Suspended in her jar

The sun is shining.  I am eating a mango.  Ideologies fade like miasma.

I am firmly of the conviction that the pleasure of eating good food puts one in direct contact with the ineffable Good, which is too often mediated to us through mere theory or guesswork – it is posited as something Out There which has nothing to do with bodily pleasure.  Indeed, this mango right now is, according to such theories, interfering with my contact with the Good, because it is distracting me through base pleasure.  You know what I say to that? Hooray for base pleasure! I know that the taste of this mango is good with the same certainty that I know I exist. It is a comforting thought.

I’ve spent years recovering from the philosophical prejudice about bodily pleasure. But recovery is complete! No longer will I apologize for enjoying a ripe tomato or a succulent bloody steak. I won’t try to make shameful excuses: “it’s okay as long as it’s nourishing the body that sustains the mind that enables me to read Hegel” – or the “merely subjectively satisfying is neutral as long as it does not distract one from the objective good” or “I have to eat this tomato because a nice old lady offered it to me, and I don’t want to offend her, but I promise I am NOT enjoying it. I am thinking about Higher Things.”


Incidentally, the tomato was first mentioned in a European cookbook in 1692 – the same year Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy was translated into English. I love Descartes, but it seems that a lot of ripe tomatoes are necessary, occasionally, to balance out the psychological effect of too much Cartesian meditation.  Reading Descartes gives me the distinct impression a) that he is right; and b) that I am sort of disintegrating like the Cumaean Sybil, one bit of me over there washing dishes, the other bit of me huddled over a hot stove in Sweden, some snippet of me (a nose, perhaps) galloping across golden fields at dusk, far away, over there.

I ascribe to a Schelerian view of a hierarchy of goods, according to which sometimes a lower good should be eschewed for the sake of a higher one. Thus it is of course acceptable to give up the pleasure of food for the sake of fasting, or for the sake of health. Gluttony involves pursuing the pleasure of eating to so inordinate an extent that other goods are harmed or neglected.  But that doesn’t mean gastronomic pleasure isn’t good; it simply means that it is not the highest good.

One pleasant thing about eating is that you can romanticize it as much as you want, and it still won’t disappoint you. Romanticization of marriage, or pregnancy, or traveling in France, or having a kickass career, can lead to despondency.  But there is something about a good meal that prevents one from trying to make it into anything other than what it is…a good meal.  This may be because a glass of wine is not a person – it is finite and contained, and we are not in danger of pretending that it is more or less than what it is.  We often make the error of reducing a person to a mere object of pleasure, or trying to transmute him or her into an Ideal (also a sort of reduction, really: if anyone ever says “you’re my ideal” you should RUN SCREAMING AWAY).  It’s fine to regard a chocolate cake as an object, though. And no one I know has ever pretended that a cake is a Platonic Form (and I’ve known some pretty loopy people).

No matter how many glorious literary descriptions of feasts I read, I am still not downcast over real feasts in real life.

This leads one to reflect upon memorable literary meals.  I present these, in no particular order. Feel free to add more:

1) “Babette’s Feast,” by Isak Dinesen. The amazing banquet cooked up by the mysterious French chef, Babette, for a host of simple, kindly, Puritanical Danish Christians.  Almost as good as the descriptions of the meal: descriptions of the aging, cautious sisters’ terror of the heathenish ingredients in store for them, their determination NOT to speak a word about the food, not even to enjoy it.  Best of all, though: the true communion and love experienced, at the close of the feast.  “Justice and peace shall kiss.”

2) Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.  Here we have two memorable feasts:  Charles and Sebastian drinking wine and eating strawberries one golden Arcadian day, and the exquisitely sophisticated Parisian meal Charles orders for the clueless Rex. Especially the description of the pearls or caviar in melted butter on blinis.

3) The Odyssey, by Homer.  The Cyclops’ “feast” does a lot to explain the hero’s relief to finally be again among “men who eat bread.”  For a change.

4) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.  The breakfast Mr. Tumnus serves Lucy.  So many different things to serve on toast!

5) The Satyricon, by Petronius.  Trimalchio’s Feast is a monument of vulgarity, especially when they slice open the roast pig and out come all the sausages.  Also, here we find that memorable quotation about the Sybil (suspended in her jar):

One interesting thing about this book is that in the Loeb classical edition, prudish scholars wouldn’t translate certain bits; this gives the curious Latin student impetus to brush up on grammar and vocabulary to find out just WHAT happened after Encolpius meets Arquilla.  Nothing salutary, you can bet on that.  After you have translated as much as you can you will reject these silly notions about contemporary literature breaking with the high-minded purity of the sacred Tradition.

6) The Bible.  Speaking of mangoes: the Forbidden Fruit in the garden of Eden.  Probably NOT an apple. Most likely a mango. Also, the rapid-fire meal Abraham prepares for his heavenly visitors.  The man runs out, slaughters a calf, roasts it up on a fire, grinds grain, makes bread, runs back in, serves his guests…in the time it would take most of us, presumably, to throw together a PB & J sandwich.  Oh, and of course, the Last Supper.

I could go on and on, but I will leave it to you all to supply further examples: because I have to go make lunch for my kids.  Incidentally, isn’t it nice that we can read all about these feasts, in graphic sensual detail, without ever feeling one bit guilty for our delectation?  Nothing about food needs to be left untranslated, by even the most dusty and pedantic classicist.

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A bit of a rant.

I’m not sure what is more interesting, historical events or people’s reactions to them.  Since I am hopelessly addicted to observing human nature, I regularly subject myself to the teeth-grinding torment of reading the “comments” section on Yahoo News reports.  I am regularly enthralled by the vitriolic misspelled arguments, in a train-wreck sort of way.  “You are such a moran” – “modern pop singers are imoral and aliterate” – that sort of thing.  Fortunately, I know enough about history to realize that this is not a New Low. We’ve always been idiots; the internet just allows us to flaunt our idiocy.

This drive for justification – by whatever misspelled means necessary – is possibly something new, however.  I keep seeing reports on the narcissism of contemporary culture, and I am inclined to agree.  Modernism introduced heightened self-consciousness (calling oneself “Modern” with a capital “M” and discussing what this means is pretty self-conscious) which is reflected in the huge advances made in psychology during that period, as well as in the development of such trends as the internal monologue in literature.  T.S. Eliot’s “anxiety of influence” is a symptom of a painful consciousness of self as the weary tail-end of history. The modernist Self is aware of immersion in as well as disintegration from the world and time.

