Thursday, March 8, 2018
and I knew that I must eat
Scott G.F. Bailey smartly follows my last post with two sentences about a chicken being eaten in a different story. The new bird comes from My Ántonia, 1918, by Willa Cather, a book I've never read but there are three copies of it at the Goodwill up the road so it must be on the curriculum at American universities. The lines he quotes are these: "While I was putting my horse away, I heard a rooster squawking. I looked at my watch and sighed; it was three o'clock, and I knew that I must eat him at six." This character, she has the mind of a French kitchen maid or pre-enlightened (if that's the word) upper-middle-class grandmother (Crevel, Babylon), I think when I read that, and then I look up the chapter and see the narrator is not a woman but a man or boy named Jimmy. The chapter seems interesting because nothing in it tells me why he is sighing. Nobody asks him to kill the rooster, as far as I can see, and he doesn't appear to know the bird personally, although that relationship might have been established in an earlier part of the book. Stop: maybe he has already been established as a chicken-killer and Cather knows she doesn't have to spell it out. All right, he'll kill the rooster, the little bastard. No wait, does the squawking mean the rooster is already in the process of being murdered? That's it: this is a death-squawk. Originally I thought it was just expressing itself. Oh I'm stupid. Whose rooster is it? "Cather takes predation and death for granted," writes Bailey. "The predator suffers, not the prey; the poor prey is fated to be relief for the predator, and there is only so far our sympathies should carry us." What a bitch this Willa Cather is, I think, which is interesting all over again because it puts me back in French kitchen labourer (Proust-Françoise) territory. World War II came about because of people like this Cather, I say to myself. Jimmy's sigh is offered up to his creator, the one who wants him to acknowledge his position of effort at the top of the food chain. The squawk was his last contact with the vital life-force of a unique bird, born in all its complexity from an amazing egg and going to all the trouble of eating seeds and muck for years only to die screaming at three o'clock so that this genuflecting creep can sink his teeth into him. Superbly horrible, looking at your watch. Is this rooster-slaughter inserted here to whet my mind for the anecdote Widow Steavens is about to tell Jimmy about Ántonia, who has been preyed on by a man in Denver? No one can mourn these birds innocently. "I am not a sign," rooster screams, "I am the present," but the predator sails on, seeing time ahead.