Monday, July 18, 2011

Wings off flies

Thanks to encouragement from vh, I have finally got around to reading Rai Gaita's The Philosopher's Dog. (I should really call him Raimond Gaita, but I first heard about him from Cora Diamond and, at least as I remember it, she always called him Rai. So that's how I think of him. I don't mean to sound misleadingly or disrespectfully pally with him.) It's a superb book, one that I would love to be able to assign to students. My students, I fear, lack the maturity, the vocabulary, and the philosophical background to appreciate it though. Maybe I'm wrong. Gaita brings together stories and memories about such things as pets and mountain-climbing with philosophical reflection. Typically the episodes from real life show just how warped are the ideas philosophers come up with when they think without attention to such things. It's very much written in the realistic spirit and makes frequent reference to both Cora Diamond and J. M. Coetzee. So it's right up my street, even to the point of containing ideas that I have had myself. (I wonder whether they come from Diamond originally?) He even talks about her dog Mouse, who (whom?) my wife and I looked after for a week once when we were graduate students. It's another one of those I-can't-believe-I-didn't-read-this-before books. How many more can there be?

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.



  1. I'm not sure. I suppose if the pest puts up a good fight, then it might be hard not to revel in one's eventual victory, as it were. But that's not quite the same as the (mild) sadism you're talking about. I suppose that if one was like Schweitzer, in thinking that one should have reverence for all life, then even where something was a pest (or vermin, etc.) one would think that one shouldn't take pleasure in the killing, even if it must be done. (But does this mean that one could not take pleasure in the work involved? Could an exterminator not take pleasure in his work if he saw that what he was doing was, in other respects, unpleasant?)

  2. Maybe what the exterminator should feel is satisfaction rather than pleasure, and that might be what's involved in the eventual victory over a tricky pest. I'm not sure. I'm not sure that there is a right way to feel. What I might think is that Gaita's father had complicated views and that this is how it should be. I sort of think that people ought to have eclectic taste. There's something about purity or perfection that I don't like, in a way that I think Orwell (I'm thinking of his doubts about Gandhi's idealism) and Nietzsche (although I think he might support consistent taste in The Gay Science 290) might understand. Reverence for all life seems too consistent, too disengaged from the variety of life and our relations with it. Maybe reverence for life itself, and maybe even reverence for mosquitoes, but reverence for every individual mosquito? Reverence for the spider that bit your child in the night? I think personality might require strange (or particular) loyalties. And that might require some antipathy.

  3. Yeah, the "reverence for life" business may involve a great deal of abstraction (which can be bad, along the lines of your "too consistent" remark), or a kind of "safe" life where one doesn't have to contend with poisonous spiders, etc. But it might also involve something like a kind of mindfulness that is consistent with, as it were, taking care of business...I'll have to think more about how the details of that might go later.

  4. Yes, I should think about it more too. Although I don't know what generalization I would ever want to make about it. I have a hard time imagining someone having anything other than a hostile attitude toward, say, a mosquito that kept biting their child. Love of the child seems to mean not only protecting it from the mosquito but also seeing the mosquito as an enemy, whose death would be not just sadly necessary but positively welcome. But I realize that this might be a mere failure of imagination on my part. What struck me about Gaita's claim was that it was a generalization, but I might be taking it the wrong way. The kind of example I am focusing on is not the same as his, after all. It's just that I think they are close enough for me to be unsure what to say about his example. Or rather, they are close enough to make me hesitate to endorse his generalization. But he might just mean that there is a kind of failure of imagination that would take that form, not that everyone who ever does anything that looks like that is necessarily failing in that way.