Learn to write from the Masters: #2 Charles Kiefer – “Para ser escritor”

The writer’s struggle for the right word is the most painful struggle. This is Charles Kiefer’s statement, Brazilian literature professor and author who shares his thoughts on the most common challenges writers face. Finding the right word, or le mot juste that Flaubert himself struggled with, is obviously one of the obstacles in the writing process. In Flaubert’s case, this struggle turned into obsession (it took him 5 years to write Madame Bovary).

Kiefer advises young writers to focus on reading the classics. Reading is essential because it develops our minds and improves our vocabulary.

However, reading the classics is not enough. Read everything, even schundliteratur (German term in literary theory for “trash literature”), even Paulo Coelho (oh, the irony…)
The author doesn’t seem to like Coelho as he criticizes him throughout the book.

What do you think of Coelho? Let me know in the comments!

Kiefer shares some tips on how to recognize the so called “trash literature”. It’s simple:

  1. The characters are poorly built and stereotyped; types that produce prejudice, without any psychological depth.
  2. Absence of action or slow and disconnected action.
  3. Artificial and useless dialogues.
  4. Unnecessary descriptions and without articulation with the narration.
  5. Absence of subtlety.

“However much the world becomes even more mediocre than it already is, rudeness will never reach the status of aesthetic positivity

Art does not imitate life… art produces another life.”

The author emphasizes the need to imitate. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a writer”, he says, and sometimes, by imitating other authors…” (as he himself “got inspired” by Simone de Beauvoir to write this quote). 😉

Finally, Charles Kiefer links the writing process to the four worlds of Kabbalah:

  1. Atziluth (Emanation) — the writer has a general, undefined idea.
  2. Beri’ah (Creation) — the writer has a defined idea. This is where determination is needed.
  3. Yetzirah (Formation) — the writer creates a plan.
  4. Asiyah ( Action) — this is the moment of action: let the words flow!

Learn to write from the Masters: #1 Horacio Quiroga – Decalogue of the perfect storyteller

Fernando Pessoa said, “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life”. However, what is truly agreeable is the final result which requires a long and painstaking work. Writers, whether they’re geniuses or amateurs, have all struggled with writer’s block.

Quiroga, one of the greatest short story writers, shares 10 of his writing secrets that could help you get inspired, overcome writer’s block and finally, write the perfect story. The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, are the 10 essential rules to be followed in the writing process.

Firstly, he commands writers to believe in one master, be it Poe, Maupassant, Kipling or Chekhov, among others. Why are classic authors so important? Because they will certainly not mislead you.

Believe that your art is unreachable summit. Don’t dream of reaching it, for once you can reach it, you will without even knowing you’ve done it.

Try to resist imitation as much as you can. Imitate only if the urge is too strong. More than anything, developing your own personality takes a lot of patience.

Have blind faith in your capacity to triumph, or in your desire to achieve it.

Don’t start to write if you don’t know where you are going from the first word. In a well structured short story, the first three words are as important as the last three.

If you want to write “a cold wind blew from the river”, these words are perfectly enough. Once you have mastered the use of words, don’t worry if they are consonants or assonants.

This brings us to the next point, which is simplicity: No unnecessary adjectives. Colorful words next to a simple noun will be useless! Your noun must have an incomparable colour. The trick is to find it.

Take your characters by their hand and lead them until the end, seeing only the path you have created for them. Don’t get distracted by seeing things that they cannot see or that don’t care to see.
Do not abuse the reader. A short story is not a short novel. Hold this as an absolute truth, even though it is not.

Do not be dominated by emotions. Let them die and remember them later. If you are able to evoke them, you are halfway to mastering your art.

Do not think about your friends while writing or on the effect that your story might have. Tell it as if it only mattered to the microcosm of your characters, of which you may be a part. This is the only way to breathe life into your story.

Discover Macedonian poetry: #3 Aco Sopov – The Wind Carries Beautiful Weather

The wind carries beautiful weather.
It raves within us, then resounds.
It carries beautiful weather.

