A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, animal cruelty, apathy, arthropoda, Arthropods, bacon is amazing and if you disagree you're a goddamn communist, biology, Birthdays, Boiling Lobsters, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, empathy, Essay, ethics, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Gourmet, Infinite Jest, Jason Segel, killing animals for food, Literature, Lobster, Lobsters are Bugs, Maine Lobster, Maine Loster Festival, metacognition, mortality, PC, Philosophy, preference, Science, segmented joints, self preservation, selfish acts of violence, Shogun's, suffering, will to survive, Writing
Is it right to boil lobsters? I’m seriously asking.
Four months back was the most wretched of holidays, a day of the year that I dread more than anything else: my birthday. This isn’t me trying to be cute, I legitimately hate my birthday. Part of this is because of my depression and self-loathing. I’ve trained myself to consider myself worth less than dog-shit, and so when you live in a culture that reinforces a narrative that birthdays are about taking a day to celebrate someone and extol their virtues and just celebrate their existence it becomes, difficult isn’t the word, fucking agonizing. Put it simply, how do you appreciate your existence when you often consider your existence to be a waste of other people’s time? Still I’m fighting this bullshit in my head, partly because last year’s birthday was quite possibly the worst day of my entire life. This year I wanted it to be different. Part of what helped was having to work on my birthday, it kept me occupied, but the other half was about a week later my family took me to one of my favorite restaurants, Shogun’s a Japanese Steakhouse. I’m sure places like this exist around the country, but if the reader doesn’t know what this is it’s a place where patrons sit around a stove and a chef comes out and cooks their food in front of them usually performing by lighting fires, throwing bits of food into their mouth, and performing incredible stunts with knives, spatulas, and other cutlery.
I asked originally about lobster because on this night I had what I usually do when I go to Shogun’s: chicken, steak, and lobster. The lobster, it should be noted, wasn’t boiled alive in front of us, the chef simply brought out two tails, coated them with butter and seasoning, and then baked it under a steel bowl while he cooked the chicken and made jokes about me and my sister both working in libraries.
He picked up the bowl, dropped the lobster on my plate, and started with the filet mignon. I ate the lobster, and I’ll admit it without shame, it was delicious. I also, on one small side note, got my wife to try lobster for the first time ever.
This may at first seem like an opening that will then switch over into a long monologue about how I regretted it later, and how I have since made a vow to never eat lobster again. Well, fortunately, this isn’t the case. I didn’t regret ordering or eating the lobster. The only guilt I felt was a remembrance of a documentary that aired a few years ago about lobster catchers in the Caribbean who are being manipulated by big seafood providers, but I ordered a Maine lobster so that didn’t even come into the equation. I honestly don’t feel any guilt about eating lobster, unless they’re boiled. And this development, like most things in my life, has to do with reading, specifically a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace called Consider the Lobster.
My regular reader will remember that over the last year I’ve experienced an explosion of interest in the writing of David Foster Wallace, buying up most of the books he ever wrote. I’ve read Infinite Jest (and survived) and in-between reading that book and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, I bought a hardback copy of another one of his essay collections Consider the Lobster. It’s impossible to forget this book with it’s pure white cover, and a red lobster raising its right claw up in a kind of grim welcome to the reader. I remember seeing the book before whenever I would encounter David Foster Wallace’s writing, and my amazon account was always recommending it to me. When I asked a professor friend of mine, who I originally consulted for Infinite Jest, about it her answer was an unequivocal, “Yes, I fuckin loved that book.”
I bought a copy and started reading it the moment it arrived.
The essay was originally a field piece Wallace was assigned to write by Gourmet magazine. I wonder briefly what they knew what they were getting into when they hired Wallace because the man never just wrote about his topic, he managed to write about the philosophy and spirit of whatever material he was writing about. Wallace is specifically writing about the MLF (Maine Lobster Festival), and while he explains the significance of the event in terms of food connoisseurs and Lobster enthusiasts, the essay eventually becoming a moral conversation about the nature of being a gourmet period.
And part of that is providing a taxonomic, biological background of the lobster which, if the reader honestly believes I won’t provide a quote for you clearly have never read any of my work:
Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae, characterized by five pairs of jointed legs, the first pair terminating in large pincer fish claws used for subduing prey. Like many other species of benthic carnivore, lobsters are both hunters and scavengers. They have stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae.
And arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda, which phylum covers insects, spiders, crustaceans, and centipedes/millipedes, all of whose main commonality, besides the absence of a centralized brain-spine assembly, is a chitinous exoskeleton composed of segments, to which appendages are articulated in pairs.
The point is lobsters are giant sea insects. (237)
Part of the joy for in including that quote is knowing that somewhere out there in the world someone who has just recently eaten lobster will start to gag as they realize that cockroaches, beetles, and centipedes are related to lobsters and that they, in principle, recently ate a sea-roach. But after I get over my juvenile habit of grossing people out with facts about bugs (it’s the main reason why I never get invited to parties), there is a purpose to including this quote because it’s also part of the reason Wallace includes this background material in his essay. Shortly after this he provides a brief historical account about how lobster was seen a lower-class food, how it was often fed to criminals, and after this he explains that the principle means of cooking lobster is to boil it alive. All of this ultimately moves towards his central thesis, or, really, the central question of Consider the Lobster:
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice? (243).
This question is an important one to ask, especially when you live in a society that has become more and more divorced from the reality of food. Individuals who live in the twenty-first century, specifically people who live in urban areas, tend to live in artificial environments where the reality of killing creatures for meat is a somewhat alien concept, actually, let’s be real here, it’s damn near abstract for them. Probably one of the best examples is the hog-killing scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Jason Segel has to kill the hog which is screaming and grunting and then spends most of the time on the way to the party crying.
Before I get into my analysis of Wallace’s argument though I do want to take a moment to just note the previous quote and observe the man’s ability as a writer. Part of a writer’s job is not just coming up with catchy hookers that grab people’s attention and then being cute and smart and funny until you reach your word limit. Which, you’ll note, is pretty good summation for everything I do on this shitty blog. The writer’s principle job, to sound archetypal for a moment, is simply to observe humanity’s character and behavior and then to show it right back. As Wallace observes his own question he notes immediately what the reaction will be, and having asked this question in real life I understand why he prepares for a reaction. I asked my wife one night the same questions and she responded with a quick and precise “no.” Now in her defense she’s a biologist; she’s been trained to study animals and that often includes capturing them, killing them, and then cutting them up to see how they work. I tried to make my argument but she threw back plenty of facts about arthropods in general the most obvious one being that, unlike humans, they lack a real nervous system, or at least one as centralized as human beings.
That brings me back to bugs and Wallace again.
No one is really sure whether or not bugs, or arthropods feel pain. I took a few weeks of an etymology course before I realized the class wasn’t for me (I don’t think the other students liked me) and while I was there the professor of the class noted that it’s difficult to measure “pain” in arthropods. Wallace himself observes the complications of pain when he writes:
Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that other human beings experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. (246).
Wallace also notes that the conversation itself is uncomfortable as he notes just a few lines later:
The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should also add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. (246)
This last point seems to be the most poignant element of the entire essay, and all the more important. Wallace’s essay really becomes what it is in this paragraph for me because it stops being about the experience of lobster and instead becomes an opportunity for meta-cognition. If the reader doesn’t remember that word it literally means “thinking-about-thinking,” or to put it another way “thinking about the way that you think about things.” I suspect many readers of Gourmet were rather pissed at Wallace for making them revaluate choices that he himself admitted he didn’t think about, but if I can dust off a platitude, the unexamined life is not worth living.
Now I know my reader’s objection immediately: You’re a hypocrite sir, you admitted yourself that you ate lobster recently and you felt no qualms about it, so why should I feel lousy for simply enjoying lobster?
The reader makes a good point, and the only sufficient rebuttal I have is that this essay, this reflection, is a not a condemnation of people who eat lobster in general. My only aim is to ask a question which can start a moral argument, which, by it’s nature, is never going to have a clear answer for each person’s morality is subjective.
For my own part I have no intention of stopping eating lobster, however I refuse to eat boiled lobster because it seems unnecessarily cruel.
