‘The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there’.
‘In relation to them animals?, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka’.
Isaac Bashevis Singer
There are certain things that you perhaps ought not critcise; a loved one’s cooking, a carefully prepared gift, the name given to a pet and indeed, God. So you know something is wrong when Derrida criticises God as someone ‘who doesn’t know what he wants with respect to the animal’. His close reading of the opening section of the torah is a detailed crtique of carniverous sacrifice which asks powerful questions about the very nature of humankind, as we see it.
Whilst it is commonly held that in the Torah, Man is not carnivorous until after the flood when God (perhaps as a concession to man’s sinful nature) permits Noah to consume animals, Derrida traces the origin of the human carnivore to much earlier. It begins with Man’s naming of the creatures of the land and the sea. The name, for Derrida, not only demonstrates Man’s power over animals, but also renders them mortal and this act of naming sees an inversion of hierarchy – the animals that were created prior to man are now subjected by his naming of them. This naming is a domestication, a taming of the monstrous and a preparing for sacrifice. In turn, each animal is subjected to mankind as God looks on.
No wonder then that Derrida calls this myth ‘the awful tale of Genesis’ which he contrasts with the initial creation myth of Genesis in which man and woman are created equally and animals are not subjected to Man. But blaming God? It’s God’s indecision that seems to irritate him. Everything that occurs in Genesis prior to Man’s naming of animals is predictable, is ordained directly by the words of God – let there be light etc. God however sidelines himself at the moment of naming. Becoming a passive onlooker, he brings the animals to man ‘in order to see what he will call them’. This moment is described as ‘the very genesis of time’ and seems to forge a link between the passing of time and the subjection of animals. Unpredictability, for Derrida, is time itself which he describes as monstrous and continuously tamed by humans. So time does not begin until something monstrous has occurred, and that monstrosity is the naming of animals and if time is the domestication of monsters, and if animals are to be necessarily monstrous, then a monstrous future of subjugation, cruelty and exploitation is what awaits animals from this point.
Yet sacrifice does not occur until Man has been banished form Eden. Abel is the first human to slaughter an animal which he offers to God. Whilst his offering is accepted, his brother, Cain’s vegetables are rejected. And so the first animal killing is met with the first human killing. Once Abel has shown that it is possible (and in God’s approval, right) to kill, Cain comes to understand what is proper to Man – that Man is violent, that Man kills – and so he commits fratricide. Derrida calls this act the second original sin and it is a crime for which he appears to hold God responsible. Once God has rejected the offering of Cain, he warns him not to fall into sin. This demonstrates God’s awareness of the consequences of his rejection as well as the explicit endorsement he has just given to killing. God tells him that sin ‘lurks’ at his door, and it is this word which especially interests Derrida. ‘Like an animal lying in wait in the shadow, waiting for the prey to fall into its trap’. So Cain becomes the hunted, God has set a trap for him which he cannot escape. Derrida states that in killing his brother Cain ‘falls into the trap; he becomes prey to the evil lurking in the shadow like an animal’, yet he was already prey beforehand; God had set the trap when he refused the offering.
So there is a chain of hunting. The animal-sin is hunting Cain who hunts his brother. But since the sin is that of hunting his brother, the chain closes to form a circle and Cain hunts himself. This demonstrates the logic of killing animals, of killing the other. In doing so, we are killing ourselves, our sin will be reflected back on us. Having killed his brother, Cain is exiled and becomes explicitly hunted, stating ‘whoever finds me will slay me’. It is only God’s promise of protection that saves him from this fate. The protection however is the promise of seven vengeances on whoever kills Cain – another example of how violence explodes, starting from the one original sacrifice. Derrida’s understanding of God’s offer of protection is that it is ‘as if God had repented… as if he were confessing and admitting remorse concerning the animal’. He suggests that it is as if God is ashamed of preferring the animal sacrifice. For God does demonstrate a change of heart. Cain ignores God’s instruction no to fall into sin and is cursed by God, allowed to die, sacrificed even, only for God to then offer divine protection three verses later.
So it is as if God feels shame. Cain also feels shame, as do Adam and Eve and it is through a combination of these combined and related shames at the start of Genesis that Derrida hints at a re-reading of original sin. We have already seen that Cain’s killing of Abel is impossibly called a ‘second original sin’ and we have identified that Adam’s naming of animals is what facilitates Man’s sacrifice of animals and the eating of meat. Derrida sees man’s propriety as emerging from these sins:
What is proper to man, his superiority and subjugation of the animal, his very becoming subject, his historicity, his emergence out of nature, his sociality, his access to knowledge and technics… would derive from this originary fault, indeed from this default in propriety, what is proper to man as default in propriety.
Or indeed human propriety as being these sins. Original sin not as the gaining of forbidden knowledge, but as naming, subjugating, sacrificing and eating animals. A sin permitted and regretted by God who becomes powerless to prevent further killing – as shown by his violent protection of Cain. It is a human-defining sin. A sin that makes humans carniverous, violent, killers and a sin that unleased unlimited violence on the rest of humankind.
So God messed up, and if there is to be redemption from this sin, it will only come from humans – the non-animal side of the violent man/animal dichotomy. So perhaps, if Derrida can criticise God, then we can criticise a loved one’s cooking if that cooking involves the cooking of a loved one. Derrida’s remarkable reading reveals carniverouness as a kind of origin of human violence. Animal genocide facilitates human genocide. The Nazis only had to look to Chicago’s mechanised slaughterhouses for a blueprint of Auschwitz.
Derrida, Jacques. ‘“Eating Well” or the Calculation of the Subject’. In Points… Interviews, 1974-1994. (Ed Weber, Elisabeth). California. Stanford University. 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. ‘The Animal that therefore I am’. In Critical Inquiry, (ed. Mitchell WTJ), Chicago. University of Chicago. 28 (2002:2 Winter)
Derrida, Jacques. ‘Violence Against Animals’. In Derrida, Jacques and Roudinesco, Elisabeth. For What Tomorrow…’ (trans. Fort, Jeff). California. Stanford University. 2004.
Patterson, Charles. Eternal Treblinka. New York. Lantern Books. 2002.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. ‘The Letter Writer’. In The Séance and Other Stories. New York. Farrar, Strass and Giroux. 1968