Books April 2004

Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Our author finds Jeffrey Masson's "divertingly amateurish" style likely to broaden the audience for the animal-rights movement in a way that Peter Singer and Matthew Scully never could
More

Although linked by a subtitle to his innocuous best sellers about dogs and cats, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Pig Who Sang to the Moon reads suspiciously like a veiled attack on meat-eating—until page three, that is, when the veil comes off. It is a more muddled attack than we have come to expect from the animal-rights movement, but that may be why it works so well. Most of us want to be talked out of enjoying our favorite foods about as much as we want to be talked into studying The Watchtower in our spare time; we're more likely to let people try to convert us if we don't think they've spent years perfecting their harangue. Masson, then, may be just the sort of spokesman the animals have been waiting for. His approach is so divertingly amateurish, his logic so far from airtight, that we see no harm in letting him ramble on for just one more chapter—only to find we've turned the last page, and he has affected us by the simple decency of his example.

Unless the author thinks that quoting Gandhi is the way to cast an awed hush over neighborhood barbecues, he did not write The Pig Who Sang to the Moon for the average American meat eater. The publishers, for their part, must have known that the PETA crowd would be put off by the open-doored fantasy barn on the cover and the absence of grisly photographs inside. No, this book is aimed squarely at the James Herriot-reading fellow travelers of the animal-rights movement: those kindhearted people who are always looking for ways to help, even if it means donating a perfectly good exercise machine to the Humane Society thrift shop; the ones who are so appalled by factory farms that they've pretty much given up meat entirely, especially veal, unless, of course, they're at someone's house; these are the people who assume an air of solidarity with the movement that drives it stark raving mad. If Masson shares his comrades' urge to tell all these ovo-lacto-carno-vegetarians where they can put their Mr. Winkle calendars, he has done an impressive job of restraining himself—as well he should have. For better or worse, they're the closest thing to an audience the animal-rights movement has, and it's about time someone wrote something on this subject that they won't feel too upset to read.

Masson's main point is that animals, far from being dumb and unfeeling, are similar enough to human beings to suffer horribly from the conditions in which they are farmed and slaughtered. The dust jacket calls this "revolutionary" talk, but it's unlikely to elicit much surprise or disagreement even from the meat-eating mainstream. The idea that the animals we eat are mere moving things, though still widespread in Asia (the word for "animal" in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean means "moving thing"), is common in the West only in regard to fish, which we hardly think of as being slaughtered at all, and to the lobsters we boil alive. For the farm animal, on the other hand, we've always had more pity than Masson seems to think; not for nothing do we get choked up when reading Charlotte's Web to our children. But this is a false pity—what the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig defined in another context as "the heart's impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by another's misfortune." Its main effect on our lives is to make us lunge for the TV remote (ill-temperedly, as if a trust had been broken) whenever a camera so much as points at a slaughterhouse across a cornfield. We don't support gratuitous cruelty—we're not monsters, for God's sake—but neither do we lose any sleep wondering what happens to farm animals when we're not looking. Still less do we care what goes on in their hearts and minds. Research could prove that cows love Jesus, and the line at the McDonald's drive-through wouldn't be one sagging carload shorter the next day. The ethological thrust of Masson's book is therefore no more likely to change our behavior than the other arguments he tosses in for good measure—philosophical and moral arguments that the animal-rights movement has spent decades preaching to a world that can barely be bothered to look up from its plate. As the heroine of J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003) concludes in one of her lectures, our hearts are closed to animals; we have the capacity to imagine their suffering, "but choose not to exercise it."

This is precisely what makes Masson's style so important, a style that contrasts strongly with that of most well-known books on this theme. In Animal Liberation (1975), the bible of the movement, Peter Singer seems at pains to present himself as prickly and aloof, a man who has never felt the need for a pet, and he obviously wants non-vegetarian readers to see themselves reflected in a pair of cat-loving dimwits who once asked him over for ham sandwiches. A similar inability to relate to any but the already indignant marks Matthew Scully's Dominion (2002), an otherwise brilliant book that was reviewed in these pages. The cover shows a trussed ram, the inside jacket promises a "painful" read complete with a visit to a "hellish" farm, and the introduction starts like this:

It began with one pig at a British slaughterhouse. Somewhere along the production line it was observed that the animal had blisters in his mouth and was salivating. The worst suspicions were confirmed, and within days borders had been sealed and a course of action determined. Soon all of England and the world watched as hundreds, and then hundreds of thousands, of pigs, cows, and sheep and their newborn lambs were taken outdoors, shot, thrown into burning pyres, and bulldozed into muddy graves. Reporters described terrified cattle being chased by sharpshooters, clambering over one another to escape. Some were still stirring and blinking a day after being shot.

I don't know about England, but America certainly didn't watch that, and wouldn't have watched it for anything. Nor is it interested in reading a book that starts out like that. The reason a hurried "Oh, I hardly eat meat either" has become such a popular response to another's declaration of vegetarianism is usually not that we mean it, but that we now know enough about factory farming to want to stop Scully types from telling us any more. It's a cold-blooded squeamishness all right, like that of the German villagers who scowled into their handkerchiefs rather than behold the corpses in liberated death camps, but it does no good for activists to rage against it. This is a free country (for human beings), and the American meat eater doesn't need to consider anything he doesn't want to. Try forcing him, and he will only conclude, again like those German villagers, that the whole exercise has more to do with punishment than persuasion.

That Masson has grasped this is evident right from the start of his book, in an anecdotal preface devoted to the singing pig of the title. It's not much of a story, at least not as it's told, but it's a happy one, and its context establishes the sixty-two-year-old author as a relaxed and amiable family man. "A nice person like you can't possibly know what wonderful, sensitive creatures farm animals are," Masson seems to be saying to us throughout, "or you wouldn't be paying people to brutalize them, would you?" This approach keeps things positive despite the sad notes struck on every page. It's possible that Masson is consciously using an old child-rearing ploy to appeal to our better natures ("What you don't realize when you pull your sister's hair is that it hurts her"), but I doubt it. He seems genuinely excited about being able to tell us that pigs prefer to be clean, and that a mother hen is as protective of her young as, well, a mother hen. The familiarity of these revelations is both touching and humbling, as is Masson's belief that "in general, the more we know about something, the more we care." Who's to say that this simple faith in human understanding and compassion won't induce some readers to justify it?

Masson used to be a psychoanalyst, and was a professor of Sanskrit before that. It's a good thing that his attempts to pose as a serious animal researcher are always so endearingly half-assed. Swanning around in someone else's white coat will get even the most charming raconteur in trouble, but there's no law against clipping a pocket protector to your dressing gown and leaning somberly forward. "In order to understand an animal we know today, I have looked at its ancestors," he says at one point, claiming thereby to have won "the kind of insight into the personalities and needs of farm animals that has been missing for centuries." Well, our ancestors lived in trees, but that's hardly relevant to our emotional needs today—or, for that matter, to a plea for prison reform. In practice, Masson's approach serves mainly to excuse his habit of digressing from the miserable lives of pigs, cows, chickens, goats, and sheep to more uplifting trivia about their cousins in the wild.

People do not think of chickens as having the ability to fly. Chickens rarely fly. Having seen its wild ancestors, the Burmese fowl, also called the northern red jungle fowl, all over India and Bali, I can confirm that these birds fly, and quite well. Their evolutionary cousin, the eider duck, is one of the fastest flying of all birds. Not even swifts or swallows can outpace an eider.

Nor can an eider duck outpace Masson's mind as it flies from anecdote to expert opinion to literary quotation and back again, seldom perching anywhere for more than half a page and sometimes hardly alighting at all. A few of the anecdotes are so short and unsatisfying that they seem like captions to missing photographs. (If ever a book needed more of a visual element, it's this one.) Still, the parts tend to be involving enough to make for a readable whole. The reader's good will is tested only when Masson quotes the ethological community with approval on one page and then rails against it a little later, usually for its refusal to confirm or deny that animals have emotions. One can share his impatience with the state of research while at the same time finding it only proper that scientists have a higher standard of what constitutes hard evidence. Conjecture and anecdotalism can cut both ways, after all; the meat industry probably has no shortage of anti-Massons who are ready to gaze into the eyes of a pig and tell us that it actually likes not being able to turn around.