My reader will almost assuredly rebut this point and again cite Wallace himself on the issue of pain, but Wallace provides a few moments of sobering clarity for me when he observes the actual process of boiling lobsters alive by noting their reaction to the process. He writes:
However stupourous a lobster is from the trip, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook it’s claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you usually hear the cover rattling and clinking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water. (247-8).
Some might continue to object, but allow me to offer one more quote before they negate this behavior:
To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference, and it may well be that an ability to form preferences in the decisive criterion for real suffering. (251).
I tried, when I made the argument with my wife, to make this point, but I have a damn difficult time expressing my opinions and intellectual positions clearly in conversation. That’s the main reason why I write; it gives me control and a focus I lack in real life. To my wife’s credit she observed but stuck to her argument, and in fact I’m sure there are many who will do the exact same after reading my review and Wallace’s actual essay. Nobody’s going to really stop eating lobster if they don’t have any such qualms about the lobster’s potential suffering because it’s just, as I and Wallace noted before, a sea-bug. There’s no reason to observe much empathy because they’re an other.
But hopefully the reader has observed that Consider the Lobster is NOT about lobsters at all. In fact the essay is nothing more than a chance for Philosophic reflection about the way human beings act about their food. Wallace concludes his essay with two keen observations:
Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? (252-3).
And then in closing paragraph he notes:
I’m not trying to bait anyone here—I’m genuinely curious. After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be sensuous? Is it really just a matter of taste and presentation? (254)
Empathy is a tricky a word to throw out because it’s so wrapped up in morality, and morality itself tends to be clouded in religious discourse that discussing empathy for animals makes one seem naïve or “soft” or even worse, a vegetarian. For the record, vegetarians are not the scum of the earth, those are vegans. No eating cheese my ass. I fuckin love cheese.
But all this reflection reminds of a moment years ago that gave me pause for thought. I was in a biology 1201 lab course and we were waiting to start our Mid-term Practicals. I looked down and crawling beneath my feet was a small field cricket. Without thinking I slammed my foot down, enjoying the hard crack and wet crunch. I had killed crickets before, dozens of times. My father was an exterminator so killing insects really wasn’t an issue for me, it was literally just business. But when I lifted my foot and looked at the carcass I felt instantly that I had done something wrong. The cricket hadn’t bothered me. It hadn’t bitten me. Crickets aren’t known for spreading disease. Nor do they usually bite. A cricket is about the closest thing you can get to a puppy in terms of insects. It’s ridiculous to fret about wantonly stepping on a bug, but is it?
It’s easy to negate another creature’s potential suffering for the sake of your own comfort, and it’s just as easy to establish rhetoric to justify that worldview. There’s nothing wrong with killing lobsters, and if you do believe there is that means you’re either just another insane animal rights activists, or else you’re just soft bodied and want to ensure that other people don’t have a good time. I worry about this, because narrative, as I’ve demonstrated in previous writing, matters more than anything. It’s easy to spin this rhetoric and just stop asking questions about the need for a moment of empathy and reflection and that can lead to consequences. It may start as lobsters, but then it may shift to cats, dogs, dolphins, whales, and even people.
I have no business with slippery-slope arguments. Humans aren’t going to eat people anytime soon (unless they taste good with butter I suppose, but then again what doesn’t?). But fostering a lack of empathy can lead to real problems because it negates that suffering can exist in multiple forms. Once one stops caring about whether lobsters may be experiencing pain it might be easy to forget that people are dying in Syria, that the state of Israel acts like a bully and gets away with it, that women across the globe face regular sexual harassment, that workers in the meat industry tend to be illegal immigrants who are used and exploited and then quickly tossed aside once they become injured on the job, that in the united states there is a 14% illiteracy rate, and the list can go on until one becomes with numb to tragedy.
Consider the Lobster is an important essay because it asks the reader to perform a simple task: consider. This act can make people uncomfortable because most of the time people would rather not consider that their actions may be wrong, or, more appropriately, that the way of life that they’re enjoying may be at the expense of another. But asking that question is a valuable endeavor because it can foster the behavior of self-reflection and empathy for other beings which is worth more than all the lobster in the world.
And besides, there’s always bacon.
All quotes from Consider the Lobster in this essay were quoted from the hardback Little, Brown & Company edition. However, if the reader is interested, I have also provided a link to the original article published on Gourmet’s website. Enjoy: