I’d meant to spend the last couple of days writing an essay about the astral plane, because this is the fifth Wednesday of the month, and we’ve established an informal tradition on this blog that my readers get to suggest topics for fifth Wednesday posts. My muse, though, is an opinionated lady; she inspires what she wants to inspire, whether or not that’s what I planned to write. That’s why I spent most of my free time over the last four months or so writing a 105,000-word novel about Baroque music and shoggoths, and it’s why this week’s post has gone veering away from its intended subject, chasing after one of the spiritual enthusiasms of my youth.
Now part of that’s because I recently heard that one of the teachers with whom I studied in my teen years, artist and trance medium Guenn Eona Nimue, has passed away; another part is because a couple of months ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, which is about the dawn of the era of spiritual search that met so ugly an end, at the hands of a brutally vulgarized faux-spirituality, around the time I reached adulthood; another part is because, when you’re as well ensconced in middle age as I am, winter nights are conducive to such reflections—but there’s another factor, and it fills a shelf within easy reach of the desk where I write these weekly posts.
I’ve kept most of the books that were really important to me in my younger years. That’s apparently quite rare these days. I’ve met any number of people in my generation who spent the 1970s just as deeply into ecology, appropriate tech, alternative spirituality or what have you as I was, but you’ll rarely find books by Gregory Bateson or Ivan Illich or Michio Kushi or John Michell on their shelves any more. By and large, they shed those right about the time they shed their tie-dyed shirts and their youthful ideals, and decided that accepting a privileged place in a corrupt and failing society was a better bet than trying to change anything that matters.
Me, I always was the odd duck, and that’s why you’ll find books by all those authors, and many more, weighing down the bookshelf referred to a few lines back. It’s a humbling experience, at least for me, to page back through the books on that shelf, and remember the soaring dreams and well-intentioned follies of an era when it really did seem as though the world could change for the better. Of all those dreams and follies, though, the one that I’ve been brooding over most just now is the conviction—still remarkably common these days—that it’s possible to create a perfect world by getting everyone to eat the right diet.
I encountered that at the time via the then-thriving macrobiotic movement. I don’t imagine many of my younger readers know much of anything about macrobiotics, and many of my older readers may know of it only via biased (if often richly earned) media coverage. It was founded by a self-taught Japanese healer named Nyoichi Sakurazawa, who observed the problematic effects of the Western diet when this was introduced to Japan, moved to Paris, took the pen name “George Ohsawa,” and launched a movement to teach Westerners to eat something like a traditional Japanese peasant diet. In the usual way of such movements, he and his students developed a complex philosophy of diet—in this case, based on the East Asian concepts of yin and yang—and billed the resulting system as the key to universal health and happiness.
Of course this also involved sweeping claims about the diet’s health benefits, which brought the macrobiotic movement into a head-on collision with the medical industry. Those of my readers who know their way around the history of alternative health care in twentieth-century America already know that neither side displayed any notable grace or honesty in the resulting squabble over market share. As it turned out, the macrobiotic diet’s most loudly promoted claim—that it would prevent and cure cancer—turned out to be its Achilles’ heel; when several prominent macrobiotic teachers up and died of cancer, despite decades of strict adherence to the macrobiotic diet and its related practices, the movement went into a death spiral from which it shows no signs of recovering any time soon.
Back in the late 1970s, when I started studying macrobiotics, this was all in the future. At that time you could find plenty of enthusiastic macrobiotic teachers all over the Seattle area, where I lived then, eager to pass on their enthusiasm for a diet that seemed to promise perfect health and inner peace. I was young, uncritical, and passionately interested in anything that looked like an alternative to the practically necromantic deadness of the suburban, er, “lifestyles” I saw around me. So I flung myself into the pleasures of a vegan diet that focused on lots of brown rice and other whole grains, with steamed vegetables, fermented soybean products, seaweed, and a narrow range of other foods on the side.
The thing to remember here is that macrobiotics was a diet, but it wasn’t just a diet. What made the macrobiotic movement so attractive to me, and to many other people around the same time, is that it aimed at transforming the entire world, one meal at a time. The idea was that macrobiotics would make you so radiantly healthy and happy that the people you met would be motivated to try it, too, and the expected spiritual effects of macrobiotics were such that as the diet and its related practices spread, world peace and universal enlightenment would duly follow.
That was the theory. The practice had one noticeable problem with it, in my case, which was that the diet didn’t make me radiantly healthy. It made me thin, pale, and susceptible to every cold that came through town. All the macrobiotic authorities insisted that this was a temporary state caused by the body’s efforts to cleanse itself of toxins, and radiant health would show up in due time. What happened instead was my health just got worse, and I started having vivid dreams of bacon cheeseburgers. Finally one day, when I was reading a macrobiotic book, I ran across a passage that talked about how the body communicates its needs to the mind, and realized that my body had been yelling at the top of its lungs, trying to get my attention. One bacon cheeseburger later, I was on my way to a complete recovery.
Does that mean that the macrobiotic diet is a bad diet that nobody should eat? Not at all. I knew people who thrived on it. It so happens that some people can metabolize vegetable protein better than others. If you’re one of the ones who can, a diet of the standard macrobiotic sort will very likely keep you in fine fettle—well, as long as you watch your vitamin C levels; the standard macrobiotic diet is so low in vitamin C, due to its theories about the extremely yin nature of fruit, that people using the diet can come down with scurvy. If you’re one of the ones who can’t, you need to eat animal protein, or you’re not going to be healthy. It really is that simple.
I’ve been thinking about this experience quite a bit recently, while watching the trajectories of some of the current crop of dietary movements. One of them, the vegan movement, has very nearly duplicated the course of the macrobiotic movement, from the first luminous proclamations of the perfect diet straight through to the final descent into confusion and failure. Most of the evangelists for the vegan diet have had the common sense to avoid making the kind of health claims that landed macrobiotics in so much trouble, to be sure, but the vegan movement is facing an equally awkward comeuppance for a different reason.
It’s the same situation I ran into: a great many people who’ve publicly adopted the vegan diet have discovered that their bodies just don’t thrive without animal protein. The difficulty here is that the strident moral rhetoric of the vegan movement makes it very difficult for people to back away from it once they’ve committed themselves to it—those who publicly renounce a vegan diet can expect to face torrents of abuse from their fellow vegans, and a diet rich in crow catered by the omnivores they know who are sick and tired of the self-righteous posturing and bullying that the vegan movement unfortunately made central to its attempts at evangelism.
It’s thus become a very poorly kept secret that a very large number of public vegans these days regularly sneak off to the next town or the next county for a big meal of meat. The next time you eat at a steakhouse close to a freeway interchange—the kind of place that has no windows and relatively low lighting—keep an eye out for somebody with the classic unhealthy-vegan look, thin, pale, and rigid, sitting nervously by himself or herself at a back table, and chowing down on a 16 ounce porterhouse steak. It’s probably a prominent vegan from a community just far enough away that he or she doesn’t expect to get caught.
This takes place in exactly the same spirit in which so many fine, upstanding, Bible-believing, supposedly heterosexual married men in America’s Southern states slip off to gay bars the next county over for the purpose, as their wives indelicately put it, of getting shot by the bun gun. It’s not just a matter of simple hypocrisy. In both cases, the people heading shamefacedly across county lines to do something that contradicts their public personas believe with all their hearts that the ideals they uphold in public are right and true and good; it’s just that they themselves can’t live up to those ideals. So they live divided lives, earnestly praising the virtues they themselves can’t bear to uphold, wallowing in guilt and shame at their failings, and by and large reacting with frantic savagery when someone does in public what they do in private.
Such exercises in contradiction can go very far indeed. It’s quite possible to imagine a future, and not a particularly distant one, in which every figure of any public importance in the vegan movement is running off to a steakhouse a couple of times a month, because he or she can’t stay healthy on the diet he or she is certain is the right one for everyone else. (To judge from the rate at which gay-bashing Christian ministers get caught with boyfriends these days, the situation with evangelical Christianity and gay sex has just about hit this point.) Eventually, to judge by older examples of the same phenomenon, the younger generation will stop propping up the double lives of their elders, and the whole thing will come crashing down of its own weight, but a great deal of pointless suffering and public nastiness will likely happen before then.