The post-modern narcissistic self doesn’t seem to have any anxiety of influence – no worry about “how am I going to write a good poem, in light of Homer and Dante and Milton and Keats and Eliot?”  If the narcissistic self takes the time to write a poem (which it probably won’t) it’s enough that it be MY POEM.    Should anyone attempt to criticize the poem (dude, mixed metaphor!  what’s up with the scansion?) the narcissistic self will be ready with a defense.

Unfortunately I see this in some of my classes. Many students are ready to accuse those vague “others” out in the world of ignorance, selfishness, materialism, “aliteracy” and “imorality” – but it does not seem to occur to many of them to be embarrassed that they have not read the Bible or Augustine or even C.S. Lewis.  They are not ashamed of their misspellings; they just want to know what they can do to get an “A” because it’s “very important” to them.  What mystifies me with this class of student, particularly, is a constant clamoring about their own orthodoxy, when they have not bothered to find out what the Church actually teaches on a single issue. If they know that Catholicism says abortion is wrong, it’s probably because they heard it from a cutesy pop speaker.  (N.B. Certainly not all students are like this.  I have had the pleasure of teaching many bright, independent, impressively well-read kids who have humbled me with their wisdom and abilities, and who are a LOT less insufferable than I was at their age).

And that sort of smug ignorance is not exclusive to conservative religious circles.   I see it also in leftists who are eager to accuse Republicans of being “morans.”  Why can’t any of these folks just be refreshingly honest and say “look I’m a dumbass, and I like being a dumbass, so shut up and let me eat my cheetos”? They want to have their cheetos and their “A” grade, too.

When I read about the death of Osama bin Laden, my first reaction was “I’ve got to see what people are saying about this.”  This was followed by a series of other reactions including “finally” and “if it’s not all a conspiracy” and “may God have mercy on his soul” and “actually this isn’t going to make much material difference in the War on Terror” and “I suppose in fact this is going to make the volatility even worse.”

Reactions I expected included: “we should never rejoice over the death of any person” and “may his soul rot in hell” and “this is purely symbolic” and “it all sounds a little fishy” and “yay George Bush” and “yay Barack Obama.”  When I logged onto Facebook I saw that my predictions were pretty accurate.

What did surprise me just a wee bit was the number of people who posted on the theme of the first sentiment. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people, whether Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Independent, whether Christian or otherwise, expressed sentiments of humanity and decency.  Needless to say none of these folks were writing that bin Laden was actually an all-right dude who didn’t have it coming.  What they pinpointed was the right relation between an emotion and its object.  What are we cheering for? We should be cheering if something good has happened. But what good has actually come of bin Laden’s death? An end to terror? The soldiers being able to finally come home?  No more fear?  No more airport friskings?  The conversion of bin Laden’s soul?  Honestly, this last one is the only one we can even remotely hope for.  Maybe, in the last few seconds of the firefight, he had a chance to repent.

If you are hoping he did not, if you are hoping he is rotting in hell, well, just be aware that your hope is in no way in line with Christ’s desire for every human soul to be saved.

Granted, of course, forgiveness is not natural.  Our natural impulses as human beings drive us to want to have sex with anyone we find attractive, to eat meat when we crave it (screw fasting), and to destroy our enemies and vaunt over them like Achilles (or in this case to rouse ourselves from our stupor on the couch and vaunt because someone else has killed our enemies).

I am not sure, if I had actually lost someone close to me in terror attacks, that I would be capable of forgiveness.  I know that it is almost impossible to imagine what such bereavement would feel like, but I do know it probably would not express itself in the “America, fuck yeah!” sentiment.  People who are grieving deeply are doing so as individuals, and for individuals; they are not so susceptible to the superficial orgy of nationalistic celebration.

A number of us posted the Vatican’s official statement on the death of Osama bin Laden:

“Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end.  In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”

I posted this because I felt that it summed up eloquently what I was in a far more muddled way thinking.  The Vatican has certainly made diplomatic errors in the past, but as a two thousand year old organization it has a responsibility to think long-term, and not just to succumb to the impulses of the moment.

Not surprisingly, another “statement” quickly appeared on Facebook, in which the following claim was made about those of us who posted the Vatican statement:

“I don’t know what the posters’ intent is, or what it’s meant to say, if anything, about the spontaneous celebrations that erupted in our country last night and today when Americans heard the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  But I can say, to post the Vatican’s statement without any explanation, following these celebrations, strikes me as a shallow act of moral snobbery.  It appears–appears, if it’s not intended–to criticize these celebrations, as if rejocing about this momentous event is somehow un-Christian.”

I’m sorry.  What was vague about the Vatican’s words? What I meant to say was what the words said.  What further explanation is required?  If you are celebrating because you think innocent people will be safe in the world today, you may be politically naive, but there is nothing un-Christian about your celebration.  If you are actively rejoicing over the death of an individual as an end in itself, well, your celebration is not Christian.

Go ahead and try to say “hey, I can hate my enemies and be a Christian too” but that reminds me too much of the student who wants the A without having to work for it.

Christianity demands an awful lot of us, and I am not always equal to it.  Few of us are.  The example of Christ forgiving his enemies while he was suffering on the cross is a hard one to follow.  And I do think it would be intolerably snobbish, as well as smug, tasteless, and inconsiderate to tell anyone who had actually lost loved ones to terror attacks: “do as Christ did.” I’m not holy enough to get away with that.

But for those who have not directly suffered, I have to ask. What are you celebrating?  An end to terror?  Someone brought up the image of the Hydra; cut off one head and two more grow in its place.  I don’t think this is going to end the war on terror.  The fact that bin Laden himself can no longer personally cause any more violence? The man was sick anyway, probably dying.  The fact that justice has been done?  It is my belief that only God can enact true justice, because only God knows the actual condition of any soul; only God truly knows what each one of us deserves.  The fact that the job is done? I think those who had the job to carry out do have a right to feel relief at having finished it, but I hope that their celebration is as thoughtful and sober as the situation demands.  Killing someone is a serious business.

I suppose there is something snobbish about posting the Vatican statement, something snobbish about Christianity commanding us to transcend our natural impulses.  A lot less snobbish to just run with the mob, enjoy mass instincts, not try to be better people. Just as good spelling and decent hygiene are also sort of snobbish.  But considering the fact that plenty of non-Christians have the ethical sensibilities to transcend emotional contagion, it’s not THAT snobbish. It’s not too much to ask, of most of us. Actually, it will make the world a better place.

I am curious about whether the author of the statement accusing me of snobbishness would be logically consistent enough to say that it is equally snobbish to quote the Vatican’s statements on contraception to a poor, struggling young couple barely getting by feeding their children…or to quote the Vatican’s statements on homosexuality to two mature, responsible individuals who want to spend their life together.

To quote Bloom County (is that snobbish?): “sneaky inconsistency keeps me awake at night.”

