The Smoking Vegetarian


Why do we stand in wonder before the great paintings, the great sculptures? What is that aura that we seek, that even in the slightest works can capture and enthral us – an aura about the margins and between the lines of poetry, that whelms through music, is part of the atmosphere of novels? Is ‘wonder’ the best term for it? Critics have wrestled with this question for centuries, resorting to such terms as ‘the sacred’, ‘worship’, the ‘spiritual’; others, rejecting such terms, have found, in that feeling of awe, that yearning, a kind of secular substitute – or evidence that art might be a kind of secular substitute. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be rational, this wonder and apprehension, and this, perhaps, is its perpetual appeal. We might, before the work of art, find our mind racing, but this feeling is what sets the mind racing, not the racing itself: a stilling, a confounding, something at the tip of the mind, as a word can be at the tip of the tongue, at once so close and so out of reach that it has others writing of depth psychology, infantile states, mourning for pre-linguistic plenitudes. As if we have found in ourselves a deep hole, a chasm. Even if we choose to ignore it, everything, in this place of art, seems to resonate with its presence.

That is not really where this essay begins. In a more practical sense, it starts in Skardalija, the oldest part of Belgrade, several years ago. I am in the city at an international writers’ festival, one of a handful of Australians there. One of the others, in his early seventies, is a man I haven’t seen for almost twenty years. In the late 1980s he was a sometime drinking companion when the poets gathered at the university Staff Centre on Friday evenings. After our reading at the National Library of Serbia, an early evening event, we go into Skadarlija, to a restaurant with outdoor tables overlooking the street. It’s a place famed for grilled meats. Our hosts, knowing that my partner and I are vegetarian, are keen to make sure that there is enough on the menu that we can eat. It’s clear that they want to go there, and it’s hard to be spoilers. We assure them there’s always something. Salad. Chips. A plain pasta.

It’s twilight, late September, warm, the air and the atmosphere delicious. We are all hungry. We order wine, food, pour a glass, drink as we wait. My wife lights up a cigarette. I think about doing likewise but since none of the others appears to be a smoker (not so: after dinner our hosts all light up) decide against it. The man I haven’t seen in twenty years seems disgruntled. We make small-talk for a few minutes but then he bursts out with it. ‘How can you smoke and be a vegetarian?’ he asks, whether of my wife or of me isn’t clear. A strange question, anyway, since I can remember him smoking heavily, but he has given it up, evidently. We attempt to answer, tell him, though he seems to have trouble believing it, that we are not vegetarians for our own health, but out of concern for animals (we’re dissembling already: we’re not vegetarians, but vegans, but instinct warns us against mentioning this). He continues, rude and intrusive, long after my wife’s one cigarette has been stubbed out. It’s not clear what bothers him most, that we are smokers, or that we are vegetarians. It’s as if he feels he has caught the whiff of some deep hypocrisy and is determined to ferret it out. The evening begins to turn sour. It seems as if nothing will stop him.

Vegetarians are never popular. Recent converts especially. Vegans far less. It’s OK if it’s for one’s health – indeed one can receive a measure of understanding and sympathy, as presumably one might if it were for religious reasons – but if it’s an aversion to animal slaughter, animal cruelty, a conversion, it unsettles people. One’s friends can’t stop talking about it. And then most likely complain that it is you who have become obsessive. As if they feel betrayed. Unobtrusive as you try to be, you’ve become a walking chastisement. Some people can get very vehement indeed. A website I recently consulted quoted the chef Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential) to the effect that ‘vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit’. ‘There is nothing new about turning vegetarians into figures of fun’, writes Colin Spencer, in The Heretic’s Feast:

disciples of Pythagoras became stock characters in Attic comedy…. But other societies felt such criticism was no laughing matter and the outsiders were reviled. Vegetarians then became criminalised and were considered blasphemers and heretics. (xiii)

The Catholic Church, for example, has always been in two minds. There are vegetarian orders, vegetarian saints, but the Church has historically been at pains to point out that vegetarianism is common to most of the major heretical movements it has tried to repress. It is an aspect of Manicheanism. The Bogamils were vegetarian. The Cathars. The Albigensians. Make a case for the inherent vegetarianism of Christianity (as some of these movements did) and you’d have to shoulder a huge weight of contradictory discourse. Christ is the lamb of God. ‘This is my flesh’, he says, ‘Take, eat, in memory of me.’ Christianity, arguably, is organised – like the religion from which it evolved – around eating rituals, proscriptions of the consuming of this or that kind of flesh (long lists in Deuteronomy and Leviticus) that are at the same time encouragements to eat other kinds, to sacrifice and eat other kinds (horror and shame displaced: the making sacred as a mode of abjection). Indeed the Judeao-Christian tradition, with its consistent encouragement to eat meat, its denial of souls to animals, its concentration upon Man as the pinnacle of creation, has done much to bring about the culture of animal cruelty that flourishes today. Genesis 9 spells it out emphatically: ‘And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.’ The Split, I call this, the Scission, by which the human, upon promise of eternal reward, is led to deny the core of its being.

To a vegan, of course, vegetarianism and such paraforms as ‘pescatarianism’ seem half-hearted. The less meat one eats the better, yes, whatever the reason: it can’t be good for one’s overall anxiety-level, subliminal or otherwise, to be consuming flesh still flushed with the terror of imminent execution (‘Humane’ slaughter? Think again). Avoidance of meat is also good for one’s weight, blood pressure, cholesterol level, predisposition to diabetes, etc., to say nothing of one’s own feeling about oneself and one’s relation to the world, although these latter will be factors only if one has changed diet out of compassion for the animals one might otherwise be eating, and it is here that half-measures become less and less plausible. I won’t embark upon the cruelties of battery farming or the dairy industry. There are many ways to inform oneself of such. Suffice to say that, if one is determined to minimalise one’s impact upon animals, then one’s diet will eventually be free of eggs and of dairy-products. And, if this is one’s concern, one doesn’t stop there. One avoids leather, fur, wool. One avoids products that contain ingredients that come from animals, and products tested upon animals. One avoids feeding animals to animals. And initially this regime will seem difficult, for one finds such products everywhere. They are components of the furniture we use; they are in our cosmetics, medications, soaps, shampoos; most clothes contain them; they help to ‘clear’ most of the wines we drink; they are there even in the ink and spines of the books we consult in order to learn about them – so omnipresent, indeed, that one could speak of very nearly the entire material world of humans as deeply intertwined with and supported by the world of animals, except that ‘supported’ is woefully misleading: better to say ‘dependent upon the cruel treatment and the killing of animals’ – riding, as it were, on a tide of suffering.

Is that, then, what this essay is about? Yes, and no. My account of the absolute pervasiveness of the animal in human material culture is to preface the point that the suffering, subjugation and debasement of the animal are just as pervasive in the world of thought as in the world of things – a pervasion the apprehension of which, hard enough in the first place, is rendered all the more difficult firstly because it is a matter less of active thought-against, as in overt proscriptions of the animal or injunctions to animal cruelty, than it is of blindness to, brought about by the overwhelming orientation of attention elsewhere (i.e. onto the perpetuation and ‘advancement’ of the human), secondly because it is, therefore, a pervasive absence rather than a pervasive presence, and thirdly because, as with all problems-of-thought of this nature, perception of the extent of this pervasion must be done with a mind already pervaded.