Most of the other popular diets just now—the Paleo diet, the various ketogenic diets, the whole-30 diet, and so on—are at earlier points along the life cycle that leads from the bright enthusiasm of dawn to the confusion and failure of sunset. One thing nearly all of them have in common is a core feature of the macrobiotic and vegan diets, too: the notion that some class of foods or other is evilly evil evilness with a double helping of evil sauce on the side, and if you simply omit that class of foods from your diet, you’ll be healthy forever. For the vegan diet, it’s animal products; for the macrobiotic diet, it was a laundry list of foods considered “too yang” or “too yin” for human consumption; for the Paleo diet, it’s anything the inventors of that diet thought (on the basis of inaccurate science) that human beings didn’t eat in the Paleolithic era, and so on.
This sort of thinking has deep cultural roots in our society, and they reach down into the same damp and sticky soil as the frantic conviction, on the part of certain religious traditions, that certain kinds of sexual activity between consenting adults are evilly evil evilness with the same double helping of evil sauce on the side. At the root of these and a great many more dysfunctional attitudes is the notion that the mind is superior to the body and ought to tell the body what to do, on the basis of some abstract and arbitrary set of rules, and that the body will be fine if it just shuts up and does as it’s told. That’s where you get the pervasive notion that perfect health and happiness can be yours if only you follow some rigidly defined set of rules, which are always supposed to apply to all human beings everywhere…
…and which ultimately never work as advertised.
Your body, dear reader, has never read a book by John Robbins or George Ohsawa or any of the dietary pundits who’ve filled whole libraries telling you what you ought to eat, all the way back to Antonio Cocchi, who published the first diet book in modern history, The Pythagorean Diet, or Vegetables Only, Conducive to the Preservation of Health, and the Cure of Diseases, back in 1743. Your body doesn’t know what they say about its needs, and it doesn’t care. All it knows is what it needs. If you give it what it needs, it will be healthy. If you don’t, it won’t. How do you know what it needs? Well, don’t ask Antonio Cocchi et al., because they may know something about their own bodies, but they don’t know anything about yours.
That’s the secret weakness behind all the grand claims about the one true and perfect diet: no two human bodies have exactly the same dietary needs. Pick a diet, any diet, and if it insists (as so many do) that some group of common foods is unfit for human consumption, you’ll find that there are some people who thrive on the diet, some who get by on it, and some who get sicker and sicker until they give it up and go eat whatever the forbidden food is, because that food contains something their bodies need in order to be healthy.
Your body, by the way, doesn’t know anything about ethics, either. It doesn’t care if your mind has decided that a vegan diet is the only morally acceptable diet; all your body knows is what it needs, and if you can’t metabolize vegetable protein well enough, and you insist on following a vegan diet anyway, you’ll become sicker and sicker until you break down and eat that bacon cheeseburger. The fallacy at the heart of the vegan movement is the claim that if a diet is morally good, that’s all there is to the question. Your body begs to differ; it’s never heard of ethics, and all it knows is what it needs. If your ethics conflict with your body’s needs, your body isn’t going to change its needs to suit the ethical notions you happen to have adopted.
What’s more, if your body can’t metabolize vegetable proteins well enough, it won’t just sit there and starve virtuously; remember, it’s never heard of ethics. It will remind you that it needs a bacon cheeseburger, over and over again, with increasing intensity, until you give it one. Those of my readers who aren’t vegans may have wondered from time to time where the shrill and frantic tone so often struck by vegan evangelists comes from. Now you know: either they’re tormented to madness by dreams of bacon cheeseburgers, or they’re full of guilt and shame because they know perfectly well that once they finish screaming at you they’re going to drive to the next county to eat steak.
