Anyway, on p. 126 Gaita writes:
Some people take pleasure in pissing on insects or spiders trapped in urinals. It's a coarse pleasure and betrays a failure of imagination.I suppose the insects in question are alive but struggling to escape, and the men who piss on them are making a sadistic game of killing them. This is not the same as killing flies with satisfaction, as Gaita's otherwise-very-kind-to-animals father did, but it is close enough to prompt Gaita to wonder about his father's attitude. (At this point in the book I sensed that Gaita thought his father had got flies wrong, but he later points to his father's slaughtering some animals for their meat as evidence that, roughly speaking, there isn't anything wrong with doing that. More on this in another post.) I wonder about my own attitude toward insects too.
One of my least impressive moments came when I was about ten years old (maybe, but surely not?, older). After a walk in the woods I looked down to see a caterpillar crawling on my leg. I screamed. I used to be terrified of creepy crawlies, of the thought of their touching me. One of the things I have discovered as a father is that it is my job to deal with bugs, so fear is not an option. Maybe it's just because I'm older, but I think it's the necessity too that makes me quite unafraid. In our house we have spiders (which, unlike British spiders, bite), earwigs, stink bugs, and, worst of all, what we call spider crickets. These look like big spiders but, being crickets, they jump. Often straight at you. Some of these various bugs can be caught and released, but that often isn't an option. You have to squish them, and they often end up in the toilet, dead, half-dead, or not actually dead at all and ready to jump out.
Does it betray a failure of imagination to treat some or all of these creatures with contempt? A spider in a public urinal (they are always public, I suppose) is one thing. A spider that will bite your children while they sleep is another. To my mind, it's an enemy. If I loved nothing better than finding and killing such things then I think this would reflect badly on me. But if now and then I take some small pleasure in getting rid of a pest, is that so bad?
Well, Gaita isn't saying that it's so bad. But he seems to think it's bad. I'm genuinely not sure. I don't think it's really bad at all, but if that's because of a failure of imagination on my part, how could I judge? I think there is something to be said for a little bit of sadism, for enjoying not just getting a job done successfully, not just winning, but enjoying your opponent's losing. I'm surprising myself by finding that I think this (which might mean it is much less interesting for you reading this than it is for me), but I think I value a bit of killer instinct. Not on utilitarian grounds, although I'm sure it can be useful, but on something like aesthetic grounds. I should emphasize, especially given the title of this post, that I don't mean the kind of sadism that takes the form of pulling wings off flies or killing anything just for the pleasure of it. I mean more things like having a "wicked" sense of humor, wanting certain criminals to be punished, taking some satisfaction in knowing that a rival team has lost, and being able to enjoy violence enough to at least see the point of movies that feature it. (I don't mean those that deliberately revel in sadism although, of course, it's possible to disagree about where the line should be drawn.) And I think that anyone who is nasty in this way will be able to, and sometimes will, take pleasure in killing a creature perceived as an enemy (or, perhaps, as food).
I hope I haven't exaggerated or given the wrong impression. I speak as an almost-pacifist (that's an exaggeration, but I'm no hawk) almost-vegetarian. But maybe I'm not as nice as I like to think I am. And maybe I don't want to be.