Monday, December 05, 2005

THOMAS TALLIS: card-carrying member of
the Crown of Cr
A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” said Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). She would have us believe that human beings are of no greater consequence (maybe lesser) in the cosmos than other living organisms.

Only supremacism makes us think that "our kind"... is more important than the rest. But a broader definition of ourselves is simply that we are all animals.

OK. But apparently some animals are more equal than others-- bulls for instance. Ms. Newkirk has written:

Dear Secretary Rumsfeld:

You have said that you weren't aware of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, but I don't want you to be caught in the same position over the torture of another group of individuals who, while different from the average American citizen in many ways, still bleed, feel pain, and experience fear just as we do... Will you please tell me whether your views on bullfighting have changed since you personally "ran with the bulls" in Pamplona? I invite you to tip the scales back a bit by coming to Spain to participate in the
Running of the Nudes— also called the Human Race—an alternative to the cruel spectacle that occurs three days later.

(The mind boggles, on so many levels.... I can't speak.)

Ms. Newkirk is correct, of course, that we are all animals. But I doubt she gives much thought to what it is that the word describes: i.e., the fact that
animals are so called because they have an anima-- that's Latin for "soul," which points to the fact that Western culture has, for millennia, gone to great lengths to understand the value and define the nature of all living things. (The writers in Latin all bow to Aristotle, who was doing it in Greek 2400 years ago.)

With the great religious cultures (specifically the Religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) came the deepest appreciation of the
TOTALLY OBVIOUS difference between the "animation" of human beings and that of other organisms of varying degrees of complexity, and to the inevitable conclusion that the soul of the human alone transcends physical death and enjoys immortality.

How do we know this? The bizarre anthropomorphism preached by the PETA crowd actually manages to focus on a key aspect of the workings of the soul-- suffering-- and just gets it ludicrously wrong. How do we know that anima of the lower animal is a blunted, mortal soul incapable of (among other things) suffering equivalently to a human being? We know, quite simply, because those animals DON'T WRITE POETRY ABOUT IT.

They don't write music, plays, or make paintings. The capacity for suffering compels language, first, and then other creative expressions-- the impulse to language could not be resisted in any being that experiences the depths of suffering (or the heights of ambition or self-consciousness) -- but you can only "smoke 'em if you got 'em" -- lower animals don't.

They've been around longer than we have and have had plenty of time to evolve the evidence of immortality if they had it. When archaeologists unearth the amphitheatre that was conceived and built by the eohippus "community", and musicians can perform on its accoustically-perfect stage the stegosaurus-composed version of the "Magic Flute", I will lay my arguments to rest. Till then -- sorry, folks -- they are blunted, temporarily animated organisms who, left untouched and unimpeded by human beans, will never cure cancer or establish world peace-- nor will they suffer regret about their failure to do either.

This is not scientific (duh), it's just obvious good sense to anyone with eyes (plus the ability to reason, to read, to record, and all that other stuff we immortals do).

What has this to do with Thomas Tallis? He's 500 years old this year, and his immortality is pretty much a given. He was a court composer to four English monarchs during the throes of the 16th-century Catholic-Protestant tug-of-war. He died an old man, peacefully, in his bed. That in itself was quite a feat. He survived the religious tumult because he was a genius who wrote soul-quaking sacred music that transcended denominational conflicts.

Last night I was among the privileged audience that packed St. Patrick's Church in downtown Toronto to hear the Tallis Choir present an unprecedented performance of a re-constructed Christmas Vespers service, as it may have been sung by the Chapel Royal of Queen Mary Tudor, assisted by choristers from her consort's native Spain.

More than an hour of alternating Psalms and chanted antiphons was brought to a climax (and I use the word advisedly) with the singing of a five-line prayer (called by its opening words Spem in Alium, derived from a text in the Book of Judith) in which 94 singers, divided into eight choirs, sang 40 different musical lines-- all at once.

It is impossible for an old medieval Catholic like me not to have a religious response to an experience like this. But there was another, much stronger element to my response.

