Observations of a Poet

They (nonhuman animals) are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1815

Stoicism: No Guarantee of Logic or Morality

I have on several occasions questioned certain authors, typically ones who write about nonhuman animals, about whether their discovery that non-humans are  intelligent, social, and emotional has led to the ineluctable conclusion that those creatures should not be abused, killed, and eaten. In response, I have encountered illogic and ersatz ethics to support the insensate continuation of culturally ingrained practices. I wasn’t expecting to come across yet another specious justification for participating in the meat machine when I picked up a book on Stoicism, but, as you will see from the letter I wrote to the author, he raised the topic, exhibiting  willful ignorance.  I have not included his response, but, like the others mentioned above, he has not yet found the courage to face facts.

Dear Mr. Pigliucci,

I have been reading your book How to be A Stoic. I consider myself a practicing Stoic, having got my start several years ago by reading William Irvine.  Then, I read Seneca, the Enchiridion, and Marcus Aurelius.  I was curious to see what practical application you were making of Stoicism. On that topic of ways in which Stoicism plays out in our daily lives, you raised the question of food.

On page 68, you say that one cannot calculate “just how many animals suffer and die when you take up a vegetarian diet, because large scale cultivation radically alters the environment of the planet depriving a number of wild animal species of ecological space.”   One underlying assumption is simply inaccurate: that a vegetarian diet would necessarily require more plant farming.  To the contrary, the existing footprint of cultivation would not become larger (maybe it would become smaller) because currently plants are cultivated for the consumption of animals that could be given to humans. Frances Moore Lappe in Diet for a Small Planet established many years ago that, if humans ate the plants under cultivation for animals, world hunger would cease. However, even if we imagine that more land would be cultivated with some effect on some species of wildlife, such effect could not approach the current suffering of farmed animals. To conclude otherwise suggests a lack of awareness of the suffering caused to produce all of the meat and dairy that is consumed: thousands of animals on a daily basis suffer and face terrifying and violent deaths.  That is simply the truth that you can discover for yourself if you choose to look into how chickens, turkeys, pigs and cattle are raised.  If you would care to take a look at the experience of animals put on a stock trailer and unloaded at the slaughterhouse and then look and listen to what goes on there and then magnify that into the millions, you could not question that, whatever else might result from “a vegetarian diet,” that spectacle should end.

Production of food like all human activities has an environmental impact, and, although my concern is mainly with ending suffering and killing of animals, there is no question scientifically that meat production is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gasses. (See https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/livestock-climate-change-forgotten-sector-global-public-opinion-meat-and-dairy).

As a philosopher, you seem to have determined that morality extends only to humans. I assume you are familiar with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. After Seneca, that book was the most influential I have ever read. There is no moral justification for cruelty to animals except the maxim “might makes right.”  Intuitively that rule strikes me as wrong; deontologically, it is a poor rule to serve as a universal maxim; my experience indicates it is not conducive to the general welfare.

I have found that Stoicism supports morality that includes nonhumans. Just as Stoicism made you think about not wanting to be part of a bank that had engaged in disreputable practices, it has influenced me to conclude that, despite the way I was raised or what my culture dictates, I can and should make the reasoned decision to not be part of a process that inflicts suffering and death—whatever other options might exist, easy or not, that one is clear.

Sincerely,

Laura Inman

Dinner with an Animal Lover

I had dinner with a long-lost friend a few years ago. As I have experienced before and since, such reunions are exciting in anticipation and satisfying in the shared memories but do not typically demand a sequel.  The lack of further dinners is relevant to explain why I never got the chance to follow up on the most salient point in the evening, which arose from the following anecdote.  Why exactly she related this story to me, I can’t remember, but she told me that her daughter was on the verge of buying a house in the northwest, where she resides, but absolutely could not do so because there were some cows that lived very close by on the other side of a shared fence.  The rural nature of the property appealed, but the problem was that she knew that inevitably the cows would be taken for slaughter and would no longer be there.  Her daughter would find the daily reminder posed by their absence disturbing. I was quite impressed that her daughter was sensitive to the realities of farmed animals –that even those who live in the best of bucolic settings exist as a commodity and face the stock truck ride to the slaughterhouse, complete with all the terror that hell could ever hope to mimic.

The waiter appeared as if on cue after the conclusion of this story and took our order. With god as my witness, and I would not have the nerve to make this up, she ordered steak.  First, she asked if I minded. I did not eat meat and must have expressed that to her or else she would not have asked my permission, but I was so flabbergasted that I did not know what to say, other than to mumble something about ordering what she wanted.  Now, I would react differently.  Now, I would suggest that her ordering steak was incongruous with the concern for the cow, which, by the way, was not just her daughter’s sentiment but also her own. I would ask with genuine interest how someone could care for one cow and eat another. I missed an opportunity to encourage a meat eater to face her food.

She is not the worst offender when it comes to the hypocrisy of “loving animals” on the one hand and eating them on the other (the culmination of much suffering to the animal and in many cases its companions, not to mention loss of life). The category of the worst hypocrite goes to those who hold themselves out as scientists of some sort, who have studied animals and have concluded with much fanfare that lo and behold animals too have thoughts, social bonds, emotions, and are way smarter than “we” ever thought, yet they still relish a good piece of animal flesh to chew. Such scientists have found yet another way to exploit animals—this time for their professional aggrandizement. When called out on the disconnect, they reveal a stunning lack of thought, responding like robots programmed with certain data:  we eat animals, that is what we do. If they are uncomfortable with a mindless answer like that, then, even worse, they indulge in a pseudo-scientific response: “I have seen a lot of predation in nature, so I am part of that circle of life.”  How facile is this statement, let me count the ways: not all animals are predators, so if you are looking to nature for an example, why choose the lion over the giraffe? And if you align yourself with the lion, please don’t insult that creature who has to kill in order to survive by comparing it to yourself or the mighty modern-day hunter.  No one could say with any honesty that he has to kill deer to survive; probably step one of a hunting we go is a stop off at McDonald’s to maintain that paunch. Now let us strain our credulity to the max and consider how  predation in nature bears any resemblance to the farm — to the crates of confined chickens, the cruelly immobilized pigs, the mutilated turkeys, the transport truck to the slaughter house. I think the pseudo-scientists next area of study should be animal behavior when animals are separated from their young prematurely, when they lose their mind from overcrowding and confinement, when they confront the confusion of suddenly finding themselves crammed onto a truck, and when they hear, smell, and see death.

 

 

Happy Birthday Mary’s Son

As the bumper stickers clamor at this time of year (and actually year-round) to keep the Christ in Christmas, I will do so by pondering a question that no doubt Christian theologians have explored and probably argued about, and, if other differences of arcane matters are any indication, such arguments might have been the basis for several years of righteous religious war. The question is about the baby Jesus.  Is he to be considered half human because his mother was mortal, or was he a divine creature planted in Mary, who was merely a vessel, like a woman who has had the eggs of another woman fertilized extra-utero and then implanted in her.  Both positions, and I can’t come up with any other options, lead to curious questions.

The first view that Mary was actually a mother, in the sense that she gave Jesus half of his genetic material, means that god impregnated her with god-sperm. A mortal woman visited by a god is of course very common in Greek mythology whether the woman was willing or raped. In those cases, the baby is clearly only half immortal –a very special human certainly but not an Olympian.  Jesus is called the son of god, but Mary is also called his mother — but is he ever called the son of Mary?  I have never heard that phrase. In favor of the position that Jesus was indeed Mary’s son and inherited half her genetic material is that Jesus appeared very mortal. Even though he is purported to have done a few miraculous things, still he is not godlike during his life. His non-godlike status is after all a large part of his appeal: he was one of us in a sense and could suffer; there is no question he suffered and gods do not suffer.

