Monday, November 5, 2012

Reading Response: The Omnivore's Dilemma, Hunting and Gathering

It seems like violence—or rather killing—was a recurring theme in my readings and experiences this weekend. As I read the hunting and gathering section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan for Food and Travel Writing, I also read the ending of On Killing by Dave Grossman for Social Psychology. I also learned about the job of a foreign war correspondent while I was at a journalism conference in Chicago. This weekend was the most fantastic intersection of all of these bits of learning and they all converged as I read about Michael Pollan killing a wild boar in Northern California. Woah.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan embarks on a hunting adventure to reach the ultimate level of knowing where food comes from. He seems determined to finish his journey through the food chain, and an experiment with the hunter-gatherer diet is his final stop. It is fascinating to me that Pollan thought reading anti-meat-eating-literature and becoming a temporary vegetarian were crucial elements in achieving his goal. He seems to conflicted about hunting and so reluctant to identify with other hunters. In fact, Pollan says he’s embarrassed to write the way hunters like Ortega y Gasset do about killing animals in the wild.

Why, then, does Pollan seem so proud when he finally kills a boar? Why does he take on the prideful, masculine, and aggressive writing voice typical of what he calls “hunter porn?” In fact, after killing, Pollan writes, “The one emotion I expected to feel but did not, inexplicably, was remorse, or even ambivalence… I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, I felt absolutely terrific—unambiguously happy” (353).

According to Dave Grossman, Pollan’s feelings all have to do with the psychology that surrounds the act of killing other living beings. Grossman argues that pride and ecstasy are common responses to adrenaline rushes after a kill. Many soldiers experience these feelings in combat. This elated feeling can develop into what Grossman calls addiction to combat. The more some soldiers fire and kill, the more they want to continue killing. This addiction isn’t always permanent and sometimes goes away.

Grossman’s thoughts on military combat parallel Angelo’s sentiments about hunting addiction and sport in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan describes a conversation in which Angelo talks about his friend who keeps on catching and releasing even after he’s reached the limit on fish per fishing trip. By contrast, when Angelo hunts enough pig to make a dinner, he says he’s finished. The catch in release game, according to Angelo, is like “playing with your food. You shouldn’t play with your food” (339).

I was struck again by this concept of killing addiction this weekend when I listened to a war correspondent tell her story about reporting from Iraq. This Washington Post reporter and Columbia College professor noted that in all of the pictures taken of her embedded in the United States Army and reporting from the front lines, she’s smiling. “I can’t figure it out—I seem so happy,” she said. The reporter suggested that her happiness could be the result of some kind of adrenaline addiction; she kept requesting to be sent back to Iraq.

I was so thrilled to find these connections in my reading and experiences this weekend. Sigmund Freud wrapped it all up for me. He theorized that humans need a balance between Eros, the drive for life, and Thanatos, the drive for death. I think that’s what Pollan is searching for in solving the Omnivore’s Dilemma


  1. What fascinating intersection of stories you have here Kelsey. I never even considered the killing outside of hunting while I was reading. Jordan had read this book and told me about it a long time ago. He's considered addicted to adrenaline and so his heart rate is always elevated. I know multiple people that got off one deployment from Afghanistan and rolled over onto another I always was just like, damn, they're crazy, but never considered the psychological implications. Thanks so much for these links. It's crazy isn't it? Have you ever felt any adrenaline like that? I can't imagine you ever shooting a gun, but maybe something similar. I've never killed an animal except for a deer with my car and my dad used to hunt birds when I was little until I would start crying every time he left, so it was hard to kind of find that "hunting instnct" in myself. I look forward to talking more about this in class.

  2. I've met so many journalists--most of them war correspondents--who suffer from an addiction to intensity (that's what I call it). They can't function without being in a war zone after having experienced it. Life is too dull and boring; they're crawling out of their skin.

    I think that's slightly different from killing an animal for food, though I'm not sure. There can be a satisfaction in that singular experience, that ability to feed oneself, that self reliance. Though I suspect the rush, the feeling is much different than that of growing and eating from one's own garden. I don't know, because I've never killed anything larger than a mouse. And there was little satisfaction in that.

    Anyway, you make wonderful connections here--bravo! I just love seeing students make meaning of their education from moment to moment, in its entirety. It means you'll be doing this the rest of your life. That is a gift.