Thursday, August 26, 2010

For Kafka fish must have been the very flesh of forgetting...

I had a dream last night...

I woke up this morning, confused and agitated after having a bloody nightmare about spearing fish. Why should I have such a bizarre dream? And feel so guilty about it? Suddenly, a long submerged memory surfaced.

How could I have forgotten: I really did spear fish when I was a boy! Spearing suckers was still a rural New Hampshire tradition back then. It was so popular that country stores carried sucker spears as an essential part of their inventory.

Suckers are powerful fish who swim up streams in the spring to spawn like Salmon.  But unlike salmon, suckers are no fun to catch, too bony to eat and, on top of that, they have an off-putting, downward-pointing, fleshy-lipped, sucking mouth. As far as we were concerned, the only thing they were good for was spearing.

By the process of elimination, suckers became the unfortunate casualty of a spring ritual, a “trash fish” to be killed for sport and then left to rot. No one shed a tear for those suckers at the time. Why, after over 50 years, am I dreaming about spearing them now?

Some dream analysts would say dreaming about fish is about drudging up contents of the unconscious into the conscious mind. In my case, I would guess, it is about death becoming more real as I grow old and feeling the need to make amends. It’s a stage of life many of us baby boomers are going through, one way or another. As one of my patients confided in me recently, “I’m at the stage of life where I want to make it right with my maker.”

Being mostly a Buddhist with a little animist thrown in, I’d have to define “my maker” as that immaterial force that animates the vast, interconnected web of the universe of which I am but a microscopic dot. But I’m not just a passive bystander; within this totally interdependent system, not only do the other parts impinge upon me but, conversely, everything I do, reflects back, influencing the entire web of life around me.

This interdependency has various consequences, one of which is that just by being alive, I cause harm.

As I grow older, I become more viscerally aware of the harm I have caused and feel the need to make amends, at least going forward, by walking as lightly as I can on this earth while both acknowledging and giving thanks to the multitude of living beings who have sacrificed their lives in order for me to continue mine.

I was able to make a quantum leap down this path of doing no harm by reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals.[1] I had no expectations before hand but reading the book turned out to have a profound influence on me to the extent that I haven’t eaten any fish or meat since finishing his book in December of 2009.

For a few years before this, I had attempted to cut down on my animal intake. And when I did indulge, I tried to eat only locally grown, responsibly-raised meat and non-endangered, wild fish. But I failed miserably.

I’d often cheat by ordering some juicy, agri-business animal in a restaurant, pretending I had no choice. And whenever I was invited to dinner as a guest, I would never be so impolite as to refuse whatever kind of animal was served, tame or wild, natural or adulterated.

 But it was worse than that: out of the blue, a craving would strike me I couldn’t resist, and I would find myself driving to the nearest supermarket to buy a big, grain-fed animal steak or to the nearest restaurant for my fix of beef.

What can I say: I was an addict, plain and simple.

 For some reason reading Eating Animals hit me hard, breaking through my denial and motivating me to act. At last I was ready to make a real change in my eating habits, although the reasons for doing so were unclear at first.

 I didn’t stop eating meat for my health because I think eating small amounts of organically grown meat and fish are good for you, providing various trace elements and micro-nutrients that are difficult to get otherwise.

I did quit, in part, because of my concern for the environment.  Eating a plant-based diet is easier on the Earth and scarce food resources, particularly if you buy locally and grow as much as you can in your own garden. And, certainly, I didn’t like being such an addict that I wasn’t in control of my life.

But I could sense that there were deeper reasons still.

After having time to think about it, I can see now that the major reason I quit eating meat and fish was a spiritual decision. Like an IED,[2] Eating Animals blasted my head out of the agribusiness feed lot and forced me to confront my denial about killing things.

And I’ve killed a lot...

It all started with spearing suckers, along with an obsession for fishing.  I started hunting with my Dad before age 10. Between us, we provided most of the animal protein for much of the year, shooting deer, partridge, pheasants, scores of ducks each year, woodcock, geese, grey squirrels… Especially as a young hunter, I made a lot of unclean kills, causing spasms of unnecessary suffering that haunt me to this day. And I feel shame, looking back at my years as a young fisherman, for allowing so many fish to flop around on the floor of my boat, suffering a needlessly long, agonizing death.

Later in my life, after dropping out of college, I ended up in Vietnam where I know not how many sentient beings perished from my guns. I remember dead bodies floating in the water like dead fish. I pray that none were killed by me. After I came home I joined the back-to-the-land movement and raised farm animals, killing most myself.

Vic came by each year to kill my pigs, gut them, debristle them, and cut them in half. One year, the bullet he shot into the brain of the first pig only wounded her, causing her to careen around the pen, blinded by blood, freaking out my other pig, who also began charging about, running for her life, emitting screams of horror eerily like a wailing peasant.  That was the last year I had pigs.

But for many more years, I continued to support the inhumanity and unsustainability of agribusiness because of my addiction to meat.  That is, until I read Eating Animals and began the odyssey that has culminated in my dream about spearing fish.

Jonathan Foer tells a story about how Kafka was at a Berlin aquarium when he surprised his friends by turning to talk to the fish in an illuminated tank, saying: “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore.” [3]

Kafka’s encounter with the fish happened shortly after he had become a strict vegetarian.  Now that I’m a vegetarian, I can identify with what he felt:  It’s a blessing to be able look a fish in the eye and feel a sense of relief and peace, not shame.

But my newfound sense of peace comes not just from becoming a vegetarian; at a deeper level it comes, thanks to Jonathan Safran Foer’s help, from being able to acknowledge my shame for a lifetime of denial and forgetting:
 “Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely–yet not entirely–forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate gratification. Fish for Kafka must have been the very flesh of forgetting: their lives are forgotten in a radical manner;” [4]–– in a qualitatively more callous, cold-blooded, and dismissive manner then how we think about farmed land animals.

If that is what my dream is about, what better symbol could my subconscious find to represent “the forgotten” than the most unglamorous fish of them all, the common sucker.


To check out Jonathan Safran Foer's book, click below: 

[1] Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals, Little Brown & Company: New York
[2] Improvised Explosive Device
[3] ibid., p. 36
[4] ibid., p. 37


Nathan said...

I'm currently reading the book and can identify with your claims. I am a vegetarian and I'm 16 so I have less potency behind my own. there's and essay by Alan Watts that i feel you might appreciate. It's called "Murder in the Kitchen" he was a philosopher in the mid twentieth century who taught eastern philosophy. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought of it while reading your piece.

Nathan Weems said...


psychos capes said...

Thanks so much for your feedback, Nathan. I love Alan Watts and have read many of his books, but not this essay. I am looking forward to finding and reading it.Keep up the good work. Remember: it is passion that has potency, not age.