ANIMALS AND OUR INNER VOICES
Does an animal have an inherenet moral quality which is, in some mysterious way, different from mankind's morality? I would like to answer this way: if one year is made to represent the whole span of time since the world began, then life, seen as an amoeba, begins about May; the age of the great dinosaurs begins around Septermber and goes on into December. Man has been on earth from about twenty minutes to midnight on the 31 st of December. I'm not saying that this invalidates any of the great religions of the world-I am in fact a practicing Christian. But at the same time I see things in this perspective: it can hardly be the purpose of God that human being should run the planet entirely in their own interests. Much happened before they appeared. Yet they have a responsibility. I feel we have grossly abused that responsibility. In fact we may very well be committing an abomination in the sight of God by not looking after His animals properly or respecting them. Surely if we are the most intelligent and powerful species, it simply confers on us the responsibility of looking after the other species. At the moment we exploit and abuse them in terrible ways that don't bear thinking about. You make that a strong point in "The Plague Dogs."
When I wrote "The Plague Dogs" I wanted to make people spend time thinking about things that many of them have never thought about. That's one of the novelist's jobs -- to make people think. It doesn't occur to most people that the hairspray or shampoo they buy has been tested by being squirted into the eyes of living creatures, who are often blinded by it and then destroyed. Animals are used like things.m And it's done to sell non-essentials. One or two states in America have banned the steel tooth trap, and it is illegal in the British Isles. But according to that document you have in your hands, something like twelve million warm blooded creatures suffer what is, in effect, crucifixion -- and this is so that people can make money selling skins. And the skins of course are luxuries, not necessities. In addition, about one out of three of the animals caught are worthless and thrown away. So their agony has not served any purpose whatever. Well, as long as we go on doing this, I can't see how we can possibly justify ourselves to God -- that is assuming that God created the animals. Are alternatives to the use of animals for research being found?
Yes, gradually. I understand that a great deal of stuff that used to be performed on animals is being phased out. The Home Office and the medical profesison, to their credit, are making advances all the time. But at the same time it's rather disturbing that when the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1876, the country was using something like seven hundred animals a year in research. Now we're using half a million. And a great many of these are used for testing cosmetics, for testing household detergents and so on. We're told by the Home Office that people want change and variety. Well, let's change the public demand. The public used to demand human slavery. It did not yield until public opinion demanded a change. I think we've got no alternative but just to keep pounding away at public opinion. Horrible things were done to animals in the nineteeth century -- in the name of sport. This has diminished. But at the same time the commercial exploitation of animals has risen -- and animals are being crowded out their natural habitats with fatal results. I found that there was a great deal of very graphic cruelty in "Shardik," and that Iwas eventually reading it because I knew I had to, not because I really wanted to.
The book is not realy in the form in which I wished it to reach the public. The whole business of the children in "Shardik," and of Kelderek's tremendous discovery that Shardik had not, after all, come for any of the purposes that everyone first though is eventually summed up by Kelderek as a great discovery -- "If there was not an unhappy child in the world, the future would be secure." It was as a result of the bitter, true story of a child, whose parents' marriage had smashed, that the idea for "Shardik" first occured to me. The book originally contained a prologue and epilogue in which I tied the legend of Shardik to one of the greatest problems and evils of today -- that of the harm done to children by parental separation and divorce. Why didn't your publishers want the prologue and epilogue?
They wanted the book to begin with the stormy opening of "Shardik" coming out of the fire. I pleaded in vain to keep my prologue and epilogue but they would not have it. So my real message is not there. I still cherish a hope that one day "Shardik" will appear in its full and complete form. I was conscious of a parallel between children as innocents and animals as innocents. You said once that you feel the reason animals are better than humans is, if I am not misquoting you, that they can't sin. Do you feel the same about children?
Yes I do, very much. Why is it then that we feel so differently about adults, who are just grown-up children?
What makes children so endearing is their freedom from responsibility. Once we have begun to assume responsibilities, we are then capable of abusing those responsibilities -- in other words, of sinning. Yet the thing Kelderek was told all the time was that he should trust more and listen more and wait more -- in other words to have lessm personal responsibility. That he shouldn't try and do it all himself without listening to what a religious person would call the "inward voices." Christ had the same idea, really. There's not a wordm in the gospels about the merits of appearing in the office at ten o'clock with a clean collar and doing a hard day's work. I think it's in St. John's Gospel that the disciples ask Jesus what he means about doing God's work -- and he says it is simply to trust him whom God hath sent Is there a kind of paradox in the idea of the novelist or artist as a campaigner?
I think there is. I think that the value of a creative artist -- whether he be a musician, painter, poet, or novelist -- is in making people think. But some novelists have been quite deliberately and overtly didactic. Tolstoy for example. What Tolstoy really did for me in my early twenties was to convince me that a good Christian didn't have to give up all worldly possessions. I've always been tremendously impressed at the end of "Anna Karenina" when Levin who had been searching for some kind of concept that will lock his life together listens to a peasant who says "Living in God's way means that you don't lie, don't cheat, don't wrong a man." This very simplistic approach of Tolstoy seems to say it's more natural to be good than to be wicked; according to Tolstoy you've got to trym to be wicked. Being a Christian should be consistent with living an ordinary decent life. Anything else about Christianity?
Well. I think the first thing a Christian needs to work for is a kind heart.
What do you think about wickedness?
One of the refreshing things about writing "Shardik" was that I had much ado to visualize and conceive the character of the wicked slave trader, Genshed. When you actually get down and try to imagine what a really wicked man would be like, you find that you don't know. We talk about the innocence of children and the innocence of animals; don't you think that mankind has a basic innocence? That the guilt and the sin and the evil are an imposition?
What do you mean? I feel my quest is for an essential innocence, my child innocence if you want, or my animal innocence, and that these are very much part of my nature; they are in the fact the God-created nature.
Have you a feeling of not being innocent? I have a strong feeling, or a strong faith, that conditions are retrievable and that the justice of God is fair justice -- that the suffering is exactly equal to the sin if you like, but -- we're getting onto very religious grounds, and we're supposed to be talking about animals!
If we don't review and revise, in the course of the next twenty or thirty years, the whole concept of our relationship towards animals on this planet, I think we're going to wake up and find that in many respects we've ruined the planet. There won't be any more elephants or tigers or whales. During the last 300 years, Sir Peter Scott says in one of his books, something like 300 species of animal and bird have vanished forever off the face of the earth, entirely as a result of the activities of man. 300 species in 300 years! Some was quite deliberate destruction, like the slaughter of the last known pair of Great Auks about 1840 by some chaps who deliberately went out and shot them on an island in Iceland. Or it may be something more subtle. It may be the destruction of a creature's natural habitat. One of the latest victims is the great Ivory Billed Woodpecker in America who use to inhabit deep forest in Tennessee. Well, there aren't any deep forests in Tennessee now. Nobody's seen the great Ivory Billed Woodpecker for something like ten years, and he's believed to be extinct. Of course the African Elephant is enormously diminished -- not only because of ivory poaching, but because of the inroads made upon his natural habitat. You hate cruelty -- that is clear -- and yet the books, particularly "Shardik," contain graphic episodes of very dire cruelty. I wonder what your reasons are for such vivid and harsh descriptions. Isn't there a danger that they might horrify without altering anything positively?
A novelist is seizedm with an idea that he must pursue, and he doesn't always quite know why. I can't tell you why parts of "Shardik" are so terrible, unless it was because I was terribly shocked and horrified by my discoveries of the effect upon children of desertion by their parents. Do you think that the use of animals for storytelling or novel-writting tends to become a moralistic mode for writing about human beings?
The folk tales of every people -- literally every people in the world -- are full of anthropomorphic fantasy, social satire. If I'm a member of a tribe, and I tell stories about the chief, I'm likely to find myself in trouble. But if I can tell a story about an animal that looks rather like the chief, and contrive to make him look a fool, then I can perhaps just save my head. You would expect anthropormorphic fantasy would have died as civilization advanced. But we find that it keeps updating itself, which shows that right down deep inside us we've always felt a deep affinity with the animals. Primitive people realized this and the primitive people have a much clearer concept than we have of being just one of the earth's species. Are you saying in effect that man needs to be more instinctual?
