An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…”A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.”One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.”The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. “This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.“
A battle rages among scholars of all different disciplines regarding the debate over the innateness of violence in the human condition. Translation: is violence in our human nature? Do we have a natural instinct to kill? Or are we socialised into conflict, brutality, war?
If you haven’t read Dr. Barash’s article, ‘Are Human Beings Naturally Violent and Warlike?’ I would highly recommend you do so. (Just one click on the link and 5 minutes of your time). In short, he argues that we have the ‘predisposition’ (tendency, capability) to act and react in a violent manner both as individuals (eg rape, murder) and on a group level (war, Holocaust). A predisposition is not synonymous to being, nor an excuse, however, to wreak havoc on the world and bring pain to both your own body and that of others.
Just because there’s a gun on the floor between you and B doesn’t mean you should pick it up and shoot. There are flowers in the room too. And chocolate. Plenty of opportunities for acts other than violence.
Nevertheless, throughout history humans have been picking up the gun. Nations have waged incredible violence, brutality and acts of irrational cruelty against individuals and communities of people they themselves have pronounced as enemies.
Humans have accused each other of the savage trait hungry for blood: the early colonisers saw their subjects as savage canibal beasts, the white man has been called the ‘devil‘ and on and on.
Into the debate enters a book I have not stopped raging about (‘scuse the pun) since summer 2016: The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith).
Yes, I will admit that the title was the reason for my picking it up (I’m a vegan, what can I say?). But Han Kang’s awe-striking and shocking International Man Booker Prize winner is not what I, nor most of its readers, expect. It is much more than that and this is exactly why it lies cosily upon the shelves of ‘great literature’:
Constant relevance is perhaps both a mark of great literature and a demonstration of why it matters so much; our societies, our norms, our expectations change at such a glacial pace that we need books to keep us aware and to foment change, however slowly.
The novel is perverted with violence, and the aggressors are both the larger society and the individual characters. It is the type of novel where there are no heroes and no villains. Even the victims of single transgressions remain victims at the hands of not individuals but of bodies constructed of human flesh and cultural socialisation.
Set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea, the novella follows the life of Yeong-hye following her decision to become a vegan, abstaining from all animal products as both food source and everyday utilities. Her reason? She has a ‘dream’, a nightmare of blood, murder and savagery that continues to haunt her throughout the plot, leading her to choose to not only reject a lifestyle built on what she considers fosters violence but to reject any activity that is necessary for the sustenance of the life of an animal. Her decision sets off a series of events that disclose the heinous and violent streak budding in the even the most ordinary human.
The difficulty comes in the fact that the life of Yeong-hye is seen only through the eyes of others: in the first part it is her husband, the second her artist brother-in-law and the third her sister, In-hye. Her life is constantly under the critical eye and dependent on the first person narrative of others. Her own voice is rarely heard in the text. The first instant her voice is heard is in fragments where she recounts her horror of her nightmares, breaking against the cold impassiveness of her husband’s retellings of events. In the second part, we are presented with only dialogue in which she sometimes takes part in. The third part, continues with dialogue but the life of In-hye and Yeong-hye is presented in such a way that they are almost foils of each other, at one point dreaming the same dream. The voice of Yeong-hye at some points seems to seep through In-hye’s or in the very least the latter’s voice is the most empathetic towards her sister’s decision. The older sister (In-hye) chooses to become the guardian of her younger sister, a small rebellion of compassion against the pitch of evil behind the violence.
The novel has been depicted as a ‘social protest’, especially when taking into account of the gendered body most of the violence operates against. Yeong-hye’s female body becomes victim to:
- child assault in the hands of her father whilst the rest of the family remained (or put on a performance of being) impassive to her pain
- a loveless marriage
- multiple rape by her husband
During the beginning of the novel, Yeong-hye’s husband explains his reasons for choosing his wife: ‘There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over…the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis-I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.’ (3) The body of Yeong-hye, her presumed ‘run-of-the-mill’ femininity, was not a threat to a man not at the height of social prestige nor of a particular social or physical distinction. Even before marrying her, our protagonist’s husband pronounces his wife as a subservient body (note body, not human being) that his small penis can victimise.
One of the most disturbing scenes in the scene is that of Yeong-hye’s father’s malevolent attempts at force feeding his daughter meat. The Patriarchal figure once again performing his dominance over another’s will but he does so subsequently after the repeated rapes of the daughter by her husband. The morsel of meat can be viewed as a phallic symbol penetrating the gendered victim’s body. The penis, and all its associations with power, dominance and violence, is metaphorically expressed in the motif of the meat.
In this respect we have the transfer of violence from one Patriarchal figure to the next. From father to husband to father to husband.
But violence is not merely expressed in acts but in potentials. J., the brother-in-law of Yeong-hye, fantasises on the ‘object’ of his sister-in-law’s body, which he desires to ‘throttle’, ‘[thrust] himself into her’ (60) and later does so. Yet, the novel is adamant in not allowing itself to be located in an easy binaristic set-up: female victim vs male aggressor domain. For violence is a potential in all the bodies of the novel. Later on in the novel, the medical staff of the mental hospital also venture to force feed Yeong-hye’s emaciated body first with tubes down her nasal canal and then with needles into her artery (hello phallic symbols). Then there is In-hye, Yeong-hye’s own sister whose exasperation with the younger sister’s abstinence from eating becomes the spur for ‘the desire to get hold of Yeong-hye’s insensible face, to shake her wraithlike body hard and hurl her back down’ (170).
Yeong-hye’s body itself is encased in a violent writhing. Her dreams are saturated with her struggles over scenes of her own body being the active force behind brutality, as an aggressor in scenes of blood and meat, with the victim, an absent referral, a past or present she herself has marred. She views her body as both the ‘Murderer or Murdered’, a weapon about to ‘gouge’ (33) and, as the consumer of dead animals, an extended metaphor of meat. Her journey of veganism is a trajectory towards perfection, spiritual purification and a transcendence of species. Yeong-hye views violence as a trait innate in human beings. Through the novel, she finds abstinence from meat and any other product deriving from animals as not enough to drive away the guilt and history of her own species in its relationship to other lives. Towards the end of the novel, she no longer wants to be an ‘animal’ at all, but to metamorphosise into a producer rather than the consumer: she wants to be a plant. ‘All I need is sunlight’ (154).
This uncoiling herself from the grasps of humanity, of its biological needs of eating, its cultural appetites and habits, its preconceived acceptable behaviours as presented by the dominant patriarchy of each culture, is what embodies the threat Yeong-hye actively presents in her social space. This rebellion and fear is the provocation, which stirs up the violence in the bodies of people around her. I would even argue her own stance of aggressive refusal to comply becomes the excuse for opponents to declare war on her body. It appears society does not allow room for forgiveness nor attempts to placate the violence that has become so ingrained in culture and the individual throughout history.
In-hye’s remark appears so far from the truth and the barriers of society:
‘It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.’ (177)
Violence is a predominant theme in the Vegan-Feminist movement. The choice to abstain from animal products is because of the violence prevalent in murdering another species for the comfort of another. I will not go into more details now because this requires a whole other post. But I would highly encourage you read the works cited by Vegan Feminist Network: (In particular Carol J. Abrams)
I still do not believe our bodies are constructed as aggressor machines. But our tendencies in Western culture are groomed to appear so. It appears the feeding of wolves is not up to us, for somebody else is doing the choosing for us.
Want to read more about The Vegetarian/Han Kang (after reading the novella of course)? Click on the links below:
Have a lovely day!