Making meat

It isn’t until a while after killing a pig in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that Michael Pollan’s happiness begins to wane. It is then that he and Angelo are cleaning the pig and a different reality sets in:

This was not just the stink of pig shit or piss but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it. I felt a wave of nausea begin to build in my gut. The clinical disinterest with which I had approached the whole process of cleaning my pig collapsed all at once: This was disgusting. (356)

Pollan is so overcome with disgust that he decides to take a picture of Angelo cleaning the pig, just so he can get away for a short time while looking for Angelo’s camera.

Later, Pollan receives photos of the hunt from Angelo and feels shame for the first time. He writes,

Angelo’s pictures…resemble in certain respects the trophy photos sent home by soldiers, who shock their brides and mothers with images of themselves grinning astride the corpses of the enemy dead. They are entitled to their pride — killing is precisely what we’ve asked them to do — and yet do we really have to look at the pictures? (361)

Of course, having already established the rightness of meat-eating, it isn’t the killing of the pig that he’s ashamed of but “the manifest joy I seemed to be feeling about what I’d done” (361). He goes on to write,

What shames at least some of us about hunting is the same thing that shames us about every other reminder of our origins: that is, the incompleteness of our transcendence of our animal nature. (362)

By that reasoning, shouldn’t those people find gathering food to be just as shameful as hunting? That isn’t how I remember things going in Pollan’s chapter on foraging for mushrooms. The shame of hunting is almost certainly more complicated than Pollan makes it out to be here. It almost certainly has to do with our discomfort with killing, which I don’t think can be explained by “the incompleteness of our transcendence of our animal nature.”

Pollan continues,

Having killed a pig and looked at myself in that picture and now looking forward (if that’s the word) to eating that pig, I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris. (361)

Pollan paints quite the caricature of vegetarians here. First there’s the bit about the “tofu eater,” as though vegetarians need to eat tofu. More substantially, I think it’s a mistake to assume that the vegetarians see themselves as blameless. I’m reminded of a button I’ve seen for sale that reads “Vegan Means I’m Trying to Suck Less.” Many vegetarians understand that their diets aren’t perfect, but still believe that there are nonetheless strong reasons not to eat animals. No, we can’t be perfect, but does that mean we should give up on doing any better?

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3 Comments »

  1. Mirkat said

    I think Jonathan Safran Foer was correct when he wrote of that Pollan quote that it’s not vegetarians who are in denial.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I had forgotten about that. Here’s Foer’s response to that quote:

      He’s right that emotional responses can lead us to an arrogant disconnect. But is the person who makes an effort to act on the dream of innocence really the one to be pitied? And who, in this case, is denying reality?

      Thanks for reminding me of this.

  2. [...] himself disgusted by the sights and smells of cleaning the pig, Pollan can’t help but take one more jab at vegetarians. He expresses pity for the “tofu eater” for his “dreams of innocence” [...]

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