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A Fish with a Cigar

Apparently men have become less manly, and it is All My Fault.


I’ve been reading reviews of a book that seems to be getting glowing reports at the moment – Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys.  I really need to get a hold of a copy (cheap) so I can see the argument in the author’s own words (though plenty of reviewers are happy to tell me her argument in their own words) before I can say anything really conclusive about the book. Because heaven preserve me from becoming one of those people who blithely trashes texts unread, for instance: “I’ve never read Derrida, but I don’t have to, to know he’s nuts.”  Academic gnosis! Must be nice.

It was the title that caught my attention – the moment I saw it little red flags started going up in my head. Because I’ve heard that tune before, you know: chivalry is dead, and it’s because of all of us those howling man-hating feminists who beat men over the head with a copy of The Feminine Mystique, every time they try to open a door for us.  

I can’t begin to count the many times this archetypal scenario has been referenced (in classroom discussions, in internet discussions, in regular life discussions) but I have never seen it happen – and don’t know a single man to whom it has ever actually happened. It’s not that I doubt that it happens; I just don’t think it’s the norm any more than I think pacifists spitting on veterans is the norm.

It came up in an online discussion today.  So I got to thinking about doors, and also about history, chivalry, tradition, men, women, etc.

Doors

Courtesy dictates (to me) that if I go through a door and someone else is behind me, I automatically hold it for them. I don’t step aside and hold it for them obsequiously; I just hold it until they get there.  Exceptions to this include: people carrying heavy stuff, pregnant women, people with small children, old people with walkers, anyone pushing a cart or a stroller…for them I will stand aside.

An exception in the opposite direction: I might be tempted to let the door slam in the face of someone with a swastika tattoo.  Maybe.

If a man stands aside and holds a door for me obsequiously, I actually don’t like it much. It strikes me as unnecessary (unless I am, at that moment, in one of the “exceptions” categories).  I feel like I have to trot faster to get to the door, so he isn’t stuck holding it for a silly amount of time, letting the cold air in, running up the utility bill.  However, in the interest of courtesy, I will smile and thank him.

If someone lets a door slam in my face, I like it even less.  I once had the dubious pleasure of working in a country club, and witnessed a man “chivalrously” escorting his wife through the door to the ballroom – and then let the door swing shut bang in the face of a waitress carrying a huge tray stacked with entrees.

I was thinking about the rule that applies for old people. Hold doors for them, offer up subway seats for them, etc.   But what if the old person doesn’t think he’s old? What if he takes umbrage? I can see that happening about as frequently as I can see the feminist-door-holding scenario happening.  I don’t think either the feminist or the not-so-old old person should whinge about having a door held. Yes, we want to beat away at the fortresses of bigotry. But rudeness is not the way to go about it.

Chivalry

Chivalry has nothing to do with opening doors.  The word derives from the French “chavalier,” meaning “knight,” or, literally, horseman. So being chivalric in the strict linguistic sense means being good on a horse.

High Plains Drifter

Historically, however, chivalry was a socio-political-military code according to which a knight (a horse-owner) would swear fealty to a feudal overlord, practice various arts of war, and maintain the correct standards of etiquette and heraldry.  Etiquette certainly would have involved correct behavior towards ladies, but, by ladies, we mean…ladies. In the strict aristocratic sense.  Keep in mind that in the days of chivalry, class was a fairly rigid structure – not like today, when you can have “class” in one sense if you have good manners, or are considered “upper class” in another sense if you make millions a year, no matter how.  Donald Trump and Snooki are upper class – you can tell, just by looking at them.

The country club bumpkin who slammed the door in the face of a waitress was acting quite traditionally: too busy attending to a LADY, to waste time cosseting the help.  Of course, we have a literary instance of a knight being kind to the help – Sir Lancelot befriending Gareth, when the latter was disguised as a kitchen boy, and mocked and shunned by everyone else at Camelot.

However, Sir Lancelot also bedded the wife of his friend and overlord. Not very chivalrous, hm?  But wait!  Medieval literature romanticized the chivalric tradition  – thus our notion of the “parfit knight.”  Part of this romanticized ideal included Courtly Love which HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MARRIAGE.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, a it was “love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.” Because, ideally, the knight should be in love with a woman who is totally unattainable – he should desire her ardently, and sublimate his eros into a poeticized, spiritualized affection that would find expression in poetry, song, and ritualized activities.

Sometimes men would pretend to fall in love with married women, because it was fashionable – or because Hopeless Love is a good muse.  Sometimes though they really would fall in love – and if the woman in question happened to be in an arranged marriage with a man many years older, and not particularly interesting or attractive, she might reciprocate.  Sometimes the adulterous passions would remain on a stylized, ritual level – but sometimes it was bodily and real – as in the case of Lancelot, or Tristram, those two heroes of courtly literature.

So yes, chivalry is dead.  But ladies, are you sure you really want to mourn its passing?  Unless you have a hankering to be married off to a 60-year-old baron so that a dulcet knight can woo you with sweet canzones, until finally, overwhelmed with ardor, you flutter like a dove into his trembling arms, and then your husband pops in and whacks off your heads with a mighty sword.

File:Inf. 06 Joseph Anton Koch, Paolo e Francesca sorpresi da Gianciotto, 1805-10c..jpg

Courtesy

I think what we really want is courtesy – which is not just a matter of how a man treats a woman; it’s a matter of treating every individual with respect.  Courtesy means holding a door for someone not because you think an imaginary outmoded social norm is necessary for the common good, but because of that person’s dignity – it also means not snapping at a person who has held a door for you, even if you find it annoying.  Courtesy means stopping and considering that person as an individual, and thinking: what are her preferences? What would make him happy? If you think a woman would rather not have a door held for her, it is not courteous for you to hold it.

Of course, this means taking a little time, and going beyond mere rules of etiquette to a consideration of what mindset lies behind “good manners.”  It can be tempting to flaunt one’s manners as a sign of social superiority.  I know how to set a table for a seven-course meal. I would never wear white shoes after Labor Day (unless they happened to be winter white).  I never clap between movements of a symphony or concerto. There is a special place in hell reserved for people like me.

If manners are going to transcend snobbery, that means we have to think of people as individuals – not as types.  Bloody exhausting.  But honestly, if a man is thinking “Ha! I held that door for that feminazi dyke and there was nothing she could do about it” – that man is no gentleman.  John Cardinal Newman wrote that a true gentleman is one who “never willingly causes pain.”  Manners should not make people uncomfortable.

