International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]


Vegetarians employ the words of 'alive' and 'dead' in ways that reverse the normal usage, and, most important, reverse the opposition on which their explicit ideology rests: they do not eat living things, and yet we find them referring to meat as 'dead' and vegetarian food as 'alive'.

Their language stresses eating as an ingestion of vitality, thus vegetarian food is 'vibrant', 'alive', (1) cooking by contrast 'emasculates' this vital force - nature having already 'sunbaked' these foods for us. (2) Vegetarian food is 'alive' but in a special way; it is alive as the universe is alive, full of a sort of manna that comes from the life force of nature. It floods through the body, as does the sun through nature, bringing life and strength, so that by eating this food one is filled with the same life as the trees, the plants, the waving grain - and all the harmonic images of nature come into play.

Meat by contrast is dead matter. Vegetarians often speak of eating meat as eating corpses. It is regarded as rotten: ‘from the moment that life leaves the body, putrefaction commences to set in. A dead body may be looked upon in the light of a quantity of waste and putrefying matter' , (3) and at times it is directly equated with excrement: 'raw meat is hygenically speaking equivalent to faeces'. (4) Meat-eating builds up dead matter in you, the poison fills the system. (5) The ingestion of dead animals becomes an ingestion of death itself; meat-eating presents the unresolved contradiction of that which was alive, yet now being dead, and as such it presages one's own death and decomposition. Vegetarianism by contrast, as we shall see, stands for the rejection of bodily death.

The purity of vegetarian food in the modern western context has a positive meaning that derives from this language of vitality. By contrast, in Hindu culture with its use of vegetarianism, purity is an empty, negative state, achieved by an absence of impurity. The opposition is one of

no impurity : impurity

in which the organic in life is the primary source of pollution. Cantlie, writing on Hindu asceticism, links this negativity with its conception of the aim of a holy life as being an emptying, related also to their opposition of existence to non-existence, in which the evils of life are opposed to the blessings of non-life. (6)

In the west in the modern period, the context is different. Purity is not just an absence of impurity, nor just a state of giving up (as it is arguably in the monastic version where I can find no sense of non-meat food as being better or higher food), but it has its own positive charge. In the vegetarian ideology there are qualities believed to result from meat-eating that can be avoided by abstaining; but there are also separate and different qualities that come from eating vegetarian food.

Eden is the charter myth of vegetarianism. Behind vegetarianism, even the most explicitly secular versions, lies the image of re-establishing Eden, on this earth, now. Sometimes the mythic story is a different one, but the basic structure remains the same: thus in the myth of Prometheus - at least as interpreted by Shelley (7) and other vegetarians - the arrival of fire and cooking, and thus meat-eating, marks the point of origin of complex society; or in the 'noble savage' version, recurrently influential since the rise of Romanticism though it looks back to the long tradition of social primitivism and the Golden Age, whereby we have lost that simple, happy society that flowed unconstrainedly from natural human relations; or in more ‘scientific' evolutionary versions, where the 'fall' comes from the development towards hunting and meat-eating. (8) Above all Eden in this context of modern vegetarianism is equated with Nature and the Natural State.

Eden and indeed the more ancient of these mythic constructions have a long tradition of being characterised as vegetarian, both within vegetarianism and independently. (9) Again Hindu vegetarianism contains no such dreams of a consecrated human existence, an earthly kingdom or a purified, yet fully life. (10) Eden is such an important image in vegetarianism because it represents the world as it once was - its natural state – and how it might be, were this recovered. It is this world – but transfigured. Eden represents the state of harmony from which all the central disjunctions of life are absent, and it is precisely the disjunctions that vegetarianism dreams of eradicating. (11) It is a state of non-time, into which death had not yet entered, and as such it stands in opposition to the meat-eating realm, dominated by the symbols of procreation and passion, death and decay that are written into meat. This is how meat can be both too alive, too stimulating to animal nature, and yet also be symbolic of death and decay. The two sorts of 'life' in food are different. Hills makes this explicit: 'There is a power of vital accumulation which is the very opposite of systematic stimulation' (12)

Thus we have vegetarian food placed in opposition to animal food:

/ \


In parallel with this, we have raw food, which is associated with vegetarian food and reiterates some of its qualities, in opposition to cooked food, associated with treat and reiterating some of its qualities. Hills declared that 'There can be no truce between Life and Death, no compromise between complex cooking and natural simplicity'. (13)

/ \

Thus when the two are combined (Figure III), we have fresh raw vegetarian food opposed to the cooked and rotten animal food; and Eden opposed to the secular time-cycle of life and. death.

 Raw vegetarian food
 (cool and fresh)
/ \
(cooked/heated) -
- (rotten/dead)
  (rotten/stimulating) (cooked/overprocessed)  


Meat belonging to this realm is both too stimulatingly alive and too putrefyingly dead; (14) and this makes sense of the dual aspect referred to earlier in the context of the hierarchy of foods (p57) whereby vegetarianism can be seen as both as an eating down the hierarchy, away from the ambivalent power, and as a radical reversal of that hierarchy.

