It was a routine day, the day of my conversion. I was at an artists’ retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the MacDowell Colony. I was lucky to be there, and in an ambitious moment in my career, working on finishing my novel Purple America, falling in love with someone on the premises, taking in spring in New Hampshire, hiking Mount Monadnock, meeting and greeting, full of dreams. It was seven years since my last drink. I would call my approach to what I put in my body—excepting the injunction against drugs and alcohol— unenlightened. I ate what I wanted to eat, and while I took seriously the suggestion (among my community of sober friends) that I have a spiritual life, I wasn’t yet preoccupied with the resolution of that question. I took the spiritual stuff in stride. I’d read a book on Zen and then toss it aside and read a book on the Quakers. It was the semiexamined life. As regards the evening in question: I always hated the moments before dinners at the artists’ colonies, those awkward quarter hours where you had to talk about what you had done that day. And so: There was no reason to suspect that this particular quarter hour would usher in a complete change in my life. And the chef who cooked dinner that night had no reason to suspect she would change my life. But she did. She changed my life when she decided that that night’s dinner was going to consist of meat loaf.
I have always kind of hated meat loaf. The presence of the word loaf in the phrase meat loaf seems to be part of the problem. That phrase meat loaf has always been repellent to me, even when I was a child, and even though I ate meat (flesh, as vegetarians sometimes call it), I always thought there was something highly suspect about meat loaf. I have the same feeling about pot roast. Somehow these words weren’t meant to go together: pot and roast, meat and loaf, and the idea of meat being packaged like a bread product is inappropriate to me. Then as now. In my thirties, I made my peace with the phrase, and had been known to eat meat loaf on occasion, especially in my penniless twenties, because I didn’t have the money to make sure the next meal would be as good as the one in front of me. Nevertheless, when the cart of meat loaf was wheeled out of the kitchen at MacDowell, I felt some dark stirrings. This was not entirely unusual. Though I was not a finicky eater (I would eat, for example, almost any kind of hamburger, no matter how dingy the precinct in which it was assembled), I had, as well, a tendency to find mac and cheese totally nauseating, and had heaved it up once as a child, never to eat it willingly again. It was not, at first, disturbing to me to find the meat loaf at MacDowell was nauseating. What was novel was why it was nauseating. I remember the platter of meat loaf having a crimson hue, almost like it was a red velvet cake. My further recollection is of a kind of gray/tan base material over which some ketchup had been drizzled, nouvelle cuisine style, to create a lively and animated plate of gore. I had a thought about the meat loaf I will never forget. I thought: car crash.
That is, the meat loaf did not look like food, but rather like somebody’s femur and quadriceps at a car crash or at a crime scene or in one of those preposterously violent war scenes that you might see in a film, when the film is attempting to be realistic. The meat loaf was disgusting to me, utterly abject, and just as abject was the proposition that I was meant to eat this gore that had been shoveled up from a soft shoulder. That I should eat it and engage in conversation with the other colonists, that I should pretend nothing was wrong: These obstacles were, suddenly, insurmountable. I can remember no more of the night, except that I didn’t eat the meat loaf, and probably ate five extra pieces of bread and an extra helping of salad, and I didn’t give the experience of abjection a second thought, really, because I had in no way prepared for abjection that night; it had overcome me, which I suppose is how conversions take place. Not because of persuasion (I have known a great number of vegetarians in my life), but because of an alignment of circumstances. I did not consider the possibility of renouncing meat that night. I imagined, simply, that I would never again eat meat loaf.
However, the feeling of abjection quickly extended itself to all beef products. As I say: I had no thought initially about the cow, the animal, who provided the meat in the meat loaf. As with most philosophical regeneration in my life, I could not make the journey until the old way of thinking was completely emptied of relevance. And so it seemed to me in this transitional period that beef was a constituent element in meat loaf, and probably, therefore, I should avoid beef. This was not, as I recall it, a difficult thing to give up, and there was no real cost to doing so. Every right-thinking person recognizes that there are reasonable health-related criteria for avoiding beef. Hamburgers are petri dishes for listeria and salmonella, all manner of bacteria, and high cholesterol is a likely outcome after a lifetime of red meat, and I have heart disease in my family. Even worse, there is bovine growth hormone to contend with, excessive use of antibiotics in the food chain, etc. People approaching middle age, these days, often come to rethink red meat, unless they are ranchers or reactionaries who feel that there is some kind of pride inherent in red meat. I gave it up easily, and I don’t remember regretting it.
