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The Ritual Killing of Whales

Bianco Luno

 

I cannot imagine myself in circumstances where I would kill a whale, cow or chicken.

I can conceive of a situation in which I might kill a person.

What accounts for the difference in imaginative agility is the presence or absence of a relationship. I live among human beings. Like it or not, I have relationships with them and their world impinges on mine almost every moment of everyday.1 I do not live with or among or in anyway close to whales, cows or chickens. The likelihood that my nearly non-existent relationship with them should sour to the point that I could kill one is remote beyond imagining.

Not so, with humanity. In the right circumstances, in the chance mood, in the presence of a flagrant instance of culpable human stupidity or insolence, the means at hand, in a not inconceivable fit of rage, yes, I could kill a human being. This would have nothing to do with conventional morality. I merely state what is possible. My act might be wrong in the eyes of the rest of what is called civilization, perhaps even in my own (to the extent I have internalized the prevailing morality); but one thing, I would argue, it would not be: it would not be hypocritical.

And if there is a human crime more despicable than taking life it is the culpable stupidity of people that permits them to profess one thing even as they do another. No animal stoops this low.2 To the extent we act like animals, I can excuse us. To the extent we kill from fear, hunger, need—physical or spiritual—I can forgive. I cannot forgive humanity for being human.

Culpable stupidity is stupid because it is ignorance, culpable because avoidable. Even where we might not be able to alter the state of the world, there is never an excuse for a creature like us—boasting of an exclusive knack for consciousness—to remain ignorant of how the world really is.

(I do not pretend to be an exception. The depravity extends to my persistence in eating fish, eggs, and some dairy products fully aware of how these products come to my plate. An exploration of the excuses I might give in explanation would further implicate me in the general hypocrisy of the race...but that would be to distract you with my personal failings and rob us of the less practiced opportunity of examining yours… So I won't pursue it here.)

But to return to relationship… More offensive to me than the behavior of the Makah in their ritual killing and consumption of whales* is the chorus of protest too largely comprised of fools and opportunists. The outrage of at least many of the liberal thinking community is at best opportunism and at worst that crime that so offends me: the righteous commentaries, the graphic video clips of the slaughter, the governor's statement of protest, even the genuinely disturbed vegetarians and animal rights activists, not to mention their fickle mob of sympathizers—who would not dare to be so vociferous if the issue had been factory farms and slaughter houses, if the crimes against animality were more in the service of their lifestyle—all partake in the general slackening of decorum (I will not say 'immorality', since I cannot imagine what that might the mean in the context of humanity.)3

But this last group is an easy target. My discomfiture is beyond the pale to them, improbable as my ethic would be if I proclaimed that the heinousness of the Nazis lay not with their having killed so many Jews, Gypsies, Communists and homosexuals but that they were so lacking in ambition as to have confined themselves principally to these groups. It is a waste of my precious intelligence addressing them—'precious' because if I understood better I would possess a soul as happy as theirs.

Rather, it is that self-imagined, right-thinking—albeit small—crowd that most interests me. They interest me because if—and what a fantastic antecedent!—if there is hope for humanity, it lies with those who, at least in brief moments of their lives, are afflicted with a knowledge of their own wretchedness…

But once again I digress, back to relationship: What is most offensive to the morally conscious mind is not the killing per se but the relationship between killer and victim. To begin, it must be intimate. Only perhaps making love is more intimate than taking life. At a minimum, intimacy must include presence at the act.4 Thus, I am against war by technological proxy, though I would not say that killing (and being killed) in war is always wrong, however idiotic it might always be. Capital punishment, as it is practiced in the contemporary United States, is wrong because it is an abstraction, the state, that is invested with the power of taking life and not an individual with an abiding interest in the matter who is permitted to take responsibility for the killing in an act of unvarnished vengeance.5

Beyond presence at the act, is the requirement of full consciousness of the enormity of the act including its place in the moral and spiritual economy of the perpetrator. This can be illustrated, in the case of killing animals, by the method of killing, the use to which the dead animal is put, the respect for the consequences for the killers, the enveloping culture and that part of space and time occupied by the culture (i.e., its concept of Nature).6 The killing of baby seals by the Inuit for their own use even when that use involves selling the furs—for who buys the furs?—even when, as may be objected, an alternative life style is a practical possibility is a far cry from the machinery of mass death and pain undergirding the conception and practice of that very alternative, supposedly more civilized, manner of living.

