If you are a committed vegan you have likely thought to yourself that you cannot believe you ate how you once ate, much less lived how you once lived. In a way, this is an excellent emotion to experience. It provides honest affirmation of your new, healthier, and more compassionate way of life. It validates your choice of the road less traveled. In another way, though, it can be a dangerous feeling to nurture because, if not treated with due respect, or if understood as a source of shame, it can lead to the sort of alienating smugness that too often gets vegans sent to the office for having a bad attitude.
What I mean here is that, while we may very well see our former selves as reflections of a fundamentally different being, existential continuity dictates that, lo and behold, your old meat-eating, gluttonous, sybaritic self was still you—the same person you are now— and, truth be told, there is great value in not only owning up to that former aspect of your identity, but also to embrace it and recall what that mindset and former identity was like. The benefit of making this self-empathic leap into the past is that it makes us better able to relate to people who have not, and could not even consider, making the leap we have since made. It brings us back to a past that, for most people around us, remains the present.
George Orwell, who I’m gradually coming to appreciate as the last century’s greatest essayist, fully understood the ideological power inherent in keeping emotional ties to former selves. In 1940, he wrote an essay called “My Country Right or Left,” in which he explored his own transitional experience to liberalism in the face of the horrific aftermath of World War One. Undoubtedly pleased with his evolution toward enlightenment, he nevertheless rued those who acted as if that they were born into it, virgin-like in their liberalism, requiring no such transition and thus having no past to disown.
He wrote, “To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King.’ That is childish, of course, but I would soon have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people who hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.”
I love this. What Orwell is saying is that the power of an enlightened ideology derives from the power of transition, and that transitions lose their source of strength if we pretend our less enlightened former selves never existed. How else to understand the “most ordinary emotions”—such as a desire to eat animals? Orwell was not writing about veganism, of course, but his message could not be more relevant. He goes on to praise “the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another” as an element for positive change for which “no substitute has yet been found.”
If true, Orwell’s observation, as well as my interpretation of it, raises future issues for vegan activism as more and more vegans raise children to be vegans from the start. What impact will the lack of transition have on those who never knew what it was once like to sing war songs in honor of the Union Jack? Or, lacking such perspective, will vegans from birth, seeking the power of transition, be more prone to make the change in the other direction, toward eating animals? This is a question for which I have no answer (although lots of thoughts).
There’s a famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan tells Alyosha a parable. In it, Christ comes back to earth but is exiled by the Catholic church for failing to restrict free will when, fifteen hundred years earlier, he had the chance to do so. The message that Ivan is trying to send to his brother Alyosha (he presents the message as the basis of a poem he’s writing about Christ’s return) is that humans are incapable of handling moral freedom. In turn, they must reject Christ and allow the Church to do what Christ would not.
[F]or nothing has ever been more unsupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread. But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread?
I’m riveted by the passage (book V, chapter 3). It speaks directly and powerfully to a tension that I consider all the time when writing about animal rights: can humans realistically seek universal acceptance of a basic moral truth in the face of a commercial freedom that sedates consumers with a false sense of choice? The aisles of a generic grocery store might appear to be the epitome of what free will can create: abundance, endless options, freedom galore. But as we well know the doors of the store are where our freedom evaporates. We enter and make “choices” that have been predetermined by alien entities that rely on systematic abuse and suffering. The whole act of buying food has become equivalent to Ivan’s reference to humanity’s dependence on bread. We tremble at its loss.
Pondering this paradox, I’m drawn to the idea of prefigurative politics. This term was used a lot during the Occupy Movement as a way to suggest that the movement’s political structure—essentially anarchic—should prefigure the system it seeks to achieve: anarchic socialism. How would prefigurative politics look for veganism? I’m not at all sure, but when I consider how my personal sense of freedom not only expands but becomes more compassionate as I become less enamored and dependent on the trappings of commercial culture, I’m made aware of something critically important. Veganism, which is so often characterized as a sacrifice of freedom, is in fact a radical embrace of it. What Ivan failed to understand is that, by giving up the hidden source of unseen violence, we gain the freedom that, in his biblical telling, Christ entrusted us to use for the purposes of justice.
His answer to this objection might be this passage, which follows the one supra:
But what happened? Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?*
To which I would respond: our current freedom is not real. It’s a chimera. Only in lifting the veil can we recognize and express its truest power for goodness. It’s amazing to think about how the simple choice to not eat animals, in its rejection of the commercial status quo, furthers that noble goal, one that Alyosha, who lives as a monk, would have understood.
NB: My copy of this book, pictured above, was a gift to me in 1987 by my high school English teacher, Bert Mobley. In it, he wrote, “They say if you read this, you’ll know everything you ever need to know. I doubt that but it’s a great book.”