There things stood for a while. I came to think I’d had an inexplicable reaction to the meat loaf, a bodily one, like Franny Glass passing out while saying the Jesus Prayer. A conversion experience. I did not care to look deeply into my own motives. Abjection is powerfully physical. One does not want to drink blood, one does not want to touch the excremental wastes of the human body, one avoids maggoty strongholds. Such was my experience of beef. I didn’t want to think of a steak as the thigh of any animal, but I could not, it seemed, avoid doing so. As it happens, for eight or nine years in the nineties I taught at a summer program at Bennington College, and Bennington College, for reasons that are not hard to fathom (alternative culture! students! environmental consciousness!), had vegetarian fare in abundance in the cafeteria. One summer while I was teaching there (1998, I think) I decided to see if I could go a week without eating any meat.
Those Bennington vegetarians sure were lucky. Not a meal went by during my week of vegetarian experiment in which there was not some rather delicious mushroom item next pan over to the sinews of animal body that were laid out in charming fillets for those who were still that way inclined. I chose the vegetarian fare, and I also became an adept at odd configurations of salad at the salad bar (just beets and chickpeas! only things that are yellow! extra helpings of hot pepper!), and quickly the week was at an end, and it was a welcome surprise. I decided to go for another week. This was not a hard decision to make, then, because I was just biting off a little bit at a time. There were two qualifications, though. I was not ready to renounce bacon, though I had not eaten any recently, and I was not ready to renounce fish.
It seems to me I have gotten this far into this account without thinking through the symbolism of abjection, without looking for the ideas underneath abjection in my own case. It’s one thing to say that you are phobic about certain meat products. This describes a truth up to a point. It’s irrefutable, as long as you have physical symptoms. In a way, bodily symptoms of abjection are powerful precisely because there is no rhetoric attached to them. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t operating in a symbolic field, in the same way a dream ushers in its symbols. (I have a long-standing and pretty well-documented phobia of telephones, and I have spent many years trying to describe the origin, meaning, and purpose of my refusal to talk on the telephone. The reason to bring up this phobia now is simply to say that my telephone phobia is self-evidently full of meaning for me personally. There are historical and symbolically freighted reasons why I hate the telephone. So why not ask the same things about my feelings of disgust about meat?) Julia Kristeva created a blueprint for discussions of abjection in her essay on the subject, Powers of Horror, with results that were startling and important to me back in the time when I read a lot of theory. If abjection happens in your whole body, and its message there is complete, that doesn’t mean it is not philosophical and intellectual. What does disgust about meat tell us about who we are?
So: When I was a child, we used to go shooting, right near where I now live (in Amenia, New York), on a dairy farm. Some friends of the family stocked their considerable acreage there with pheasant, and during the fall, when the fields were about to be plowed up, and the feed corn siloed, we traveled north and blasted away at the birds. The shooting part was bad, I agree, though since my earliest childhood there were dead pheasant nailed up in the garage of my house, and I was somehow used to it. My mother’s father shot (and trophy fished), and my father shot, and our dog, a black Labrador retriever, was field trained in the traditional way. The hunt was a ritual in our family. Mercifully, I was a horrible shot. Apparently, I am just not meant to have a gun in my hands, and could never hit anything with either rifle or shotgun. Not even a clay pigeon was ever prey to me, nor ever shall be, now that I have renounced guns. But just the same I loved it out on the shooting trips. I loved the gray days, and the blustery days, and the threat that the Jeep was going to get stuck in the ruts of mud. I loved autumn. And yet the lessons of the dairy farm were more profound than this. I felt bad about the birds getting shot down, and I felt bad about the dog carrying the dead birds around in her mouth, and I felt bad about the cows on the dairy farm, who mainly seemed to stand around in their own wastes and moan plangently. And I felt bad for the dairy farmers themselves. They seemed dusty, weary, overburdened, and poor.
One day, we were running through the long, beautiful files of corn in autumn, and we—my sister, my brother, and I—came out by a mound near the river that ran through the valley there. The mound, it became apparent, had a bunch of hooves and parts of cows reaching out of it. This is my memory of the events, at any rate. A burial mound for whatever was left over of the cows, the sick cows, the last of the cows, the cow leavings. They came to this place, after they were useful no longer, and the farmer or his employees plowed up some dirt, and covered over the cow parts with a glaze of dirt and blood, and then left the whole infernal mess to rot. I had a profound sense, as a child, of the evil of that mound, the carnage of it, and of the loneliness of it. I felt, actually, as though not all the cattle were deceased. As though they were restless because of the way they were sacrificed. As though the bovine ghosts necessarily ambled around those environs, pawing at the ground and snorting with disquiet. In a kind of shock, we ran back to the shack where we were going to spend the night. Away from the burial mound. It was one of those moments of insight, one of those profound bodily insights: into the origin and end of all flesh.
In some way, the abjection of meat, for me, dates back to the sacrifice of the animals at the dairy farm. Lots of people, it seems to me now, are able to have this experience, the experience of learning about farming, without identifying with the animals, and without feeling compunction about eating animals, and I applaud them for their serenity. For whatever reason, I was not able, after a time, to go along with this cultural blinding. Perhaps part of the reason for the horror of the dairy farm, and the burial mound, was the problem of class. My class, the upper middle class, glorified narratives of subjection, the subjection of people and animals, but without ever explaining how the privilege came to be, at least to me. It was part of the aristocracy in those days that privilege came with the acreage. So of course there were dairy farmers who let us blast away at pheasant on their property, and of course there were dead cattle piled in one corner of the property. My having stumbled on this narrative of woe in the course of running around in the cornfields was a recognition of class, and it was hard not to feel, even if subject to delay, my eventual surfeiting of nausea.
I let go of bacon in 1999, but I think there was no wealth of bacon beforehand, in any event. With bacon it’s mostly the curing agents that are the attractive part. Simulated bacon tastes great to me these days. I hung on to fish for a few more years. I let go of fish not because of conviction about the psychology of fish, but more because of dwindling fish stocks, the crisis of overfishing, the profound stupidity of the way we manage the oceans, the fact of Icelandic whaling, etc. Once I had renounced beef, chicken, poultry of any kind, pig, and lamb, fish was easy, and then there were not really any meats left that I was eating. It was hard not to conclude that I was a vegetarian, that the conversion had taken place without preparation. Upon concluding that I was a vegetarian, however, it seemed important, in some way, to have a theory of vegetarianism. Besides simply that meat disgusted me. Eventually, I came to believe that my idea of vegetarianism was this: It was wrong that nonhuman animals had been unable to consent to their being eaten. In the same way that I felt bad for the dead pheasant with the buckshot in them, coaxed out of their cages into the open expanses of the dairy farm, given an hour to wander off, then chased down and slaughtered, there was a feeling of injustice about the eaten that I couldn’t and can’t square with the civilized delicacy of mealtime. I couldn’t and can’t, somehow, eat the meal if the basic food group represented there is the food group called injustice.
Moreover: I feel powerfully that nonhuman animals have inner lives, senses of self, for which I have no demonstrable evidence of a scientific sort, but merely anecdotal evidence and firsthand experience. I base this idea on the fact that I am myself an animal and I have an inner life, and the only difference between me and a dog, for example, is computing power. I don’t actually believe that computing power counts for much. This feeling about animals is an effect of the process in my life of abjection, vegetarianism, pacifism, religious and spiritual practice. And the end point of this thought about animals and their inner lives is, inevitably, compassion for the animals. This is a not very pleasant feeling to have sometimes. Animals are routinely tortured. We are against the torture of other human beings, or most people are against torture, but then we torture animals routinely, every day even. And if we don’t participate in their torture, we profit from their torture, and this is painful to think about. I wore a black-leather motorcycle jacket for many years, and I loved that jacket, and Peter Singer advises it is OK to continue wearing a leather jacket if it was already purchased, but after a point the jacket just made me feel bad, just as the eating fish was making me feel bad, and I had to put the leather jacket in the closet.
I don’t eat a lot of dairy, but I eat a little bit of yogurt, and I have been known to eat an egg if I can be certain it came from a cruelty-free farm, though I am aware that these words, cruelty-free, are more ambiguous than they ought to be, and some farms get away with things. I have eaten lobster a few times, once a year or so, despite the commentary by my friend David Foster Wallace. I do kill hornets and yellow jackets if they get in the house. I have had a ladybug plague at my residence in the winter in recent years, and if I manually removed them all to the outside, which I have done many tens of times, I literally would do nothing else but remove ladybugs. I have therefore dispatched an army of ladybugs to the hereafter, with keen regrets. And so my vegetarian results are mixed, despite the power of my conversion.
The murderousness of human beings extends to me too, that is, but I try to do the least damage I can do and to let the animals be where the animals are. There was a bat in the dining room where I ate dinner just tonight, and people mobilized in an attempt to send the bat on its way. But the bat is just being a bat. There’s a line in Ram Dass, which I am herewith recreating from memory: “I believe that faith can remove mountains. I literally believe this to be true. But upon reflection I have come to see that the mountains are exactly where they belong.” If you take this thought too far, you will allow for murderous rage of humans. (Dante says something similar about this in Paradiso: “Thus it can be that, in the selfsame species, some trees bear better fruit and some bear worse, and men are born with different temperaments” (Allen Mandelbaum translation).) But in my interpretation of Ram Dass, what he’s saying is: Let the animals be who they are.
The drama of conversion is to be found in the fact that even though it happens suddenly, or has its metaphorical white light, it can undo itself at any moment. And yet, despite the slightly impure condition of my conversion, it has now lasted for a full fifteen years. I offer these remarks on the lives of the nonhumans for those whose conversion might come soon.