As for the second explanation –that Jesus was all god, nonhuman planted in Mary — the most obvious question is why go to all that trouble? Mary and Joseph could have found an infant alongside the path to Bethlehem and simply acted as his adoptive parents.  One might counter that assertion though – since anything is possible, without regard to any biological reality — that god planted an entire organism in the earliest fetal stages to miraculously (yes that’s the operative word) grow to term inside the woman’s body in order to have a birth; a birth was necessary. A finding under a bush or elsewhere would not do because of the obvious symbolism of a birth: newness and the opportunity for redemption by that new life. We would have to celebrate the day Jesus was found by the side of the road and brought to live with Joseph and Mary, and that is just not as definitive and inspiring as the day of a birth. Odd in a way that this birth story wasn’t syncretized with the spring-time pagan rituals celebrating fertility and birth — someone wanted the celebration of birth near the advent of winter maybe as an archetypal-juxtaposition of birth with death, the latter of which is represented by the cold and dormant time of the year. To what end such an archetypal device might serve, god knows. Oh, I forgot, though, for springtime we have a sort of rebirth with the resurrection.

Of course, both story lines are unfettered by reality, and since one impossible story is no more or less impossible than another, we can feel free to pick one. I think that (for non-theologians at least),  the choice is a matter of esthetics. I would be strongly in favor of the first version, but I can see it suggests a kind of sexual act (or at least fertilizing of a female egg) that the Greeks didn’t mind but seem inappropriate in the Christian context. Nonetheless, in favor of this view is the following: if Jesus acquired, naturally, half of his genetic makeup from Mary, then, given the new research on genetics, Jesus’s humanness means that much of humanity has some relationship to him, just as we also on the flip side might have some relation to Nero or Attila the Hun. (See Adam Rutherford and A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.)

Either way, patriarchy is lurking here. Mary goes to the trouble of pregnancy, gives birth in the cold, puts up with strangers who drop in, bringing nothing of use for a newborn (incense and myrrh), but her baby is “the son of god.”

Civics Quiz

Here is a civics quiz: which is the wording of the Second Amendment:

  1. In order for the people to feel secure in their homes, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
  2. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  3. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The answer is B.

Given that the American colonies had relied on a militia to overthrow the British government, having a militia would have seemed pretty important at the time.  Also, it was not at all clear that the new government would not be subject to tyrants whom the people would also have to depose in order to keep the State free: for example, there was a fear that the office of the president was the first step to establishing another form of monarchy. (Even now, I have felt a fear of the office of the president lately, so it is easy to imagine that the fear was reasonable at the time).

One of the mysteries is how the Supreme Court found in that wording, so precise and such a product of the time, a general right to keep guns, semi-automatic rifles, unlimited ammunition for any and all purposes: hunting, recreation, protection, delusions, and just for fun. The mystery is not dispelled by reading the Supreme Court decision, a  piece of work that gives the legal profession its due as capable of constructing an argument that effectively dispenses with common sense. Suffice it to say, the Supreme Court has blood on its hands; it missed an opportunity to establish the simple truth behind simple words, an exercise in responsibility that would have saved countless lives, prevented untold suffering and grief, and would prevent all the deaths and suffering still to come –because of course there will be so many more shootings.

What is as bad as the tortured arguments of the Supreme Court wrung out of a legal mind to achieve a desired goal in the guise of stare decisis analysis, are the puny and pointless measures proposed to address the misinterpretation of the Second Amendment and address the gun culture: background checks, limits of rounds of ammunition; banning a piece that turns a killing machine into a bit better killing machine. I heard on NPR, by a proponent of gun ownership, that not one measure that has been proposed would have had any effect on the shootings that have occurred. He is right of course. Just like Trump’s travel ban has no relevance to any terrorist attack we have ever known, those measures will not stop the carnage. Only dispensing with the Second Amendment, as erroneously and absurdly interpreted, will achieve the goal. Gasp!! Overturn something the founders wrote?  It has happened before that some 18th Century notions do not stand the test of time and amendments are in order –and in this case, it defies logic to think that any one of them would have countenanced the current state of guns in this country — at least there is no evidence that they had a particular tolerance for the mass murder of children.