All that’s lovely is bright but changes,
and grief remains.
Sometimes grief stretches inside us,
lies down in our eyes
and thickens the layers
that dim the lights we watch.
Then an aching of awe
blows cold and lost, unknown inside us,
haunting us deep.

But then again grief plays light
as breeze in a trembling poplar,
light as a net of mist on the river
that we watch thoughtless and mute.
In those moments all things legend themselves
and we say: how impossibly bright it all is.

The wind raves within us,
then resounds.
The wind carries beautiful weather.

Listen to the poem in Macedonian :

Being a poet: between agony and privilege

How do we write a poem? Where does inspiration come from? What does it take to be a poet?
Is being visited by the muses a torture or a bliss?
To answer these questions, I chose two poems by authors whose personalities represent the true nature of poetry – melancholy and plurality. The French symbolist Charles Baudelaire compares poets with albatrosses, seabirds tortured by sailors. Fernando Pessoa, however, reveals the secret to becoming a poet – “Be plural, like the universe!”.

Here is what they have to say on transforming feelings into words and blood into ink:

Charles Baudelaire – The Albatross

Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.

Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.

That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!

The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

“You gave me your mud and I have turned it to gold.”

Fernando Pessoa – I don’t know how many souls I have (from The Book of Disquiet)

I don’t know how many souls I have.
I’ve changed at every moment.
I always feel like a stranger.
I’ve never seen or found myself.
From being so much, I have only soul.
A man who has soul has no calm.
A man who sees is just what he sees.
A man who feels is not who he is.

Attentive to what I am and see,
I become them and stop being I.
Each of my dreams and each desire
Belongs to whoever had it, not me.
I am my own landscape,
I watch myself journey –
Various, mobile, and alone.
Here where I am I can’t feel myself.

That’s why I read, as a stranger,
My being as if it were pages.
Not knowing what will come
And forgetting what has passed,
I note in the margin of my reading
What I thought I felt.
Rereading, I wonder: “Was that me?”
God knows, because he wrote it…”

“Plural, como o Universo…”

Discover Macedonian poetry: #2 Kočo Racin

Kosta Solev (1908-1943) is one of the most important Macedonian poets. As a socialist activist, he dedicated his verses to the people. He published his collection “White Dawns” under the pseudonyme K.Racin. Persecuted by his political opponents, his life ended tragically at the age of 34.
Racin’s story proves the power of words and the danger of telling the truth. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —”

Kočo Racin (1908-1943)

The Tobacco Gatherers

On cold scales with bronze they weigh it-
but can they gauge its weight-
our tobacco, our troubles,
our salty sweat!

From the dark dim dawns of summer mornings
up to the godless time of winter evenings
greedily it drinks of our sorrow,
our sweat, our blood and our strength.
The yellow-gold makes faces pale
and brings a yellow guest into out breast.

On dew-laden mornings in the first dawn
bowed low in the fields of the place where we were born
listlessly we gather it in.
Pick leaf by leaf
string leaf by leaf
turn leaf by leaf over and press down,
line leaf by leaf gently, sadly
on the long string of beads of sweat
hope with an oath and green fury
with hard stares from cloudy eyes
at the soft leaves all yellow gold
a bitter tale of a life accursed
string on so, soundlessly but clear.
Don’t you know this ?

The day is come for the weighing-up.
There is no gauge meet, it burrows in the breast
without ceasing, without finding its level
not grief but an oath, and in the clouded eyes
unsummoned rises the tempest.

The scales bear golden leaves
while in the breast rage furious waves
of golden grief, of golden tobacco
of the golden sweat of our hands.


Since Lenka left
a blouse of fine linen
unfinished on her loom
to go to her clogs to sort
tobacco in the factory,
her face has changed,
her eyebrows fallen,
her lips tight drawn.

Lenka was not born
for that accursed
Tobacco-gilded poison
for her breast-pink

The first year passed
a load lay on her heart;
the second year went by
sickness tore her breast.
The third year the earth
covered Lenka’s body.