What exactly do those who protest such killing want? For the Inuit to eat fried chicken and hamburgers instead? Certainly not. (At least not those few who object for the right reasons.) They should become vegetarians? Yes, they should do that…

But let's suppose for the moment that becoming so attuned to the environment—human, animal and otherwise—and the pain we cause it is the mark of the highest state of consciousness, the goal toward which all human civilization tends (or should). It would seem not eating meat when unnecessary follows. (And any emergent necessity would perforce increasingly diminish.)

Suppose further, as would appear to be the case, that one small branch of humanity attains this consciousness before the rest. If they should wish to share this consciousness with a measure of efficiency (and, I will add, integrity), we might suggest they begin by bringing to the same high state of moral sophistication those most near them in development, namely others who share their history and culture. For these, conditioned by the same antecedents, would probably also be most ripe for the transition…

You see now where this is tending. Those few among the rabble with the moral credentials to inform the rest of humanity how it should behave would do best to expend themselves in staging media events and inciting public outrage at the institutionalized crime sites that stand a chance of effecting reform of the kind they surely have in mind. And they should be profoundly suspicious of how their efforts to convert barbaric but dying cultures—who haven't as yet achieved the level of material decadence prerequisite of moral decadence and subsequent moral progress (assuming this is possible)—are being taken by the culture at large. Who is cheering them on and why? Surely, they—I mean the enlightened ones—don't believe the television news anchors who report on their protests of Native American ritual killing are their friends? That they share, even for the duration of a sound bite, the same realization of our guilt for the pain and death we cause animals? And isn't it curious that among the abysmally few treaty promises ever kept by the U.S. government that this one in particular should be among them?… Let them descend upon a slaughter house and perform their stunts and see what attention they get and the spirit of the commentaries. The culture at large is only as outraged as it sees itself distant from the object of outrage.

But that is what the morally conscious should be doing. Never mind the reaction. Surely, they don't think that doing the right thing will attract public sympathy? If what they do attracts public sympathy, that would be a prima facie strike against what they do. So what then is the motivation of those who focus so much righteous attention on the practices of a pitifully small band of primitives who will die out in a few generations anyway—as so many similar tribes have before them—from alcohol, European maladies and persistent degradation? (And guess who they would have to become like to avoid dying out!)

I can only think of two plausible explanations.

I will be kind and not be too eager to suggest that it is the first that comes to mind: racism. We have to believe that the truly morally conscious, who have progressed beyond specism, have also progressed beyond that. Don't we?…

But the other explanation is even worse in my eyes—from the standpoint of an ethic of one who has failed to find reverence in his soul for any value but perhaps grace and integrity.7 For I can almost forgive racism. After all, it is only an extension of the very animal compulsion to protect one's own. Our first bonds are always for those nearest us—in blood, in appearance, in geography and in history. Woe to her or him who completely overcomes this innate partiality. He or she may even come to transcend the bond to the self. And we know where that leads…8

The other explanation is that these well-meaning people are guilty of culpable stupidity in the specific form of pragmatic opportunism: they should know—no doubt some do at times—they are barking up the wrong tree. And yes it does draw, if not entirely the favorable attention they wish for, at least not the outright condemnation they would get if they opted for a target more appropriate to their cause. They can't believe they can nudge the disposition of millions by attacking the benighted practices of a vanishing few hundreds? Cowardice chooses its targets with the finest discrimination.

The Makah will stop eating meat when soon they are dead. I wish I could be as optimistic for the rest of the civilized world.

But again, I must apologize. I have strayed too far from the object of my essay. Relationship

The Makah have a relationship to their dead whale: they killed it. They have an elaborate set of beliefs about the killing of this whale. Even hunters and fishermen in the dominant society have the experience, if nothing else, of going a little out of their way, exposing themselves to a modicum of danger, eschewing, however temporarily, the technological distance of the supermarket. A gun in a man's hand (usually, a man) has at least the virtue (if we forget utility) of being an older, less efficient tool for the production of meat than the apparatus of mass execution affording the housewife (still mostly wives) the convenience of not having to witness—and to become hardened to witnessing—the animal in its throes. A serial killer at least permits himself to become hardened to his task, we no longer rise to that level. The man with a gun has a better relationship to his meat than the woman at the counter.

It is wrong for him to shoot the deer.

But it is more wrong to buy the cow at the market and not have faced its death. Both are wrong (for us) because they cause needless pain and waste resources (and we profess an ethic that enjoins this).

It is wrong for most people—because they cause needless pain and waste resources—to even be alive. (My ethic enjoins this.) If perhaps, in a rare instance, we can excuse what they do it is because they create something of beauty from the pain and waste they cause.

