Considering David Foster Wallace’s lobster

March 17, 2009

consider-the-lobsterI’ve been reading a bit about the late writer David Foster Wallace lately. I haven’t yet read his novels but have been moved and challenged by various remarks he has made  about fiction and essay-writing before he committed suicide last year, finally unable to endure his deep depression any longer. (The following stuff is doubly interesting when one learns that mental suffering – and the question of how to live a moral life – were so burdensome for Foster Wallace for so many years. )

Among his essays is this excellent piece he wrote for American Gourmet magazine on attending the Maine Lobster Festival in 2004. Consider the Lobster also became the title piece in a later collection of essays, which is now on my must-buy list.

The Gourmet essay is essential reading for omnivores like me who love all kinds of food – including animals – and yet like to pride themselves on their awareness of the complexity of food and its cultural meanings and echoes beyond the act of stuffing fuel in the gob and digesting it. Because if one has an ounce of honest integrity, eating animals must be problematic. Consider the Lobster is Foster Wallace’s very readable exploration of the issue of cooking a live lobster and whether the creature feels pain.

He writes:

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.  … [However] it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

He examines the blithe assurance of lobster-festival organisers that lobster brains are not equipped to feel pain, and finds – surprise surprise – that this is untrue, and in fact they are highly sensitive creatures with possibly far more numerous pain receptors than humans have. He also points out that such assurances conveniently ignore the lobster’s behaviour when thrown into a cooking pot of boiling water – “The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).”

The article is reflective, funny, uncomfortable and smart:

The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest. Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices?

My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? 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 aesthetic, gustatory?

I won’t be eating lobster cooked live again. But that’s pretty easy, isn’t  it, like avoiding foie gras (which I used to love but now can’t stomach the idea of).  The rest of my eating is a far more difficult problem, and the irony of this blog’s title – the point of which is to show how one can easily eat a live oyster – can’t be ignored, obviously. Unlike the lobster trying desperately to climb from the pot, an oyster doesn’t appear to feel pain, but who really knows? And what about all the other ways animals are killed “for our gustatory pleasure?” I for one know I’ve been turning my head from this unpleasant problem for too long.

Looks like Peter Singer might be next on the reading list.



  1. […] This book review from Salon.com proposes that foie gras production (that I mentioned in the post on David Foster Wallace’s lobster) is not inhumane, and that anyone who whines about it and yet eats other animal products is a […]

  2. […] Michael Pollan, and certainly more in-your-face than David Foster Wallace (whose essay on the lobster I love precisely because of the way he canvasses his own uncertainty about these […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: