CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|It’s Not Exile If I Like It: Odysseus Debates a Pig
(Translation from Plutarch)
Thank you for the wine, but I am not here to socialize, Circe. I am here looking for my men.
Men, yes. Greek men, please. Particularly those you have turned into beasts.
Oooh, “men.” Yes, of course we have some of those. But why do you care?
Because I would like to rescue them.
From the ignominy of living here like animals, with you.
How generous, Odysseus!
I am happy to hear that, Circe. I believe that no one should have to grow old in a body that demeans his humanity. It’s shameful.
You are quite the hero, aren’t you? Assuming that your own dumb world view should not only guide your life but everyone else’s too.
Is this a trick? Are you going to try to convince me that not wanting to live like an animal is “dumb”?
I’m just saying I wouldn’t put anything past you. You did turn down my offer to live for eternity in paradise because … what was it, now? You can’t wait to get back to Penelope. That’s right. Penelope the immortal, who, by the way, is not the young pretty thing you left back home a decade ago. She’s old, Odysseus, and she’s only going to get older—especially since it’s going to take you a lot longer to get back home than you’re assuming.
And why do you do this? Because you think returning to your shitty life back in Ithaca after a grueling sea journey is going to win you the admiration of the Greeks.
“Oh that Odysseus, he’s such a good man! Stupid as shit, but sooo good!”
That’s vain. The happiness you’re pursuing is only an illusion. What I’m offering you is real.
Whatever, Circe. It’s pointless to argue about the same thing over and over again. How about you just do me a favor and let these men go?
It’s not so simple. These are special animals. They have free will, so you need to ask them whether they actually want to go with you. Let’s see those legendary superduper powers of persuasion, Odysseus.
But fair warning: If these animals decide to stay here instead, just keep in mind that you’ll have to live with that, knowing that you are apparently not so superduper after all.
You want me to argue with a bunch of lizards and bats?
And owls and horses and pigs. But don’t worry. I’ll make sure you can understand them, and they you. In fact, I think all it’ll really take is a conversation with one of them.
This guy right here, for instance.
Alright. What did his name used to be?
Why don’t you call him Gryllus?
Yes. It means “he who grunts” in Greek.
Enjoy your chat.
How ’bout that?
How can I help?
Well, I’ve recently learned that you all used to be men, and I am very sorry for your plight. Obviously, I am more sorry for those of you who are Greek than I am for the others, and so I’ve negotiated with Circe to turn you back ihuman heartednto men—the Greeks among you, at least—and then take you with me back home.
Really? And I thought you were supposed to be smart.
You have a reputation for standing head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of intelligence, but apparently that’s all poppycock.
Is this a joke?
If what you’re saying is that you’d like to save us from the woman who’s been providing everything we need, set sail with you for who-knows-where, and live our lives once again as men—the most miserable creatures on the planet—then I think I speak on behalf of my friends and say—how shall I put it?—no. But thank you.
You can’t save us if we’re not in trouble, man.
Wow, that potion she gave you not only changed your body but your mind too, because you’ve lost yours. Or did you think like a pig even before you fell under her spell?
Neither. Unlike you, I have now lived my life as both a man and a pig, so I think I know what I’m talking about when I say that I prefer the latter. Do you want to know why, or would you prefer to just keep being rude?
I am all ears.
Alrighty. Let’s begin with all those virtues that humans pride themselves for having above all the other animals: morality, courage, wisdom, etc. You’re supposedly a smart guy, Odysseus, so let me ask you this question. I overheard you telling Circe about the land of the Cyclopes, and how even though it’s never ploughed or sowed it keeps producing bushels of vegetables year after year, without anyone ever touching it, spontaneously, naturally, whamo: food! You, on the other hand, are from Ithaca, are you not? A place that’s notoriously barren, land that is so harsh it’s barely suitable for raising goats, let alone a sustainable crop. Having seen both these lands, then, which would you prefer, Odysseus? And please be honest. Patriotic fervor, despite what humans might think, is not really a virtue.