Mindful of his readership, the author provides only occasional glimpses into the horrors of factory farming, but he has chosen them well. It is one thing to be dimly aware, as we all are, that calves are dragged from their mothers lest they get at "our" milk. It's another thing to read this:

One particular cow ... appeared to be deeply affected by the separation from her calf ... When the calf was first removed, she was in acute grief; she stood outside the pen where she had last seen her calf and bellowed for her offspring for hours. She would only move when forced to do so. Even after six weeks, the mother would gaze at the pen where she last saw her calf and sometimes wait momentarily outside of the pen.

By that time, in all likelihood, the calf had gone out of its mind in a veal crate, if it wasn't dead already. (They say the Masai drink blood with their milk—but don't we all?) This is from the same chapter:

A friend [said] that she passed a slaughterhouse every morning ... and she noticed the cows lined up in the pre-slaughter pen from where they could see their companions being killed. They were trembling—they could hardly stand up they were shaking so badly. They were absolutely terrified.

Some activists might wish that Masson had taken a long, gory look at what those cows were seeing, but he was smart not to do so, or to give readers any other reason to plead nausea and excuse themselves. His book is to Dominion as The Diary of Anne Frank is to Shoah.

Regarding a visit to a jam-packed and eerily quiet broiler shed, Masson writes, "I had a horrible realization that I was letting these chickens down, even as I was there to understand and write about their plight in the hope that some people would see that killing them was wrong." These words are the key to understanding what Masson has set out to do here. Singer and Scully have grander plans for reconfiguring the ethical or theological landscape, the better to bring about a broad shift in public opinion; hence the intellectual thoroughness of their arguments, but also their indifference to engaging the interest of (let alone entertaining) the individual meat eater. Masson's goal is both more modest and more ambitious: he wants our animals. In effect, we each start life with about six cows, thirty sheep, twenty-two pigs, fifteen ducks, and eight hundred chickens in our very own factory farm. Those of us who choose not to eat meat set that number of animals free, while the rest of us kill "ours" one by one to eat them, and the last is in our stomachs when we die. (Surely this way of putting things is close enough to the literal truth for all sides to agree on.) If Masson's goal is to rescue animals from our hands, then it's easy to understand why his approach is as inconsistent as a police negotiator's in a hostage standoff: why he appeals now to our hearts, now to our minds; why he passes the megaphone to scientists when it suits him and yanks it angrily away when it doesn't; why he urges the release of all the animals and then voices hope for even a small improvement in their situation; why he is ready to try anything he can to reach our souls through the walls of our selfishness—walls that in this case are reinforced by social convention and the law.

It's no easy task, but if anyone has the people skills for it, it's Masson. During his research he even managed to get some farm workers to let their guard down and concede, though they tended to contradict themselves in the same breath, that pigs and cows are a lot more like human beings than the public thinks. Masson is kindhearted enough to ascribe their inconsistency to an inner struggle over the moral implications of their livelihood. It was more likely a matter of shins being kicked under the table. But these farm workers kill animals because they can support their families by doing so, whereas we order the killing for reasons that have never been more frivolous, now that meat is no longer considered necessary for one's health, and soy products can replicate to an uncanny degree the experience of eating it. I know, "It's just not the same"—but as with the child molester, who probably thinks those very words when he rolls off his wife, the nonviolent pleasure is surely close enough to the violent one to make an insistence on the latter even more monstrous. Has any generation in history ever been so ready to cause so much suffering for such a trivial advantage? We deaden our consciences to enjoy—for a few minutes a day—the taste of blood, the feel of our teeth meeting through muscle. It's enough, as Balzac would say, to disgust a sow.

B. R. Myers is the author of A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (2002), a portion of which first appeared in the July/August 2001 Atlantic.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In