Tolstoy, Kafka, Milgram, and Meatballs

January 14, 2013
Bar in daylight

Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Franz Kafka walk into a bar (unlikely perhaps, but a good hypothetical start to any joke). The bartender offers them each a drink and a hamburger. Which one of them refuses?

My apologies. I’ve already led you astray with a trick question. The answer is none of them accepts. And they won’t take it nicely, either. The drink they may take gladly, but not the hamburger.

Says Shaw to the bartender: “I was a cannibal for twenty-five years. For the rest I have been a vegetarian” (or “animals are my friends . . . and I don’t eat my friends”).

Tolstoy’s response is equally acerbic: “This is dreadful . . . that a man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity—that of sympathy and pity toward living creatures like himself—and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life!”

And Singer is perhaps the most aggressive to the bartender: “In their behavior toward creatures, all men are Nazis . . . I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.”

“I’d prefer a veggie burger,” the quiet Kafka perhaps would say.

“I’m sorry, we don’t have that option here,” the bartender responds. “I’ve never met such solemn types as you vegetarians.”

“Well, we’re not solemn all the time, and even if we were, there are vegetarians much more comedic than ourselves. Maybe one of them is telling this joke right now. You must be familiar with them, modern-day folk that you are. Not deceased like we your potential customers. Ever heard of Ellen DeGeneres, Weird Al, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman, Jamie Kennedy, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig . . .”

“Okay, Okay, I get your point, geez. Have a drink at least.”

The four writers take a sip, perhaps, but each of them falls into a deep depression, wanting but unable to start up a conversation.

“Oh, come on, get over yourselves,” says the bartender. “You vegetarians have a bad rep for a reason, can’t you see? Let the rest of us live happily, will you?”

“It’s not that simple,” says Shaw. “The thought of those animals being slaughtered . . . it really eats away at your soul.”

“Oh, brother,” says the bartender. “Enough of this melodrama. I’ve got other guests to tend to.”

Like the bartender, most of us are confused by some vegetarians’ melancholy approach to food and diet. Their views seem so sentimental, almost as if they consider the life of an animal more valuable than that of a human.

The most important missionary of the largest religion in the world holds the same attitude toward vegetarians, emphasizing their frailty. Says the Apostle Paul in the New Testament: “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”

The four vegetarian writers entering the bar, of course, would disagree with Paul of Tarsus, but some nonvegetarian writers take a more nuanced view than Paul’s.

In an essay in The Problem of Pain, Christian theologian C. S. Lewis argues against the suffering of animals in general and vivisection in particular when he says, “Animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor can be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this.”

Lewis argues that inflicting pain is evil and is only justifiable if this pain is a necessary evil. If a man gives out pleasure, we must prove that he is wrong to do so. If a man deals out pain, the burden of proof lies with him to prove that what he is doing is necessary. If he fails to do so, then he is either evil or deluded.

There are even vegetarian writings geared toward children. Welsh-born author Roald Dahl’s short story “Pig” has often been accused of being one. I say “accused” because several critics claim that the graphic imagery employed in the story is not appropriate for children. Children are not the target audience of “Pig,” however. Although Roald Dahl is known for his literature geared toward young people, this particular short story appears in a collection written for adults.

Some might argue that all tales designed to instill a vegetarian ethic should only be read by adults. Even the seemingly docile storybook “Hubert the Pudge,” written and illustrated by Henrik Drescher, depicts the innocent and imaginary species of pudges restrained in small cages and implies their inevitable deaths. The deaths in “Pig” are not so implicit.

In “Pig,” a boy named Lexington is raised by his strict, vegetarian aunt, Glosspan. He learns to cook a wide variety of meatless dishes and gains the respect of his aunt. Eventually she dies, and Lexington must go out into the world on his own. One day, at an upscale restaurant, he is offered a dish of pork and cabbage. Having no idea that pork is pig, he devours it happily and even declares that it is the most delicious thing he has ever eaten. When Lexington finds out what pork is, he comes to the conclusion that his dear old aunt must have cooked it incorrectly. How else could she claim to despise meat? Lexington is adamant on finding out how pigs become our pork. Needless to say, this is where the story darkens.

Lexington travels to a slaughterhouse and watches the pigs in their pen as they are prepared for the slaughter. The first pig has a chain put around his hind leg. The chain is attached to a cable, which moves upward and takes the pig, now squealing in protest, along the slaughtering line. Lexington finds the process fascinating, but the men whose job it is to attach the chains to the pigs’ legs seem to find it quite boring.

Then an unexpected nightmare occurs. Lexington suddenly finds a chain around his own leg, and he is taken up on the cable as well. The workers look upon him indifferently, even serenely.

The imagery used to describe Lexington’s journey down the cable line is undeniably graphic, in accordance with methods of slaughter used in Dahl’s time and even today. The “sticker,” as one worker is called, “deftly slit open the boy’s jugular vein with a knife . . . Everything was still pouring out of his throat and getting into his eyes.” At the end of the line is a vat of boiling water in which both human visitors and pigs alike are dropped to ensure death. “Suddenly our hero started to feel very sleepy, but it wasn’t until his good strong heart had pumped the last drop of blood from his body that he passed on out of this . . .”

Needless to say, this story is more macabre than most, even most of Dahl’s. The story equates the suffering of Lexington to the suffering of pigs. From a scientific point of view, this is, unfortunately, an accurate comparison. Pigs are intelligent as far as animals go and possess brains and nervous systems, the paired prerequisites for pain. Furthermore, animals have no abstract thoughts such as an optimistic hope for the future or an appeal to God as a way to escape their suffering. Animals are trapped in the present moment and must endure intense pain.

Even in the most carnivorous of us this must raise certain uncomfortable questions. Would we allow this to be done to our cats and dogs? Even if our pets tasted ten times better than a steak wrapped in bacon, would we condone their slaughter? It takes one of a particularly brusque and unkind nature to answer yes unflinchingly to this question. If unbearable pain is a means to an end, surely that end cannot be justified, can it?

Perhaps it can. There is no evidence that Dahl ever put into practice the conclusion that eating meat is wrong. As far as we know, he never became a vegetarian.

If nonvegetarian writers such as Roald Dahl and C. S. Lewis came face-to-face with the less-than-dignified treatment of animals, then why didn’t they eschew the practice of eating meat? Is the argument not strong enough for them? Do they not really believe what they are saying? These questions may seem rhetorical, but I believe the answer to both of them is no. It’s easy to argue that they simply weren’t convinced by their own arguments, but I think the explanation is more complex. We can find an insight into human nature in one of the most famous psychological experiments of all time.

The original Milgram experiment cast doubt on the idea that man is innately good. Subjects called the Teachers were taken to a room and instructed to send “shocks” to a man in another room, called the Learner, each time he failed to perform the task set before him. An authority figure, the Experimenter, instructed the subject to continue delivering electric shocks of increasingly high voltage to the Learner. In reality, the Learner was an actor who pretended to scream in pain when the fake shocks were used. The Experimenter was also an actor whose job was to encourage the Teachers to keep delivering the shocks to see how far they would go before they said enough was enough. In the original experiment, 65 percent of the participants administered the alleged 450-volt shock, even when the Learner was screaming in pain, pleading that they stop. Similar results have been found in other times and other countries.

Are these members of the 65 percent evil? They did not enjoy delivering the final volt. In a replication of the experiment done for Dateline NBC, one participant named Aranit, like other Teachers in the experiment, felt immense guilt and angst but continued anyway. “I’m going to hurt you, and I’m really sorry,” he said to the Learner. When asked if the experiment bothered him, Aranit responded, “Oh yeah, it did. Actually it did. And especially when he wasn’t answering anymore.”

We all can act against what we know is right. Acting against our own common sense and values is not necessarily evil. We don’t simply ignore our own values and choose to be evil. What we experience instead is massive anxiety and cognitive dissonance when we feel we are making the wrong decision. Most of us try to suppress this. Roald Dahl and C. S. Lewis in their writings touched on ideas relevant to animal suffering, but did not extend these principles to all areas of their lives. We as humans often fail to extend our values to the daily choices we make.

This also explains why many of us understand the plight of factory-farmed animals and yet still continue eating meat. The real question is this: is this any excuse for us to still do it? In general, a person who knows the facts but fails to act upon them is called intellectually lazy. But perhaps we who are meat eaters have fallen into an agentic state; that is, we have given up our free will in place of the desires of society. The participants in the Milgram study who delivered the final shock were said to have done this. Surely this is a pathetic place to be, stripped of our reason and instead merely following the commands of authority. To make rational decisions we must escape this state if it is indeed where we lie.

What about the writings of actual vegetarians, like the four men who have entered our hypothetical bar? Is there some reason that these writers took the step to become vegetarian that others didn’t? How were they freed from the agentic state, if that is what plagues us? Did they see something the nonvegetarians didn’t, or are these vegetarians just plain deluded? I took a look at a short story by one of the writers in our hypothetical bar, Isaac Bashevis Singer, to find answers.

His short story “The Slaughterer” reveals not a stereotypically flimsy sentimentality in regard to animals, but a deep-seated angst that is doubled in intensity because of the indifference of other human beings. I was most surprised by Singer’s openness. He almost seems to be writing to a future world where the practice of eating meat has vanished, as if he wants to explain to them how one man in the past could be driven to insanity by the meat eating of his community.

In the story, Yoineh Meir, to his dread, is appointed the town’s ritual slaughterer. As the story progresses, he gains more and more insight into the lives of animals and shares in their suffering.

At first, Yoineh Meir is merely described as “softhearted; he could not bear the sight of blood.” He sounds like a stereotypical vegetarian in the making, too weak and frail to bear the notion that man has the right to dominate all life.

With reluctance, Yoineh Meir begins to kill animals, and he soon fears that he will faint during slaughter. His rabbi attempts to reassure him: “It is all a mystery of mysteries—life, death, man, beast.” He poses slaughter in romanticized terms, hoping that Yoineh Meir will view his new job as something both humanizing and having a touch of the divine. And anyway, “In the forest, beasts devour one another. In the seas, fish swallow fish.” It is the way of nature for man to dine on animals, just as animals dine on other animals.

But our slaughterer cannot ignore his own experiences. He sees that “every body resisted in its own fashion, tried to escape, and seemed to argue with the creator to its last breath.” These gruesome sights drive him to suicidal thoughts: “Yoineh Meir knew that man may not ask for death, but deep within himself he longed for the end.” He begins to see his hypothetical death as no different from the actual deaths of animals: “Human beings, like beasts, had loins, veins, guts, buttocks. One slash of the knife and those solid householders would fall like oxen.”

The more he slaughters, the more the slaughterer falls into despair. He dreams that he is killing a calf when midway through he realizes he has been murdering a girl. She runs away, leaving trails of blood wherever she goes. He finds that he cannot mourn the destruction of the temple recorded in Hebrew Scripture because “a carnage was being readied here in Kolomir, and he, Yoineh Meir, was the Titus, the Nebuchadnezzar!”

Yoineh Meir develops an obsession for animals that no one else in the village seems to share. In fact, the week before New Year, during “a rush of slaughtering,” while he is killing more animals per day than ever before, “Women pushed, argued, tried to get to the slaughterer first. Others joked, laughed, bantered . . . Now and then a fowl cried out like a human being.”

Singer’s own views sneak their way into the Yoineh Meir’s internal struggle. Singer, although culturally very Jewish, had great doubt in the Hebrew Scripture and sometimes even in God. He often questioned why God would allow animals to endure pain and thought it bizarre that God apparently endorsed the eating of animals. He was so in favor of vegetarianism that he wrote, “If there would come a voice from God saying, ‘I’m against vegetarianism!’ I would say, ‘Well, I am for it!’ This is how strongly I feel in this regard.”

But the protagonist in this story is very devout and struggles with the idea that perhaps his community and the religion inextricably tied to it is, as his natural response seems to suggest, wrong for promoting the slaughter of animals. To the secularist it may seem ridiculous, but Yoineh Meir struggles with the idea of besting God at his own game: morality.

“Yoineh Meir rocked back and forth in the dark. The rabbi may be right. Man cannot and must not have more compassion than the master of the universe.”

Singer clearly sympathizes with the slaughterer, while at the same time expressing his thoughts on morality, mainly the principle that a code of ethics that does not allow one to grow and develop is inadequate.

Finally, Yoineh Meir breaks. His own intuition and reason surpass his allegiance to his religious duties. “I have more compassion than God Almighty,” he proclaims. “He is a cruel God, a Man of War, a God of Vengeance. I will not serve Him.” He realizes, among other things, that the Torah itself is made of animal skin and loses it.

Yoineh Meir is driven to insanity and runs away. Two days later, he is found drowned in a nearby river. He is replaced with an indistinguishable equivalent, viewed in the same way as the animals. A chicken is a chicken and a calf is a calf. “Because it was the holiday season and there was danger that Kolomir might remain without meat, the community hastily dispatched two messengers to bring a new slaughterer.”

Singer is the perfect person to have written this type of story. He is skeptical about, yet still faithful to religion, which often serves as the last bastion of many considering vegetarianism. If God is not for vegetarianism, then why should we be? 

“The Slaughterer” provides an emotionally compelling case for why we should be kind to animals regardless of what we think our religious beliefs are telling us. Yoineh Meir’s case seems unique, but it is indeed a query we all share once we have investigated the well-being of animals. For people who feel as troubled as the slaughterer, they must either abstain, enduring constant mockery, from participation in practices that harm animals or continue to live as they have and attempt to repress their repulsion. In reality, we are all one step away from being the slaughterer. We just pay someone else to do it for us. 

No doubt our four vegetarian writers at the bar feel as strongly about their vegetarianism as a modern-day American feels about his habit of eating large quantities of meat. In this tolerant and multicultural society, it is often difficult to make absolute statements, for example that eating meat is wrong, but many vegetarian writers believed this to be objectively and unequivocally true. Some, like Singer, were on-and-off vegetarians before they finally put it permanently into practice. Others, like Tolstoy, became vegetarian the day they were confronted with the idea. Tolstoy quit cold turkey, you might say. Forgive the gruesome pun. 

These great thinkers who have adopted vegetarianism aren’t as radical as you might think, though. They are simply expanding their own standards of justice to a wider circle. As products of our evolutionary past, we are programmed to support the in-group and ostracize, belittle, and kill the out-group. Fortunately, the definition of what constitutes the in-group has been expanding over time. Restricted first to white heterosexual Protestant landowning males, slowly this in-group has increased to include blacks, Asians, Hispanics, homosexuals, bisexuals, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, non-property owners, women, and anyone else who doesn’t fall into the original in-group.

The vegetarian argument is simple: we only argue that the in-group circle be expanded to encompass all sentient beings. 

Tom Rains is a WLT intern.

World Literature Today
630 Parrington Oval, Suite 110
Norman, OK 73019-4037

Updated by World Literature Today: [email protected]