Men and Women

Here’s what I don’t get: are we sitting on some cosmic see-saw, men on one side, women on another, and every time one side goes up the other has to go down?  Are women supposed to crawl back into their corners and let men go back to whatever they were doing before? I respect men too much to believe that they are utterly emasculated by the mere sight of educated, competent, independent women.  Maybe it’s the guys I hang out with, but I haven’t noticed any marked diminution of assertiveness or confidence or competence in males in proportion to the relative capability of the females around them.  A man  who, in order to feel truly manly, needs a woman to get all swoony every time she sees a mouse or hears a clap of thunder, has got problems of his own he needs to deal with.

The feminist movement is full of man-haters, I have heard. But, first of all, there is no one “feminist movement” since feminism comes in many forms. Some women hate men, and I am sure some of those women are feminists. Likewise some men hate women. It’s all a bit ugly out there, but hate is nothing new.

Secondly, I have nowhere in my reading of feminist literature met any male-bashing quite on the par of the female-bashing with which we are expected to be comfortable in the classics.  See Aristotle: “woman is a misbegotten male.” Apparently, according to The Philosopher, nature slips up pretty often and brings about this deformed creature who, lo and behold, is capable, when joined with a man, of reproduction. If nature hadn’t slipped up there would have been one single resplendent moment of All Men – and the humanity would have ceased forever.

How is the idea that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” more derogatory and sexist than Kipling’s statement that  “a woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke”?  Does the fact that it is intended as a witticism somehow make it okay?

What I dislike about both those statements – the one angry, the other flippant – is their reduction of individuals to types.   It is true that a woman does not need “a man,” but sometimes she is more fulfilled with one unique particular man.  And a woman is never just “a woman.” None of us are ever “just a” anything, even if rampant ideology and anger and fear sometimes make us act as though we are.

This fish doesn’t need a bicycle, but sure would enjoy a good smoke.

Madeleine%20-%20woman%20with%20cigar%20-%20nd.jpg



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The Gastronomy of Religion

I would be planting potatoes today – it’s a Good Friday tradition – but the ground is too damned wet. So much for symbolism.  They would have been Adirondack Red potatoes, too – pinkish on the inside, a little like bleeding flesh; down into the dark they would have gone, with a promise of resurrection tenfold.

thin sliced Healthway  Farms Adironcack Red potatoes

Of course, given that Easter is a movable feast, there is no strict meteorological or astronomical reason WHY potatoes should be planted on Good Friday; it’s pure ritual. The gardener’s year is as full of rituals as is the Church year.

Since I am a Catholic with a Jewish heritage, I am fairly comfortable with ritual – at least, as long as it involves food, and doesn’t take too long.  Lengthy chants don’t do it for me, outside of church, maybe because we were never a particularly musical family, maybe because of some dour grim Nordic tendencies coming down from the Bratten side of the family…Vikings, apparently, who sacked Britain and may have had something to do with the great white chalk horse on the hillside in Bratton, England (inspiration for Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse”) then went over and persecuted the Irish for a while and finally came and settled in the US in the 17th century.  My father persists in thinking our family was originally Irish, but this is pure fantasy. Singing dancing ritualistic jolly people they do not appear to have been.  I imagine they were eating roast pig and in big ascendancy mansions, not planting taters on Good Friday.

Mum tried for years to get us to insinuate into our year traditions like the Advent “O Antiphons,” but we retaliated by stealing and hiding them.  If the Antiphons had been accompanied by some specific holiday fare, though, we might have found them more palatable.

What I do like about ritual, though, is the way in which it suppresses the instinct for self-aggrandizement that creeps into religious observance when everyone is given free rein to have his or her say. Usually I am all about freedom of expression, but when a worship service turns into a chance for the most long-winded to show off how eloquently they can pray, I appreciate the finitude of set ritual. Unlike free-wheeling spontaneous prayer, every ritual is guaranteed to have, eventually, a blessed end.  And often it ends with a meal.

Fish on fridays…Guinness and corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day…fried doughnuts on St. Joseph’s Day…Hamantaschen on Purim…the Seder Plate and matzoh-ball soup on Passover…lamb and challah on Easter (and all the chocolates and beer and wine one had foregone, theoretically, for forty days)…rare steak and sangria on the feast of Corpus Christi…latkes on Chanukah…ham on Christmas Eve…etc etc etc.  Did I mention the wine? Correct observance of the Seder requires the consumption of four glasses of wine.  No specification on how large these glasses should be.

Wine Bottle Glass

The religious year is one long smorgasbord of interesting confections, sweets and savories, all for the greater glory of God.  The only respect in which I have trouble keeping ritual is that I am always wanting to experiment with the culinary possibilities inherent in religious symbolism.  So with the exception of a few constants, I have a tendency to switch the meals around, every year.

This also might have to do with items that catch my eye while I shop.  Today, for instance, I noticed a Belgian-style ale called “Ovila,” which at first glance looked like “Avila” (my daughter’s name).  I read the description, and also the history of the ale, proceeds from the sales of which go to help restore the monastery of New Clairvaux.  Even though I have a sort of sneaking prejudice against the original Clairvaux, on account of St. Bernard’s persecution of my academic hero, Peter Abelard, there is something intensely comforting in the thought of monks going on with their centuries old traditions of ora et labora, tending herb gardens, poring over ancient tomes, and brewing beer.  Too bad they don’t illuminate manuscripts anymore.

Book of kells evangelists

There are even specific beers that were brewed heartily enough to sustain the monks through their Lenten fast.  That’s right, they lived on simply beer and water.  No wonder the Church has a mystical tradition.

German monk

I know the old Western monastic tradition was not as romantic as we might sometimes like to think – all those boys who were sent there since their fathers couldn’t think what else to do with them! – still, when you think of the Benedictine, the Chartreuse, the secret liqueurs, the astonishing ales – also the free hospitals for lepers, the doors open to pilgrims and refugees, the scholarship, the almsgiving – it certainly had its splendor.

I just went shopping for our Triduum meals, throwing economy to the wind.  For tonight I will make a small, simple broiled wild-caught salmon with sea salt, lemon, parsley and capers.  Oh, the mortification to which we subject ourselves on these penitential Fridays. I might make potato pancakes as well, with some of those bloody Adirondack Red potatoes. I hope I don’t earn myself a few extra rounds in the Gluttony circle of Purgatorio, for turning supposed fasts into surreptitious feasts.

