Sunday, August 2, 2009

David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster

David Foster Wallace committed suicide last year at the age of 46. His most famous book, Infinite Jest, looks intimidatingly long to me.

Yesterday I listened to the essay Consider the Lobster while trimming bushes.

Wallace wrote the essay for Gourmet in 2004. In it, he starts by reviewing the Maine Lobster Festival, held each year in Camden, Rockland, and other midcoast Maine towns. The heart of the piece, though, is an examination of whether lobsters (and other animals) feel pain and why people are often reluctant to think about this issue.

The essay is incredibly depressing, but Wallace's insight is spot-on in terms of my own attitude towards eating animals: whenever I start to think too much about whether animals have souls or experience feelings, I turn away from prolonged consideration before it makes me feel too bad.

Wallace seems determined to figure out why he does the same; he doesn't reach any firm conclusions, but his essay, by its sheer length and amount of detail, did compel me to think more about these issues than I am usually comfortable doing. Here's an excerpt:
The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions...

The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home ... However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off...

The truth is that if you permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest. Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
One of the things about this essay that surprised me was that it's subject matter is such a daily, "real" issue. Based on what I'd heard about Wallace, I thought his work would be fairly arcane and difficult to follow. He does have some fairly winding passages (particularly with his footnotes thrown in), but the overall structure was more conventional than I expected, and he wrote about a very difficult issue in a fairly accessible way.

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