Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Break the taboo

Express Staff Writer

"Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens, something vitalizing. Taboos after all are only hangovers, the product of diseased minds, you might say, of fearsome people who hadn't the courage to live and under the guise of morality and religion have imposed these things upon us."

—Henry Miller

Good old Henry. As usual, he is spot on in his observations and commentary about life as it is in reality lived (or not) by most people. Henry knew that a taboo broken lives and breathes, laughs (and cries) and grows and survives to continue learning, unlike within the mausoleums of unbroken taboos.

By the time his fine novel "Tropic of Cancer" was finally published in the United States in 1961, almost 30 years after its original publication in France, it was an established literary masterpiece, referred to by George Orwell, who wrote some pretty good stuff himself, as "the most important book of the mid-1930s (and Miller is) the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past." High praise from such a fine writer and social commentator who knew that taboos usually only serve the purpose of making some animals more equal than others. During all those years in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are protected by the U.S. Constitution, "Tropic of Cancer" was, you see, taboo and Americans weren't legally free, as the words freedom and taboo are antonyms.

Think of that: In the United States we couldn't legally read "Tropic of Cancer," what one of the most important writers of the 20th century called the most important book of the mid-1930s, until 1961. All because of "fearsome people who hadn't the courage to live" and, more importantly, under whatever guise, are able to impose their private lack of courage on the public. In my circle of literary friends, we had, of course, read copies of the book smuggled in from Europe and knew from personal experience, as Henry pointed out, that breaking taboos is both good and vitalizing.

And it (breaking taboos) helped us stay always alert to the dynamics of the taboo and to always, always, always question the authority and the thought process (or lack thereof) behind the taboo. It helped us learn that things are seldom as authority would have us believe and that personal experience, thought and observation are more reliable, more trustworthy and far, far better guides through life than the authorities of taboo.

For one bizarre (at least to me, a vegetarian for more than 40 years) example, eating the flesh of horses is taboo in our culture, though not, as many believe, because horse meat is less healthy or tastes worse than the flesh of cows, chickens, ducks, elk, deer, pigs, buffalo, sheep, fish and other wild and domesticated beasts consumed in abundance by humanity. No, the taboo on horse meat began in 732 A.D. when Pope Gregory III, a Syrian by birth, the last pope born outside Europe, decreed that the Christian community should refrain from eating horse meat, which was a normal and accepted practice at the time, because the horse "played an important role in Pagan rituals. The purpose of the decree was that the Christian community should distinguish itself from the Pagans by avoiding a typical Pagan symbol, horse meat." Though in the 21st century approximately 5 million horses each year are slaughtered and eaten by humans in many countries of the world, from Asia to South America to Europe, in our culture eating horse meat is considered disgusting, abhorrent, taboo. This particular taboo began as a means to make the Christian animal more equal than the Pagan animal and wound up making the horse more equal than the cow. This taboo is no more or less absurd than the Hindu taboo on eating the flesh of cows, which are considered a sacred—that is, more equal—animal.

It is an interesting exercise in imagination to consider how different our world, including western America, and very culture might be if those brutish, unbelieving, polytheistic, less-equal Pagans (the term originally meant "country dweller," "rustic") of what is now Italy, where horse meat is still commonly eaten, had used cattle instead of horses in their Pagan rituals. Would today's Christianity and Hinduism have more in common than all it really needs—its common humanity? Would CAFOs full of horses smell worse or befoul the environment less than the CAFOs of cattle and hogs that most assuredly distinguish themselves from their surrounding neighborhoods throughout America?

There are taboos that concern all sorts of human issues—practical, political, dietary, sexual, spiritual and social. And there is this: The taboo is even forbidden to discuss, to write about, to explore and understand. It's always interesting to insert a taboo subject into a conversation, a dialogue or a piece of writing and to monitor the response. Pick a taboo and try it sometime. Human overpopulation of the Earth is a good one to start with.

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