Indeed it is.
*One wonders if Fyodor Dostoevsky had Edmund Burke’s exclamation in mind—”Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!”—when he wrote this passage.
One thing that keeps my nose in the essays of David Foster Wallace (I was at them again yesterday after a 2-minute conversation with the guy at my local bookshop) is that his greatest articulations were intimate concatenations (a word DFW liked) of immediate individual experience and transcendent national mood swings.
Wallace matured as a writer in the late 1980s, a time when the rails of his personal life intersected with the greedy ethos of a dark era—an era during which, as he wrote in Both Flesh and Not, “an unprecedented number of young Americans have big disposable incomes, fine tastes, nice things, competent accountants, access to exotic intoxicants, attractive sex partners, and are still deeply unhappy.”
More often than not, Wallace’s private mood—he was impossibly, instructively reflective—almost too accurately mirrored the glittering gloominess of his age. I say too often because this mimetic impulse almost surely inspired his suicide in 2008, an event that manages to interrupt the flow of my own brooding consciousness more often than I care to mention. Rarely does a day pass without me wondering about the verbal webs DFW would have spun around, say, The Wire.
In any case, re-reading his essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” got me thinking about how I would characterize the age in which we now live, the one DFW checked out of, and the one my children will inherit. I can’t say I’m thrilled with it. Fact is: I think it’s pretty much an entertaining shit show. And while I’ll never match the verbal fecundity of DFW I nonetheless feel compelled to sketch out our current cultural landscape because, in a very real way, the change that I seek—a universal ethic of genuine, rather than rhetorical, respect for animals—hinges on the potential for human change within it.
What gets me the most about today’s dominant culture is our unthinking willingness (eagerness, really) to elevate once unimaginable forms of mindless distraction (anything with an on/off switch for starters) to normalized behavior and, in the process, degrade any meaningful quest to understand big questions about what it means to live a mindful life. “Here we are now, entertain us”—Kurt Cobain’s prescient imperative—comes to mind as an appropriate anthem of our age.
Of course, the two—entertainment and mindfulness—are connected. Investigations of existence, after all, inevitably highlight the unpleasant reality of death and the unpleasant reality of death is all-too-easily forgotten when we disappear into the blips and bings of a video game (which, if my airplane experiences are any indication, are more popular with grown men than young kids). We amuse ourselves to death not because it’s inherently satisfying to do so but because it allows us to dull lingering awareness of our quieter insecurities and ultimate transience. The forgotten upshot here is that if you cannot come to terms with (or even revel in) failure and death, well then, best of luck with life.
The implication of our systematically self-inflicted distraction on the cause of animals is in fact rather profound. There seems to me very little chance of any sort of mass awareness about the integrity of animal life when a singular aspect of amusing ourselves—a project that demands the constant pursuit of superficial and often mindless pleasure—centers not only on seeking entertaining distraction, but on eating animals. Vegan activists ask people to avoid eating animals as if we were asking them to wear khakis instead of jeans. But what we’re really asking them to do is to start figuring out who they are and, in so doing, cancel the passcode for the current source of their idea of “happiness.”
The trouble here (aside from the fact that I sound like a pompous jerk) is that the reflection required to distance ourselves from the modern savage within us comes through nothing less than the often terrifying personal experience of attempting to figure out, without the endless interference of cultural noise, such questions as a) who am I?; b) what do I most deeply believe?; c) how do I relate with other beings on the basis of those beliefs?; and d) what is my place and role in this world? People claim to seek answers to these questions through religion. I’m personally dubious, preferring instead to favor the harder, less historically occluded wisdom of serious philosophers, novelists, and essayists of a secular bent—in essence, the last people to whom we now listen.
Either way, the cause of animals, as DFW reminds me every time I read him, is intertwined with the volcanic cause of humans seeking to understand ourselves in these more substantial terms. I can only speak for myself on a point of such magnitude. But as I make a daily case for the cause of animals, I’m increasingly aware that the cart of our message is way ahead of the horse of culture. How they’ll be reversed remains anyone’s guess.
(Sorry if this sounded like an obnoxious anti-sermon. But it is, after all, Sunday.)
Vegan advocates are accustomed to the mainstream media giving short shrift (at best) to the cause of animal rights. Perhaps even more indifferent to animal issues are literary venues, an unfortunate indifference given that literary magazines tend to be more thoughtful and introspective than the typically superficial daily/hourly/A.D.D.-inducing news cycle.
It is thus with hedged optimism (what other kind is there?) that I draw your attention to the recent issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, the highbrow (what else to call it?) journal that offers erudite if esoteric treatments of a wide variety of serious issues. The current issue is dedicated to animals. The piece that caught my eye (and the only one that I’ve read thus far) was written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Sullivan, an instinctive writer with associations at Harper’s and The Paris Review, offers a more than competent and admirably accessible history of animal consciousness. The piece hinges appropriately enough on Darwin.