The separate choirs began in turns, trading off five-voice arrangements in various combinations-- then, in a sudden swell, they were all singing together, a living natural sound that penetrated every cell of the body from all directions, huge yet crystal clear in its multiplicity. And quite involuntarily-- in intense emotion, but without a breath of sentimentality-- I felt my face glow warm and tears come into my eyes.

I've had this very same reaction before, in quite different circumstances, though the subject was a work of religious art. It was a painting, part of a travelling exhibit from the private collections of the Vatican. I was among the large crowd examining this treasure trove of visual art, several hundred wonders of every sort, when I entered a gallery and my eyes fell upon Guido Reni's painting of St. Matthew and the Angel. Again, tears came instantly to my eyes, without warning.

I am not a big fan of Italian Renaissance art, though it is often considered synonymous with Catholic religious "style." The subject of Reni's painting could be said to have a sentimental appeal, as the old man listens to the sweet angel's dictation.

But what struck me -- struck like a truck, for want of a finer image -- was the sheer, heart-stopping SKILL of the work. It was almost impossible to resist reaching toward St. Matthew and patting his weathered and eminent white head. What was so emotionally moving about the Reni painting, as it was about the Tallis Spem in Alium, was the realization, the unfathomable mystery, that a mere human being created it-- that he first imagined it, saw it or heard it within himself, and then knew what he must do to capture it in a medium by which it may be shared, and preserved.

This is the simplest word for what the human being, any human being, can do-- has always done, universally desires to do-- which the lower animal cannot, that is, we preserve because we have the capacity to imagine what none can see: the future. We grasp transcendance. We are not content to live in and merely utilize our environment. We alter it-- we move things, we build, we kill and cook, we paint our skin, we mark the phases of the moon, we name, we tell what we remember, we concern ourselves that memories outlast our telling-- we find a way to hold on to sights, to sounds, to realizations whose meaning we sense as fit for immortality.

To say that "a rat is a pig is a dog" is an insult to rats, pigs, and dogs (and a bald admission that the sayer is an unobservant dolt). The blunted animae of these creatures vary wildly in their function from species to species. Some exhibit passing concern over the corpse of a dead offspring (heavy on the "passing"-- there are no annual wreath-layings or tributes in the obituary section of the Animal Times). Some mate monogamously, mostly for a season, though occasionally for life. (But we have yet to find a record of widowed whales draped in black seaweed or provided for by Keiko's life insurance policy.) There is evidence for personal attachment on the part of some of the more sophisticated types,like dogs and horses, towards their owner of the moment.

But they don't go to Doggy Heaven when they die, and it doesn't really matter if we kill them (as long as we are not wanton or cruel in the doing of it-- but the wrongness of such cruelty has less to do with the animal's merits than with the unhealthy consequences of practicing cruelty for man's own anima).

There is also no such thing as an "innocent animal" because there is no such thing as a"guilty animal"-- when a pit bull mauls a child to death, it is not put down as punishment for a crime, and it will not go to Doggy Hell for its "sin". We simply eliminate a threat to the higher life-forms whose continued existence counts for something (maybe the child could have cured cancer had she lived-- not an option for the pit bull). The killer pit bull is acting according to its nature, and because it is not immortal it is neither moral nor immoral. It's just a dog-- and in this respect one might say that a rat is a pig is a dog (or hippo, or blue jay, or maggot). They come, they go, they don't write poetry. We remember them as individuals substantially (but not entirely) because their attachment played on our sense of self-importance; and only we, through our ability to preserve the experience of having enjoyed an animal's company, can postpone their soul's mortality.

Thomas Tallis is buried in St. Alfege Church near the River Thames in Greenwich, east of London. His epitaph is as simple as his gift was complex, telling who he served, to whom and how long he was married, that he had no children, but that he was nonetheless immortal. Its last four lines read:

As he did live, so also did he die,
In mild and quiet sort, O! happy man.
To God full oft for mercy did he cry,
Wherefore he lives, let Death do what he can.