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The important stuff is always in the footnotes

It appears that vegetarianism is all the rage these days. Recently, most newspapers’ Saturday supplements tend to carry at least one or two articles about the pros resp. cons of meat eating, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals hit the bestseller list last week – just as he came to The Netherlands, to talk about his life as a vegetarian in a sold-out Paradiso.[1]

Foer’s exposé of the animal suffering involved in factory farming may be new in form, but not necessarily in content: after all, most of the facts he reports have long been known by well-neigh anyone who ever took the effort to think, for more than two seconds, about the provenance of their steak or chicken-wing.

In 2003, the novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace went to the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, Maine, commissioned by the culinary magazine Gourmet. Foster Wallace, who passed away a year-and-a-half ago[2], presented his findings in an article titled Consider the Lobster, which is also the title of a collection of his essays, published in 2006. It contains stories on topics as diverse as the 1998 porn industry convention in Las Vegas, to Kafka’s funniness, to September 11, and to “the seamy underbelly of US lexicography.” , presented his findings in an article titled Consider the Lobster, which is also the title of a collection of his essays, published in 2006. It contains stories on topics as diverse as the 1998 porn industry convention in

In the title essay, Foster Wallace duly notes the meat industry’s way of handling its raw material (i.e. animals) in a footnote that could just as easily have appeared in Foer’s book: “Maximum commercial efficiency requires that enormous poultry populations be confined in unnaturally close quarters under which conditions many birds go crazy and peck one another to death.” Hence the custom, in the poultry industry, to “debeak” broiler chickens and brood hens.

That this information is buried in a footnote might be perceived as an attempt not to aggrieve the foodies (and, presumably, omnivores) who generally subscribe to such magazines as Gourmet. However, with Foster Wallace’s essays, the important and interesting stuff is always in the footnotes: some of the pages in the collection are taken up entirely by footnotes, asterisks and asides. This makes the book especially fun to read – and Foster Wallace’s incredible wit and intelligence only add to that.

The fact that Consider the Lobster is so wide-ranging makes Foster Wallace’s questioning of the ethics of boiling lobsters while they are still alive more resonant, somehow, than it would if this were the sole topic of the book. Nonetheless, his conclusion – that “there are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other” – makes clear that awareness of animal suffering doesn’t necessarily translate into a change in behavior. Let’s keep that in mind as we undergo the current deluge of books and articles about animal suffering – and let’s not get our hopes up.



[1] Let us not mention, for the moment, the ongoing popularity of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, nor the Dutch minister of Environment’s recent contention that said environment would fare much better if we all diminished our intake of animal proteins, nor etc.

[2] By committing suicide, that is – DFW is reported to have suffered from depression for the last twenty years of his life.

 

Lynn Berger

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