I think a great part of the human race have lost something terribly valuable and important which we must recover. And that is a feeling of respect for the animals, of affinity with their simplicity. These chaps who go out killing Canadian Harp Seal pups are really doing violence to themselves and their own deepest natures.In one of the Apocryphal gospels Jesus says, "Go to the animals and they will show you the kingdom of heaven." Which gets us back to the idea of simply waiting upon God. You have suggested that a measure of strength and balance is needed in man's attitudes toward animals rather than a total change in man's attitudes.
Well, the fact that I personally think that doesn't mean I'm right. Richard Ryger, until this year the chairman of the RSPCA, a man I like and respect very much indeed, won't eat meat or fish, or anything that's been killed. Ideally I would wish to be like that, and perhaps I will be one day but a present I'm not capable of it.For practical purposes, what I'm thinking at the moment is that I have a sort of priority list; let's deal with the worst things first, and then we can have a look round and see what next to do. What we really must do is to stop torturing animals to death for our luxuries, end the dreadful steel toothed trap, the slaughter of the elephants in Africa for ivory, and leopards for their coats. And when we've done that, let's have a look around and see where we've got. I think next on my list would come factory farming. The human being projects certain sentiments, emotions, feelings onto an animal, which are not truly the animal's -- though sentimentality is not the right word for what you're doing because your books are not sentimental.
Well they are, up to a point. I mean nobody really supposes that rabbits think and talk and are motively like the rabbits in "Watership Down." But you must understand that when "Watership Down" was written, it was done for my little girls. I was not a working novelist at the time, and "Watership Down" just look off. It obviously answers something in the human psyche, or it wouldn't have had its phenomenal success. "The Plague Dogs" and "Shardik" are different matter altogether. They are a committment. One feels that your respect for the dignity of those dogs, those animals, is like your respect for the dignity of Lear's Fool -- that tragic figure. For me it became, "Are they people, are they dogs?" It seemed to me that both were there.
What I was really trying to get across was the essential horror of, what one the characters at the end of the book calls, "treating animals as though they were things." He says the awful part is that they're used as if they were boots or electric lightbulbs. And very often they're used simply because they arem able to feel fear and pain. And this is what I hate. Like a cartoonist who exaggerates, you make the animals morem than ordinary live animals in order to get your point home. The point, I submit, remains valid -- it is wrong to treat sentient creatures as though they were things. First and foremost a novel should be a good story in its own right. But if the boat is going to sail it must have wind in the sails. The wind is something about which the novelist has strong emotional feelings. You've got to feel strongly about something in order to be able to tell a good story. I came out of both "The Plague Dogs" and "Shardik" -- particularly "Shardik" -- feeling "Oh! I've been hit over the head for my indifference." I wasn't sure that I needed to suffer quite so much in order to wake up.
That's a fair criticism. The writing of novels must come out of personal experience. If there are terrible things in "Shardik," I assure you they're not more terrible than things I've experienced. I'm simply insisting on telling what's happening all over the world -- to animals for profit, to children for other unspeakable purposes. I maintain that I'm not deluging people with cruelty for sensational reasons at all; I'm simply telling people what must be paid attention to. Do you believe in moral progress?
Yes, I think i do. I'm tremendously encourged by the fact that slavery has vanished off most of the earth. Mind you, I know wage slavery and all kinds of horrible exploitations have not vanished, but it's a tremendous step forward that slavery, which was a human institution for hundreds of years, has been abolished. We can look back on the nineteenth century and say, in effect, "Did they really do those things to humans that we read about? -- drive little orphan boys up chimneys where they suffocated, and sell black people in the marketplace; work childredn in the pits and flog sailors at the masthead?" I think in a hundred years they're going to look back on us and say, "Did they really do those things to animals? It seems quite incredible!"