Thursday, January 17, 2008

Omnivore's Dilemma 2

My response to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma starts in out-of-the-way moments. The first is a reference to Basel: it turns out that Fritz Haber "died ... in a Basel hotel room in 1934." Haber is famous for three things: first, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of how to synthesize nitrogen from the air (for "improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind," as the Nobel committee put it). Secondly, he was the leader of Germany's efforts to use poison gas in World War I. Thirdly, he was the inventor of Zyklon B, which was used to gas Jews and others in German concentration camps during World War II. But he himself was a converted Jew who had to leave Germany after the Nazi seizure of power, and he died in Basel in 1934.

The second out-of-the-way moment that struck me involved a reference to an author I have written extensive notes about here: J. M. Coetzee. I spent the summer last year reading and re-reading his novels and essays, in anticipation of the publication of his newest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, and I read Pollan's book afterwards, so I was surprised and pleased to find Coetzee turning up in Pollan's book, especially as I immediately thought of Coetzee at the beginning of the paragraph that ends with a reference to him. (If Pollan had not referred to Coetzee, I would have written to Pollan to tell him about Coetzee.) Pollan's reference is to Elizabeth Costello (or, more precisely, to The Lives of Animals, which was later incorporated into EC):

Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then "a crime of stupendous proportions" (in Coetzee's words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice.

The literary scholar in me wants to chastise Pollan for conflating Coetzee with Elizabeth Costello, the character he invented, but it would be too complicated, of course, for Pollan to observe the literary niceties here, and in fact, it was Coetzee who wrote that phrase, even if he put it into his character's mouth.

At first, Pollan surrenders, as it were, to the ideas expressed by Coetzee's character, as well as those of Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation (and, interestingly, a respondent when Coetzee first presented the lectures that Pollan refers to and that Coetzee later used in Elizabeth Costello). But Pollan finally concludes (referring to an organic farm he worked at for a week):

To many people even Polyface Farm is a "death camp"—a way station for doomed creatures awaiting their date with the executioner. But to look at the lives of these animals is to see this holocaust analogy for the sentimental conceit it really is ... To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship—to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species.

As Milan Kundera put it in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: man is a "cow parasite."

Pollan hence finally sees Singer, Coetzee, and others who might criticize even a humanely run farm like Polyface Farm for its exploitation of animals as "sentimental" (something Coetzee has surely never before been accused of being!). Still, Pollan himself succumbs to the seductiveness of holocaust analogies when he comments that Haber's biography "recalls the dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture."

While preparing these comments, I took a break and chanced to be reading "On a Weekend Break in a Political Vacuum," a poem by Alan Gillis, from his book Hawks and Doves, which includes the following stanza:

She accuses herself, as it is with the food
that awaits her, served with speed in a bright
labelled box (always that first bite's stomach-
melting dream chews to cardboard and carcass,
like a drunken one-night stand's aftermath
rising to a seasickness which empties,
utterly empties, so that she winds up
seeking the comfort of warm, easy things—
the chilled blues and brightly-boxed food
that awaits her), so it is with her mind.

How perfectly Gillis captures the seductiveness of fast food: the "melting dream" that produces a dissatisfaction that, through twists and turns, leads one back to the "brightly-boxed food" even when (or perhaps precisely because) it "chews to cardboard and carcass." "She accuses herself," writes Gillis, as many of us perhaps accuse ourselves, but without changing, even if, with Pollan, we remind ourselves what "unsustainable" means: "Sooner or later it must collapse."

When I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma, I began to shop differently. Did I go vegan? No. Did I go vegetarian? No. Did I start buying only organic food? No. Did I start buying only local food? No. But I began to compare things more carefully: is it organic? If so, where is it from? How much does it cost compared to the non-organic product? (It is surprising how many organic products are not more expensive than their non-organic counterparts, and how many more are only slightly more so.) I began to try to apply Pollan's conclusion:

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, simply as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.


SarahJane said...

That's interesting, Andrew. I have to say that while Elizabeth Costello was not a sympathetic character, I'm sure she was right on in a few of her seemingly off ideas. I thought, however, that some of Elizabeth Costello (the book) was taken from lectures Coetzee himself has given. Maybe I'm mixing it up with another book. The more we know about products, the freakier the experience of shopping, and eating, becomes.

Andrew Shields said...

I'm not sure EC is right about anything, but I am sure that JMC's "real" opinions do not coincide (at least not completely) with EC's!

The second and third chapters of the book EC were first published as "The Lives of Animals," with responses by Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, among others. I have not read the responses, though.