ourselves accidental, alone, and therefore able to look laterally, not vertically, for reasons to believe. Not in the god(s) above, but in our own capacity to love and live.

Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (and two out of the last three advocates also share a secular Jewish background), urges us to do so, the final act of liberation. Hitchens compares his own break with Trotskyism, that sect with its own prophets and anointed, its own relentless absolutism, and its many splinter groups advocating finely delineated authorized versions of the rabbinical scion Marx's "total solution." Hitchens, veteran of such internecine conflicts among true believers, mindful of the lofty ideals that inspire many who preach from a rhetorically potent manifesto, reminds us of the agony this abandonment of faith can cause. "Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic. What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees? Infallibility?" (153)

I promised I'd leave the review of the book until I finish, but a bit more! It's as if I'm lecturing and you all want to dash out for coffee. It'll only take a few minutes. "Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your faith undermined-- as I hope-- I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through. There are days when I miss my own convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking." Nice hint of Marx there, and it's intriguing to hear in Hitchens' editorial appeal the urgency of the manic street preacher in Hyde Park. It's also apropos to note my own refusal-- unlike others with whom I had worked in the heyday of Irish republican activism-- to take Marx as my personal savior stemmed from my own inability to let go of the very need Hitchens shared during his materialist slog: an inbred if atavistic desire for the transcendent.

But, for him, Marx and the didactic mode rang as false as does religion for him today. The same parallels, as for a lapsed adherent, align. The glories of the doctrine lay in the past. "Something of the heroic period might be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them." (153) I first saw this book being read in the house of a former IRA prisoner turned outspoken journalist. He too had followed the same long march away from idealist yearning and messianic revolt into measured humanism and political analysis, pursued more calmly if still in the face of orthodoxy from not only the mainstream liberal media but his own former leftist comrades who spurned his honesty. As with Hitchens, I admire too my friend's courage.

Hitchens intimates strongly that as we lose the religious dogma and gain the humanist reason why we do an action, we free ourselves from unthinking behavior. He demonstrates this in his own committment, an unpopular one among his peers in the media and academia. For him, his own outspoken support of the effort to eradicate the assasins bombing their way to a restored caliphate in Iraq and the need to resist a pandering multi-cult acceptance of Islamic canards impels him to take a stand against the popular press and many liberal colleagues.

For my Irish friend, he too has had to resist censorship not only from the right but the left wing. He stands, as Hitchens, as his own man. How can I equate not chomping on a pork chop with such intellectual and journalistic choices? Well, while my avoidance of meat has no real cause in my wavering and eclectic and syncretic "faith," it does show my own turning away from habitual desires. I too fit into a mold that I had to consciously break, and still must do when I pick up a menu. While this has not brought me the death threats that both Hitchens (for his stance against the Salman Rushdie fatwa) and my friend (for his criticism of the leadership over what has taken the name of the Irish Republican Movement) have received -- and in both cases their families too were endangered-- it may reveal according to Hitchens' model a nod at my own toddling towards moral evolution.

I still miss the crunch of baby back ribs or the tang of slippery shrimp. So, why do I turn away from them now? Perhaps the pig's eyes gazing at mine as I ride the train have penetrated me more than those of any divine entity. Leo asked me yesterday about the gaze of Dr. Mecklenberg above the ashy dump in The Great Gatsby. After looking up that splendid setting opening chapter two, I suggested it was the presence of God. That He'd been neglected, that He still looked out, and that it wasn't certain if His stern righteous mien needed to be returned by we mere mortals anymore. We were no longer enthralled. The place, after all, had been abandoned, as empty as the plain of pottery shards where Job scratched at his sores. God did return to him, but as my late professor, Albert B. Friedman (who I only found out posthumously in the N.Y. Times, had been cruelly imprisoned in Burma by the Japanese), quoted from some learned scribe: while He gave him a wife and children, they were not the same ones. That is, the innocents whom He had earlier doomed, to make a cosmic comeuppance, and at whose loss Job had descended into that very pit of despair.

The comforts that such a personally attentive Creator gives, then, appear hardly to balance the agony inflicted by an inscrutable and paranoid Lord. Hitchens like many seculars today wishes to be freed of the pesty fanatics and fatwas. But, those who have committed themselves to the ranks of the faithful are determined not to let us skeptics rest. Let alone the atheists like Hitchens and my friend. The persecutors will not listen, Hitchens complains, to logic. Deep down most of us moderns must know that there's no Nobodaddy going to damn us for nibbling shrimp or scarfing ham. Trouble is, how do we convince everyone else? And, if we do, what illusion will we manufacture from VR as our newest digital obsession for our next download to Nirvana?

Sam Harris in The End of Faith argued that only if we could all be truthful with our children, then the foolishness of belief would evaporate in a generation. The tolerance that liberals allow in letting religious teachings continue, I heard Richard Dawkins insist, remains the fatal flaw that will prevent intellectuals from eradicating the backward world-views based on illiterate and semi-educated desert nomads thousands of years before we knew of Copernicus, Darwin, or Einstein.

The flaw with this logic is that it's raw logic. But, we frail humans often need more than reason to cushion the existential brutal blow. I'd add that the lifting of the veil of ignorance, to adapt Hobbes' wonderful metaphor, may prove more damaging than telling Virginia there's no more Santy Claus. Is there any method that Dawkins at Oxford, Harris at Stanford, Dennett at Tufts, or Hitchens at the New School could devise to send this message of secular wisdom into the madrassas of Cairo, the homes of Hebron, or the churches of Memphis? These bastions of fundamentalist belief may never wish to listen to the measured, tenured voices from the universities. What was the curse laid on the Jews who refused to listen to the alternative Messiah? A stubborn and stiff-necked people. When we don't want to give in, we'll hackle and snarl.

I realize that this dilemma remains the stumbling block in the détente between the forces of religion and those of secularism. How can Doc who knows better wrest us away from our sloppy pacifier? Or Mom from her drying breast? These four authors risk much in their determination to expose the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of those who demand that we all bow down before their chosen, if non-American, idol.

However, why does Harris assume that the faithful might be able to separate themselves and their loved ones so easily from their innate delusion? What kind of psychological damage would this wrenching from one's cherished tradition cause a suddenly godless family? How can the parent know of his or her ignorance, and then choose to ignore it in the name of a Deity? Can believers step away from their souls?

Still, it's up to us to decide how we further goodness in the world, to a pig or a person. No Maker will sweep us away in a whirlwind, and certainly none will restore our perished family. Fitzgerald, another honeyed and pickled gin Fitz, another Jazz Age Irish Catholic gone worldly and upscale, might agree.

We sit amidst the post-modern, post-Marxist, and post-Christian urban dungheap, under the faded gaze of a stern Old Man, but we also can recognize that He's been propped up, decorated, and now's left to totter. We put Him up, Hitchens might add, even if we do not live long enough in the dump to see Him fall. That, I might conclude for now, would be more than I could bear.

Job's opiate of faith (Hitchens cites Freud's The Future of an Illusion) may have emerged to protect our fragile psyches against the knowledge that we, unlike pigs, know, of our demise and doom. They fear the hook and the knife at the butcher's hand. But, we squeal many lonely nights-- long before our own sudden meeting or lingering moment facing our eternal fate. We need comfort no less than the pigs. I'm not sure if contemplating the double helix will ease our psychic pain. For, out of the quirks of that beauty of nature's design emerges often the cancer cell.

Farmer John Murals

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