Somewhere in a novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline is a description of the happiest man in the world. He is sitting in the rubble of an obliterated railway station, somewhere in Germany at the end of the War. Details of time and place are unimportant.
For the sun is shining, and the man has a crust of stale bread, and some dirty but drinkable water.
The moment is baked into my memory as if I’d seen it myself. Perhaps I have. For I’ve had, in a journalistic way, glimpses of refugees, especially those from Cambodia who crawled somehow into eastern Thailand in the time of the Khmer Rouge. Many arrived without having eaten for days.
Too, I have felt hunger myself, and can attest it is the best sauce.
All around the world, this scene is repeated, somewhere or other, every day. And perhaps it is a Christian in the Middle East, who has made it behind Kurdish lines; or perhaps another, in some different situation. He has come out of the darkness and the night cold and the squirming dampness, having nearly given himself up for dead.
But the invisible angel said, “Keep going, you’re not dead yet.”
And now he sits in the sun; and he is the happiest man in the world.
There was no yesterday for him; and there will be no tomorrow. He is perfectly carefree. For the moment, no one is trying to kill him, and the feast is at hand: bread, water. Or perhaps it was a clump of discarded rice that he found, before anyone else did.
“Life is good,” he is saying to himself.
For sure, it is an animal joy. I do not propose to romanticize it. The man in this picture has been reduced, by “events,” almost to the condition of a wild animal, finding whatever he can as he wanders, and seizing what he wants without compunction.
Animals do not understand theft, for instance. They do understand beatings, however, when they take certain things from certain places, and like some dogs I have seen, weigh the matter in the balance. Is the object of desire worth the beating?
And – at least in some cultures I have visited – they are beaten until they can be relied on to decide: No, not worth it.
Neither the dog, nor that man in the sun, exists in the invisible moral dimension.
Unless the man gives thanks for his blessings. Let us imagine, to see more clearly, that just before the man bites into that delicious chunk of carefully dampened bread, he says his grace, and gives thanks to his invisible Maker.
But absent that, or some similar genuflection in his soul, there was no moral choice. Animals do not genuflect. Only people can, though I’m sure there will be “animal rights” sentimentalists to express the contrary.
A bunch of them walked by me in Toronto on the weekend. It was a little demonstration by sign-carriers who made up in noise what they lacked in numbers. “Animals don’t want to die!” they chanted, and a few other slogans of a similarly fatuous nature, including anathema upon dairy farmers, who take the defenseless animals’ milk.
To one who served me with a pamphlet, I observed, that babies in their mother’s wombs don’t want to die, either.
She gave me a quick incredulous look, as if I were going to eat a baby.
It was not a good moment to start a debate about the difference between man and animal; nor to expose the arrogantly human way in which this ill-fed vegan (judging from the pallor of her flesh) was exhibiting that difference.
For I have met animals who were vegans, but never met one who did it from a spiritual motive; nor to my knowledge even a zebra in a zoo who would question the morality of, say, Leo the late lion. Yet might still rejoice, to see a lion dead.
The animals have no morals, and in certain rather extreme situations, as that which I recalled above, humans, too, go where Nietzsche ironically suggested: “Beyond good and evil.”
Where, I would think, one good lies: for in the picture of that figure sitting on the broken stone, we may begin to discern the joy of animals – with no yesterday, and no tomorrow, and no compunction in the now. A world in which there can be terror, but no sorrow.
Not the sorrow that the fed man feels at the passage of the seasons, and the loss of what was his own. Nor a joy that is different in kind from the pleasure of primeval innocence.
In the Utopia that is imagined, at the back of all grand social, economic, and environmental schemes – including the one that wrecked that German railway station – is the naïve conviction that man may return to that primeval condition. The evils that we have discerned are taken as “problems” that can and should be “solved.”
Whether the ideal be free market or socialist, the industrial or the agrarian, the system will free men from moral choice. If we cooperate, it will solve the problems.
The particular ideal of “equality” betrays this naiveté at its ripest. The human will no longer be a universe in himself. He will be part instead of the universe of “mankind,” as an animal is a member of a species, with the common interest of that species.
Likewise, the conflicts between men, or between men in groups, will be resolved, for everything that we could fight over will be taken away. All men will have their crust and water, whether or not they are denied meat. And all will, when material obstructions are removed, copulate freely with whom they wish; and be freed of the terrible consequences that individuals once suffered, when they bore the weight of individual responsibility.
Things will be better: just you wait and see.