A great deal of pain and human resource goes into the creation of Art, especially great Art.9 From a purely ethical standpoint all art is evil for this reason. Committed writers, thinkers, artists and musicians engage in morally criminal activity because they could have spent their time and effort relieving physical want and distress; instead they indulge their sensibilities, ostensibly for the 'spiritual' health of their culture, which seldom understands or appreciates what they do, further compounding the waste.10

Why do we forgive them? (To the extent we do.)

Artistic creation and sensibility, it would seem, express devotion to an ideal we deem worthy even when they fail, even when they waste resources, even when they cause pain—and truly great art is great because it is not only born of pain but causes it.11

Devotion to an ideal strong enough to face pain and death in the face is one species of relationship...that can turn waste and otherwise pointless pain into something meaningful. Into something beautiful.

If we just want to see something dead so that we can eat it, a ritualized killing is a flagrant waste. But to the degree it is invested with meaning it may transcend what is otherwise ethically unacceptable. Ritual is the most primitive form art takes. It began, in this context, when our ancestors caressed for the first time the fur on the carcass of their kill.

If we lived entirely at the mercy of moral imperatives we should have all killed ourselves yesterday. Because that is what it takes to stop the pain and waste. We can't seem to manage a single breath without causing both. If you believe there is even the slightest justification for our not having already done our duty, it must be because you are under the impression that some of this pain and waste is justified in some sense beyond the black and white categories of good and evil. You must think that art in the widest sense comprising the basic impulse to enjoy even your next breath—to bathe your sensibility in the warm bath of the stupidity of your life—is to be forgiven, what morality would require of us notwithstanding.

A truly great animal welfare activist should, like a great artist, focus on the most difficult, painful, and impossible. A more humble activism will not do the cause, necessarily heroic, any favors by hedging bets.

It is not my position that the moral imperative to curtail needless pain and waste be taken categorically. A confessed "might-be" killer, I am hardly in a position to preach morality. And though I have a passionate relationship to an idea, it will never be such as to offer consolation to the mass of humanity. If the object of aesthetics is the beautification of the horror of existence, my taste is surely too hermetic to secure myself the title of 'creative artist', at least as bestowed by that mass or even any but the most decrepit contingent thereof.12

Since I cannot say what for you is the right thing to do and I haven't the talent to persuade you of what it would be nice if you did, I content myself with observing and remarking upon the near obvious: that neither you nor I can tolerate the airing of the truth about ourselves. I know this because I am still breathing. How shall we explain you?

Spring, 1999

Notes
(editor's, unless otherwise noted)

1
A curious statement in light of Luno's avowed hermeticism.

2
Though there are recent experiments suggesting at least certain primates are threatening to rob us of this distinction. Marian S. Dawkins, Through Our Eyes Only (London: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 134.

3
Note in margin of manuscript: " 'Save a whale, kill a Makah', read one placard. Now both Hitler and I, for our separate reasons, could have resonated with that. Or is it only rhetoric? Have I been duped? Are they playing with my sympathies?"

4
Luno argues absence is why most men are rapists most of the time and women are nearly always raped, most especially when they believe they are not, Notebook VIII.

5
The state has a positive heuristic role in determining the perpetrator, Notebook X.

6
Not out of concern for Nature itself, whatever it might be, as though it were other and had rights to be respected and could suffer our consequences: the concept, as distinct from the part that is an extension of ourselves, is beyond consequences as conceived by humans. It is a gross conceit to think that anything we do could impinge on it.

7
Marginalia: "...and this only in a bout of drunken philosophical stupor or in a craven panic at my own mortality"

8
Luno implies that he need look no further than himself.

9
By simply 'Art' Luno means here every human artifact that doesn't directly support physical survival: "from the crease in our pants to the rouge on our cheeks..." which taken together comprise the vast bulk of human accomplishment.

10
What Luno means by 'committed' is very specific. His standard is extremely high. He recently said to me (in 1999) that there was not a single living writer or thinker in the world whom he could without qualms consider "great". Perhaps this is because only ruins can be properly excavated, cataloged and assessed.

11
Failing which, it is not genuinely appreciated.

12
The existence and persistence of life is ultimately an aesthetic project not a moral one. This is one of Luno's fundamental principles, sometimes obscured by his irony. It leaves morality the task of curtailing the project. His view is entirely descriptive, however, despite the frequent perjurations to the contrary. This is what distinguishes it from the similar views of Otto Weininger, whom Luno studied and admired.

Copyright © 1999 Victor Munoz

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