The souls of the gluttonous

For Saturday evening, to break our fast, I got us a simple European repast.  Federico’s – one of the few reasons not to hate living near Steubenville – was humming with shoppers.  “Buona Pasqua!” said the jovial manager, bustling past with a shank of Prosciutto under his arm, to a bent old man in a fedora. Another man, ordering several pounds of salami at the deli, hastened to assure the woman behind the counter, “it’s not for me! I wouldn’t sin, eating meat on Friday…not even for pork!”  I proceeded to order domestic Prosciutto (half the price of the import, and almost as tasty) as well as smoked turkey, and left the deli workers uncertain as to whether I was planning to wallow hedonistically in animal flesh, even on the most penitential friday of the year. I also picked up goat cheese, Asiago, brie, dried fruit, crusty Italian bread, mixed oil-cured olives.  The Ovila monastery ale I picked up from Valley Wine Cellar, along with a bar of dark chocolate.  Brendan had already procured a bottle of Chianti, last night. No cooking at all for Saturday evening, but plenty of gastronomic satisfaction.

I got our salmon at Kroger, as well as the fixings to go along with the lamb shanks mum picked up for our Easter Sunday dinner.  I’m making Osso Bucco, but with a twist: I’m using fennel instead of celery, and adding some grilled tomatoes.  While shopping I entertained myself by looking at the items in other people’s carts: lots of fat hams, also lots of plastic containers of cupcakes with alarmingly neon frostings.  Over in the seasonal section folks were making a run on the Peeps.  Not I. I’m a food snob. We’ll all be gorging on dark chocolate and European cheeses, but I don’t grudge others their chemical-laden artificially colored marshmallow treats, as long as no one force feeds them to me.

Here’s the recipe I’m using for Osso Bucco:

4-6 Lamb shanks       1/4 c flour      salt and pepper          2 Tbsp butter       2 Tbsp olive oil

5 shallots, diced        2 carrots, chopped      1 bulb fennel, sliced      2 bay leaves

2 c broth or stock     1/2 c red wine      2 tomatoes, halved

6 garlic cloves, minced    1 bunch parsley, minced      juice of 1 lemon

– Dredge shanks in flour, salt and pepper.  Brown in butter and olive oil mixture, at medium-high heat.

– Remove shanks to a plate.  Add to pan shallots, carrots, fennel and bay leaves.  Saute until soft.

– Turn heat to high and deglaze pan with red wine.

– Return shanks to pan, add broth.  Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, simmer 1 1/2 hours.

– Brush tomatoes with olive oil and place on grill or under broiler.

– Add grilled tomatoes to pan.

-Add mixture of minced garlic, lemon juice and parsley to pan, reserving a little to sprinkle over dish when served.

I’m going to make some saffron risotto to serve this with, but it is also good with polenta, or with fresh parmesan croutons.

Lamb Osso Bucco

People sometimes inform me “you can’t be both Catholic and Jewish.”  Can’t I? Well, just watch me!

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Getting over John Galt

Having seen the trailer for the Atlas Shrugged film, I immediately lost interest in watching the thing.  This is not, alas, due to the fact that I have, after twenty years, finally shaken off the (Rearden-metal-wrought) chains of fascination.  Although I have.  But still, I was prepared to wallow for one last time in the illicit charms of passionate scenes atop slag heaps or in railway tunnels, with tall gaunt industrialists or tall gaunt inventors or tall gaunt Latin Lovers (too bad Dagny missed out on the Philosophical Pirate – you can’t have every man, even if you do happen to be Madame Uebermensch).  Oh, and the explosions.  Rand likes explosions, apparently, as a literary device, and since I am hopelessly juvenile I might have enjoyed them on screen.

The thing is, this movie looks incredibly dull.  A few years back there were rumors that Angelina Jolie was working on this project, and would be playing Dagny (not the best casting choice, since Dagny is supposed to look austere and not in-your-face sultry, but still, it might have been amusing).  This is a cast of actors I have never heard of, all of whom look like business people. It appears to be a film about business people.  Suddenly it dawns on me that actually, that IS what the damned novel is about.  How tedious.

Demythologized, stripped of its romantic trappings, Objectivism suddenly reveals itself as idolizing the sort of people who are just begging to be kicked in the arse – the people who always wear suits and go to committee meetings and live to make a buck and think that because they are rich they have a right to bed anyone, anywhere, anytime  – the people who never laugh, who never read novels, who never have mud fights, who never tell amusing stories about embarrassing things that happened to them, who never wake up naked with a hangover between two total strangers in a seedy hotel in Mexico, who never want to battle all the evils of the world, who never have children, who never have existential crises, who never search for God.


Let’s not forget the fact that Rand has recently become popular.  She’s become an icon for people who join groups, who wave signs in groups, who protest in groups.  When I read The Fountainhead back in 1990 (my mother gave it to me with some hesitation, I believe saying something to the effect that “I think you are ready to read this.” Ha) one of the things that thrilled me to my teenage core was Howard Roark’s non-joining-ness.

I think her novels appeal to a lot of young folks for this reason – we are just dying to make a stand for individualism, but fetching about desperately for something to feel individualistic about.  And then along comes Rand, suggesting “feel individualistic about feeling individualistic.”  Easy as pie! No longer does one have to discover a set of coherent principles, or search for the Meaning of Life, or find the Ultimate Truth…but one can ACT as though one has.  If one stand straight and scornful, and looks impassive enough, people may just think that you are on to something.

(Actually, people will just think that you are a royal bitch).

medusa, greek art, greek sculpture, ancient greek art, ancient art, roman art, roman sculpture, classical art, home garden, antique collectible, decor home, antique art, antique classics, hellenistic art, hellenistic sculpture

Anyway, back then, it seemed, almost no one read Ayn Rand.  I’d recently given up on Socialism because I thought it was boring (actually, I knew nothing about it – but I had dipped into the Communist Manifesto and found it sadly lacking in SA and explosiveness; I guess I’d expected fevered rhetoric suggestive of brawny mustachioed revolutionaries waving rifles and leading charges….you see where this is going?).  Also, being a Commie was sort of hip.  I wanted to be, not hip, but unique.

Rand offered something to feel individualistic about (myself!) and also a lot of sex and a touch of violence.  I was hooked.

The spectacle of a mildly pretentious and endearingly confused, and neither tall nor gaunt, teenager transformed into an insufferable snot after a dip into Rand’s world is not, it seems, unusual.  The columnist Florence King (she writes for National Review, but I still sort of love her) wrote, in her memoir, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, a description of this unfortunate phenomenon:

I stopped walking and started striding, taking care to turn my flat feet inward so I would look like an egoist instead of a duck. I kept my eyes locked straight ahead, causing myself a number of collisions and falls. I forced my jaw into a rational clamp, which broke the rubber bands on my braces and made me dribble down my front. In the name of individualism I quit Le Cercle Français. I longed to quit organizations right and left, but unfortunately, French Club was the only one I had ever joined. I gave some thought to ending my friendships, but having only two, it did not seem worthwhile. The architect who had designed Central was dead, so I could not help him blow up the school, and there was no way to locate the mad bomber, who in any case was probably not an idealist in the Howard Roark mold…”

When I read this description I immediately thought: “thank God, I wasn’t the only one!”