Sullivan writes of the recent research on animal consciousness:
If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.
Maybe I’m naive. Or maybe I’m overly impressed with thinkers and writers such as Sullivan. But I don’t think so. When a mind such as Sullivan’s seizes on an issue such as animal consciousness in the pages of a publication such as Lapham’s Quarterly, there’s cause for at least momentary celebration, which (high from a sweet 30K trail race this morning) is exactly what I’m going to do.
Here’s the article.
tomorrow: vegans who deliver threats
I recently read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). The book is magisterial and heartrending and more. At some point the spirit will catch you as you read this book and you, unless your heart is made of cement, will fall down (I stumbled into a pool of emotion on page 213).
The story centers on a large and loving Hmong family who immigrated to Merced, California after being driven from Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. The book’s driving theme is the cultural clash that exploded around the medical treatment provided for Lia, the epileptic daughter of Foua and Nao Kao. The title is the Hmong translation of epilepsy, a condition that the Hmong imbue with spiritual power. If nothing else, that translation alone should provide some sense of how Foua and Nao Kao felt when the most talented and dedicated pediatricians in the world (a married couple who were valedictorians of their class and ran eight miles every other day) decided to treat Lia with the most advanced narcotics western medicine had to offer. What was wrong, the Hmong wondered, with traditional practices, like bathing the child in herbal stew or rubbing hot coins on her chest?
It’s an epic story—and one I encourage you to read. For now, though, I’m going to focus on a small aspect of the book that led me to confront a big conundrum. Food is a driving force in the narrative. Turns out the Hmong culture is entirely defined by and inseparable from animal sacrifice. It’s impossible to overstate how deeply these peoples’ collective identity—one they must constantly reify as they are repeatedly displaced—is grounded in ritualistic and, from a western perspective, barbaric slaughter of chickens, goats, pigs, cows, and (it is suggested but denied) dogs. These animals (evidently not dogs) are sacrificed regularly, often within the home, and are consumed to mark births, deaths, marriages, and a variety of celebrations signified by a Hmong calendar structured by the time of day that a rooster calls. Sacrifices are also used to heal (it’s called Neeb). Ritualism complements a rare brand of self-sufficiency, something the Hmong value so instinctively that they’ve been cited for hunting pigeons with a bow and arrow in the streets of Philadelphia.
Fadiman, to her credit, doesn’t ignore the thorny ethics of the matter, although her assessment almost certainly won’t sit well with animal advocates. Essentially, she tells squeamish white people to get over it. It is with more than tacit approval that she quotes a UC-Berkeley professor who says, “So what if the Hmong feel they have to slaughter animals to make the proper kinds of sacrifices? Why not?” Fadiman herself chides the citizens of Merced for seeking ordinances to ban the household slaughter of animals, noting (in a rare moment of implausibility) that the “animals were killed quickly and cleanly” and, more plausibly, that the rituals were central to “the need to heal sick family members.” She continues to note that, “In Merced, almost every Hmong family I met sacrificed animals on a regular basis,” adding that this activity was so normalized in the minds of the Hmong that, when she asked if white neighbors might be bothered by a cow’s head left on the front stoop during a celebration, Nao Kao said, “Americans would think it was okay because we have the receipt for the cow.”
As my anthropologist friend Ward always says: culture matters.
It would be easy, as so many animal rights activists do, to dismiss Fadiman and the Hmong practice of ritual slaughter on abstracted moral grounds. That is, it would be easy to reduce this cultural and religious expression to the secular moral imperative that “unnecessary killing of a sentient being is wrong, no matter what the context.” I’ve taken this position in the past, especially when advocates of backyard slaughter in the United States insist that urban immigrant communities shouldn’t be prevented from pursuing inveterate cultural expressions. Fadiman, however, so effectively drives home the fundamental connection between slaughter and identity that it has forced me to rethink the matter, or at least forgo the convenient resort to moral essentialism. If there’s anything that I’m reminded of daily as an advocate for animals, it’s that theory and practice never converge the way we’d like it too. Again, like it or not, culture matters.
I’m well aware how dangerous this shift is for advocates of animal rights, so much so that I’m almost hesitant to raise the issue. After all, if we allow the ethics of slaughter to enter the slipstream of cultural difference we open matters up to a radically pliable relativism, thus allowing any group with a vague cultural claim to justify the unnecessary killing of animals. Humans thrive at fabricating justifications to serve our tribal interests. If we condone it once, we lay the basis for infinite justification. I’m also well aware how easy it has been to avoid confronting this issue, as we have implicitly allowed ourselves to be protected by the common cinematic trope that animal sacrifice signifies cultural backwardness, a form a “genial bigotry” (Fadiman’s phrase) perpetuated by movies such as Borat.
Still, this book encouraged me to rethink the relevance of the cultural context of exploitation. It made me realize that, when culture is taken seriously, and not relegated to an insulting stereotype, it’s very difficult to say that all exploitation is exploitation, period. Lia goes through utter hell with her disease and eventually reaches a state (this is not a spoiler alert) requiring non-stop vigilance by her parents who selflessly dedicate every moment of their lives to loving their egregiously impaired daughter with unfathomable dedication. You become so pulled into the emotional rhythms of this family’s trials and tribulations that when they throw a birthday party for Lia (who at this point in the story is eight), you are more than emotionally invested when, “the sidewalk outside the East 12th Street apartment overflowed with relatives and Hmong children.” That same feeling persists when, “Foua served Hmong eggrolls stuffed with minced pork and onion; steamed bananas with rice, chickens that been sacrificed that morning, and their skulls and tongues examined for divinatory signs. . .”
In isolation, this scene, from an animal rights perspective, is easy to judge. Again, just resort to the handy moral imperative: “It is always wrong to exploit animals if they do not need to be exploited.” Great. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. End of discussion. But the problem now is that I’m not in the land of moral abstraction. I’m on the sidewalk with the Hmong. The decision to eat animals is suddenly inseparable from the family with whom I’ve come to deeply and powerfully empathize and identify. I’ve watched the parents in particular demonstrate a rare and moving sort of love for their impaired daughter. I’ve watched a fiercely independent and loyal Hmong community make the cause of Lia their own. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell these good people, during this rare moment of celebratory bliss, that what they are doing is speciesist. It was in reading (and living) this sidewalk scene that I came to a simple but tectonic-plate shifting realization: there’s a difference between the bar-b-que sandwich going into the mouth of a white Austin frat boy and the minced pork eggrolls being eaten by the Hmong on a sidewalk in Merced.
What that difference implies in terms of reasonable activism is beyond me (at this point) to explain. But it provides—as thinking honestly about animals typically does—yet another problem to take seriously. Very seriously. And it’s not without hope for change toward a more animal-friendly way of life. My starting point for unraveling this complicated matter of ethics and culture and food and the Hmong begins with two distinct observations that I took from the book. First, the final birthday party food listed by Fadiman, alongside the traditional Hmong chicken and pork eggrolls, was a bag of Doritos. Second, Fadiman mentioned cases in which Hmong families who lacked access to livestock used “stones in place of animals” to carry out the essential rituals. The horrifying prospect of a Dorito substitution notwithstanding, culture matters and, fortunately, cultures can, as these examples attest, change without losing the spirit that caught them in the first place.
tomorrow: the perils of academic writing about animals
This one is a blast from the past. I wrote it almost 11 years ago. I’m posting in “Fumarole,” the literary corner of james-mcwilliams.com. The piece ran in The Austin Chronicle. Bless them for publishing it. -jm
Death is not the end; there remains the litigation of the estate. – Ambrose Bierce
Obscurity is obscurity, but disappearance is fame. – Bierce biographer Carey McWilliams
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Leon Day sat on his porch, sipped whiskey, chain smoked, and spewed out his true feelings for professional historians. “Most historians say no one will ever know. But saying we’ll never know is a hideous cop out. What they’re really saying is that they’re too lazy to look up the details. I think I work harder than they do.” He cackled.
Regarding the mysterious question of Ambrose Bierce’s death, his hubris is justified. Day, whose education consists of an Army GED and a year of college, has spent much of the past nine years investigating the strange death of the notorious author of The Devil’s Dictionary. A self-described “talented amateur historian,” Day holds down a half-day job determining the whereabouts of “very creative people” for the IRS. It’s a calculated strategy; Day is a kind of senior slacker intent on clearing his days of obligations in order to pursue the eccentric esoterica that the rest of us dismiss as irrelevant.
“Eccentric” would be the key word here. Over the course of four visits, I noticed that Day wore the exact same clothes: Wranglers with a hole in the knee, a gray T-shirt covered by a tobacco-stained work shirt, and black shoes. The only variation was a green stocking cap, which he wore perched high atop his head, gnome-like, in 70-degree weather. The hole in his jeans appeared larger with each meeting. Literature on ammunition and hand grenades litter the carpeted floor of his living room. Rifles sit propped up against walls in his dining area. Our last meeting broke up when his partner Mary reported that his tomcat that had been missing for two weeks was spotted four houses down. “I commune with that cat,” he explained as he rushed out of his Austin duplex, ambled down the sidewalk, and left me standing by my car.
For his part, Bierce was an iconoclastic, politically conservative, wickedly humorous, and often acerbic atheist who admired Pancho Villa and wrote definitions for The Devil’s Dictionary that confirm Day’s own jaded view of the world. “Liver,” for example, is “a large red organ thoughtfully provided by nature to be bilious with.” “Mad” becomes “affected with a high degree of intellectual independence.” And “cynic”: “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
For Day, the irreverent writer is a kindred spirit well worth the obsessive investigation. Gesturing proudly to his place — which is stacked floor to ceiling with books crammed into milk cartons, a small television airing the History Channel, and seven cats (well, six, I guess) who seem to have the run of the place — the 58-year-old talented amateur historian says, “I’m doing pretty well here.”
Day’s life is a better one than he ever imagined. “I saw myself picking potatoes out of dumpsters when I got older,” he explains. Indeed, instead of picking through dumpsters, Day now picks through the past. And he does so with a voracious appetite and a fine-toothed comb. The question of Bierce’s death has become his mother lode. Day’s reason for pursuing this question is, as with any scholarly interest, difficult to ascertain, but he’s dropped a few hints. Bierce was a Civil War soldier who specialized in making topography maps of especially dangerous terrain. He became San Francisco’s leading newspaper columnist at a time when, according to Day, “the writer stood behind his work with a gun, not a lawyer.” Bierce wrote the first Civil War fiction that “included the terror and put the glory in its place.” He became “a sort of literary cult leader” who never forgot that the end result of war would be “flowing blood and shattered bone.” He was, finally, “good at writing spooky stories.” But today, for all of these accomplishments, Ambrose Bierce is best known because he vanished. Day wants to “put a cap on this thing” so all of us can turn our attention to Bierce’s real accomplishments, and perhaps start paying more attention to his definitions.
Bierce’s disappearance has naturally attracted its share of kooks. “The more crackpot the theory is,” Day says, “the better chance it has of going somewhere.” His obsession with such a question — not to mention the tomcat business — might suggest that he, too, might be a bit cracked. But, as San Antonio journalist (and author of The Ashes of Waco) Dick Reavis assured me, Leon Day is the world’s authority on the issue of Bierce’s disappearance and death. Reavis, in an e-mail, also impugned a recent overly written Harper’s piece on Bierce’s disappearance as a typical “What I Saw in Deepest Africa” story, condemning it as an entirely superficial account of the legendary mystery. The fact that the Harper’s writer never consulted Day was, he implied, the article’s main downfall.
Day has done his work on Bierce quietly — publishing only a small piece in a tiny journal called Studies in Weird Fiction in 1999, and pecking away at a manuscript that has swelled to about 70 single-spaced pages. For all his obscurity, though, Day might be so close to solving this 90-year mystery that the final step might simply involve nothing more than raising the cash to carry out a professional exhumation. “It’d be awful if we found some Swede,” Day jokes. But he’s sure that he knows the plot under which the remains of Ambrose Bierce slowly decay. “If the truth is under a thin layer of dust, rather than yards-deep in lies,” he quips, “where’s the glory?” Glory or not, he’s eager as hell to dig in.
Ambrose Bierce left Washington, D.C., on October 2, 1913, to visit Mexico, where the Mexican Revolution was raging at full throttle. “I want to be where something worthwhile is going on,” he wrote to a friend, “or where nothing whatever is going on.” Throughout his journey, he mailed updates to his secretary in Washington, Carrie Christiansen. When Pancho Villa seized Jaurez on November 16, 1913, Bierce immediately went to El Paso and obtained press credentials. His last surviving letter to Christiansen came on December 16, 1913, in which he expressed his intention of going to the border town of Ojinaga. Villa was closing in on the town and was poised to take it. In Ojinaga, Bierce reasoned, something worthwhile was definitely going on.
Cobbling together a life from scant evidence, Bierce biographers have leapt to a number of questionable conclusions concerning the writer’s death. “It’s a sad fact,” Day has written, “that biographers generally stand on each others’ shoulders.” It’s sad, he explains, because the first serious biography of Ambrose Bierce, published by Carey McWilliams (no relation) in 1929, was a book that would shape nearly all subsequent studies. And it’s a book that Day “can’t read six pages of … without throwing against the wall.” As if the point needed reiteration, Day explained that McWilliams “was a shithead. Does that clear it up for you?”
Day discovered a disingenuous error in McWilliams’ study. Confronted in his concluding chapter with the mystery of Bierce’s death, McWilliams fudged a fact to suggest that Bierce had landed in a compromising situation in Chihuahua City, just before the sack of Ojinaga. McWilliams quotes from what he (mistakenly) presents as Bierce’s last letter, written to “his friend” J.H. Dunnigan on December 24, 1913: “Pray for me — REAL LOUD!” The implication was clear enough: Bierce had obviously landed in some deep trouble and, one could safely assume, must have been killed by suspicious federal troops in Chihuahua City. Case closed, book completed. Royalties collected.
Well, not quite. Day found that the actual letter was written to John S. Dunningan, clerk of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on October 1, while Bierce was still planning his trip in Washington, D.C., and a good six weeks before he left. The letter includes no expressions of danger. The quotation — “Pray for me — REAL LOUD” — was nothing but a joke poking fun at the fact that prayers for an avowed atheist like himself better be pretty enthusiastic. This falsification, committed by a biographer just out of college, sent Day scrambling for the right answer. “Digging for new material delays publication,” he says, “while simply rewriting the old speeds it.” He was in no rush.
Day, who believes that “historical research is largely a matter of reading other people’s mail,” went to the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley, which houses the Blanche Partington papers, to do just that. Blanche Partington was the daughter of Bierce’s friend J.H.E. Partington, a British artist. At the tender age of 26, she was also the 50-year-old Bierce’s lover. The affair, according to Day, “boiled merrily for a year or two” until Blanche left Bierce to try out other writers (including Jack London). Day thought the letters might be worth a glance, for their literary pillow talk if nothing else.
In the Blanche Partington papers, Day discovered a letter from Bierce to Blanche dated December 26, 1913, from Chihuahua, Mexico — two days after what McWilliams misidentified as Bierce’s last letter. In it, Bierce takes Blanche to task for her interpretation of a comment that he made in his previous correspondence. Blanche, perhaps understandably, assumed that Bierce’s reference to “a little valley in the heart of the Andes” meant that he was literally off to visit the Andes Mountains. Bierce chided her for her literalism, clarifying that his mention of the Andes was “merely a geographical expression used because I did not care to be more specific. … The particular region that I had in mind,” he clarified, “has lured me all my life.” And he was already there. Mexico. The Revolution was on, Villa had created the Division of the North, and Bierce was poised to track Villa’s military progress, and hopefully meet the man he so admired.
Bierce’s indication in this letter that he was going to a concrete place for a concrete reason also defused a second hypothesis that Day finds ludicrous. In another “authoritative” biography of Bierce published in 1929, the author — Walter Neale — argued that Bierce left Laredo, crawled off into a cave (perhaps in the Grand Canyon) and killed himself in order to hoax the world. On the surface, the theory sounds less insane than it seems. After all, Bierce had written that death should be quick, and he was on record as favoring rational suicide as a viable alternative to the incremental deterioration that often accompanies slow death. Plus, there was his cryptic remark to Blanche that, “Pretty soon I am going away — O very far away.” Neale’s theory picked up enough steam over the years to find its way into the most recent biography of Bierce, 1995′s Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris Jr.
“This wasn’t a great idea 69 years ago,” Day explains, “and time has not improved it.” Neale liked his subject too much to admit that he was down in Mexico chasing that rogue bandit Villa, so he simply refused to entertain the thought that Bierce ever went to Mexico at all. Now, of course, Day’s discovery in the Partington papers proves Neale wrong. Day believes that Morris, for his part, never bothered to follow up on the Neale theory, which has caused Day to “become sour on the biography trade.” Anyone who knows Bierce, he says, knows that, if he had indeed killed himself, “he would have written the best essay on suicide and then shot himself.” When the Morris biography was published, Day finally realized that if anyone was going to get to the bottom of the question of Bierce’s death, it was going to be him. So he chose to do what no biographer had previously done: He went to Mexico and started asking questions.
Before his trip, Day returned to an obscure piece of evidence that he had yet to fully consider. It was a 1928 New York Times article by Edward Synott O’Reilly, a Texas writer, cowboy, and soldier known locally as “Tex.” In the article, O’Reilly, who was traveling with Villa’s army, reported hearing that “an American had been killed in Sierra Mohada.” O’Reilly knew that Bierce was in the area because Bierce, who desperately wanted to meet Villa, had been leaving notes for him at hotels from El Paso to Chihuahua City to that effect. And, as Day adds, “strangers didn’t get killed in Sierra Mojada every day.” So O’Reilly was curious, and immediately “went up with our detachment to investigate this story.” As reported in his autobiography, Born to Raise Hell, here is what he discovered:
I began to inquire about the American, and several Mexicans told me about him. They said he was an old man who had come riding in there on horseback, alone. He spoke only a little broken Spanish. … He asked questions about the trails and made notes and maps, and they thought he was a spy. When the Federals heard that he was asking how to reach Villa’s army they decided to kill him. One afternoon he was drinking in a cantina with three Federal volunteers, and they decided to kill him then. They borrowed his pistol, and when he left they walked out there to the edge of town. I talked with two eye-witnesses who had seen the whole thing. Apparently he suspected nothing until the three men turned on him and began shooting. The first shot must have struck him in the leg or belly, because he dropped down, squatting on his heels. … He squatted there in the dust of the road and began to laugh heartily. The Mexicans were amazed because he was laughing as though it were a tremendous joke that he was being killed.
The stranger was buried outside a cemetery wall. Astonishingly, no biographer has ever checked out the O’Reilly story, despite the obvious clues: the man’s age, his interest in trails and maps, the reference to Villa, the fact that he was alone, the maniacal laughter in the face of death. “I began to think it was time to do some traveling,” Day explained.
On the edge of town in Sierra Mojada sits a dusty old boneyard surrounded by an adobe wall, just as O’Reilly described. In 1999 Day and Reavis — the veteran reporter whose Spanish is flawless — looked over the graveyard in frustration after several hours of unsuccessfully checking burial records. Their journey to Sierra Mojada had been an adventure. The men rode and slept in a rented car, followed directions provided by store owners and drifters, rambled their car through cowpaths, ate little more than peanuts and Coke, and incessantly chewed over the O’Reilly story. They asked the oldest villager if he had remembered the killing. He hadn’t. They spoke with Father Jaime Leinert, head of the La Esmeralda church, who evidently “knew everything about everybody, forever” within 200 miles. He couldn’t confirm the O’Reilly account. So now, looking at the crumbling wall that O’Reilly had described as the place where Bierce taunted his maker, Day and Reavis “drew a blank,” and went back through the desert wondering if O’Reilly had pulled a fast one on them.
“That’s where things sat,” Day writes in his unpublished manuscript, “when I got a curious letter from Father Jaime.” Turns out an old Mexican man named Don Chuy recalled witnessing the execution of an old, bearded gringo in 1914, when he was a small boy. The graveyard location matched O’Reilly’s, and Chuy was even able to point to the spot where he remembered the man being buried. Chuy recounted a story that had Bierce drinking in a cantina with some soldiers when one of them suggested that the group step outside to shoot targets. Bierce was asked to hang the target against the cemetery wall. When he turned around after doing so, the soldiers riddled him with bullets. He fell to his knees, as O’Reilly said, laughed, and died.
Naturally, Day remains skeptical of Chuy’s account. Nevertheless, he admits, it was “hard to pick holes in Chuy’s memory,” and while “Chuy remembered something a little more formal than O’Reilly reports,” their stories hardly contradict each other. It would have been unlikely, finally, for Chuy to have heard of, much less seen, O’Reilly’s article. All of which leads Day to conclude that “unless somebody could say Bierce died somewhere else, Don Chuy’s incident had to be investigated, and I am ill qualified to dig up bodies.”
It is a crowning testament to Day’s persistence and thorough historical and archeological research that he convinced Clyde P. Snow, one of the most famous forensic anthropologists in the world, to agree to conduct an exhumation of the alleged boneyard plot. Snow, an Oklahoman who travels the world “sticking names on skeletons,” has already gone so far as to visit Sierra Mojada and clear the bureaucratic hurdles to conduct his test. All that’s needed now is cash. Day won’t be specific on the matter, saying that it will require “serious bucks,” the kind of bucks that “leads to things like ‘grants,’ ‘advances,’ and ‘documentary rights’ — and other such bewildering trivia.” One gets the sense, in fact, that it might be one mystery that he lacks the patience to solve. Should his ship ever come in, though, I’m sure I won’t be the only one hoping that the skeleton that Snow identifies is a 5-foot-10 gringo with a hole in his leg and a smile on his face — a smile no longer reacting perversely to a violent death, but quietly acknowledging the righteousness of Leon Day’s dream.
Haruki Murakami (an avid marathoner, by the way) has always moved me in the right direction. A savvy blend of mysticism and reality grounds his stories. His languid characters walk a fine line between depression and hope, routine and diversion. After Dark, a novel set between 11:56 pm and 6:52 am in an unnamed Japanese city, vacillates between a brutal act of violence and a sleepy scene of magical realism. Woven into these subplots is a budding relationship between two young and thoughtful characters. Everyone criss-crosses paths. Jazz and classical music are constant backdrops. There’s blood.
The transcendent theme in After Dark is the power of a shifting consciousness, one initiated by empathy. Takahashi, one of the young and thoughtful characters, eschews movies for the real life drama of public courtrooms, where he often visits. When he listened to “the speeches of prosecutors and the arguments of the defense attorneys,” he “became a lot less sure of himself.” This humility is one of Takahashi’s many attributes. Walls of consciousness and empathy collapse as justice is executed. “Or if there was such a wall, it was probably one made of papier-mache.”