I can answer honestly. Ithaca is my native soil, and it therefore holds a special place in my heart. But my head knows that the land of the Cyclopes has clearly got the better dirt.
So the wisest man in the world has no problem proclaiming his admiration for one thing while personally preferring another. Fascinating. I assume your answer would apply to spiritual matters too?
A heart that is capable of spontaneous virtue is better than one that has to work hard to conjure it.
So you admit that an animal’s soul is more naturally virtuous than the soul of a human, since an animal has never been formally taught about virtue—never been ploughed or sowed, so to speak—but instead naturally develops whichever virtue is necessary for its survival.
Ha ha ha … I don’t get how you just made that leap, Gryllus. Virtuous animals? Come on.
Yes, many kinds of virtue, Odysseus. And greater amounts of it too than even the smartest humans posses. Like courage.
You kidding me?
You like to think of yourself as courageous.
Um, yeah, I do.
You don’t even blush anymore when someone calls you “fearless,” “valiant,” “a sacker of cities”!
Well, thank you …
Even though you got that reputation by tricking people who never had a fighting chance—people who only really knew how to play fair, without resorting to deceitful tactics—because they’d never encountered anyone as cunning as you. When animals fight each other, however, they don’t use tricks. They depend on courage, a bald-faced, bare-knuckled kind of bravery that comes from instincts of genuine fearlessness. They don’t need an edict from a king to summon them to battle, and they don’t charge forward against their enemies because they’re afraid of being court-martialed. They fight and they keep on fighting because they have no concept of cowardliness, nor even of defeat, continuing to engage their enemy without giving in, even when they’re losing, even as they’re dying. You can see this after an animal has been taken down by an opponent and is in the process of being killed. It will muster all its remaining energy in one small part of its body, jerking and writhing in a last gesture of resistance.
Animals don’t beg for mercy, is what I’m saying. That’s why you don’t see lions giving in to other lions and becoming their slaves after battle, or horses forfeiting to other horses to be their dim-witted sidekicks. Humans, on the other hand, do this all the time, surrendering their courage and becoming slaves to their enemies. When humans trap animals through trickery, a mature beast who knows what he’s in for will refuse food and water and slowly starve himself to death rather than become a servant to the human. The only animals you see giving in to humans are those who were trapped at an early age and were seduced into subservience through treats, warm beds, and other unnatural enticements, sapped of all their natural instincts until they finally accept domestication—which is really just a synonym for emasculation.
Animals are naturally brave, therefore, while bravery in humans is actually contrary to their nature. And in animals, there’s no difference between males and females when it comes to bravery. One can hardly tell the difference between the sexes in this regard; females will defend their young with just as much viciousness as males. After all, you’ve heard of the famous Pig of Attica, right, which tormented the region until Theseus finally got her? And what about Egypt’s Sphinx? She would kill any man who couldn’t solve her riddles. In Greece there was also the notorious Fox of Thebes, the legendary Python of Delphi, and Agamemnon’s own famous Horse.
And yet, even as I catalog the bravery of these animals, your own wife is sitting at home, cowering in her knitting room, hordes of suitors harassing her every day. That’s not brave, Odysseus. Your wife may descend from Spartans, but I’ve seen sparrows defend their nests more valiantly than your wife does her home.
Need I say any more?
Humans have no natural claim to courage. If they did, women would demonstrate just as much bravery as men. And yet they don’t, clearly, which seems to suggest that your so-called “courage” is merely something that’s prescribed by your conventions, and needless to say, one cannot claim to be “courageous” if one’s actions are being dictated by cultural pressure. If the threat of humiliation or shame is the only thing that gets someone to act “courageously,” then I’m sorry to tell you but that person is not being courageous. They’re being a slave, taking action not because they are brave but because they’re afraid of the consequences of not.
