Since time immemorial, some friends and many acquaintances have felt terrorized by my refusal to eat pork. Not only at BBQs, mind—politely declining some sweets or cake that happen or might happen to contain gelatin often proved potently annoying in this regard.
The funny thing is, if I refrained from eating pork for religious reasons, that would be fine. Or, if I didn’t eat pork because I was a vegetarian, that would be fine, too. Now the problem with that is that I’m widely and proactively known as neither. Hand me the mutton, please! Or, wait, is that sushi I see before me?
I don’t eat pork for two reasons. The first is, I love to stick to traditions that don’t harm anyone or arrest anyone’s development on the one hand, but carry a sense of history and a sense of belonging on the other. This, of course, is what the Humanist version is about, and many ideas developed by Reconstructionism I’m also rather fond of, albeit not the overly metaphysical tidbits. But around where I live, these brands are non-existent, regrettably. (So I have to make do with Posthumanism and Deconstructionism, which is also okay.)
Now, the miscellaneous stories of religious observance, and the miscellaneous stories of vegetarian observance, are to a great extent accepted in terms of reasons to not eat pork. Bathed in the reassuringly familiar light of these stories, people are mostly glad to provide you some extra treat or dish at a party.
I say stories because these are, of course, stories that we tell ourselves. Good stories and bad stories. An example for a good story would be the refusal to eat animals because of the conditions in which they are raised, handled, hauled, and slaughtered. An example for a bad story would be the refusal to eat certain animals because the world’s been divided into that which is clean and that which is unclean by an invisible friend, and all the odious consequences this division engenders.
So what’s my story then, besides tradition? Well, I have to admit I positively discriminate on the side of intelligence and self-awareness. That’s philosophically and ethically assailable, of course. I don’t eat pork for exactly the same reasons why I would refrain from eating parrots, dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins, or elephants, to name a few. Also, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with eating octopus—not because of those socially toxic clean/unclean differentiations they’ve also fallen prey to, but because we’re beginning to develop an idea about how smart and communicative cephalopods actually are.
Of course, that’s a story too, and a story with a personal experience behind it. Regular visits to a petting zoo where, in one barn, there were sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs together, one largish family of each, had proved to be the turning point after which not eating pork made so much more sense. The difference in behavior between sheep, goats, and cattle on the one hand and pigs on the other was remarkable. Not only were the pigs not dirty. They had a social life, they were responsive, sensitive, playful, and playfully annoyed. And, shockingly, they recognized you when you had spent sufficient time with them and returned the following week! To make a long story short: pigs are known to be the most intelligent domesticated animals. And, alas, they’re also the most sensitive too. That’s why they can become psychotic in the first place. All these stories of lunatic, filthy pigs that eat their own young have, to my knowledge, exclusively been observed among pigs held captive, no other word comes to mind, under the most horrible conditions. Otherwise, pigs use mud indeed, but for air-conditioning (pigs can’t sweat), as a sunscreen, and as a defense against insects. Otherwise, they’re not “dirtier” than your average five-year-old.
But, amazingly, this is not a story that suffices to prevent party-throwing people from being annoyed by your antiporkarian eating habits. The failure to provide something to eat for guests who tell themselves and others religious stories or vegetarian stories, more often than not makes the hosts angry at themselves for such an embarrassing neglect. The failure to provide something to eat for someone with a different story is more likely to make them angry at you.
Thomas Pynchon, one of the writers who figure large in my doctoral thesis, seems fond of pigs too, in a way. In the “hog trail” sequence in Gravity’s Rainbow—which alludes, among other motifs, to the age-old paradox of theodicy—pigs appear as a stand-in for the human condition. The settler William, “one of the first Europeans in,” got a “pig operation going,” driving hogs “back over the long pike to Boston […] just like sheep or cows.” William enjoys their good company and comes “to love their nobility and personal freedom, their gift for finding comfort in the mud on a hot day”:
[A]nd you can imagine what the end of the journey, the weighing, slaughter and dreary pigless return back up into the hills must’ve been like for William. Of course he took it as a parable—knew that the squealing bloody horror at the end of the pike was in exact balance to all their happy sounds, their untroubled pink eyelashes and kind eyes, their smiles, their grace in crosscountry movement. It was a little early for Isaac Newton, but feelings about action and reaction were in the air. William must’ve been waiting for the one pig that wouldn’t die, that would validate all the ones who’d had to, all his Gadarene swine who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying … possessed by innocence they couldn’t lose … by faith in William as another variety of pig, at home with the Earth, sharing the same gift of life. …1
Another remarkable “pig” in Gravity’s Rainbow is Lieutenant Slothrop’s impersonation of the Schweinheld “Plechazunga.” This fantastic superhero’s mythical origins are established by way of an outrageous story according to which the thundergod Thor, or Donar, sent down a giant pig to battle invading Vikings and drive them back into the sea. The German town rescued by these means each year celebrates its deliverance, and Slothrop—thanks to the adequacy of his corpulence as well as to the fact that the regular impersonator still has to return from the war (Nazi Germany had capitulated less than a year earlier)—winds up in a giant pig costume for the ceremony:
At which point Fritz strikes his match, and all hell breaks loose, rockets, Roman candles, pinwheels and—PLECCCHHAZUNNGGA! an enormous charge of black powder blasts him out in the open, singeing his ass, taking the curl right out of his tail. “Oh, yes, that’s right, uh …” Wobbling, grinning hugely, Slothrop hollers his line: “I am the wrath of Donar—and this day you shall be my anvil!” (569)
Right after “saving the town for another year” and still wearing his costume—“pink, blue, yellow, bright sour colors, a German Expressionist pig” (568)—Slothrop is caught in a black market raid conducted by German police reinforced by Russian troops, and manages to get others and himself to safety precisely because he wears his enormous Schweinheld costume which proves impenetrable for the riot weapons involved.
Well—I, for one, welcome our new pig overlords! But seriously, I think it is about time we at least re-read, and possibly revised, some of the stories that we tell each other about why we eat, or why we do not eat, pork.