Monday, January 4, 2010

Words After an Afterword

Does Animals argue for animal rights? Or only for treating non-human animals better? Does it argue that humans should all be vegetarians, even vegans—or does it simply ask humans to give up factory farmed meat and dairy products for free-range ones?

I’m not entirely sure. That may seem odd for the author of a novel that has been said by more than one reader to be too direct and too obvious in its message. But it is the truth. The main thrust of Animals is of course against factory farming; that much is (I trust) abundantly clear. But what of the vexed issues beyond that? My own views have to some degree shifted over the years; indeed, I suspect they shifted in the course of writing the novel. I have leanings, but I am indeed not entirely sure-not sure about my own beliefs, and not even sure as to what the book may argue on this point.

And I’m not alone. My old friend Tom Hurka, a philosopher who is one of our best and liveliest thinkers on ethics and aesthetics, mentioned when he joined me in Toronto this past season to speak about the book (and about the ethics of human animals dealing with non-human ones) that his reactions had differed on first and second reading. On one reading he had seen Broderick more as an unreliable narrator, and on another had imagined that the book (I won’t say “the author”) was endorsing a good deal of what Broderick has to say.

Interestingly, two online reviews of the novel that I have come across recently are at entirely opposite poles on this point. I don’t mean simply that they take opposing views; they also disagree completely about what is being argued for in Animals. Kentia Gueletina in The Lyon concludes that the book reads “like a treatise on animal rights and the virtues of becoming a vegetarian.” Calling it “one of the most scarring books” she has ever read, she concedes that “the quality of the writing is actually very good,” but disapproves of what she sees as its message: “it would make a good pamphlet for the more extreme (and I mean extreme) Animal Rights movements.”

In fact the book is (I think) careful to steer clear of the difficult issue of whether or not non-human animals have or should possess those abstract qualities many human animals call “rights.” Too careful, by some reckonings. David Regan has just posted his review of the book on his Animals in Canada site. I won’t quibble here over several small points in his review I might take issue with him over. The important thing is that on one very large point he is absolutely right, and I have been quite wrong:

All this puzzling over Broderick is made moot in the end by LePan’s Afterword. Here it becomes clear that the character’s ethical position, far from being a joke or a warning, and in addition to perhaps being a reaction to childhood trauma, is the same as his author’s. Both Broderick and LePan are arguing – passionately, eloquently, earnestly – for an end to factory farming, for improved welfare for food animals, but neither is arguing for animal rights, neither is arguing for the abolition of animal use. There is nothing wrong with this position per se; it’s common and often convincing in contemporary discussions of our obligations toward non-humans. But within the world of LePan’s novel – where humans with intellectual disabilities are stand-ins for, are equated with, non-human animals – it is absolutely untenable, as it suggests that it might be acceptable to use humans with intellectual disabilities for food so long as we do not factory farm them. Broderick defends the indefensible, and rather than laugh or scoff at him, LePan wants us to take him seriously. This failure to condemn the killing and eating of humans with intellectual disabilities does not, obviously, mean that LePan might actually support such a practice. No reader could possibly come away from his book thinking so. Nevertheless, while Broderick’s three-dimensionality, his humanity, makes for good fiction, it is also despicable philosophy and dangerous politics, and these are realms that LePan clearly wants his novel to exist in.

Aesthetically there is I think much to be said for leaving a good deal of uncertainty over the degree to which the book endorses or undercuts Broderick's various positions. But as it stands the Afterword acts in the most unhelpful of ways to remove much of that uncertainty; I am entirely persuaded that the elements of the Afterword that Regan points to are as damaging aesthetically as they are philosophically. Another perceptive recent reader—Deborah Robbins—pointed out to me last month that the afterword anachronistically referenced humans killing and eating pigs and chickens and so on. I made a note to have those lines changed on the first reprint of the Canadian edition, and in the forthcoming US edition—but somehow I still didn’t get the larger underlying point Robbins was making, until Regan made it for me even more forcefully. How I missed the larger problem I don't know; the only explanation I can offer is that with the Afterword I really had left the world of the novel behind, and was focusing on the world of today, and on factory farming. In any case, I now see clearly that the Afterword as it now stands does not connect coherently with the novel. my apologies for having gotten that one large thing so very wrong. I am posting now on my website a revised Afterword that (I hope!) takes account of this problem. My thanks to David and to Deborah for pointing me towards better things!

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