All rights are limited in a society to the degree they run up against other rights –old idea to which I refer you to John Stuart Mill.  Sorry, folks, you want to own guns –semi automatics, Saturday night specials, Glocks, rifles, and high powered scopes, whatever your killing toy — but your joy is at the base of hundreds of dead children, untold sorrow and a creeping rational fear that we are not free to live with safety in the “free State.”

And the Winner of the Most Valid Protest Award Is . . . .

If you have taken even little steps into the world of activism for animal rights, you might have experienced, and likely will if you persevere, the opponent who challenges your actions on the grounds that you should be fighting for a different cause. I suspect that argument only arises when the activist’s cause is not focused on humans. Do anti- abortion activists encounter foes who, rather than asserting that the fetus is a sui generis dependent on another individual and that the woman has the right to her own body, clamor that the abortion protester should be taking on the lack of prayer in school, or the protection of confederate monuments, or the right to carry semi-automatic weapons into Whole Foods. Likewise, do the “black lives matter” activists fend off challenges that they should be supporting the LGBT community protest on the other side of town rather than gathering to protest police brutality?  I doubt it. The “there are more important things to protest” argument is unique to opponents of animal rights protests because the argument comes from the speciesism that gives rise to the protests in the first place. (Speciesism is the view that humans and human affairs are all that matter because our species is the best and the only one to which morality applies). Thus, for example, in response to my sidewalk protest against the production of foie gras, naysayers (including the restaurateurs selling the stuff) did not challenge my protest on the merits by claiming,  hum . . . let’s say, that force feeding birds until their livers nearly burst isn’t really isn’t so bad, or that the birds have no feelings, or that torture is okay as long as the human with gets his “delicacy,”  but rather by asserting that  I should be concerned with something else. For heaven’s sake!! There were black people in the community!! and therefore the only valid protest was “black lives matter.” (For the record, that was certainly not the view of the great majority of the people whom I encountered in that community that I had “infiltrated”). This sideways argument is really one of the most satisfying for the animal activist’s opponent because it skirts the real issue and veers into the impossibility of justifying a moral act objectively, given that in reality all morality is subjective. All notions or right and wrong begin with personal emotion: a person will determine that something is “right” or “wrong” because of an emotional response.  From there, the thinking human will develop a system, either rule based (deontological) or utilitarian, for determining his moral code that all should follow because we like to have people around us whose actions comport with our ideas of right and wrong (for our safety and comfort).   Activism is the product of morality of course because the activist has determined within his or her system of morality whether a practice is wrong and immoral and should change. Therefore, one protest cannot be defended as more worthwhile because that assumes they have objective value, which they don’t.

If proving that morality is subjective is too much for the sidewalk confrontation, here are some points to counter the argument that there are more important things to protest. First, advocating for one cause does not mean a lack of concern for another; there is no relationship between causes such that one is diminished because I have raised my protest sign for the other. Hypothetically, there could be two protests going one in one place at the same time, such that the one I choose would actually benefit from the addition of my voice to the detriment of the other; however, hypothetical is the operative word—no such situation is going to occur. Even if that fictional construct were to occur, the person who joins one protest rather than the other is doing more than the person who doesn’t show up for either (that is assuming one believes that activism makes a difference—a different and troubling question beyond the current discussion). Second, putting causes in order of intrinsic importance is like creating a triage of horribles.  Elie Wiesel, whom I heard speak many years ago, when asked if the plight of certain peoples was not as bad as what happened to the Jews, simply responded that you can’t compare horribles. Similarly, if you campaign to raise money for research to defeat breast cancer what does that say about your lack of concern for prostate cancer, lung cancer, Alzheimer’s, or leukemia, or . . . I could keep going. Can you say breast cancer is more horrible than those afflictions and more deserving of your efforts?  Would anyone try to attempt the justification that breast cancer is “worse” objectively?  Of course, not.  Probably the answer to “why breast cancer” would be that so and so whom you loved had it or you fear getting it—pure emotion.

