Monday, December 21, 2009

Reading and Ethics

on peace and on animals (adapted and expanded from material posted May 20, 2008, and February 8, 2009)

The power of literature is largely in imagination. Reading allows me to escape myself, to experience the world for someone, somewhere, somewhen else. The stories we read are largely imagined by the authors, and re-imagined by the readers. Reading takes us away from our own narrow experiences and into another experience.

But when I read, I do not set myself aside. When I read depictions of violence, I become hyper-aware: what is happening, why it is happening, how it is being represented, etc. I am still a pacifist while I read a book like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and so the violence of his book reaches me in a particular way. My encounter with the book (what I bring to the book and what I take from the book) is greatly affected by my pre-existing pacifism.

In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri describes the food characters prepare and eat quite frequently and in specific detail. No matter what I do, I cannot read such descriptions of food without thinking as a vegetarian. In my daily life, I must be consciously aware of all the food I ever eat, and this heightened awareness of food is hard to set aside when I turn to a book. When fictional, non-existent characters in a book eat meat, or kill animals, I become self-conscious, and I bring something different to the reading than a meat-eater does.

Embracing ethics of pacifism and vegetarianism are transformative. For me, they change not only the way I behave but the way I think. And these ethics also tranform my encounters with art. An anti-war poem must speak to me in a slightly different way than it speaks to a non-pacifist, and perhaps a painting of an animal speaks something different to me than to a meat-eater. This is not to say I approach art in an overly moralistic way, or that every encounter with art demands ethical reflection from me. I am merely saying that I am still me when I read, and that the ideas that change the way I live and think also change the way I read (if just slightly).

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting perspective! As one who advocates for animal rights, I have to agree that I approach (most) things regarding "food", very differently than another would.

    My counterparts will watch a commercial for Sea World or a circus and see no harm... I on the other hand understand the hidden plight of these animals... It just illustrates how deep the indoctrianation to "use" animals really is...

    I hope the world will someday change, and recognize the violence inherent in our "dominion" over animals...