I was under the mistaken impression that the elegant boniness of Dominique Francon and Dagny Taggart could be achieved simply be spending a lot of time standing atop cliffs, or haylofts, or manure piles (anything sort of high up will do), gazing off into the distance looking intense (Rand’s characters never exercise. Nor do they shop for clothes. But miraculously their clothes always fit them beautifully).  I was on the lookout for the requisite tall gaunt arrogant man to duly ravish me, preferably in an old mine or something.  A measure of how brainwashed I was: the word “arrogant” was, to my ears, clearly complimentary.

The one thing that was going for me was that I had access to a lot of horses, so I could gallop fiercely over the fields, like Dominique right before she meets Howard Roark (disguised as a dirty granite worker) and he undresses her with a glance, but I never saw any coal miners or construction workers or lurking about who quite fit the bill.

Bearded Worker at Granite Quarry

Fortunately I got a couple of philosophy degrees, eventually – so I couldn’t take Objectivism seriously anymore, not in contrast with Plato and Descartes and Kant and Scheler.  But I still cherished a lurking fascination.  Maybe it’s partially that fatal nostalgia for anything that fueled one’s youthful fires.

Or it could be that Objectivism gives one a moral justification to be selfish, pig-headed, and grasping.

Or it could be the men.  I never did like sappy men. And I have always found slag-heaps and disaster scenes and mud and mire more romantic than roses and candlelight.  But in reality, Rand’s men would be no fun at all to hang out with. They hardly ever drink, for one thing.

Or it could be that there is actually one worthwhile, and that is that one ought not back down, ought not be ashamed of one’s own splendor. There is a breed of false religion and false humility which is – as Nietzsche pointed out far more effectively than Rand – at depth wholly nihilistic.  “I am nothing, I deserve nothing.” I was and still am appalled at Lillian Rearden’s idea that one should love the other NOT for any value in the other, but simply…out of a sense of duty.

The problem is, for Rand, only a few people have value…the industrialists, etc.  Being an Objectivist means celebrating not only one’s individual intrinsic value, but one’s innate superiority to pretty much everyone else.

I remember being told “God loves you,” and thinking “well, yeah, big deal, he loves everyone.”    It’s funny how long it took for me to realize that Rand’s philosophy is totally incompatible with Christianity. What I don’t get is how so many Christians, who couldn’t possibly advocate the”fun stuff” in Rand’s novels, are still touting her – since all you’re left with, once you’ve G-rated it, is a right-wing variety of materialism…snore.

As the years have passed, I’m not sure I’ve gotten wiser, really – but I at least have my moral fabric more neatly ironed out.  I know, for instance, that making money isn’t everything, and that not everyone who has made a heap necessarily deserves it.  I know that while self-respect is good, selfishness is not.  I also know that while one is free to find any of the known proofs for the existence of God inadequate, you can’t prove a negative – atheism like Rand’s is a personal choice, not a rationalist inevitability. And unlike Rand’s characters, I was blessed enough to make a series of outrageous mistakes throughout my life, so I know also that I am not infallible.

I know a few other practical things, too, that discredit Rand’s vision.  For instance:

1) Modern architecture is for the most part nothing to get all dewy-eyed about.  Some of it is pretty awesome, but I have a feeling that Roark’s swoon-inducing buildings looked more like Mies van der Rohe:

Than like Gaudi:

2) A woman who is always having (apparently) unprotected sex with sundry gaunt industrialists is eventually going to get either an STD, or pregnant, or both.

3) If you make a speech of one hundred pages in length, the common people will not, afterwards, erupt in feverish applause, shouting “save us, save us!”  They will have either left, or gone to sleep, or shot you. And the ones listening via radio will have simply shut it off after about three minutes.

4) There is no scheming nihilistic mastermind trying to destroy the human race by attacking the supermen.  We are quite adequate to try to destroy ourselves, especially by means of hysterical ideologies and selfish greed.

5) Neither industrialists nor financiers are usually, necessarily, sexy. Or lean. Or smart. Or interesting (to me. I suppose God loves them. He has to…he loves everyone).

6) The people who collect welfare or need medicaid are not necessarily leeches.

7) If you want to make a point about the purity of (quasi)rationalism, romanticizing (quasi)rationalism is hardly the proper way to go about it.

The fact is, though, Rand’s new-sprung popularity would probably be enough to disenchant me, if I hadn’t already seen the light.  I’m still a libertarian, but I suppose you could call me a bleeding heart libertarian – I’m more interested in the inviolacy of personal privacy than in the inviolacy of money-making.  But that’s a whole different topic.

Anyway, I’ve broken up with John Galt.  My husband (who, incidentally, was a granite worker at the time we got engaged) would not really approve of our shenanigans. Plus, I really would prefer to have something, still, to be individualistic about.



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It’s the elves…

Nuclear crises in Japan, ineffectual budget deals  in Washington, “shocking American idol eliminations”…and little boys with pink toenails.  What’s the world coming to?  To add to the inevitable rumpus around the controversial J.Crew ad featuring a mother painting her son’s toenails, J.Lo announced that she, too, has painted her son’s nails (blue, however).  Mercy! Hand me my smelling salts!

Any time people start fomenting against unconventional behavior, I find myself constitutionally sympathetic to the unconventional.  This may have something to do with my upbringing: homeschooled, in a dusty drafty 100-year-old farmhouse, sans running water, sans telephone, sans television, and with a whole room devoted to beans we were stockpiling in case of the apocalypse…sounds normal enough, these days, but in the materialistic Republican 80s it definitely marked us as weirdos.  Our thrift store clothes alone damned us.  Nowadays we would be considered “green” or “alternative.”  A short passage of time can be enough to allow for a reinterpretation of behavior.

I am one of those people who enjoys knocking away at artificial boundaries, unless they happen to be fun.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost says….it’s a spirit of mischief, of freedom, or Pantagruelian playfulness.  It’s why we often love the archetypal Trickster Figure.

“…There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself…”

That being said, I would probably not paint my son’s toenails pink.  Not because there is anything essentially wrong with pink toenails on a boy or on a girl, but because a) I don’t like pink and b) I wouldn’t want him to be bullied.  Maybe in ten years painted toenails will be as normal for men as jeans now are for women, but the task of knocking down artificial distinctions between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” is not, in my opinion, one for kids.  If my husband decides to sport pink toenails,  I would heartily encourage him. He’s more than adequate to beat up anyone, short of Schwarzenegger, who should dare make fun of him.  I WOULD encourage him, I say…except that, knowing his tastes, if he showed up with sparkly toes I’d figure he’s been forcibly drugged by a gang of John Galliano minions or Mary Kay ladies wielding pink bazookas.

The reaction of traditionalists to the toenail-painting ad, however, is a study in hysterical logic. Erin Brown of the conservative Media Research Center called the ad “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.”

Psychiatrist Keith Ablow wrote in a colum for (naturally) Fox News: “This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such ‘psychological sterilization’ [my word choice] is not known.”  He goes on to write:

“These folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race. They respect their own creative notions a whole lot more than any creative Force in the universe.  I wonder what Jenna would think if her son wanted to celebrate his masculinity with a little playacting as a cowboy, with a gun? Would that bring the same smile of joy and pure love that we see on her face in the J. Crew advertisement? Or would that be where she might draw the line?”

Dr. Ablow makes only one lucid point in his entire article: that the mother painting her son’s toenails may be setting him up for psychological distress. But what is the source of such distress? Why, people like Dr. Ablow himself, who can’t tell the difference between real gender identity and its arbitrary cultural trappings.  If this kid gets picked on for having pink toenails, it will be by people who see pink toenails and think “essential absolute eternal sign of the universal Platonic ideal of the Feminine!  Oh, you naughty little transgendered child.”

Incidentally, Dr. Ablow, how would you feel if your DAUGHTER wanted to celebrate her femininity with a little playacting as a cowboy, with a gun? You’d just call her a “cowgirl” and think it as cute as can be.

As I was discussing with my class last night, in many respects women these days are more free than men. We are free to wear both dresses and trousers. We are free to dress up in jewels and heels, or to get out and grapple with the earth, ride wild horses, shoot guns. We can hug other women and compliment them on their appearance, without being labeled lesbians.  We can stay at home with our kids and cook meals, or we can go out and pursue careers, or do a bit of both.  We can get backrubs from other women.  This same sort of freedom has existed for men at other times (the Elizabethan era comes to mind – a man could ride a joust, but also deck himself out with rings and gold; he could write passionate sonnets to another man without it ever being thought that he wanted to go to bed with him).

Let’s go over a few trends or activities that have been, at some recent time or other, been categorized as specifically masculine or feminine.

1) Long hair – a sign of femininity?  Only in the Roman times, and from the Edwardian era to the sixties.  Take a look at this Rembrandt painting: the man and the woman have the same length of hair.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride

Also, it was when Sampson cut his hair that he lost his manly strength.

2) Earrings.   Both men and women have traditionally sported earrings, off and on, in many cultures (Egyptian, Persian, Hebrew) throughout the centuries.  In the West, they were worn by men and women alike during the Greek and Roman periods, not worn much by anyone during the Middle Ages, and then resuscitated during the Renaissance.  It seems that as an acceptable male accessory it disappeared briefly from the fashion scene, between the 19th century and the late 20th century.  Incidentally, for much of the 20th century, in America, clip or screw-on earrings were preferred for women, over pierced ears (I used to have a few of my grandmother’s old screw-on earrings).

Portrait of a Young Man with an Earring

3) Trousers.  I know there are a few cranks these days who foment against women in jeans, but they are negligible (I always suspect them, anyway, of being closet pervs, since skirts are easier to lift, and more likely to blow up in a strong wind).  Did you know that during the Persian wars, the Greeks mocked their Eastern enemies as not being truly masculine…because the Persians wore trousers, which were supposedly effeminate?

4) Coffee. Yes, in the 17th century, women were forbidden to enter coffee houses.  For an amusingly vulgar read, check out the “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” – in which women complain that coffee was making their husbands impotent (N.B. I was recently informed that a lot of coffee houses were actually covers for brothels, and this is why men were coming home with no interest in satisfying their wives). Of course, coffee was considered a devilish and dangerous beverage, until Pope Clement VIII saw fit to “baptize” it.  Instead of listening to the hysterical rants of those who thought coffee was an Islamic plot to destroy Christendom, he actually checked it out to see what it was really like.  A good Catholic response.

5) Smoking cigars.  In spite of the Freudian suggestiveness (though we have the doctor’s own word that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”) cigar smoking has until very recently been regarded as specifically a masculine pleasure.  The women had to retire to the parlor, while the men enjoyed their port and cigars and indulged in interesting conversation. Back in the Nineties, before the cigar revolution, I fancied myself a sort of contemporary George Sand, and enjoyed smoking cigars outside the classroom building on my very conservative campus.  But then suddenly everyone was doing it, and Cigar Aficionado sported photos of actresses with cigars, so I gave it up as banal and expensive.  When I get old, though, I may take to a pipe.

George Sand

6) Riding astride (a horse, silly).  I am full of respect and admiration for those corseted Victorian ladies who rode their hunters over field and vale and ditch and hedge….SIDEWAYS.  I’ve been riding for 27 years, and I can only just manage to stay on at a trot, sitting in the sidesaddle position.  Presumably Lady Godiva, one of my heroines, rode sidesaddle, too…but that is understandable, as given the absence of clothes, a sideways position may have been more hygienic.  Anyway, thank God it is now totally acceptable for a woman to throw her trouser-clad leg over the back of a horse.

Just to keep gender identity and fashion in perspective, take a look at Louis 14, the “Sun King.”  High heels allow him to show off his manly legs.  Oh, and those luxuriant curls (a wig of course). Yes, he was decadent and depraved. The whole bloody French monarchy was.

The revolutionaries, a couple of generations later, sported a more natural, “masculine” look:


But keep in mind that they were the liberals; Louis was the conservative.
To return to Dr. Ablow:  I am not denying that there are indeed “gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.”  But since when has a set of pink toenails been a part of this or any other “magnificent synergy”?

If we are going to remain clear-sighted about the reality of distinctions in gender identity, this requires that we also remain clear-sighted about the permutations and cultural relativity of gender roles or fashions.  The only gender roles, in my view, that are set in essence, and not relative either to cultural context or the abilities of the individual are these: father and mother, husband and wife. These are rooted in a clear bodily and personal identity, not in the arbitrary fashions of a brief historic hiccup.

If my son wants to pretend he is nursing a baby, I will discourage him.  But if he wants to play “dress up” in a skirt, I will just help him put together a Spartan tunic.

I suppose some people, the kinds who think that derogatory words constitute an argument,  might say that in this case the “elves” that don’t love a wall are really just fairies.  But I think it’s elves.  It so often is.

Incidentally, I can think of one other reason why some walls are best left up, in some places: it gives those of us who like to shock and rebel something to rebel against.  If every law or social norm left in the world today were actually based on logic, reason, and the genuine Good, then we’d be left with nothing to knock our heads against, except for God. And that’s bound to give one a headache.


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going a progress

Made fish for dinner, even though it isn’t Friday – wild-caught ocean perch, to be precise. In the middle of dribbling lemon juice on the filets, I suddenly remembered that in The once and Future King, when Merlyn changes the Wart into a fish, it’s a perch he opts to be.

(Incidentally, if you have not read this novel, you should; I can’t help but say “read it!”even though I know people in general tend to get recalcitrant, mulish and resistant when urged feverishly to read this or that book. I blame my own ardent recommendations for the fact that my brother didn’t get around to The Lord of the Rings for years and years. I’d annoyed him too much with the very sound of it.  Sorry, Jonathan.).

I couldn’t help think of the perch, after that, as an old friend I was about to wantonly devour.  It’s the same way I get about wild geese – I think hunting them would be a delightful, and I’d enjoy cooking them, but unfortunately the wild geese in T.H. White’s novel are just too splendid for me to go blasting at with a shotgun.  Too much literature could make a vegetarian of one, for sure. The book Bambi would probably have a similar, if less poignant, effect, were I to read it again.  As for the movie – Disney has no relation to life; its princesses aren’t princesses and its men aren’t men and its deer are nothing more than cute little inedible stuffed animals.

I respect vegetarians when they are consistent, ethical. I was a vegetarian for one year – out of sheer cussedness, since I lived on a cattle ranch and was dying for attention, and thought that wasting away in a green and yellow melancholy would somehow make people like me.  Definitely not ethical.  Also not consistent, since I would occasionally sneak off to a corner, like a wounded feral dog, and gnaw surreptitiously on a swiped bit of burger.

There’s a brand of sentimentality, though, that doesn’t really care what happens to animals (or people, for that matter) so long as one doesn’t have to see it.  The meat you buy at Wal-Mart, or Kroger, or Whole Foods, is cleanly (or not. who knows? but you didn’t see it, so it didn’t happen) packaged, devoid of any resemblance to any animal on Disney, impersonal.  It’s hard to think of that juicy tenderloin as having once been a part of a living, mooing, shitting cow.   Incidentally, when I see those same cows out in the field, it is hard for me to imagine wanting to take a bite out of them.  Such is the astonishing metamorphosis of the culinary art.

We don’t see what goes on in the meat industry, so it doesn’t bother us.  Meanwhile hunters – who want to go for a clean quick kill, and who bring home meat that has lived happy and free and natural – are vilified.  Why can’t Disney make a movie about cute little fluffy animals being herded into a huge factory farm, for a change? There could be a fast-talking chicken, a wise old cow, a timid bunny rabbit, and then a rogue dog, with a hip-hop attitude, that helps them escape.  The villain would be a Corporation, though, and that’s hard to make into a believable cartoon.

It’s interesting to contemplate our age’s sensitivity to violence in conjunction with the fact that a) we amuse ourselves with fake violence every day and b) we regularly condone acts of violence so long as they are far away, or invisible, or for a good cause.  The sensitive post-modern American would never stand for the sort of brutal executions that went on in those happy golden years of yore…the drawing and quartering, the rack, the guillotine.  Children used to be taken to public hangings, I suppose to show them the “wages of crime,” or maybe because it was construed as a family event, as a film might be today. Wholesome civic virtues and family values.

On one hand, this bespeaks a heightened moral sensibility. Finally, it has dawned on us (most of us) that pain is bad, and that inflicting pain is wrong.  But on the other hand it is so often self-referential.  “I don’t want to see that.” Like so many other phenomena, its a mixed bag.  We get a little better, we get a little worse, history marches on.  I think at least in many respects though, we are learning to see more clearly. It’s what we don’t see, that’s at issue.

I’ve tried to make a rule for myself that if I’m not willing to kill it, I shouldn’t eat it.  This is not easy – I get all metaphysically het up about the solemnity of taking life. If it is really wrong, though, to whack a bunny on the head, skin it, gut it, hack it up, eat it…should I ask someone else to do this wrong thing for me?  If I’m just being queasy about it, I want to get over the queasiness, on the Apocalypse Principle (if some sort of grand cataclysm happens, I want to be able to take care of myself and my family).

Now, I am by no means recommending that everyone do this.  Not everyone is cut out for cutting animals up, just as not everyone is cut out for building houses or performing surgery or managing money or teaching small children.  It may be that it is not good for too many people to grow accustomed to getting over that visceral instinct against killing. And while yes, the majority of hunters I know are respectful and cautious, there are always the few who seem bent on outraging humane sensibilities – exulting over the fallen animal like Achilles vaunting over Hektor, but with a lot less glamor and resplendence.

I am trying to sort things out for myself – what’s objective, what isn’t.  Objectively speaking, I can catch and kill a fish. I enjoy the catching, but not the killing. I don’t like seeing light going out of a living eye.  However, until I arrive at a clear moral reason NOT to eat fish (and I am going to avoid doing that, because I like fish!) that momentary qualm is part of the bargain.

Entering into the cycle of life is heady and astonishing but not easy on the sentiments.  It gives one pause.  “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm” and thus “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”  There is a meditation upon mortality, on the spread banquet-table (or in a Happy Meal).

This leaves a long list of animals I am going to have to kill someday, if I am to justify (to myself) continuing to eat them.  Which means that I have a sort of Hemingway-esque career spread out before me…except for without, I trust, the mad drinking and the multiple divorces.  Either that, or I shall have to become a sorrowful vegetarian…

…quite unlike Chesterton’s “Happy Vegetarian”:

You will find me drinking rum,
Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

So I cleared the inn of wine,
And I tried to climb the sign,
And I tried to hail the constable as “Marion.”
But he said I couldn’t speak,
And he bowled me to the Beak
Because I was a Happy Vegetarian.

I am silent in the Club,
I am silent in the pub.,
I am silent on a bally peak in Darien;
For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

No more the milk of cows
Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian
I will stick to port and sherry,
For they are so very, very,
So very, very, very, Vegetarian.

Incidentally, the perch turned out well, and was quite simple to make.  As with many of my recipes, this was a knock-off of something I saw online, which gave me a notion of what to do with the fish, even though I had hardly any of the ingredients in the original recipe.

5 Perch filets

1 tsp olive oil

1 tsp lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, diced

1 small onion, chopped

1 pint stewed tomatoes

1/4 c white wine

1 tbsp capers

several Greek olives, chopped

pinch oregano, salt and pepper to taste.

Let the filets sit on a plate, sprinkled with lemon juice.  Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron or all-clad skillet, saute the onion for about five minutes, add the garlic, saute 1 minute more, add the tomatoes, cook until liquid is almost reduced, add the wine, reduce further. Add capers, olives, salt and pepper.  Place the fish  skin-side down in the skillet and spoon tomato mixture over the tops.  Bake in oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes.

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