Writing Craft

Some first thoughts on vegan writing practice: Dillard’s aristocrats, McDonald’s duck, and Turgenev’s wee birds

Beginning a theory of vegan writing practice for the vegan novelist, and writer, in the global anthropocentric context

Is there ever any risk in reading and writing? Of course, in repressive regimes, or in revelatory writings around personal relationships. Or, in fact, in opening someone else’s letters. “I was aware of the risk I was taking in opening Tanne’s letter to you,” wrote Ingeborg Dinesen to her son Thomas on this day (May 9th) in 1931. Dillard Writing Life Vegan Writing Practice ‘Tanne’ was Karen, the Baroness Blixen, returning to Denmark after the failure of her coffee farm in Kenya. ‘Tanne’ wrote to Thomas that she would rather die than reenter the bourgeois lifestyle of her family and peer group. She only wrote because she needed money to start her life as a writer. (As Isak Dinesen, she wrote Out of Africa from her Danish desk.)

The bourgeois life she was at pains to escape was described best by her father Wilhelm Dinesen. According to Annie Dillard in her The Writing Life, “he got up at four and set out on foot to hunt black grouse, wood grouse, woodcock, and snipe.” In his own words, he met friends at eleven:

“at one of these babbling brooks. Take a quick dip, relax with schnapps and a sandwich, stretch out, have a smoke, take a nap or just rest, and then sit around and chat until three. Then I hunt some more until sundown, bathe again, put on a white tie and talks to keep up appearances, eat a huge dinner, smoke a cigar and sleep like a log until the sun comes up again to redden the eastern sky. This is living… could it be more perfect?”

Well, Karen didn’t think so. What about Dillard? In her ambivalent, overwrought way (say, compared to what Kafka might say about this), Dillard says this Danish aristocrat’s schedule is “the most appealing daily schedule I know”, before turning around on her own announcement to say “a life of the good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensations is the life of greed: it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.” (She later adds, of Dinesen pere: “One would rather read these people, or lead their lives, than be their wives.”)

Karen did not want to live this kind of life. We know Dillard as a “nature writer” for whatever that term is worth. Even though, or perhaps revealing, that she says “the writer studies literature, not the world. She lives in the world; she cannot miss it.” And Dillard is a big fan of writing about the craft of writing  too; a lover of talk about schedules, to which I and others listen:

“The writer knows her field … The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them.”

A self-fulfilling writer’s prophecy. And yet why does Dillard refer us to a hunter’s daily schedule as the most appealing? One, in fact, his daughter-writer specifically rejected (not to say that Karen was a vegetarian, even). Perhaps for Dillard there is something about hunting and killing, or it is simply an excuse to be out at sunrise (she says her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is “a book of sunsets,” as she writes at night, and misses the mornings), that she finds so appealing to the practice of being a writer.

Turgenev Sketches Vegan Writing PracticeIt certainly worked for Turgenev. It was in “ranging far and wide” over the lands around his estate that he met and took in the characters who would fill his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. These sketches were his first published works, and made his name. In Tolstoy’s Childhood, too, also his first published work, the family goes hunting and the young writer is stimulated by the scene and being with his father–even though there he lets the hare escape their coursing. Perhaps, as Dillard draws our attention to, when she writes that Wallace Stevens, Mandelstam, Dante, Nietzsche, and Emerson all composed their poetry walking, or “on the hoof” (an interesting animalisation of the idea of writing-composition), what she finds so appealing about Wilhelm Dinesen’s schedule is its movement outdoors–or perhaps that he “drank schnapps, napped, and dressed for dinner.”

For Kafka, such a “meat-stuffed” schedule (it is how Kafka describes his unhappy school days; no doubt the sandwich and huge dinner Dinesen ate were not vegan) would not have appealed nor given much succour to his writing. Kafka eschewed meat, of course–famously saying to Max Brod’s girlfriend Elsa after seeing a fish in a Berlin aquarium:

“Now I can look at you in peace; I don`t eat you any more.”

But there is much “nature writing”, in both fiction and non-fiction, that asks us to love and protect nature while drawing a line of what “is” “nature” closely around old, traditional and pastoral–or rather agricultural and strongly anthropocentric–concerns. In Helen McDonald’s much feted H is for Hawk she takes a wild animal, a goshawk, and “man’s” her (trains her and breaks the bird, Mabel, to her human requirements and dominance), all the while feeding the hawk strips of steak and frozen, day-old male chicks, “byproducts” of the egg industry. In her writing and talks McDonald gives to promote her book, she exhorts us to get closer, as she does, to our environment and to “nature” because, she believes, it is only when we love something through knowing it that we will defend and protect it.

H is for Hawk Vegan Writing PracticeYet for McDonald that “nature” does not include the grouse or hare or rabbit or partridge she hunts with Mabel (H is for Hawk, while being a magnificently written memoir of her father’s death and a piece of literary analysis of T H White’s own experience of “manning” a hawk in his book, Gos, is also a bloodsport enthusiast’s book; I wonder if it had been written by the Master of a Hunt about the killing of foxes if it would have won so many awards? not all the reviewers were so rapt); nor does it include the “leg of duck” she ordered and ate at a dinner we both attended after one of her book events. And the day old chicks? Cast offs from the egg industry? No, them neither. Especially not them. For McDonald, this writer of our relationship with nature, this love and protection of nature extends to some birds but not others. The chicks are outside of her nature. Rather, outside of her strongly anthropocentric and dominant conception of nature.

She is not alone in this, of course. In Turgenev’s Sketches the healer-peasant Kasyan upbraids Turgenev for hunting: “You shoot the birds of the air, eh? And the wild animals of the forest? … Isn’t it a sin you are to be killing God’s own wee birds and spilling innocent blood?”

Turgenev is not moved–except by the “sweet, youthful and almost feminine” gentleness of this old, haggard peasant. He is astonished, in fact, by the voice, but pays no heed to the words themselves. In fact, Turgenev then takes Kasyan hunting with him.

Is Kasyan the peasant a first example of the performance of a vegan ethic in Russian (or any) literature? No. For the peasant too, such birds as the goose or chicken “are ordained by God for man to eat, but a landrail–that’s a bird of the forest air, a free bird.” As with McDonald, there is a natural order, ordained by God or Man, and as God is Man’s invention, then by Man alone (and for Turgenev, questioned by a feminine man, but never a real Man, perhaps?), and what men eat should be, according to Kasyan, “the tame creatures handed down from our fathers of old.”

Turgenev asks Kasyan about fish, and whether or not it is a sin to kill them too?

“A fish has cold blood,” he protested with certainty, “it’s a dumb creature. A fish doesn’t know fear, doesn’t know happiness: a fish is a creature without a tongue. A fish doesn’t have feelings, it has no living blood in it … Blood,” he continued after a pause, “blood is holy! Blood does not see the light of God’s sun, blood is hidden from the light… And a great sin it is to show blood to the light of day, a great sin and a great cause to be fearful, oh, a great one it is!”

Says Kasyan, heralding the enclosure of the slaughterhouse away from the eyes of the Victorian sensibilities that was happening in London in the middle of the nineteenth century, away from Smithfield’s meat market and behind great concrete walls, so as not to offend the gentry. (And of course, as Jonathan Balcombe has recently written, Kasyan, on fish, has got it all wrong.)

Again, it is not the words themselves that Turgenev is affected by, but by the tone of the peasant’s voice and his mode of speaking. The ideas do not trouble him at all, because Turgenev is a man of the gentry, a hunting man, who lives by his own rules–including what he hunts, and eats. And, besides, Kasyan is a hypocrite: he captures nightingales, “not to cause them pain, nor to put their lives in any risk, but for man’s enjoyment, for his consolation and happiness.” That is, in the end, the question of an animal’s freedom is not a question of causing it pain–only mankind, according to this anthropocentric ethic (and those very few nonhuman animals mankind deigns to bring into its social sphere), are worthy of such questions. For mankind, there is no risk.

What of a vegan writing practice, then? Although admirable it isn’t simply about being a vegan and writing. A vegan writing practice does not find a hunter’s schedule the most appealing as a model. The nonfiction and memoir writer draws upon her or his own material experiences, and a vegan writing practice would then address every encounter between writer and nonhuman animal that forms the moments of that material experience on which the writer draws. Unlike Turgenev, the vegan writing practitioner would listen to the words spoken by the peasant, and interrogate them. Why is the landrail a free bird, but the nightingale (or the chicken) not? Unlike McDonald, the vegan writing practitioner traces back the connection between the frozen day-old chicks and the industry they come from and that industry’s impact upon the “nature” she purports to love and protect.

The vegan writing practice is, perhaps in comparison, not as easy to explain as a vegan running practice. We must question every use of another animal and its exploited conditions, and then ask what those exploited material conditions mean for one’s writing. As Dillard says, although I am certainly using her in a context she had not considered: “The writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are his life’s work.”

That gets closer to the questions of a vegan writing practice–because they are a life’s concerns, when ethical (that is, when part of a writer’s beliefs). Flannery O’Connor has written at length on the Catholic novelist, or the Southern novelist, in the American/Protestant context; here, I am beginning to write of the vegan novelist, or the vegan writer, in the global anthropocentric context. What does it mean, in practice, to be a vegan writer? It means, if anything, to “come closer” to “nature” more through what Tolstoy impels us to (closer to the suffering of animals, to help) and not through Wilhelm Dinesen’s excess, or through Turgenev and his hunting, or through Kasyan and his wee birds, or through McDonald’s “manned” hawk. A vegan writer does not come closer to her existing domination of others, and her comfort in doing so, but is repelled by it, and tries to undo it.

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