At night when the moon
wraps her grave in silk,
the breeze above her
sadly warfs sorrow:
“Why was it left
unwoven that blouse?
The blouse was for your dowry …”


Like necklaces about the throat
strings of sold stones
so have the days lain down
on our shoulders and weigh heavy.

Days are they – days
the hardships of hired labourers!

Rise in the morning early
return in the evening late,
in the morning take with you joy
in the evening bring bask grief –
a plague in it, may it be
damned, this life of a dog!

Be born a man – become a bondsman
be born a man – and die a beast,
beastlike, toil your whole life long
for others, on others’ holdings.

White Dawns
For the white palacet of others
dig your own blask graves!

For yourselves nought but gard labour
for yourselves nought but trouble –
string a necklace of days
string forged iron rings,
string the chain of iron bound around your throat!

Elegies for You


Yesterday I set out, walked

through yon green wood

beneath the tall branches

on yon shadow carpet broad.

I walked, my head stunned,

drooping, dead, listless;

I walked, a load on my heart

and a black stone in my breast.

The greenwood of the heroes!

Cool water of the heroes!

Birds sing while you weep,

the sun shines as you darken.

What if you hide the bones

of brave young heroes

lying there beneath you

in your dark groves,

why conceal their songs?

Why do the trees

and the branches of the trees

and the leaves on the branches

whisper so secretly, so sadly?


Beastly, beastly is the labourer’s life,

walled up in darkness

we are pressed down into beastliness

in this fair world.

Who broke our white wings,

wings of white doves?

who fouled the clear springs,

springs of pure souls?

And who shut, who shut

man off from man with walls?

And who made, who made

man slave to man?

Man from man

to suffer

and crawl

and flee

from cradle to grave!


Pour, plunder,

sweat and labour and bare your flesh;

close your vain mouth

lest it speaks of its pain.

Gouge out those black eyes,

let them not look;

break those manly arms,

wound the burning heart.

Put out the lights!

Let there be dark-black stone!

There is, there is still in the dark

something alive to shine out

there is the soul’s pain,

there are wounded souls.

The pain aches, the pain burns,

the pain smarts, the soul afflicted.

But when the pain shines out –

‘ware, beware, ‘ware of its curse!

Poésie macédonienne

I. Poésie romantique (19e siècle)

Konstantin Miladinov – Nostalgie du sud

Comment avoir des ailes d’aigle,
et m’envoler dans nos régions,
m’en aller dans nos pays,
voir Istanbul, voir Koukouche,
voir si là-bas aussi, le soleil
apparaît sombre, comme ici.

Si comme ici le soleil me rencontre,
si là-bas aussi, le soleil luit sinistrement,
pour un lointain voyage je partirai,
et dans d’autres pays m’enfuirai,
là où un soleil clair se lève
et où le ciel sème des étoiles.

Il fait sombre ici, les ténèbres m’enveloppent
un obscur brouillard couvre la terre,
et des gels et des neiges et des poussières,
et des vents puissants et des tempêtes,
tout autour, brouillards et terres gelées,
du froid dans la poitrine et des noires pensées.

Non, je ne peux pas rester ici,
non, je ne peux pas regarder ce gel !
Donnez-moi des ailes
pour m’envoler dans nos régions,
m’en aller dans nos pays,
voir Ohrid, voir Struga.

Là-bas, l’aurore réchauffe l’âme
et un soleil clair se couche sur la forêt;
là-bas, avec splendeur, la force naturelle
a répandu ses dons: Tu vois blanchir le lac limpide,
tu le vois, à cause du vent, s’obscurcir en bleu;
et que tu regardes la plaines ou la montage,
la beauté divine est partout.
Là-bas, de tout cœur, je voudrais jouer du pipeau,
et que le soleil se couche et que je meure.

Rayko Zhinzifov – La voix:

Loin de ma patrie, loin de ma famille,
dans un pays pour moi étranger,
dans des clairières fleuries,
dans des vertes vallées,
seul, à midi, je me promène,
Je me promène, mais j’ai de la peine
et en moi s’affrontent de tristes pensées,
elles me donnent tantôt froid, tantôt chaud
et en moi des sentiments tantôt
s’éteignent, tantôt brûlent.
Je veux de l’ombre, je veux de la
fraîcheur, je veux le silence de l’âme,
mon pauvre cœur a déjà suffisamment
souffert, et vu toutes sortes de maux :
lâcheté avec misère, fourberie avec
orgueil, sommeil mort, stupide vilenie,
amour en parole, union sans fraternité
et ruse et fausse bonté.
“Insensé, insensé, ton âme est paresseuse
– j’entends une voix invisible et secrète –
attelle la charrue sur le champ déserté,
car proche est le temps, proche est l’heure.
Lève-toi, prends l’aiguillon,
jour et nuit, travaille, donne ta sueur,
déracine les ronces, nettoie la mauvaise herbe,
laboure, que le champ inculte donne son fruit.
Insensé, lève-toi, et d’une brûlante prière, prête serment,
fais le signe de la croix, lève-toi, va de l’avant,
va à l’encontre, ne crains pas, mais
crains le doigt de Dieu.”
“Je suis prêt, je le jure, à labourer le champ.
Mais dis-moi, qui es-tu, invisible voix?”
“Écoute ! – la voix tonna et résonna –
Je suis le courroux de Dieu,
la voix du peuple.”

II. Poésie communiste (20e siècle)

Kotcho Ratsin – Linka

Depuis que Linka délaissa
La fine chemise de lin,
La broderie inachevée sur le métier
Et qu’en sabots elle s’en est allée
A la fabrique pour tirer le tabac
Son visage a beaucoup changé
Ses sourcils se sont affaissés
Un pli dur à sa lèvre est venu.

Linka, elle n’était pas née
Pour ce maudit tabac,
Ces tabacs, poissons jaunes
A la poitrine, bouquets roses.

Une première année s’est écoulée,
Une motte de terre a pesé sur son cœur
Est venue la deuxième année,
Le mal déchire sa poitrine.
À la troisième année la terre
A couvert le corps de Linka.

Et la nuit lorsque la lune
Vient couvrir son tombeau de soie,
En silence le vent s’approche au-dessus d’elle
Et lui chante un amer refrain :
“Pourquoi, pourquoi cette chemise
Demeure-t-elle inachevée
Qui était chemise à offrir?”

Kotcho Ratsin – Élégies pour toi

Obscurcis-toi, forêt, assombris-toi, ma sœur

Hier j’ai marché à travers
cette immense et verte forêt
Je suis passé sous les grands hêtres
Sur le tapis des ombres denses.

Je marchais la tête étourdie
Courbé, presque mort, abruti.
Je marchais un poids sur le cœur
Dans la poitrine un caillou noir.

Eh ! toi, forêt en sa verdeur
Eh ! toi, l’eau claire en sa fraîcheur
Les oiseaux chantent, toi, tu pleures
Le soleil luit, tu t’assombris.

Que si tu recèles les os
Des courageux, jeunes héros
Qui dorment ici dans ton sein,
Dans les ombres de tes recoins,
Pourquoi cacher aussi les chants,
Pourquoi les arbres sur ton soin
Et la ramure sur les arbres
Et le feuillage à ses rameaux
Bruissent-ils tout bas, tristement ?