Third, always putting human concerns first in the list of things to protest is a species bias, just as racism and sexism is a bias that advances the interests of one more powerful group over those of a less powerful group, making the maxim “might makes right” a valid moral code, something I am not comfortable with for my own safety and welfare. Also, Suffering and death are as close to being objectively horrible as anything could be. Such suffering and death, inflicted to an unimaginable extent on nonhumans, are unnecessary in every way and the willingness to inflict such torment and deprivation clings to us as a vestige of an unquestioned barbarity in our culture. Last, the victims are among the most defenseless and helpless because they cannot speak; if I were defenseless and mute, I would want help—I am just doing what I would want done for me.

 

Comfort Yourself

Many Stoic precepts have gained traction in our modern society, such as abandoning the quest for happiness through material goods, keeping in mind that each day could be your last, and valuing the present. However, the injunction in Stoicism against complaining and turning to others for solace finds no home in today’s world where, to the contrary, we are encouraged to visit mental health workers and share the vicissitudes of life with friends, both real and on Facebook.  Stoicism does not denounce unloading your emotional turmoil on others because it is in poor taste but rather because it does not help and indeed makes things worse.  Modern psychology has instilled in us the idea that “one must talk about it,” however, where is the proof that doing so helps?   In such a realm, anecdotal evidence reigns supreme, which does not count as proof.  I am as good of an anecdotal source as the next person, so I will not only describe how experience has taught that turning to others does not help but also explain why.

First, laying your troubles on others does not lead to getting over them; the talking constitutes rehearsing them and making them even more present in your life.  There is no real basis for concluding that by the act of talking you somehow expunge a sentiment from your life.  Of course, for psychologists, the idea of your talking to them is self-serving. I have talked to psychologists about various topics without one grain of improvement.  Instead, the fact that I was seeking professional help created righteous validation for my feelings and gave them more strength and traction. If you want to remember something and make it seem terribly important, rehearse it—go over it again and again.  Aside from the paid listeners, the same is true for friends, except they might grow weary and start to eventually resent hearing your hardship or decide that your complaining is an invitation to lay bare their grief, sadness, disappointment etc. After all, the person to whom you are unloading your parcel of trouble has his or her own hands full.  I must draw a distinction between seeking solace from others and seeking advice.  Asking someone for example:  should I take a trip to Italy this summer on my own after my spouse has just died.  I am concerned that I will feel lonely.  Any ideas?  To which your friend could suggest that you do or don’t go, or take a tour with others, or go with her to France instead. Or, you have suffered a severe setback and tell your spouse that you no longer find life to hold any joy.  He or she might be the kind to give you a helpful pep talk –just as likely he or she will pointlessly commiserate, or think “geez, I’m doing everything I can in this relationship.” If however, you seek advice on some proposal to improve your mood, then that gives the spouse something to work with.

With regard to grief, culture has recognized not the need to seek solace but the need to recognize the finality of death and bid farewell. After the ceremony has occurred, you are on your own to suffer your grief with your own resources simply because no one — no friend, no psychologist — will make it any better and reaching out for others is not only pointless for you but tiresome for them.  Does that mean that the suffering cannot be addressed?  Absolutely not.  There are ways that stem from bringing reason to bear. You can consider that your suffering is the common lot of all animals (and not just humans, mind you! Humans don’t even mate for life to a large extent, yet we like to think we have a monopoly on grief.) Consider grief as natural and loss as the way of things: you might as well shake your fist at the sun as rail against death. Second, meditation might quell anxiety.  Third, take action.  Even if you do something that you don’t enjoy, having it end and just getting back to home can bring solace whereas before the walls were closing in. Fourth, just give it up; just accept you don’t feel good; forgive yourself if that is part of the problem. In the end, a lot of sadness comes from expectations: turn down the dial on expectations and hoping. And, last, avoid people who foist their emotional narratives on others implicitly suggesting that they are special in their suffering.

