- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003


By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Ballantine, $25.95, 277 pages


This is an excellent book, and also important as part of something now happening in human awareness.

Perhaps we should start this way. We do not see children as we once did. When you look at a 17th-century portrait painting, the children are little adults. Their heads are the same size relative to their bodies as those of adults. The little fellow even has a small sword, may have his small hand on it, and wears adult clothes. Today the behavior of his parents would be considered psychopathic.

What happened is that at some point during the 18th century, attitudes changed. The idea of the Child was born, and it has become a commonplace to say that Wordsworth invented childhood: “The Child is father of the Man; / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety.”

That may be the most influential statement in modern culture, more than Rousseau, more than Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” more than Marx’s “Manifesto.” Wordsworth wrote “The Prelude” about it, a great poem of epic length exploring the emotional development that linked his infancy and boyhood to his adulthood and his genius. Freud based his psychology on this discovery. It revolutionized education, law, culture — all human behavior.

It is also said that Turner invented sunsets; at any rate, he taught us how to see them. And maybe Thomas Gray’s letters about the Alps, along with other such appreciations, made people begin to see them as something other than a nuisance on the way to Italy.

Today I think we are being made to see animals for the first time, not all of us, but enough people to begin to make it matter. We see them for the first time as unique beings in their own right. This amounts to an accession of consciousness, an event of the first importance. It is bound to have consequences that are unforeseeable, since it is now entering the mainstream.

So we have Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s admirable “The Pig Who Sang to the Moon,” following the recently published “Dominion” by Matthew Scully, the former books editor of National Review. “Dominion” was very favorably reviewed, and the occasion of some surprise, since today’s conservatives seem to have forgotten entirely the example of such conservative figures in the history of conservation as John James Audubon, Raymond Ditmars, and Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt established numerous national parks and forests, not for snowmobiles but for wildlife, and his statue stands, appropriately, before the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Ditmars, reptile curator at the Bronx Zoological Garden, taught us a profound appreciation of cobras, mambas, and iguanas; Roosevelt, of zebras, lions and tigers; Audubon, of magnificent wild birds. All of these animals are now endangered species. In a more democratic vision, as it were, Mr. Scully and now Mr. Masson (who is a psychoanalyst and Sanskrit scholar) make us see the no less wondrous qualities of farm animals — the animals we eat.

Mr. Masson, indeed, has seen the beauty of the despised pig, the wretched “swine.” He is clean, not filthy. He does not enjoy “pig pens,” a human invention. He is intelligent, not stupid. He is affectionate and loyal, both to his brethren and to his human friends. He plays. Remarkably, he likes a swim in the ocean, when he can get it. One pig here even seems drawn to the moon nightly in the sky.

It is difficult to use the term “pig” as an imprecation when you remind yourself that no pig ever betrayed a friend, and that no pig ever ran a gas chamber. All of this, to be sure, was known to those ancients who imagined the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, it was not two animals who aspired above their own condition of being, or who (as Montaigne later saw) in aspiring to become godlike, in fact became far less than what they had been.

The power of Mr. Masson’s book resides in its documentary empiricism, his eye for fact and detail when he sees — as if for the first time — such “commonplace” farm animals as pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, ducks and turkeys. As with children, sunsets, and mountains, a whole new world of being swims into view. These creatures become entities in themselves, independent of utility and man’s will. One wants to say, with Miranda in Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” “O wonder!/ How many goodly creatures are there here.” Innocence manifests itself as a cleansing of the vision.

Still, Mr. Masson, Mr. Scully and others are not only passive knowers, but also active reformers. They are appalled, for example, by what we call “factory farming,” the horrific treatment of millions of farm animals, and are utterly persuasive that it must be drastically reformed. Factory farming is a menace to communities near the plants, and to the meat derived. It is an atrocity, a crime against the animals. Mr. Masson has become a vegetarian. In an unrelated but coordinate phenomenon, others are reducing their consumption of meat as a result of health awareness.

There exist, as everyone knows, people in the John Brown-like insurrectionary phase of animal awareness, law-breakers and destroyers of property, and they are justly resisted. Brown deserved his execution. I myself am wary of all talk of “rights,” both of its philosophical basis (or lack of it) and its capacity to short-circuit discussion and prudence.

But there seems little doubt that growing awareness will lead to a much more thoughtful treatment of animals as part of the definition of humanity, or what we would wish humanity to be. It is no great jump from Wordsworth’s “The Child is father of the Man” to the abolition of child labor in the civilized world, and a similar consensus will probably also emerge as regards the treatment of animals. Add Jeffrey Masson’s book to the list of powerful, because highly intelligent, reforming works.

Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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