When you and your crew get ready to set sail and some dude races to grab the lightest oar, he’s doing so for a reason. He wants to avoid the discomfort of having to row a heavier oar. And likewise, when a soldier accepts a beating for shying away from battle, he’s not being brave for withstanding his punishment if the punishment is due to cowardliness. What you call “courage,” therefore, is only calculated cowardice. And what you call “bravery” is just a mix of fear and a knack of knowing how to do one thing in order to avoid another.
Why else would all your Greek writers describe particularly good soldiers as being “wolf spirited,” “lionhearted,” and “brave as a boar” if they didn’t think that animals were the more naturally courageous lot? You don’t hear them calling lions “human hearted” or boars “brave as a guy,” do you? That’s because they’re employing comparative exaggeration, conjuring up a superior image of courage—i.e., animals—in order to bestow that ideal on a human, in the same way that fast runners are called “wind footed” or attractive people are “godlike.” Clearly, you humans look beyond yourselves for inspiration. And this is because you have no passion. Or at least your passion is diluted, like wine watered down at a religious festival so that nobody gets too boisterous. You temper your passion with rationality, which is something no animal does. In fact, some humans even argue that passion doesn’t belong on the battlefield—just stone-cold reason. And this is fine, if what’s at stake is a trophy at a chess match. But if what we’re talking about is genuine courage, then reason has no place in a battle. I mean, don’t you think it’s odd when humans scorn Nature for not fitting them out with poisonous stingers, giant tusks, and long claws to help them in battle, and yet simultaneously suppress the one useful instinct that Nature did give you for fighting? Courage?
I can tell you were once a debater, Gryllus, even in your new piggy costume. But anyway, why haven’t you mentioned self-restraint?
Because I was waiting for you to object to what I had to say about courage. But apparently not. And as the husband of a woman who is the model of chastity, I understand why. You’ve even prided yourself on rejecting the advances of Circe. But this doesn’t make you any better than animals, for we too are only interested in hooking up with our own species. There’s a story about a goat in Egypt that was locked in a room with a harem of women, each one more beautiful than the next. But the goat showed no interest in the women. It wasn’t until another goat was produced that the animal became sexually aroused. So it makes sense that as a human you’d be too intimidated to have sex with a goddess like Circe. As for Penelope’s chastity—there’s not a crow on this planet that wouldn’t laugh out loud at the suggestion that there’s anything profound in her self-restraint, for when a crow’s beloved dies, it will go on living without a mate for the remainder of its life, which as you know can be the equivalent of nine human lives. Your wife’s chastity is no big whoop, my friend. And come to think of it, it’s about nine times less impressive than an crow’s.
But maybe it’d be more helpful if we broke self-restraint down into different kinds. As I see it, self-restraint is basically the ability to eliminate those desires that are superfluous, while prioritizing those that are necessary. What kind of desires are we talking about? Well, you’ve got the desire for food, which is an instinctual desire as well as a necessary desire, since we’ve all got to eat to stay alive. But sex is more of an instinctual desire, since you might not be happy without having sex but you’ll survive just fine if you don’t get it.
Yet what about those desires that are neither instinctual nor necessary—the ones that seem to infect individuals from the outside and take over their lives? These are the desires that seem to hold such power over humans that all of your more natural desires become overwhelmed by them. Greed, for instance, is like a mob of foreigners who have suddenly stormed a city and taken it over from the inside out.
Animals have no interest in the accumulation of wealth, however, because we have incorruptible souls.
Of course, there was a time when I was as dazzled by gold as any man. Same thing with silver, ivory, or any other type of luxury. I assumed that anyone who owned a lot of stuff had to have been not only a great deal happier than I was but that he also had to have been deeply respected by the gods. And because of this, I was dissatisfied with my own lot. As I look back on that period in my life, it is clear that I had everything I needed, but I didn’t have what I wanted, so I was miserable. That’s why when I first met you—years ago, as a man—I didn’t notice your intelligence or virtue. What I remember most was how finely woven your clothes were, so delicate and soft, and how blazingly impressive your purple cloak was, and the impeccable shine of the gold clasp at your collar with a delicate little engraving that I can still see in my mind. I was mesmerized by you, Odysseus, but I was mesmerized by all the wrong parts of you, and that’s why, right there on the spot, I became your devotee. That’s what desire does.