Although one might want to preface such a statement with the assertion that such divine powers were in the first place invented in order to issue such an injunction (so much of the sacred having been made by humans for human purposes), the assumption of dominion over the animate world was never so clear and simple a matter as (as the Book of Genesis presents it) an injunction from God. It is a far more ancient process than anything the Bible might legend, a key factor in the genesis of culture per se. A shift, let’s say, from hunting for survival, animal amongst animals, to the cultivation of meat alongside one’s grain. A set of mental procedures, eventually, consolidating into rituals, and rituals-of-thought, to enable one to deal with and rationalise the killing of creatures that have become part of one’s immediate environment and that, if not necessarily loved, one has at least observed the co-creatureness of and recognised something of one’s own creatureness in. It is harder, a kind of fratricide, to kill that-which-one-is than to kill that-which-one-is-not, and so the assumption of this aforesaid dominion entails a denial of that co-creatureness, an emphasis upon difference rather than sameness, and a machinery of thought that exaggerates and consolidates, indeed invents, that difference. Metaphysics surely has some part of its origins in this, a shift, in this regard, into bad faith, inauthenticity, a reinvention of oneself as something other than what one is, a denial of one’s animal being, a dividing of oneself against oneself, a suppression so deep that it is perhaps best described as a wound that we must carry, must attempt to deal with, have been conditioned, ironically, to turn to metaphysics to attempt to soothe and explain, without ever really knowing what it is, or where it comes from.

What do we do to ourselves when we slaughter? What do we do to ourselves when we eat our own kind (apart from drawing death so deeply into ourselves, into every cell of the mind as well as the body, as if these can be distinguished)? Deny our kindredness, re-invent ourselves, attach ourselves to another place, give ourselves wings as we might, the fact remains that we also brutalise ourselves – that we also know that we are animal, are kindred, and have embarked upon a kind of cannibalism – a long, slow holocaust – and that repressing this and the shame and guilt that attend it – articulating a whole metaphysical complex to give it a specious validation (a complex akin to the way we process, package and describe our meat to disguise its origins) – we have created a deep schism in ourselves. This schism, this Wound, albeit so deeply repressed that we can only begin to guess which of and in what manner our beliefs and institutions are its proxies, is one of the givens of our culture.

This process is not only one of the main currents in the development of human thought, but is alive in each of us, a complex navigated in the enculturation of every individual. We don’t, by and large, want our children to see the slaughter that brings meat to their table – indeed it so unsettles us that we have developed complicated systems to mask it – but children seem particularly inclined to identify, and to express their horror at such processes. But then, of course, we see them harden into an adulthood in which, rather than outgrow or overcome it, they in some parts suppress, in some parts sublimate their horror, compounded now by a sense of shame, of having betrayed.

Any such position will face familiar arguments. Most common is that, as the human is biologically constructed as omnivore, it is ‘natural’ to eat meat. This point is as undeniable as it is irrelevant. Our teeth are shaped that way, yes, and our digestive system, but it is true too that our bodies bear organs that we no longer use, and that the presence of a capacity is no obligation to exploit it. We also have the capacity to choose. There is, for most of humankind, no longer any necessity to depend for sustenance upon the slaughter of other creatures. Almost as common is the argument that meat is necessary for a balanced diet. This, while fervently promoted by the meat industry, is balderdash.

A third argument is of a different kind, Protean in its manifestations, but an anecdote should illustrate it clearly enough – a Greek friend, describing Easter in his native village: the killing and roasting of the lamb (‘Take. Eat….’), and the way this ritual becomes a kind of initiation for the children. He too is troubled by the tiers of pre-packaged animal parts on supermarket shelves. The modern urbanite has lost touch with the land, with ritual. Ideally one eats only meat that comes from animals one kills oneself, so that one knows where the meat comes from and what has been done to bring it to the table. Some sense of taking responsibility is involved, a sense that the killing is somehow acceptable if one does it oneself, does not delegate it or expect that it not intrude upon one’s consciousness, although this, on the other hand, seems to admit that there is a weight, a problem, to be taken responsibility for, and that this killing should not be an ordinary or easy thing to do.

The word ‘sacred’ has been in the air for some time and now, at last, appears, though it is not clear whether what is sacred is the life taken or – as if the one confers its sacredness on the other – the taking of the life. I think – more sceptically than I might once have done (I can think of no reason why ‘tradition’, ‘belief’, etc. should absolve one culture more than another) – of the native American tribes who thanked the spirit of the buffalo they hunted. Yes, life is sacred, if I can employ that term in a secular sense – there are many things that are sacred in such a sense – but I am uneasy about the term, firstly because it is so definitively non-secular, so much within the economy of the religious, and secondly because it is so subject to critical misuse.