This Edenic rejection of decay and death if sometimes expressed in vegetarianism in ideas of the unnecessary and unnatural nature of ageing, which is seen as a result of the accumulated toxins of a corrupt diet; thus it is often asserted that people die long before they need to, and indeed that Man largely kills himself, (15) and there are muted hints in the writings of groups like the Danielites of a natural immortality. (16) There is a clear image of youthfulness in vegetarianism that draws on this Edenic rejection of death. We can see this in their iconoclastic attitude towards social rules and in their alliance with radical movements of change; vegetarianism like Romanticism itself, is a movement of the sons not the fathers. This theme of youthfulness has grown in the twentieth century, underlining much of vegetarianism's popularity of recent years, particularly on the West Coast of America where the cult of the youthful body and the denial of age and death are strong.

Vegetarianism offers a this-worldly form of salvation in terms of the body. What is spoken of as the life in vegetarian food can represent the eternal spirit, but their idea of spirit is of this world' it is a spiritual body that is being stressed, not a disembodied spirit. Vegetarianism is a purity movement, but one that operates through their idea of the pure body.

  1. 18. This force is believed by some to be directly visible through Kirlian photography which can, it is claimed, thus distinguish between organic and inorganic objects, and between fresh, cooked and decayed food. See particularly the ideas of the Health for the New Age group.
  2. 19. The imagery of vital food and of 'eating nearer the sun' has been an element in the vegetarian ideology from at least the late nineteenth century - see Hills and his 'vital food, pregnant with the potency of life, suffused with the storage of sunshine' (Vital Food, p2) - and it was epitomised in the thirties by the works of Gayelord Hauser; it is particularly prominent today in New Age writing, especially that of Sir George Trevelyan, though it has a wider influence also in the emphasis on ingesting vitality that is characteristic of the health food shops. It has become particularly focused in recent years around sprouting seeds and beans which are felt to carry the essence of the germinating life force, and as such to enable cells to regenerate in their youthful, not aged, form.
  3. 20. VR, Jan 1895, p14, Mrs Leigh Hunt Wallace. See also 'The Food of Death', VM, Jan 1917, p6.
  4. 21. Alive, Oct 1977, p7.
  5. 22. 'No man is a grave', declared Jon Wynne Tyson in this context Food for a Future, p43. Meat eaters, when not in rude good health, were said to find it difficult to cope with the 'onslaughts of putrid meat' (DR, April 1874, p44) and this is still believed to be a major cause of undetected illness in the population.
  6. 23. A. Cantlie, 'Aspects of Hindu Asceticism', Symbols & Sentiments: Cross Cultural Studies in Symbolism, ed I. Lewis, 1977.
  7. 24. See p.67
  8. 25. See for example, F.A. Wilson, Food Fit for Humans, 1975, p61; see also the matriarchy theories of some feminists.
  9. 26. For some of the non-Christian connections, see A.O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, eds, Documentary of Primitivism: i Antiquity, Baltimore, 1935.
  10. 27. R.C. Zaehner draws a distinction of a parallel nature when he distinguishes between the modern western mystical tradition which he calls, following Bucke, cosmic consciousness, and which has strong vegetarian links, and the mystical consciousness of the east, though also of the orthodox Christian mysticism, where the material world is maya - at bent a transient state, and at worst a snare that keeps men from enlightenment. It is the status of Nature in the modern western tradition that is the crucial difference. Concordant Discord, 1970, p59.
  11. 28. The principal such disjunctions are: ageing, death, suffering and, in some traditional versions, sexuality. The first two we shall refer to shortly. Their concept of pain and suffering and their essentially unnatural status is well represented in the tradition of nature cure and illustrated in the recurring theme of childbirth: the belief - against all the traditional evidence - that childbirth in simple societies or under natural conditions is painless has been a minor theme in vegetarianism since at least the early nineteenth century: pain has no place in man's natural state. As we have noted, the status of sexuality changes in vegetarianism in line with more general changes, including in perceptions of Eden (previously seen as pre-sexual); what happens - broadly - is that the realm of wholeness and purity expands to take in elements of sexuality which is no longer quite so simply equated, as in earlier periods, with the gross, unreal and distorting aspects of being.
  12. 29. Vital Food, p2.
  13. 30. Vital Food, p2.
  14. 31. I have not been able here to adopt fully Lévi-Strauss' scheme: rottenness in this context pertains to culture, indeed it is an implicit judgement on it that it does.  Cooking and rotting fit ambivalently here: rotting most obviously fits with the death-carrying pole and cooking, through its heating aspect, with the alive pole. However, equally important - for the ideology is not as fixed as such schemes can sometimes suggest - is the reverse link. Thus cooked food has some of the quality of dead food, as has also, by extension, processed food: both have undergone the 'excessive' transformation of culture. Rotten food, through the fermentation link, has qualities of stimulation that link it with the over-alive pole. (There is an old association in diet reform with the rejection of all fermented food, including the use of yeast in the leavening of bread, as over stimulating. The rejection is reinforced by the connection with alcohol) Stimulation also contains the ideas of the production of an essentially unnatural state.
  15. 32. See VM, June 1929, p128, for example. Old age is described here, as a 'pathological condition' and one in large part caused by the rotten nature of meat.
  16. 33. See p123. The denial or lack of emphasis in the religious tradition on Christ's crucifixion and death - see Kingsford and Maitland and the Mazdaznans etc - relates to this conception, though it results also from the nature of salvation offered.

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