Now that spell is broken, however, and I can walk past a piece of gold and not even notice it. When I want to feel luxurious, I jump into a puddle of warm soft mud. That’s what I desire.
And yes, pigs have desires. We like fragrant stuff—anything that can stimulate our sense of smell. Now, not only is this kind of pleasure simple because it costs nothing, but it’s also practical because it helps us figure out whether we should eat something or not. The tongue is of course designed to help us taste sweetness, bitterness, and sourness, but our snouts are what help us determine whether something’s even going to be worth eating. My snout can sniff out the quality of a plate of food better than any royal taster in the world. It lets in what’s good, rejects what’s unknown, and avoids at all costs what’s bad so that I never end up eating anything dangerous.
Can you say the same? Smell has become such a nuisance to humans that you now travel across the globe in order to gather up incense—reeds from Arabia, and muskroot from China, cinnamon from India—and then hire alchemists to mix them into perfumes, which ends up costing you huge amounts of money. And women aren’t the only ones susceptible to this foolishness. A lot of men these days won’t even have sex with their wives unless they’re doused with perfume. Do you know how stupid this is? Pigs attract pigs, goats attract goats, and all the other kinds of animals attract their mates merely through the power of their own individual scents, smelling of nothing but meadow dew or prairie grass. Maybe sometimes shit. Have you complicated your lives so much that you’re even second-guessing sex now?
Speaking of which, female animals aren’t coy about sex—just for the record. You never see a donkey masking its sexual desire with disingenuous modesty, the way humans do. And male animals don’t ever have to pay females for the opportunity to fuck. Animals do it without deceit or payment. Spring comes; flowers bloom; desire sparks . . . and then everybody goes back to their business. No big deal. The reason why animals don’t keep going at it after conception’s been accomplished is because we aren’t controlled by desire. All we’re concerned with is nature.
That’s also why you won’t ever find animals having sex with someone of the same gender. Agamemnon blamed a sea storm for his arriving late to the Trojan War, but in reality he was late because the boy he was having sex with accidentally drowned in a lake and Agamemnon had to delay his trip in order to erect a statue to the twink. Heracles got left behind by the Argonauts because a boy he was in love with was captured by some water nymphs and Heracles wanted to go find him. And to this very day you can read the words “I fucked Achilles” carved onto the walls of the Temple of Apollo by some anonymous dude, even though Achilles was married and had a son. You don’t find this sort of thing among animals.
Or, if you do, it’s a remarkable anomaly, such that if a rooster starts humping another rooster, soothsayers will grab the animal and burn it alive because they think it’s an omen. Which seems to suggest that even humans acknowledge that homosexuality among animals is a bizarre and uncommon occurrence, worthy of being infused with supernatural significance.
When it comes to humans though, it’s almost as if you lose your minds over sex, getting carried away by a flood of desires you have no control over, enraging nature in the process, subverting her order, and confusing the distinctions she’s laid out for us all.
Men have tried fucking pigs, have they not? Also goats, donkeys, dogs … what else, Odysseus?
It’s true, dogs have occasionally eaten dead human beings, but only when they’ve been starving. And the same thing has supposedly happened among malnourished birds. But no animal has ever forced itself on a human for sex.
Now, if only the opposite were the case.
And when it comes to food, humans become even worse. While we eat for the practical purpose of nourishing ourselves, humans eat primarily to please themselves, and the result is a bevy of illnesses that all spring from your inability to control your appetites—a pursuit of excess that ends up filling your guts with gases and diseases until everything comes back up in brutally gruesome displays.
On the other hand, every animal has been assigned a type of food that is ideal for it to feed on—whether it’s grass for some, fruit for others, roots, fish, meat, etc.—and no creature interferes with another’s attempt to nourish itself. The lion lets the deer eat what it needs, the wolf lets the sheep eat what it needs, and everyone obeys the rules come feeding time—even though the lion might very well end up eating that same deer when its feeding time comes along.