The term ‘sacred’ is itself sacred, it seems, and I’m not sure that it should be. All too often it is a sign that something ethically questionable is being placed safely beyond discussion. It also objectifies the thing it qualifies – separates and segregates it. We began to need God, the sacred, etc., as separate entities, when we removed something from ourselves, or sought to remove ourselves from where and what we had been: when, with an act – a long, slow act, albeit – of supreme arrogance, we said that what was here (the animal, but not only that) was about us, was not sacred, and could therefore be subjected to us.

As to the non-secularity of the term, I have hypothesised already that metaphysics were born out of the need to establish the human as something above or beyond the animal, as a means of asserting and consolidating that dominion which the canny makers of the Bible needed to establish before any other human attribute could be presented. But any implication – and it is my implication – that such a development is universal, rather than the product of particular culture, must confront the existence of vegetarian religions, past and present, that argue the sacredness of all life and proscribe the taking of it in any form. My difficulty with these – mitigated by gratitude for any abatement of cruelty – stems from the way that, even in their apparently contrary direction, such religions still have as their basic premise the progressive extraction of the human from its animal predicament. If they proscribe the eating of flesh or the taking of life, they do so on the understanding that this is in the individual’s best interests. The compassion they advocate is still, as it were, framed as a compassion-under-duress rather than voluntary and a logical product of one’s being.

Another anecdote. I am walking through the university on the first day of first semester. The place is teeming with new students looking for their first lectures, for coffee, for the library, for their friends. I am struck as always by their confusion, their wide-eyed, calf-like innocence. How many are vegetarian? How many vegan? One in a hundred? Less? I imagine them carrying their sandwiches for lunch – ham, chicken, cheese – or ordering at one or another of the cafeteria: prawn laksa, beef curry, hamburgers. Even if they wished to think differently, how could they? How is this place – this university – going to help them? I try to think of a discipline that is not in some way dependent upon dominion and the exploitation of animals, but which would it be? Such disciplines surely exist, but for the moment I can’t think of them. Mathematics? Physics? I can think of few others. Certainly not Philosophy, where every major figure, meat-eater or otherwise, either oils the sympathetic machinery of metaphysics or prefaces their work on advancement of the human. Certainly not my own discipline, where the entire pastoral tradition turns about an unspoken centre of cruelty; where the greatest novels rely as much upon dinner parties and the carving of beef as they do upon battles and the intensities of human emotion. Certainly not Law, Medicine, Education, Psychology. And certainly not Art History. The university – my beloved turning (and disappearing) world of knowledge – seems suddenly, to my absolute dismay, but another immense and complicated agency for the unreflective propagation of cruelty, swallowing these students as an abattoir swallows its victims.

Overstatement? yes, but a reeling vertigo is not unusual before one gets one’s bearings in this new place-of-thought. Reorientation toward the Animal demands a deep and extensive de-centring of the human. One questions directly the right of homo sapiens to be the point of everything, proposes that the human be amongst, not above, that it be one of, not the. Hitherto, one realises, all understandings of value, all standards of good and evil, had been predicated upon the continued dominance of the species. But what if that were set aside? If one has not been brought up to it, this perception can come as a dramatic destabilisation. It can seem, for a time, as if all the edifices of one’s previous understanding, their centre-pin gone, list, threaten to topple, their contingency exposed. The noblest expressions of human nature and purpose can appear blinkered and naïf. One can be shocked at what one finds oneself reconsidering. Surrounded by people brought to a veritable standstill by the insurmountable difficulties of their own existence, for  example, one can find oneself thinking that the melancholia that seems the keynote of our time is not much more than an immense, endemic Narcissism. ‘How can you talk about the suffering of animals’, I’m asked, ‘when there is so much human suffering?’, and while one of my answers is clear, that compassion is self-replenishing and without borders, and that there is no need – especially when most of us give so little to anything other than our own immediate interests – to apportion it, I am all too aware that what is given toward the saving or rehabilitation of a human life, while it must, yes, be given, is nevertheless almost certainly also extending the life of one who will continue to eat meat, continue to contribute to the suffering of animals.