III. Poésie moderne (20e et 21e siècle)

Mateja Matevski – Cloches

Des cloches quelque part.
Des cloches quelque part au loin.
Ce sont les vagues du vent
à travers les herbes qu’il poursuit.
Des cloches quelque part.
Sans arrêt des sons doux et grêles.
Tout est sourd. Le rythme seul
clapote sur le rivage de fer.
Des cloches quelque part.
Lancez-moi haut dans le ciel
sans fond.
Traversez sourdement, désespérément
le cage sonore.
Des cloches quelque part.
Tout petit, je sonne et je crie
Tout est fermé. Ensorcelé,
je me suis accroché aux sons.
Des cloches quelque part.
Frappez-moi. Voyez je suis courageux et docile.
Frappe-toi aussi sur le souvenir,
temps brutal et insatiable.
Des cloches quelque part.
Depuis trop longtemps et maintenant.
Tout fait mal, ciel.
Sur l’herbe des sons trop connus,

Aco Šopov – Soleil Noir

Soleil noir, tu n’as ni levant, ni couchant,
ni ciel pour la prière, ni terre pour l’attaque.
Et celui qui voudra boire de ton éclat
est un exilé de l’enfer, un exilé du paradis.
Les herbes se courbent, les herbes courent pieds nus
devant ta fleur qui brûle et porte une cendre noire
Soleil noir, oiseau déguisé en étoile,
qui pense t’avoir compris ne sait pas ce qu’est le gouffre
Soleil noir, noir sans levant ni couchant,
Soleil noir pour les assoiffés qui mettront pied sur le rivage.

Gane Todorovski – Sept retours au thème du tremble

Cils verts de l’insomnie
ondoiement vert et muet.
Beau dans le centre de la plaine
au milieu les prés affamés de sommeil.
Sa taille, c’est le vert des papillons,
éternels prisonniers de la verticale
Avide de paix il se balance sans repos
Il tremble debout, il a les yeux fixés sur les nuages,
Il suit le chemin, il pleure sur les nomades
Il grelotte dans la sueur des bonaces du plein été.
Est-ce l’insomnie qui le tourmente, la peur qui le secoue,
ce pécheur-péchant stérile et enthousiaste ?
S’il était mon filleul, je le baptiserais Inquiétude
inquiète-inquiétude, dressée stérile sur la plaine
et si j’étais le vent du soir, je brouterais ce tremblement,
ce frisson, signe de craintive solitude.
Combien il est peureux, il vous le dira lui-même,
il frissonne toute la journée, matin, midi et soir !
Il envoie les oiseaux
qui ont leurs nids dans ses branches,
Il envie leur sommeil, leur repos, leurs petits,
L’insomniaque, le stérile, l’inquiétude en vert.

Gane Todorovski – Nuit sans ponctuation

Vers la rive nous naviguons,
voyageurs solitaires…

La fatigue ébranlée fait mal !
Nous cherchons une manière de naître à nouveau,
à nouveau,
dans l’aurore nue.

Et les pensées dénudées frémissent:
sur la peau de la nuit
l’inquiétude gratte.
Sur la barque de l’espérance
nous venons vers toi, AURORE
éclose au-dessus des cils

Et personne n’a de force,
pas une once de force,
pour mettre seulement une virgule !

Et nous détestons les points.

Vlada Urosevic – Une autre ville

Il y a une ville dans cette ville
qui existe entre son entrée
que l’on aperçoit d’abord
sous forme d’un ralentissement léger
des mouvements sur la place
et la ressemblance naïve
de l’angle d’une maison avec une épaule
qui se meut insensiblement pour que la tête se retourne
Il existe une ville dont les frontières se mêlent
comme la pluie et la brume
aux frontières de béton de cette ville
indiquée sur toutes les cartes de géographie.
Cependant il suffit parfois de tourner un peu la tête
et ces deux frontières entrent l’une dans l’autre
comme les ombres dans leurs objets à midi.
Alors nous nous arrêtons devant une maison
dont une saillie représente un visage aux yeux ouverts
comme sur les vielles photographies, et nous rions
comme si nous le découvrions pour la première fois.
Alors cette ville devient une autre ville
et je ne suis pas tout à fait sûr
que celle-ci soit indiquée sur les cartes de géographie.

Ante Popovski – Macédoine

Serrez des herbes dans vos mains
C’est elle que vous étreindrez
Penchez-vous vers la pierre
Et vous entendrez son nom.
Descendez dans les rivières
Leur fond vous la révélera.
Couchez-vous pour vous reposer
D’elle la nuit vous couvrira.
Pays simple de pierre biface et de soleil !
Où dès avant leurs premiers pas les enfants déterrent
Des crânes dans les jardins.
Pays simple de toiles d’araignée et de ruisseaux
Où sagement la liberté grave des noms de paysans
À la place des icones dans les églises
Où l’été, comme toute destinée
Dure jusqu’au dernier insurgé.
Pays simple d’haleine lasse et de silence
À travers lequel le temps passe et qui revient
Et partage avec lui la durée mensongère.
Oh ! simple pays de crispation et de patience
Qui apprit le murmure macédonien aux étoiles
Mais nul ne le connaît.

Discover Macedonian poetry: #1 Konstantin Miladinov – T’ga za jug

Poetry is an outcry from the deepest corners of the human heart. Poems are an outburst of a nation’s sorrow. If you want to understand a nation, read their poetry, listen to their songs, and hear their stories.

Konstantin Miladinov
(1830, Struga, Macedonia – 1862, Constantinople, Ottoman Empire, today’s Istanbul, Turkey)

Today I’m sharing with you one of the most beautiful Macedonian poems filled with nostalgic feelings of a poet exiled from his motherland.
If you ever come to Macedonia, make sure you visit Struga, Miladinov’s hometown where Struga Poetry Evenings are held annually and where you can try one of the best quality Macedonian wines called “T’ga za jug”.

You’ll find the original poem below, followed by the English translation.

Т’га за југ

Орелски крилја как да си метнех,
И в наши ст’рни да си прелетнех!
На наши места ја да си идам,
Да видам Стамбол, Кукуш да видам.
Да видам дали с’нце и тамо
мрачно угревјат како и вамо.

Ако как овде с’нце ме стретит,
ако пак мрачно с’нцето светит;
на п’т далечни ја ке се стегнам,
и в други ст’рни ке си побегнам,
к’де с’нцето светло угревјат,
к’де небото ѕвезди посевјат.

Овде је мрачно и мрак м’обвива,
и темна м’гла земја покрива;
мразој, снегој, и пепелници,
силни ветришча и вијулици,
околу м’гли и мразој земни,
а в гр’ди студој, и мисли темни.

Не, ја не можам овде да седам,
не, ја не можам мразој да гледам!
дајте ми крилја ја да си метнам
и в наши ст’рни да си прелетнам;
на наши места ја да си идам,
да видам Охрид, Струга да видам.

Тамо зората греит душата,
и с’нце светло зајдвит в гората;
тамо дарбите природна сила
со с’та раскош ги растурила:
бистро езеро гледаш белеит,
или од ветар синотемнеит;
поле погледнеш или планина,
сегде божева је хубавина.

Тамо по с’рце в кавал да свирам,
с’нце да зајдвит, ја да умирам.

Longing for the south

If I had an eagle’s wings
I would rise and fly on them
To our shores, to our own parts,
To See Stambol, to see Kukus,
And to watch the sunrise: is it
dim there too, as it is here?

If the sun still rises dimly,
If it meets me there as here,
I’ll prepare for further travels,
I shall flee to other shores
Where the sunrise greets me brightly
And the sky is sewn with the stars.

It is dark here, dark surrounds me,
Dark covers all the earth,
Here are frost and snow and ashes,
Blizzards and harsh winds abound,
Fogs all around, the earth is ice,
And in the breast are cold, dark thoughts.

No, I cannot stay here, no;
I cannot sit upon this frost.
Give me wings and I will don them;
I will fly to our own shores,
Go once more to our own places,
Go to Ohrid and to Struga.

There the sunrise warms the soul,
The sun gets bright in mountain woods:
Yonder gifts in great profusion
Richly spread by nature’s power.
See the clear lake stretching white-
Or bluely darkened by the wind,
Look at the plains or mountains:
Beauty everywhere divine.
To pipe there to my heart’s content.
Ah! Let the sun set, let me die.

