There’s an argument that we all feel a need to belong. Somewhere, to someone beloved – to something. To a place where our books are; music, pictures and stuff, that we can call home. And to some kind of ‘-ism’, a position in the spectrum of opinions, a locator in society.
This text may appear to be about me, and if it reads that way, I apologise. But it isn’t, it’s about the ‘isms’ I’ve tried and failed at, and the only decision I’ve made that has stood the test of time: becoming vegetarian at the age of eight.
At the age of nearly 66, one really should have an answer to the question, when friends greet me: ‘Hey, Ed – where are you living these days?’ but I have no idea – and after a lifetime of being able to say I was on the ‘Left’, now what does that mean? Left, right, centre – in a world of political babble, and ravaging of earth, and of persecution and obliteration of animals.
In this complete un-belonging, physical, existential and political, one seeks the only foundations there are: friends, family of course – and a relationship to nature, to which one does belong, albeit uneasily as a member of the human race.
I was walking with my father in Sussex, eight years old in 1962, beholding lambs at Springtide, bouncing around and under their patient, munching Mums, when I first thought properly and seriously about what happened to them. That night I told my parents I would stop eating meat, and have not done so since (fish came, naturally, soon after).
I had no idea that this constituted something called ‘vegetarianism’, but was acutely aware that it was not what a boy in society should do. My Mama made me a packed lunch for school each day, which would be snatched and kicked across the floor (home hungry, I never dared tell her). Teachers sided with the bullies, and the headmaster wrote my parents a letter inviting them to conjoin him in exorcising these ‘non-conformist tendencies’ as he called them. My parents replied they were happy with the decision, and I learned that way that I did not belong – nor did they, differently – in a society wherein killing and eating animals was de rigeur.
It was not just about animals; there was an emergent ‘-ism’ – as a teenager I became fascinated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and aware of something called ‘Pantheism’, which held nature to be divine.
But these were tumultuous times: rebellion against capitalism in Paris, against Imperialism in Belfast and Derry, against Communism in Prague, against militarism in Mexico, against racism in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit and against everything – but for peace – in San Francisco. We all knew what we were against.
I tried Marxism, uneasily, in its 1960s-ish Guevarist form. And I have ever since found myself usually, though not always, akin to ‘the Left’. But what are the consequences of ‘dialectical materialism’? Marxism, no less than the capitalism it avows to contest, asserts humankind’s supremacy over, and right to exploit, nature. The very concept of ‘progress’ has implied these things until very recently, and only in some quarters of the ‘Left’ are they questioned. And anyway, what ‘progress’, honestly, to we see in a world of Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, institutionalised racism still, technological phantasmagoria, Covid-19 and climate crisis? I sit uncomfortably, on the evidence, in an ideology that, like capitalism, presumes a Tuesday to be by definition an improvement on Monday.
I always adored the Italian Renaissance. That convergence of thought, painting, sculpture, mathematics, science and architecture into tearing down the God of the Middle Ages, and doing so usually, ironically, by deploying the iconography of Christianity. ‘Man, the measure of all things’, pronounced Alberti – and who could resist? Though while most Renaissance artists found in this assertion a celebration of humankind’s new-found freedom and liberation from the edifices of mediaeval belief, I was always drawn to those darker visions, of Donatello’s Maddalena, praying to nothing, or Masaccio’s Eve, screaming as she is expelled from Eden. Free – but alone in the universe.
Some kind of Humanism propels, arguably, the best in us. Lives Matter. As a prisoner in Auschwitz, Jean Améry fell back on humanism as his point of anchor. But how do we measure the nobility of Renaissance humanism in a world wherein people grow fat and lazy, at the cost of the hundreds of thousands of animals they buy, slaughtered and wrapped, on supermarket shelves? Boarding their low-cost flights dressed up for a stag-outing, stuffing themselves with ham sandwiches? Measure of all things? Well, yes… Exactly, unfortunately. Humanism; hmmm – I’m not so sure.
For all the glories of the Renaissance, humankind without mysticism is a sad case. And this is no place to debate theology, but there is this ultimate problem of the human-centricity of it all. God made MAN?
Romanticism had to happen, and I tried that of course. Renaissance and Enlightenment needed their cumuppance with a revolt of the wild, the imagination and irrational. Led by Delacroix, Géricault, Goya and Friedrich in art, Beethoven, Schubert and Berlioz in music, Emily Bronte in the novel, Goethe and Keats in poetry, along with Mary and P.B. Shelley – and the operas of Verdi – who insisted that romantic be revolutionary too. Beyond the walls of Linton’s claustrophobic garden lie the moors, and ghosts of Kathy and Heathcliffe; against injustice, infamy and plague, Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi pitch love and pure heart. But the 20th Century twisted Romanticism, flipped the irrational from something liberating to reveal something dangerous. I love Romanticism, but could not live there.
Both my favourite writers are French, Emile Zola and Albert Camus. Zola adhered to an –ism called Naturalism, which understood the decline and fall, disintegration and decay, of all things. Including people. I find it hard to discard Naturalism, but it is not home.
Camus joined Samuel Beckett on my reading list after a terrible accident related to shell-shock from covering too many wars. I had always loved Camus, but revisited him now, turning 60, in acute pain and high on morphine for two years, as part of my adventure with nihilism. A friend took me to see ‘Happy Days’, and hear Beckett’s great configuration: ‘Sometimes it is all over for the day, all done, all said, and night ready to fall; but the day not over, far from over, the night not ready, far from ready’. Or Molloy’s hunter: “I went back to the house and wrote. It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining”. There are times when nonsense makes sense. But nihilism didn’t work for me either.
So what is it that is left? I spend my life writing about migrants yearning for home, people burned out of their homes and returning to rebuild them. Bosnians, in addition to the word Kuca, home, have another word, ‘Toprak’, to denote the soil beneath one’s home. But have none myself. Where is the wanderer’s Heimat, if any? It has something to do with that decision I made when I was eight. Something to do with understanding that there is a war between humankind and nature and that one is on the other side, one is a traitor to the human race.
But there has to be something. Something that takes us back to Coleridge, Pantheism, Greek Gaia, Caspar David Friedrich, Turner and that 19th Century Romantic concept of ‘the sublime’. Something to do with the fact that, for example, a swift sleeps on the wing and a swallow does not, but both commute between the same tree in West Africa and Europe each year, one – I read, I hope it is true – navigating by reference to the stars, the other to magnetic fields in the earth. That, to me, is divine. That is something to believe in.
I do not like the word ‘vegetarianism’, because it makes an ‘ism’ out of a decision. But I’ve come to know what it means: indication of a wider awareness, an understanding of humankind’s limits and limitations, a sense of our place (and not a very positive one) in creation, and existence with respect to, and convivial with, other species. Species that live in harmonic balance with one another – often within a cruel food chain, but invariably for the good of their future. Unlike Homo-supposedly-Sapiens, who is actually just the reverse.
To refuse to eat one’s peers (and, one is tempted to say, superiors), is just the beginning. But the ‘ism that endures had to start somewhere.