Monday, March 8, 2010

Colin Spencer's The Heretic's Feast": Book Review

My son asked if one could survive only on meat. Contrarily, I looked up this history of vegetarianism to find out. Orthodoxy and conformity long allied with the herding & consumption of animals. To those in control, those refusing to eat flesh posed a social and moral threat. Not eating meat equalled rebellion against the state, the faith, and the norm.

Spencer starts with early hominids and ends with fast food. He roams necessarily widely, if focusing most modern attention to the British take on vegetarianism. Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India all earn ancient testimony for a long-lived counter-cultural tradition. While Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures appear to have come down harder on what become known as "Pythagorean" practices, the Hindus seem to have had a more balanced approach. A "dharma-sutra" ca. 600 BCE counselled: "In eating flesh, in drinking intoxicating liquors and in carnal intercourse there is no sin, for such enjoyments are natural, but absention from them produces great reward." (qtd. 76)

For the West, however, resistance to meat-eating smacked more of deprivation than moderation. Spencer defends deftly the reputation of Epicurus as more principled than "epicurean" today connotes. Gluttony came from satiation which left one more deprived than before, Epicurus reasoned. So, as with any addiction or longing, the cure stemmed from avoiding anger, irritation, and lust. Pleasure, thus controlled, did not lead to overindulgence but to self-restraint as "the absence of pain."

But such subtleties were lost on many pagan and Christian critics. Sacrifice harbored in its action food plus energy to equal meanings charged with much more than merely roasting a beast. As with Jews, Muslims, or Hindus in their dietary choices, it was impossible to keep secret one's preferences: "the lifestyle is an unspoken criticism." (97) For a radical, it became a mark of humanity and higher standards that often "makes meat-eaters uneasy and they often react aggressively."

The heretical associations of vegetarianism in the Bogomil, Gnostic, and Cathar movements outraged the Church. The renunciation of meat did come out of a more negative refusal by the dissenters to separate themselves from the profane, rather than a celebration of the natural realm as deserving of its own rights. "It is a doctrine that expresses fear of humanity more than a love of God. With such ideas, animals became too easily associated with the devil and his evil minions, hence the domestic cat came to be seen as the witch's familiar."(161)

For most people now as then, vegetarianism may have been involuntary, furthermore. Not out of religious objection or ethical solidarity, but because of poverty. Only when surpluses exist can a community afford a minority to find alternative foods. For a few faithful Christians, monks and saints, renunciation of meat was not identical with vegetarianism, perhaps oddly to us. Heretics were linked to vegetarianism, but clerics were not. "For a vegetarian philosophy to exist, it needs an ethical system of greater power and significance than the prevailing code in society." (181)

The glimmers of this began for the West with those who chose, for ideological reasons, to eschew meat. The Renaissance alerted Leonardo da Vinci and Giordano Bruno to the options argued by classical predecessors. Here, as in Bruno's proto-holistic system, or Leonardo's rarely cited vegetarianism, a sympathy for animals within the cosmos begins to emerge. Suffering elicits sympathy, and rather than a Christian solution, humanists begin to compete with the Church for an earth-based understanding of harmony and kinship.

As modernity dawns, Spencer concentrates on Britain. The Victorian denial of flesh and its promotion of unadulterated, but often unsalted or unspiced foods, formed the common English stereotype of sandals and nutloaf, bland pablum as fare for pale aesthetes and bearded cranks. This was a wise reaction to the horrors of slaughterhouses, true, but one that went so far in its po-faced rejection that its grim, ascetic influence lingers nearly two centuries later. Dogmatic puritans, the 19c and early 20c proponents of vegetarianism often carried with them a severe air.

George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter, and Leo Tolstoy, famously, symbolized the intellectual contingent. George Orwell fulminated in 1930: "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." (qtd. 299)

Orwell objected to a vegetarian, for not being able "to relate to the working classes," in Spencer's interpretation-- as "a person out of touch with common humanity." Faced by such prejudice, our author wonders if Orwell's disgust is with the bourgeoisie associations; "If Orwell could have found a vegetarian coal miner he might well have written differently." (300) Orwell continues his own holy war against what Spencer labels a "secular heresy" for the Victorians. Immorality, sexual license, and fervent egalitarianism allied with it in popular opinion.

The book moves predictably if appropriately into an outcry against factory farming and ecological degradation. The examples are well-chosen, if again largely British. This is one shortcoming, perhaps, for readers expecting a global treatment; the book narrows as it nears the present into a study of British reactions to the vegetarian refusal. Spencer writes with verve and compassion, and has read widely. The book can be a bit repetitious, but he makes his claims and supports them well.

We face, he concludes, a dual challenge. Consumption of meat psychically for most of us still marks a celebration, an entry into affluence, a fine night out to cash in a bonus or impress a date. Yet, he reminds us that, despite the persistence of the off-beat vegetarian caricature, abstention from meat also runs through our history back to ancient times as a reminder of our higher nature, in league with Nature.

Today, the notions may persist of woolly-headed middle-class do-gooders, but Spencer, writing this in 1995 (reprinted as "Vegetarianism: A History"), also notes a sea-change in attitudes among those who came of age in the hippie era. Urbanization perhaps ironically or appropriately drove together the scattered rural-based resisters to the meat-eating rule, and the media and markets allowed people in cities to rally, shop together, and raise their own crops in gardens. The seeds of today's farmer's markets, locavores, and green cuisine might be planted a century ago in such alliances. (Posted to Amazon US 1-21-10)


tamerlane said...

Coincidental that I just today blogged on obesity?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have taught teenagers raised in a neo-hindu community that were being borderline starved so that their diet would conform to their ayurvedic humours.

Excessive consumption of meat is unhealthy, and also costly in terms of burden on the environment and infrastructure. yet, with pure vegetarianism, it is difficult to ingest the necessary quantity of protein, especially for sprouting pubescents.

Humane slaughter practices are laudable, but most slaughter takes place ob scura. People would be shocked to learn of the history of their meat, but would also quail at the higher prices necessitated by humane practices.

The principles of the original Epicurias would serve us all well.

Fionnchú said...

Teaching a tech & culture Humanities course, and a student commented online about the obesity epidemic right after I read your piece in TLN today. So, I will send the link to my class to share in your thoughts, TL.

I agree with your take re: the "sprouting adolescents" in my home-- they were inspired by a post-Thanksgiving school visit by Jonathan Safran Foer on the way to a book signing of his "Eating Animals," and got my wife and I to stop the bird consumption, but the older one's already caved in and the younger is wavering and the wife, the cook for us all, is stuck with again a varied fare to please three stubborn palates.

tamerlane said...

I welcome visits from your students, and am prepared to moderate an online forum if they wish to explore the subject in greater depth.

In her "Animals in Translation", Temple Grandin assures the reader that (in well-designed facilities) the stress experienced by cows on the killing floor is no greater than during a veterinary call. Having been present for both vet treatments and euthanizations, I believe that.

Grandin also points out that animals raised for slaughter would not otherwise even have been born. If their brief lives are pleasant, and their demise quick and anguish-free, then we have improved greatly on Nature's handling of such matters.

Our local grass-fed beef rancher sometimes runs a herd on my land. I can attest that the cows I hosted, all of whom are now dead, and at least one of whom ended up on my dinner table, lived splendidly.