What you see can change over time, after awakenings or shifts in opinion. You ‘see’ what wasn’t there before: a literature tutor points out a paragraph that highlights a Marxist reading; you take mushrooms and suddenly comprehend the world differently. It can happen anywhere, anytime.
For me, it happened while watching the third season of Hannibal. I had become vegan between seasons two and three, but only started to think about the species hierarchy after this conversation in the first episode of the latter:
Abel Gideon: Cannibalism was standard practice among our ancestors. The missing link is only missing because we ate him.
Hannibal Lecter: It’s not cannibalism, Abel. It’s only cannibalism if we are equals.
If we are equals.
Vegetarianism and veganism have long been part of written discourse, from the Greek philosophers to Peter Singer. Carol J Adams has written a few books on vegetarianism; The Sexual Politics of Meat, for example, which is a powerful polemic on the linked nature of the subjugation of women and animals. In it she uses the semiotics of culture to show how meat is sexualised and women are animalised, resulting in a society that has contempt for both. She also uses the arguments of older texts, the most interesting of which is Frankenstein. From it she draws passages that support a vegetarian lifestyle, always from the Monster’s perspective as he tries to make sense of the world of man. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy, is also somewhat famous for his treatise on animal consumption. At the time, many intellectuals thought vegetarianism important.
Nonetheless, the vegetarian reading of texts is mostly ignored. We have postmodern readings, post-colonial readings and feminist readings, so why not vegetarian readings, given the import of its social justice goals? Adams draws quotes from a number of older texts with vegetarian characters and themes, but they can also be found in many modern literary and cultural works. Moreover, the interplay between women’s bodies and the consumption of meat are inherently intertwined in vegetarian readings. Recent examples include Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize-winning The Natural Way of Things and Han Kang’s superb The Vegetarian.
The book that got me thinking about the treatment of animals was Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. It covers many topics – what it means to be human, the role of women in society and so forth. But one of the strongest arguments in the book is that of vegetarianism. In it we see humans captured, castrated and gorged in order to feed an insatiable alien diet. It isn’t so much the ‘vegetarian’ alien character that convinces with his contrived speeches, but more the imagery of humans as cattle. The main character, a female alien, travels the Scottish countryside picking up men. They are then transformed into beasts, mockeries of men, before being slaughtered. The passage in which some of the cattle desperately attempt an escape was particularly striking: wide-eyed beings caught in the headlights before being rounded up again. The message is clear, I think: we are all the same – alien, human and animal – under the skin.
The same themes appear in film. Most poignant of late is the movie White God. In it a girl’s pet dog is abandoned, beaten, made to fight and finally caught by the pound. What happens afterwards is an animal liberator’s fantasy; ‘I viewed the dogs as the all-time minorities,’ said director Kornél Mundruczó. The opening scene is particularly of interest. In it we see a man working in an abattoir. It is sterile and mechanised. We see a cow chopped into pieces of meat, sectionalised in a methodical manner. We cut to outside: the man’s wife is dropping off their daughter and her pet dog to stay with him for the week. The dog is on a leash. The scene ends with a number of cows, on leashes, being led to slaughter. The juxtaposition is striking.
But what about texts without an obvious message? Well, once you start using the vegetarian reading, it can apply almost anywhere. I recently watched The Drop, starring Tom Hardy. A suave mobster film in which Hardy’s character rescues a beaten dog from a bin outside the home of a woman he later falls for. It turns out that both she and the dog were beaten by the same arrogant, misogynistic man. The movie ends with Hardy’s character killing the man and ranting about the harm caused by men. I’m not sure if Carol J Adams would like the movie, but I’m sure she would appreciate the connection made between the treatment of animals and women.
What about those texts that are not primarily about vegetarianism, but once you see that reading you can’t unsee it? For that let’s return to Hannibal.
On the surface Hannibal is an artsy CSI. It’s incredibly slick and well-acted, even if the female characters aren’t as well-rounded as those of the books. But it’s also a show that explores morality, mental illness, abusive relationships and more. Underneath it all, I think, is the vegetarian message. After seeing the first episode of season three I googled Bryan Fuller, the show’s writer, and was unsurprised to learn he is vegan.
Using Thomas Harris’ source material to examine a matter obviously close to Fuller’s heart could not be more inspired: it seeps into every part of the crime thriller. For one thing, animal and hunting motifs constantly appear, whether it is the very first killer’s hobby or Will Graham’s fly fishing. At one stage the character Chiyoh is seen preparing a fowl for consumption, while at the same time Hannibal prepares a human arm, salting and slicing to make it look like a bird’s wing. The contrast is too obvious to be coincidence.
Another fantastic recurring theme is that of man’s role as God and the notion of power over others – Hannibal eats humans that he sees as lesser than him. He has utter contempt towards his meals, much like how most of us have a degree of contempt towards our food.
And really, what better way to spread the vegetarian message than by watching Mads Mikkelsen?
Related reading: from the new print Overland, ‘Production lines of flesh & bone’