The Topic At Hand: Blank Slate

I didn’t want to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, because I thought there would be no surprises. I already knew about the debeaking of crazed chickens, knew about the pigs stacked however-many-high, shitting on top of one another’s heads. Despite that knowledge, I had made a decision not to make any more attempts to be a vegetarian, so I didn’t want to read the book.

Chickens in perpetual daylight in a factory farm

Chickens in perpetual “daylight” in a factory farm

I ignored the fact that I didn’t want to read the book. I put a hold on it and started reading it as soon as I got it from the library. It was no surprise, twenty-four hours in, to find myself feeling lousy. Descriptions of suffering, mutilation, and death, predictably, made me sad. But I was surprised to discover in myself, in amongst that sadness, a feeling of depression and the scent of failure.

There’s a place in my heart where failure lives, and I didn’t know it was there because I don’t visit it. After so many attempts to be vegetarian or vegan, the idea itself, contemplating it, activated a feeling of failure. I recognized it as the feeling I associate with the beginning of a new relationship: so many previous disasters—I wonder how this one will fail. I recognized as well that slight distrust I experience when I feel an excess of religious faith, a feeling that my mother described when she explained her lack of faith by referring to her childhood, when she would get “saved” and then backslide, get saved again and then backslide. There came a point when she wasn’t willing to get saved again because she knew the backsliding would follow. And that was where matters had stood for her for some thirty years.

And there was something like a religious conversion when I first committed to vegetarianism, back in 1990 when I was 19. I didn’t buy anything on my first trip to the Community Mercantile, the natural foods grocery in Lawrence, Kansas. It was more like a pilgrimage, or a research trip, as I studied everything in the bulk section and contemplated the varieties of tofu and tempeh from the local Central Soyfoods. That store, and Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood cookbooks, represented a new world, a new life, a life in accord with the truth I had received by reading Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. Nevertheless, backsliding followed.

The Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas

The Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas, now much more spacious than the tiny store at 7th and Maine Street I went to in 1990.

Still, I had that same feeling of fresh start, new beginning in 1998 when I went from omnivory to veganism. Though I had already gone from vegetarianism to omnivory and back several times, each time it was with a feeling of certainty that this time it would last. The conversion to veganism was no different—I got rid of my leather shoes. Six months later, when I gave up on veganism for vegetarianism, I particularly regretted a pair of leather boots in a lovely warm shade of brown that I still distinctly remember. Frugal as I was, for years I kept the vegan boots I replaced them with, even though I sort of hated them. They were ugly and were made uglier by a rust stain that marred them fairly early in their life.

Always, every time up until my last go-round with vegetarianism, which was maybe 2002, I had that optimism, that feeling that I could start anew and fresh, that it would be different this time. When the optimism left, replaced with that whiff of failure, I made no more attempts. Thinking about this last week, I remembered an article I read in 1993, by Annette Aronowicz, titled “The Secret of the Man of Forty.” I was 22 when I read it and so young that I misremembered the point, or maybe, more likely, I missed the point at the time. Aronowicz explicates an essay by the French writer Charles Péguy, who wrote that the secret of the man of forty—a secret occasionally perceived imperfectly by those a few years younger, but never by anyone younger than thirty-three—is that no one has ever been happy. That was what my 22-year-old mind remembered, so of course I seized upon the idea when thinking of my association of vegetarianism with failure. In my memory, Péguy supported my idea that the experience of living to a certain age (38, 40, whatever), providing as it does repeated experiences of failure, makes one incapable of the kind of optimism that animated my attempts at vegetarianism in my teens and twenties.

Charles Péguy

Charles Péguy, 1873–1914

But I forgot the most important part. For in addition to

He knows that one is not happy. He knows that ever since there has been man no man has ever been happy. And he even knows it so deeply, and with a knowledge so deeply ingrained in the depths of his heart, that it is perhaps, that it is surely, the only belief, the only knowledge he values, in which he feels and knows his honor to be engaged . . .

Péguy notes as well the essential inconsistency in this man of forty:

This man . . . has a son of fourteen. And he has but one thought, that his son should be happy. And he does not tell himself that it would be the first time; that this has yet to be seen. He tells himself nothing at all, which is the sign of the deepest thought. . . . He has an animal thought . . . . He wants his son to be happy. He thinks only of this, that his son should be happy.

Clio, the muse of history, comments at the close of Péguy’s essay “that nothing is as touching as this perpetual, this eternal, this eternally reborn inconsistency; and that nothing is as disarming before God, and we have here the common miracle of your young Hope.”

Clio by Pierre Mignard

Péguy’s Clio considers hope to be nothing short of a miracle.

Now it seems to me utter bullshit—the myopia of the perpetually depressed—to think that no one has ever been happy, so I’m not saying that I agree with Péguy (maybe that’s because I’m only 38—ask me in a couple of years). But it seems to me that within this bizarre idea about general misery I see something that I can endorse: the idea that there is something worthy in acts of faith and optimism that defy the wisdom gained through experience.

From this vantage point, I am correct in thinking that my nearly 40-year-old self cannot have the same optimism as my younger selves did but shortsighted to regret that. Those earlier conversions depended on my faith in the possibility of radical discontinuity—I believed that I could wipe clean the past, start over with a blank slate . . . each and every time. I wanted to be a different person and believed that was possible. The secret of this woman of almost-40 is that I have failed, failed, failed, so many times, in so many endeavors, and those failures will always live in that quiet corner of my heart. To have optimism, to have hope that I can be, not a new person, but a marginally better person, someone who remembers more consistently to act on my beliefs, someone who puts systems into place to help me to forget less often, without repudiating those failures or the self who lived them: I suppose that’s the optimism of middle age.

Just a week before reading that book and having the wise-foolish idea to try vegetarianism again, I had taken my kids out to the farm where I buy meat and eggs and had stocked up. I thought about giving it all away, but that seemed foolish-foolish, given that it’s humanely raised meat about which I have no qualms. So I decided to change my giving-up-meat technique by doing it slowly, the “Farewell to Meat Tour 2010”—who knows, maybe it will decrease the likelihood of failure? But if not, I’ll bear in mind the comment a friend made last week, when I was explaining the tour: “Don’t worry—it’s easy to give up meat. After all, you’ve done it at least ten times.”

Read other Revolving Floor contributions by Rachel Hile.

Explore other contributions on the “Blank Slate” theme.

Photo of factory-farmed chickens from foodbubbles.

Photo of the Community Mercantile from Cooperative Grocer.

Portrait of Charles Péguy from wapedia.

Painting of Clio by Pierre Mignard, 17th century, from Joseph Siry.

    votes for this contribution.

    Subscribe to Revolving Floor via RSS or email

    6 responses to “The Brown Brink Eastward”

    1. susannah says:

      Thank you for the interesting perspective on the subject. It's good to know that vegetarianism can still stir a bit of fear among the nonbelievers. Despite all of the intellectual underpinnings warranting my own decision to switch to a vegetarian diet, I think the most compelling motive was to see if I'd even be able to do it. That was ten years ago (granted I have plenty of opportunities left to fail). Best of luck in your endeavor this round.

    2. I'm very interested in this secret of unhappiness at 40. It seems intuitively to me to be true. There are people over 40 who are “happy,” but I think around this age (I'm 39), a particular kind of disillusionment does begin to set in. It's not so much the knowledge of the impossibility of happiness; rather, it's more the loss of hope for happiness to suddenly come upon me like a great revelation. Maybe it's just me, but…well, thanks to Péguy, I know that it's not just me.

    3. RB says:

      I love this idea of eternal hopeless optimism as told through the lens of vegetarianism. Isn't vegetarianism a kind of hopeless fight against mortality, too?

    4. Kim Hughes says:

      I, too have gone many rounds with vegetarianism, only to have eventually backslid. Though, I think if it was humanely raised meat I wouldn't have a problem with it. I don't try to stay away from meat now, but generally don't choose it often. I have been thinking about going vegan again, we'll see how it goes.

      I know exactly the feeling you're talking about, associated with many things. The feeling of “maybe this time…”
      Vegetarianism, relationships, whathaveyou. I don't really see them as failures anymore, more like learning experiences. Which sounds terribly corny and cliche, but I think until you really “get” certain things, they are destined to sound that way, always.
      I am also interested in the secret of unhappiness at 40. I've sort of always felt that way, but then, I was a cynical, bitter old bastard by the time I was 14 or so. Sometimes, I wonder if the disillusionment is not the better of the two choices.

    5. […] The Brown Brink Eastward « Revolving Floor Comments Off […]

    6. says:

      I found your writing incredibly fluent and well constructed. It was easy to read. This may be more exciting to me because I Am a high school English teacher and have just marked some remarkably unremarkable work. And being 53 I love the concept of wisdom of experience coupled with optimism! Stumbled across this while googling that line from Hopkins!

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    The Author

    Rachel Hile

    Rachel Hile lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she is assistant professor in the Department of English & Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She has published articles on Renaissance English literature and has edited a collection of essays, Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career. She lives with her two children. View all Revolving Floor contributions by Rachel Hile.

    Other contributions on this theme: