Friday, October 05, 2007

Another must-read book: When Elephants Weep

I have just finished another must-read book, for when you have the time (!): When Elephants Weep, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, exploring the emotional lives of animals, and by a psychiatrist, of all people (!), covering all manner of ethobiological and sociobiological data! And also this book ties in interestingly, at the end, with the next book on my list, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene ;-))

It would almost make me go vegetarian, except that my body recoils from the thought of never, ever eating meat again, as it does also from the thought of never drinking another beer, or smoking a smoke again! I now have a bad case of what social psychologists would call "cognitive dissonance", i.e. my body wants it, while my mind and emotions clamour against it! (Interestingly, cognitive dissonance itself, of which smokers normally have more than their fair share, got instantly cured, when, at the cinema in Norway, after a social psych. lecture on, precisely that, cognitive dissonance, I saw an anti-smoking ad that proclaimed, "1 in 2 smokers die of smoking", and I thought happily, "I can live with those odds!" Cognitive consonance instantly restored! lol)

But the vegetarian debating loudly in my stubbornly non-vegetarian body will not go away... After that book, which systematically demolishes everything that supposedly separates us from other animals, even Terry Pratchett's much-vaunted narrative or story-telling abilities (the signing experiments with great apes hardly having exploited the apes' full potential in this regard, due to the signing limitations of their human trainers?), and those suggested by Darwin himself, blushing, crying etc. (yes, I did look into the eyes of an elephant shackled in a circus once, and thought them the saddest eyes ever, very moist with tears, and the tigers and panthers restlessly pacing in their cages did not look too happy either; hopefully that same elephant later dumped its half a ton of elephant dung right in the centre of the ring! lol)...

Perhaps one distinguishing feature remains, after all? We represent the only species that can still EAT OTHER ANIMALS, WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY FEELING GUILTY ABOUT IT??? Do dogs feel guilt about eating meat, or dolphins about eating fish, I wonder? Do spiders feel guilt about eating flies and other insects, for all their other wonderful qualities, like web-spinning and even care of their young spiderlings, at least in the case of the wolf spider? And don't talk to me about the much-vaunted "saintliness" and guru-like qualities of dolphins: like chimpanzees (our lot!), for all their occasional compassion, altruism and empathy (like us!), they can also demonstrate quite mean and aggressive behavior, and have even raped members of their own species! ;-P

Actually, the one species that could so far come close to our own in the narrative or storytelling department could amount to the great cetaceans, in particular the humpbacked whale, whose "songs" some researchers have studied and found to represent basically the same stories each year, with minor, critical variations, i.e. do they really retell the history of the world, or at least their own species, with updates?

So what do you think? Does this guilt as carnivore/omnivore characterise that which alone sets us apart from the other animals? I think of Lewis Carroll's poem The Walrus and the Carpenter, and find parts of me enacting ALL characters in it, in the manner of a psychodrama: the walrus (who doesn't want to eat the oysters), the carpenter (who does)... and even the little, helpless oysters themselves?? ;-P


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