A dilemma? Or perhaps merely a paradox. It is hard to know. A recent conversation with a friend turned to matters of animal cruelty, then inevitably to veganism:

‘So you don’t eat any meat?’




‘No meat, no seafood – and eggs? milk products?’


‘And this is not for your health but to avoid cruelty.’


‘But where does it stop?’

We talk, then, about ‘sentient’ creatures. How does one define sentience by anything other than a human understanding of the concept? And how can one say that it is unacceptable to kill ‘sentient’ creatures but alright to kill others? Aren’t plants also in some measure sentient? How can we say that they are not?

Vegans often go further, for just these reasons. Some become fructarians, eating only those parts of the plants that the plants produce to be eaten as part of their own process of reproduction. Some argue that we should only eat wild fruits, regarding cultivation itself as a kind of exploitation. My friend and I agree that, following a strict logic in this regard, one might end up living on air, scarcely able to move for fear of hurting some living thing in the process – effacing oneself in order to avoid cruelty to other creatures, while those other creatures show no such compunction. An absurdity, of course, and yet also not. A paradox. A kind of point zero. And yet one cannot – this is surely, like argumentum ad hominem, one of the great errors of thought – allow the difficulty and possible absurdity of the extreme to undermine the principle. It is only in the realm of thought-by-itself – thought alone – that thought can be tidy and without paradox. Thought-in-the-body is a different thing.

The conversation tails off. Driving away, I find myself thinking firstly of the logical difficulty (i.e. that it is logical that there would be difficulty) of de-centring the human in this way. All of our thought – our Logos – pivots about that axis: the machinery of our logic, our language, its grammars, its systems of metaphor. How could one expect anything other than paradox, embarrassment – a kind of radical and systemic stupidity – in one’s attempt to think into so radically different a place? How can one think, against the core of thought? And then, those words ‘point zero’ still ringing in my ears, realizing that what is (now) needed is a Descartes-like return to a kind of point zero of thought, a starting from scratch, with compassion, rather than wound-spurred anxiety, as one’s foundational premise.

I am back at the Wound again.  As my opening intimated, I want to speak of the animal in literature and art in a sense different from any I might so far have adduced. Neither in terms of its presence, let’s say, nor of its absence, but of something as likely manifest in the curve of an archway or the shadow of a chair. Once, at an exhibition of the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, I saw a man in a business suit standing before a still life, weeping. The painting represented a set of glass bottles on a table-top. Four glass bottles, and an open canister, nothing more. Can it be that people go to art galleries in order to sublimate their pain? or to seek its reflection, its echo? Could it be that, in each work they pass, the Wound searches for itself (or for balm, for letting)? Just as the artists cannot have known – at least, not many of them – the nature or origin of that intensity they wished to capture or restore, the idea they wished to return to its body? The Church and the Gallery closely linked, in a complicity that almost passes understanding? But that is perhaps the point, to pass understanding: to be a place – places – to keep from the mind what the mind cannot bear.

I’ve given up smoking, as it happens, or rather smoking has abandoned me. Not for my health, although I feel better for it. A bit like veganism itself. One mightn’t do it for one’s health, but that might improve nonetheless, and not just the physical. The Wound is so deep that there’s probably no fixing it, soothe it as we might, but with the de-centring of the human there can also be (how to put this?) a de-centring of the self in one’s own life, a shifting of attention away from the needs and wounds of the self – those lacks that are, paradoxically, one of the mainstays (the matrices) of contemporary society – toward the needs and wounds of the Animal, in such a way as amounts, ultimately, to a powerful and empowering redefinition of the self, a new and radical kind of well-being.


[i]          A longer version of this essay was first published in Angelaki: journal of the theoretical humanities Vol.14, No.2 (Oxford: August 2009).This condensed version first appeared, by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Ltd,, in Best Australian Essays of 2010, edited by Robert Drewe (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010).