But humans are so greedy that they surrender to their gluttony, sampling everything in sight as if they were still trying to figure out what they’re supposed to eat.
It’s not like you people are starving! Humans have seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables that are available to them everywhere, during every season, and yet for some reason you ignore what your bodies need and greedily pursue only what they want. Your appetites are simply inappropriate, and since those same appetites often force you to slaughter innocent animals in order to be satiated, they are perverse as well. When humans kill, they do so savagely, much more savagely than the wildest animals. I’m not saying that hawks, wolves, and snakes don’t kill other animals. They do, but they do so in order to survive. What I am saying, however, is that the gruesomeness with which humans kill animals has nothing to do with survival. It’s entertainment, and that’s a problem.
On top of that, you’ve even made an art out of cooking animals, inventing the role of “chef” in order to season, dress, cook, and decorate your food. Why? Are you trying to disguise it?
The animal mind has no use for such frivolity, and neither do we ever feel the need to employ someone to help us do something, because there is no such thing as “an expert” in nature. No animal is relegated to a single role in its life—nest builder, nut picker, hunter, etc—which is why we also don’t pay someone to do our dirty work for us. When we need to do something, we figure out how to do it. Period. Just as every Egyptian is a healer, so is every animal a healer, and a parent, a fighter, a hunter, an artist, etc. You name it, we do it. Who do you think taught pigs how to go to the river and eat crabs when we’re sick? Answer: no one. Who taught turtles that they should nibble on a certain herb after they’ve eaten a snake to help allay the effects of poison? Knock, knock: nobody. And who taught goats who’ve been struck by an arrow to find the fraxinella bush, chew on its leaves, and then wait for the arrow to fall out?
These are instincts, my friend, an inherent and profound kind of intelligence. Now if you cringe at the idea of my calling our skills a form of “intelligence,” then let me suggest that you find another word to use, because what we exhibit far exceeds any kind of intelligence that humans have. Never mind all those animals that are trapped by humans and forced to undergo training completely alien to them so that they can serve and entertain humans—all those dogs that are taught to be hunters, horses schooled to dance, crows to talk, puppies to jump through hoops. There are circuses featuring ponies, cows, and elephants that can contort their bodies into extremely difficult positions—far more difficult for any human, that’s for sure—and all for the benefit of entertaining humans.
And not only can we learn new things, but we can teach them as well. Partridges teach their young how to escape danger by lying on their backs and holding up a clump of dirt to conceal themselves from prey. Storks can be found on the roofs of your houses teaching their little ones how to fly. And nightingales teach their chicks how to sing, which is why if you buy a baby nightingale at a market you will never in its life hear that chick sing. Because it never got the chance to go to school.
I’m telling you, Odysseus, now that I’m a pig I can’t believe some of the bunk about animals that I was taught as a human.
And what a transformation it’s been! I suppose you think even sheep and donkeys are intelligent, huh?
Sheep and donkeys only prove my point about animal intelligence. Just as a particular tree can’t be said to be more or less intelligent than any other tree, because all trees are equally mindless, you can’t argue that some animals seem to be slow-witted and therefore all animals are dumb. The comparison only proves the point that some animals seem to be more intelligent because all animals have some degree of intelligence to begin with—just different levels of intelligence. So when you compare relatively smart animals like a fox, wolf, or bee with relatively dim animals like sheep or donkeys, it’s like me comparing you with that dunce the Cyclops.
Come to think of it, it’d be hard for me to believe that there’s as big a spectrum of intelligence among animals as there is among humans, because some of you, quite honestly, are idiots.
Careful, pig. At least we believe in the gods. I’m not so sure any creature can be considered rational if they do not believe in a god.
Wasn’t your grandfather Sisyphus?
And wasn’t he an atheist?
John D’Agata’s newest book is On Knowing & Not, a collaboration with the Belgian painter Jean-Baptiste Bernadet. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, where he directs the nonfiction writing program.