Thursday, April 24, 2008

Manichees, Cigarettes and Hung Pheasant

Vegetarianism, as a philosophy and a religion, has always been something of which I have been naturally suspicious. It could be simply its association with the hippie cults of my youth and childhood. It could be that most of the vegetarians I've met (OK, all of them) have been hopelessly self-absorbed neurotics who seem dedicated to their fantasies.

It could be the arrogance implied by the decision to ignore what is plainly ordered by God, and supported by scripture.

It is also nearly always accompanied by a noxious, dripping sentimentality towards animals and a general dislike of human beings.

John Muggeridge told me that vegetarians, like their near-cousins the animal rights activists, are nearly all utilitarians of varying degrees of fanaticism and that obsessiveness over food is a common trait among liberals. (He also noted that they tend to be petty thieves...liberals, I mean, not vegetarians necessarily. cf: Svend Robinson and the ring. Which stands to reason, come to think of it, since they have little concept of private property or moral restraint.) Liberals are materialists, so it makes sense that they would idolize food.

John noted that liberal vegetarianism is often connected in various ways with a highly ritualistic kind of behavior. Some of them will, for example, eat only the whites of eggs. John's father, he said, refused to buy eggs during the war, insisting on keeping chickens and feeding them a special diet. The upshot was, he said, that in 1945, the family was paying the equivalent of a pound an egg. John's mother Kitty, he said, would not let the children eat the eggs since it was only their father's obsession.

John also noted that this sort of faux-ascetic food obsession is a common feature of certain branches of Protestantism and the esoteric cults that grew from it (notably Mormons). He told me that one of the things that put St. Augustine back onto the right track was his meeting with the leader of the Manichees who insisted on some kind of strict dietary practices that were patently absurd, but I have not looked it up.

The closest thing I have seen anywhere among the modern Christian apologists on the vegetarian heresy is C.S. Lewis, writing long before the ascendancy of hippie culture, who wrote about the type of gluttony identified by Thomas as the gluttony of delicacy. As such it falls into a much broader category of vice that would have to include any behavior, such as dieting, that grows to replace and contradict true religion. It is, in short, making an idol of both the body and food. An obsession that will, if allowed to grow, finally encompass every aspect of one's life.

This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient's mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished - one day, I hope, will be - to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small.

But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. ... She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile "Oh, please, please ... all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast."

You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before he, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance ...; in reality ... the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.

The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work which Glubose has been doing for years on this old woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. ... Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled. ...

Now your patient is his mother's son. ... Being a male, he is not so likely to be caught by the "All I want" camouflage. Men are best turned into gluttons with the help of their vanity. They ought to be made to think themselves very knowing about food, to pique themselves on having found the only restaurant in the town where steaks are really "properly" cooked. What begins as vanity can then be gradually turned into habit. But, however you approach it, the great thing is to bring him into the state in which the denial of any one indulgence - it matters not which, champagne or tea, sole colbert or cigarettes - "puts him out," for them his charity, justice, and obedience are all at your mercy.

Although Uncle Jack does not specifically mention it, it is easy to see how vegetarianism falls into this category, both with the "all I want" camouflage and the vanity of being a knowing fellow with both superior knowledge and virtue to the ordinary meat-eating run of man. An easy door, come to think of it, into the particularly noisesome vice of gnosticism.

What made me think about it today?

Reading a thin book by Alice Thomas Ellis, Unexplained Laughter, in which one of the characters, Beuno, is studying for the Anglican ministry. He brings the two ladies who are the main characters a pheasant that has been killed by the side of the road.

Betty, the sweet, ordinary and rather silly one who lives in London but dreams of rural idylls and wants to be a vegetarian, takes it and strokes its beautiful plumage and mourns. Lydia, the caustic journalist, wants to hang it for a week then eat it:

"Betty regarded it with a mixture of pity, admiration, mistrust and disgust. 'Poor thing,' she said. 'It was so beautiful. How do you know a car killed it? It might have died of disease.'

Beuno [the real Welsh countryman] swung it up to eye-level. 'It doesn't show much sign of injury,' he said...

Lydia took it from him. 'It doesn't look ill to me,' she said. apart from being dead. Its feathers look remarkably healthy.' She jiggled it up and down. 'Nice and heavy for the time of year.'


'I think you should just bury it,' said Betty, and Lydia did see what she meant, for human death was attended with such ritual and dispatch that for an instant it seemed cruelly perverse to deny something similar to this helpless creature.

'If you like, I'll bury his bones,' she said. 'After I've boiled them for stock of course.'


'People turn to vegetarianism when the spirit fails,' said Beuno, not to anyone in particular. Nevertheless Betty looked hurt.

'They are in search of purity, perfection,' he continued, '-the perfection of the body - while within the spirit rots and withers from neglect, and without the threat of doom trembles on the edge of possibility. Exercised, massaged, bathed and pampered, carefully fed as a prize marrow, the body is an empty shell flaunted in the face of catastrophe.'


Later, discussing Beuno's natural talent for preaching with his beautiful Welsh voice, Lydia suggests that he could "revive revivalism" and that "People might come to hear you from all over the world".

She says Beuno
"can feed he hungry and comfort the oppressed and visit the sick and bury the dead. And give good counsel, and do it all with feeling, and people will be so amazed they'll positively flock to you. Now, as most of the country's vicars are mad, and waste all their time falling demetedly in love with middle-aged lady parishioners...none of them do anything constructive and that's probably why they're all going mad. And all the bishops do is deny the existence of God and fool about trying tosettle stirkes and infurate absolutely could have a lovely time bouncing up and down in the pulpit screaming hellfire."

"So could you," Betty reminded her. "You could go into the Church and fight for the ordination of women."

But it is to be remembered, of course, that Alice Thomas Ellis was a Catholic of a particularly choleric disposition.


Anonymous said...

I would love it it you would post about Alice Thomas Ellis's novels. I've read some of her non-fiction, and I love it. But when I read her novels - Unexplained Laughter just a couple of weeks ago! - The 27th Kingdom and Fairy Tale, I really , really like them but at the same time I always finish them with a feeling of "What was that all about?"

Maybe you could shed some light?

Anonymous said...

Not much I'm afraid. I think they are merely examinations, from the point of view of someone who is thoroughly Catholic, of life in modern Britain. Or the modern world in general.

I liked Fairy Tale v. much and took it merely as what the title said it was.

It's not the story that matters with her, it's the writing. What she says in the story, so far as I can tell.