|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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.
CHAPTER NINE: THE STRUCTURE OF THE IDEOLOGY
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B: LIFE, DEATH AND EDEN
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.
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.