I’d like to propose, in fact, a general rule, which I’ve modestly titled Greer’s Law of Evangelism: the more forcefully someone insists that you have to adopt some behavior or belief—be it a diet, a religion, a political stance, or what have you—the less satisfactory that behavior or belief is to the person who’s pushing it on you. You’ve seen this in action, dear reader, and so have I. When I was doing macrobiotics, the people who were obviously thriving on the diet were never pushy about it, though they’d happily teach you if you wanted to learn, and the people who were pushy about it were obviously not thriving on it. The same is true of religion; I’ve met quite a few people who clearly find their Christian faith profoundly meaningful and satisfying, and I’ve met quite a few people who filled the air with gobbets of saliva as they shrieked about how everyone has to fall on their knees before Jesus or fry in hell forever, and you know, they’re never the same people.
Out of any group of people, some will be well suited to any behavior or belief you care to name, and some won’t be. That’s simply part of the diversity—or, if you wish, the cussedness—that’s hardwired into our species. The belief that some arbitrary scheme can replace that diversity, or cussedness, with one perfect diet, or one perfect religion, or one perfect anything else is, as mentioned earlier, very deeply rooted in the cultures of the contemporary industrial West. It takes a certain amount of hard work to get past that belief, and the process is made no easier by the way that so many people use their diet, or their religion, or what have you as an excuse to feel morally superior to everyone else. Self-righteousness is an addictive drug, and a lot of people use it very heavily to get through the day.
All this may sound as though I’ve come through my youthful experiences with an implacable hostility to dietary schemes. Quite the contrary, I think it’s an excellent idea to give a wide range of diets a try. It’s always possible that you’ll turn out to be one of the people who thrives on a vegan diet, or a macrobiotic diet, or a Paleo diet, or what have you. It’s equally possible that you won’t be, but that you’ll come through the experience knowing a lot more about food and your body’s needs than you once did, and you may pick up some habits and some recipes that will serve you well even after you’ve let the evilly evil food group back into your diet.
I’d go so far as to say that pretty much every diet scheme has some value, and that you can learn useful things from even the most restrictive diet. My macrobiotic days are many decades in the past now, but I still eat a lot of rice, steamed vegetables, fermented soybean products, and seaweed—along with bacon cheeseburgers, to be sure, and those horribly yin fruits that we were never supposed to touch but that keep you nicely supplied with vitamin C—and the little tricks I learned of balancing yang foods with yin condiments and vice versa, and treating ordinary health issues by varying the overall balance of the diet to counter the illness, are still things I use today.
I’ve occasionally daydreamed of writing a book on what I call “the new macrobiotics”—that is to say, macrobiotic theory pruned of the overblown claims, and reworked to make room for bacon cheeseburgers (very yang), beer (very yin—thus you should always have a beer with your bacon cheeseburger for the sake of balance, unless you’re underage, in which case a milkshake, also very yin, will do the same job nicely), and so on. I once worked out in detail an explanation, entirely in terms of macrobiotic theory, of why macrobiotics couldn’t accomplish what it was supposed to accomplish—the details probably won’t be of interest to anybody who wasn’t there at the time, so I’ll skip them here, but it amounts to a subtle but pervasive yang imbalance in the entire system that guaranteed certain kinds of catastrophic yin blowback.
I doubt there would be a market for it, though. Much of what made macrobiotics so enticing at the time, and feeds the passion that drives extreme diets more generally, is precisely that they shoot for the moon, making grand claims that appeal to our dreams of a better world. Even when the claims don’t work and the dreams are doomed to fail, there’s something noble in the attempt, a grandeur of intention that shines through the more than occasional absurdity in practice, and that needs to be remembered—especially when looking back from middle age at the enthusiasms of one’s youth.
Speaking of youthful enthusiasms, I’m delighted to report that the most recent writing contest — the Old Solar System Writing Contest — has just closed, and coeditor Zendexor and I have received enough submissions to make a very solid anthology. It’ll take us a little while to dig our way out from under the final rush of submissions, but we should be ready to post a list of the stories we’ve selected in a few weeks, and get going on the rest of the labor that will turn out another must-read anthology from Founders House Publishing.
We’re also talking about doing another anthology down the road a bit, so those of you who didn’t make it to the spaceport before the big rocket with the fins on it blasted off for Mars needn’t despair. Get to work on those Old Solar System stories…
…and in the meantime, I’m mulling over a somewhat different writing contest to keep everyone’s imaginations moving. More on this in a bit.