"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I was recently reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster,” and it got me thinking. The essay is about Wallace’s thoughts at the Maine Lobster Festival and, more importantly, the ethics of eating animals in our society. I respect David Foster Wallace, and his essay was lacking the usual pedantic bent that such topics usually take. In short, he was honestly trying to ask if we should continue eating animals, without knowing the answer himself. This essay did not get me thinking because I eat animals but quite the opposite, because I am a militant vegan.
I’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years (half my life) and a vegan for the last five years. The issue is not one of nuance or complexity, but is rather immediately wrong to me in the way that slavery is wrong, rape is wrong, and the death penalty is wrong. That is why reading this essay by someone I respect gave me pause.
I do not personally know your stance on the issue, but I know enough that your stance will affect how you respond to my letter.
My problem is that I am finding it harder and harder to function in this world where animals are slaughtered and consumed. I go to grocery stores as little as possible, considering I have often simply cried when I am forced to walk down the aisles containing the flesh of once living creatures. I only date other vegetarians or vegans and have mostly surrounded myself with friends who are vegetarian or vegan.
I was not formerly this way. I first became a vegetarian for environmental reasons, not at all voicing a concern for animals. I think I understood that eating meat was wrong, but could not admit my guilt for such crimes, so I came up with other reasons to stop supporting murder. Such feelings are years behind me, and now I am having trouble not being angry at those around me that eat animals. I’ve become shrill and pedantic, but I don’t know how else to be.
The other problem is that I feel I am being pushed out of the radical activist community. Whenever I bring up the question of animals at broader activist coalitions, I am told flat-out that I am demeaning the plight of X (where X stands in for a group of humans who are somehow oppressed, though few of them are being slaughtered, I might add) by suggesting that we extend our fight for all life that is oppressed by Power. In this way I have been unable to sustain coalition practices with various feminist, civil rights, queer liberation and antipoverty groups. I am becoming more and more of a mono-issue radical, even though I have always tried to proceed in intersectional coalitions.
How do I stick to my principles — for I am unapologetic on this issue — without bouts of anger and depression? Is continuing to isolate myself from those who eat animals a good course, or should I try to be more open to those who commit acts that I feel are evil? How do I continue to build coalitions with people who refuse to believe that the treatment of animals is important? In short, how does one live as a joyful, ethical vegan, fighting for life and liberation against all forms of oppression?
A Militant Vegan
Dear Militant Vegan,
Sometimes we adopt beliefs that meet certain personal needs of which we are unaware. We might have, for instance, a strong spiritual thirst that no religion can satisfy, and so we imbue our activities in the secular realm with a spiritual passion and fervor, and so we take practical setbacks especially hard. Or we might have a powerful moral sense of right and wrong and yet a very sensitive nature, and so we are drawn to debates and yet find that we take things too personally. When our activities are meeting several needs at once, particularly when some of those needs are hidden, we often find that the thing we love is also the thing that gives us the most pain. So it is important for you as an activist to know yourself well. Until you do, you are likely to respond to conflict and setbacks with uncontrollable emotion.
There is a stumbling block, however, in coming to know how your political beliefs meet your psychic needs. You may fear that if your beliefs have a personal motivation they are somehow less valid. But adopting certain beliefs that fulfill certain emotional or spiritual needs does not mean those beliefs are invalid. It only means that you choose certain causes among many because those certain causes have a personal meaning to you. The trick is to know what that personal meaning is. Knowing that will not only help you avoid pitfalls but can also be a source of great strength.
This is true because you are not just working for a cause; you are expressing your deepest sense of who you are. We humans are smart and efficient, and we choose activities that meet many needs at the same time. It is also important to keep in mind that others, also, while their reasoning may not be correct, have deeply personal reasons for putting forth what they believe. In working with activist coalitions, you may find at times you have to let other people work out whatever they are working out, and offer them support, even if it feels as though to do so weakens your own cause. There are many things worth fighting for in this world, and though activists may differ about priorities, they are all basically good people trying to improve the world.
A good way to discover why you are reacting so strongly to certain situations is to enter a period of psychotherapy in which you examine your beliefs, your habits, your desires; you try to connect certain behaviors, look for patterns, question beliefs you have taken for granted, test out certain hypotheses. I think you could probably benefit from doing that.
Of course, you may not want to do that or you may not be able to. Psychotherapy is not the only route to self-understanding. There are numerous retreats in the world where activists can find the peace and quiet to dig deeper into their motivations and try to gain self-understanding. But I do feel that some kind of spiritual questioning, in which you deepen your beliefs about how we should treat animals and try to connect it with your broader moral and ethical beliefs, would be extremely helpful. If you cannot attend a retreat or work with a therapist, perhaps you could simply take a break from activist activities to read and reflect. Read about the struggles of great activists and leaders. Think about how your moral development has led you to this place and what other needs might be met by your work. Keep a journal in which you explore and articulate the way that animal rights activism might connect not only to your personal life but to larger liberation struggles; see if you can find the common ground that often seems to have been lacking.
I suggest you do this not only to be more effective in your work, but also to better play the other roles in your life. After all, you are not just a militant vegan; you also have family, friends, intellectual and artistic interests, a spiritual side, an emotional life. It may be that you are simply out of balance, that you have ignored many of your other legitimate needs in pursuit of this singular objective. If you can find out what else you need to be happy, perhaps after a while things will just straighten out for you and make more sense.
It may appear that I have steered clear of the topic of animal rights. What I respond to is your inner turmoil, your emotional suffering, which would be important to me no matter what the substance of your beliefs or the nature of your conflicts with others. I support your struggle to improve the world by advocating greater compassion and awareness of other living things. And I think the way to wage that struggle is to gain greater awareness of the forces in your own life that drive you to do it.
P.S. Wouldn’t it be great if David Foster Wallace would fill in for me sometime when I go on vacation? Don’t you think he’d make a great advice columnist?
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Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)