Thus characters enter from their own world into others. No matter where he ends up, though, there’s the oppression of tradition. Again, Takahashi: “any single human being, no matter what kind of person he or she may be, is all caught up in the tentacles of this animal like a giant octopus, and is getting sucked into the darkness.” But there’s freedom in unexpected places. “You send music deep enough into your heart so that it makes your body undergo a kind of physical shift, and simultaneously the listeners body also undergoes the same kind of physical shift.”
Oh to find the right music. After Dark hits the right opening note.
Time for a cultural interlude. I’ve long been a fan of Bill Callahan’s. He’s based here in Austin and, now and then, I’ll see him eating at Casa de Luz, our vegan gem. The lyrics below come from a recent song of his called “Drover.” It’s poetic, as are all his songs, and thusly open to interpretation. But I hear in this song great sympathy for cattle combined with a deep respect for their power. I would love to learn more about Callahan and animals.
“Drover,” By Bill Callahan
“The real people went away
But I’ll find a better word, someday
Leaving only me and my dreams
My cattle and a resonator
I drove all the beast down right under your nose
The lumbering footloose power
The bull and the rose
Don’t touch them don’t try to hurt them
I drove them by the crops and thought the crops were lost
I consoled myself with rudimentary thoughts
And I set my watch against the city clock
It was way off
Yeah one thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind
Yeah one thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind
And anything less, anything less
Makes me feel like I’m wasting my time
But the pain and frustration, is not mine
It belongs to the cattle, through the valley
And when my cattle turns on me
I was knocked back flat
I was knocked out cold for one clack of the train track
Then I rose a colossal hand buried, buried in sand
I rose like a drover
For I am in the end a drover
A drover by trade
When my cattle turns on me
I am a drover, double fold
My cattle bears it all away for me and everyone
One, one, one, one, one, one …
Yeah one thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind
And anything less, anything less
Makes me feel like I’m wasting my time”
These quotes from Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles grabbed me:
“From his first week at primary school in Charny, Michel had been struck by the cruelty of boys. It’s true that the little beasts were farmers’ sons, and therefore closer to animals than most. Nevertheless, it was startling to witness the instinctive, unaffected, joyful ways they stabbed frogs with a compass point or a fountain pen; violent ink blossoming beneath the skin of the unfortunate animal as it slowly suffocated to death. They would gather in a circle, their eyes bright, to watch its final agony.” (p. 136)
“Human beings who have worked—worked hard–all their lives with no motive other than love and devotion, who have literally given their lives for others, out of love and devotion; human beings who have no sense of having made any sacrifice, who cannot imagine any way of life other than giving their lives for others, out of love and devotion. In general, such human beings are generally women.” (p. 77)
Dave Eggers strikes me as one of the few living writers who has something urgent to say. His work cuts to the core of modern experience in a poignant and sensitive way. Primarily, he’s interested in relationships—all kinds. I remember him once saying in an interview —and I’m paraphrasing—that there are two sorts of writers in the world: those who recall what childhood was like and those who don’t. Eggers remembers. He thus brings to his prose the mystery and wonder of what life was like before adulthood clarified what “proper” relationships were supposed to be, relationships not only with people, but with animals as well.
Most readers know Eggers from his magisterial book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, an ironic-sounding title that turns out to be totally irony free. In this memoir of sorts, Eggers writes about raising his brother after their parents both died of cancer within (I think) the same year. It is a truly powerful recollection. Life affirming in so many ways (ironically). Eggers also brings his sympathetic embrace of human vulnerability to his short stories. In a collection called How We Are Hungry, he turns his attention to animals on several occasions.
This one—which comes in the aftermath of a couple who has just accidentally run over a black sheep on a road in Scotland—grabbed me the most:
There were two white sheep by the side of the road. They were speaking to the dead black sheep. They made tentative steps toward the middle, where the black one’s body lay. They wanted the dead sheep to get up and get going.
Erin and I both said Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, look at that. I thought, for the first time in my life, that the known science of the world was going to be changed by something I had witnessed. This communication between sheep, this cognizance of mortality, was surely unaccounted for.
But it was witnessed, of that there’s no doubt. And it was felt, by sheep and humans. Be assured that there is nothing evasive or ironic in this passage. The characters are assuredly stunned by what they see, and Eggers (if I’m reading him correctly) wants the reader to be equally moved. Reading Eggers reminds me that, as I’ve dedicated my work to the cause of animal advocacy, advocacy that demands a depth of empathy I’ve heretofore never tapped, I’ve come to seek out of both life and art a measure of sincerity that, I’m coming to realize, is more often hidden than exposed.