Shame on Jane Smiley

John Keats criticized Lord Byron for treating serious things lightly and light things seriously. The latter is the lesser of the evils and not at issue here.  As to the former, Byron’s treatment of shipwrecked, starving sailors resorting to cannibalism in “Don Juan” is a good example.  There is nothing of the truth of the suffering, anguish, desperation, or horror of such a plight, but rather a jaunty rhyme with a humorous tone. The disunion of topic and style reminds me of certain songs where the lyrics address serious subjects like child abuse but are conveyed by a rollicking tune in a major key. There are two possible literary justifications for making light of horrible circumstances: satire and black humor. Serious and even horrible events are presented with humor fueled by exaggeration or understatement in order to expose human foibles, such as hypocrisy, ignorance, intolerance, and so many more. Candide comes to mind as the standout example of that.  Second, black humor has a deeper purpose than simply treating awful things in a funny manner. With a nihilistic bent, writers of black humor look at suffering as absurd rather than pitiful, purposefully turning away from the usual and natural emotional reaction to make a point about pointlessness. However, satire is not Byron’s objective or effect at least in those scenes such as the shipwreck, and Keats did not exculpate Bryon by considering him satirical rather than grossly insensitive. Not only does Byron not come across as a satirist, he does not qualify as a nihilist. He is too truly a Romantic to be a nihilist.

Keats’s criticism of Byron came to mind while I was reading a moderately engaging and alternately off-putting novel by Jane Smiley, Moo University, because I found myself reacting to her description of the life and death of a pig as Keats did to Byron’s shipwrecked sailors.  In this novel, horrible things are happening to a pig, but the author insists on treating the situation with levity suitable for outright comedy, tricking the uninitiated into thinking that there is nothing wrong with the treatment of the pig. The pig has a name and is taken out of commodity-status and made individual not only by having a name but by having thoughts that the omniscient narrator relates, just as she does the thoughts of the humans in the story.  Purportedly getting into the mind of nonhuman animals is something of a signature for Smiley but she betrays them at every turn in this novel and might not even be close to right about their thoughts in her other novels, such as Horse Heaven. In the novel in question, the pig is kept hidden in total isolation, inside, on a concrete floor without any contact except a student who shows up to clean out his stall and give him food, and such food is part of the abuse because he is overfed purposefully to the point of causing him pain throughout his legs and feet. A climax of one of the story lines occurs when the building in which the big has been imprisoned is bulldozed; the terrified creature runs across campus and drops dead. He then is butchered and eaten.  As I write those bare incidents, it would seem very difficult to portray any humor in that situation, so I suppose it is to Smiley’s credit as a writer that she can pull that off (assuming she does and readers join in the “fun”); but it is equally to her discredit if she does so succeed and that she uses her talents to that end. If Smiley thought that readers were insightful and thoughtful enough to see past her overtly light-hearted treatment of the pig to realize that she was actually encouraging readers to see the evil, she is wrong — there is no evidence to suggest she aimed at leading readers to conclude that treating pigs as commodities is cruel. If she intended some form of satire, she fails because most readers will take it at face value. In this novel, the abuse of the pig is nothing and it is merely mildly humorous how he gets free and runs despite how grossly fat he is and, hee! hee!, winds up as bacon!

Shame on you Jane Smiley. Anyone who has the ability to affect the way the ordinary person considers nonhuman animals has an opportunity—you not only missed it, you added to the ignorant immorality rife among us.

Another Fourth of July

Meat propaganda spikes at holiday time, as we have just witnessed with this 4th of July and the usual media barrage of meat-equals-celebration messages: you must consume heavily spiced scraps of dead pigs and cows formed into tubes (even have contests to see what cultural robot can eat the most), ground up cow flesh, and dead bird parts.

This particular holiday, in addition to encouraging the typical thoughtless consumption of stuff resulting from misery and death, also perpetuates thoughtless consumption of a cultural narrative devoid of any real thought about the reality of our history.  When considering our past, which runs up to the present, I think we could use a day of atonement more than a day of celebration: Atonement Day sales at Macy’s would work just as well.  With independence from England we were free to maintain slavery longer than any place else in the Western world; with independence, we denied anything close to equal rights or opportunities to women and never did pass an equal rights amendment; we broke treaties with and nearly annihilated the native Americans; we dropped two atomic bombs; we have so many horrific mass shootings with assault rifles that they have become commonplace. All the hoopla and glee about July 4th is based on a near mythical narrative and reveals a collective penchant for not thinking that is childlike. One kind of thoughtlessness deserves another, so as long as we aren’t thinking about history in any kind of accurate way, we can also not think about what we are putting in our mouths.  Nobody likes to think that pigs are born to live a life crammed in a crate unable to even turn over, forced to give birth only to have their young taken away at the greatest distress and misery; nobody likes to think about the cattle on the truck, crammed in and terrified and prodded to the killing floors of the slaughter house.  Nobody likes to think about geese kept immobile their entire lives so they can be force fed until their livers are near bursting.  The hot dogs you eat and the ribs on the grill and the burger on the bun were tormented creatures, not unlike our beloved dogs or even in many ways not that unlike ourselves. We relish and wallow in and exalt in not thinking. I would like to watch the fireworks display that celebrates a real revolution, one based on awareness and kindness for all.

 

Reading Wuthering Heights: An Appreciation

I just finished Wuthering Heights for the umpteenth time, leaving Lockwood poetically musing at the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, those quiet sleepers in the quiet earth. Those final lines are the culmination of a poetry-infused final section of roughly twenty pages, in which Heathcliff’s character as the greatest mourner in literature comes to the fore as he wills himself to death in order to achieve his heaven, reunion with Catherine, the only person in his tormented life with whom he has ever known happiness.

Emily Bronte was first and foremost a poet, not a writer of prose, although she had blended storytelling with poetry, penning long story poems, harbingers of her great prose work; however, I sense that having gotten through writing most of Wuthering Heights, in the end, she relapsed into poetry, especially when it came to her favorite poetic topic, death. Thus, we have those mellifluous words, haunting words, sonorous and rhythmic phrases gracing the final pages.  Start reading where Nelly Dean tells Lockwood, when he happens to be in the vicinity of Gimmerton and returns to Wuthering Heights, how Heathcliff’s death came about; then, we are privy to Heathcliff’s previous eighteen year-long, unrelenting grief. It requires Bronte’s poetry for Heathcliff to explain the phenomenon of living with a dream of death so sustained that it finally consumes his existence, defeating even his desire for revenge.

I can read a novel more than once, indeed several times, although I must ration it so as to not to completely wear it out — but, who can wear out poetry? Lines of verse are like scripture for the religious. One can memorize them and refer to them and reflect and call them to mind when needed. Amen. That evergreen quality of poetry helps explain why I can read Wuthering Heights limitlessly, but that does not mean to discount the novelistic aspects that I enjoy undiminished by great repetition: I study how the plot fits together, particularly over the complicated temporal landscape of two generations; I cozy up to my old friends and enter the world of two remote houses in the 18th century. It is not a welcome or desirable world, but it has the comfort of the familiar. Of the two houses, I, as a spoiled native of suburban comfort, would prefer to live at the Grange, with Nelly Dean to make up the fire, bring me soup, and tell me stories. Despite those  elements of narrative, character, and setting that hold up well to repeated use, it is the poetry above all that will support and sustain the pleasure of having the novel in my hands yet again even now, right after putting it down. I know of no other book that I can say that about.  I know of no other book comparable to Wuthering Heights. I am still in the phase of coming out from under the spell. “Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish how will I seek the empty world again.”  Bronte wrote that in the voice of a mourner in a poem with the first lines, “Cold in the earth and the deep snow piled above thee.”  Yes, I have to seek the real world again.