Fernando Pessoa – L’effarante réalité des choses (A espantosa realidade das coisas, 1915)


L’effarante réalité des choses
est ma découverte de tous les jours.
Chaque chose est ce qu’elle est,
et il est difficile d’expliquer combien cela me réjouit
et combien cela me suffit.

Il suffit d’exister pour être complet.

J’ai écrit bon nombre de poèmes.
J’en écrirai bien plus, naturellement.
Cela, chacun de mes poèmes le dit,
et tous mes poèmes sont différents,
parce que chaque chose au monde est une manière de le proclamer.

Parfois je me mets à regarder une pierre.
Je ne me mets pas à penser si elle sent.
Je ne me perds pas à l’appeler ma soeur
mais je l’aime parce qu’elle est une pierre,
je l’aime parce qu’elle n’éprouve rien,
je l’aime parce qu’elle n’a aucune parenté avec moi.

D’autres fois j’entends passer le vent,
et je trouve que rien que pour entendre passer le vent, il vaut la peine d’être né.

Je ne sais ce…

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Vegetarianism in literature: 9 vegetarian authors and their thoughts on plant-based diet

  1. Ovid – Metamorphoses

In the book XV of the Metamorphoses, Ovid talks about a philosopher who greatly influenced him – Pythagoras. Born in 570 BC in Samos, Pythagoras contributed to mathematics with his scientific discoveries, including the Pythagorean theorem, the Theory of proportions, the sphericity of the Earth, etc. He was a strict vegetarian and he implored people to adopt his diet. It is a little known fact that before the word vegetarian was invented, the vegetarians were referred to as Pythagoreans. Here is what Ovid says about him in his Metamorphoses:

“Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavoursome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood. […] So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!”

But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood. Then birds winged their way through the air in safety, and hares wandered, unafraid, among the fields, and its own gullibility did not hook the fish: all was free from trickery, and fearless of any guile, and filled with peace. But once someone, whoever he was, the author of something unfitting, envied the lion’s prey, and stuffed his greedy belly with fleshy food, he paved the way for crime.

“He is truly thankless, and not worthy of the gift of corn, who could, in a moment, remove the weight of the curved plough, and kill his labourer, striking that work-worn neck with his axe, that has helped turn the hard earth as many times as the earth yielded harvest. It is not enough to have committed such wickedness: they involve the gods in crime, and believe that the gods above delight in the slaughter of suffering oxen! A victim of outstanding beauty, and without blemish (since to be pleasing is harmful), distinguished by sacrificial ribbons and gold, is positioned in front of the altar, and listens, unknowingly, to the prayers, and sees the corn it has laboured to produce, scattered between its horns, and, struck down, stains with blood those knives that it has already caught sight of, perhaps, reflected in the clear water.”

On this (so great is man’s hunger for forbidden food) you feed, O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.

2. Plato – The Republic

Did you know that Plato’s ideal society was vegetarian, which Socrates himself calls it a “healthy city”? In the book II of The Republic, he describes meat as a ‘luxury’ leading to an unsustainable and unjust society.

“They will live on barley meal and wheat flour. Kneading and baking these, they will have fine barley cakes or wheat loaves served on reeds or fresh leaves” (372b).

“Obviously they will use salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil the usual country dishes of wild roots and vegetables. And for dessert we can offer them figs and chickpeas and beans; and they will roast myrtle berries and acorns in front of the fire, with a modest amount to drink” “[t]hey can live very well like this – they and their children…living lives which are peaceful and in all probability healthy…handing down the same way of life to their descendants” (372b,d).

Of course, the diet proposed by Socrates is essentially based on ethics, as the main goal of the ideal society is justice.

Socrates: Would this habit of eating animals not require that we slaughter animals that we knew as individuals, and in whose eyes we could gaze and see ourselves reflected, only a few hours before our meal?

Glaucon: This habit would require that of us.

Socrates: Wouldn’t this [knowledge of our role in turning a being into a thing] hinder us in achieving happiness?

Glaucon: It could so hinder us in our quest for happiness.

Socrates: And, if we pursue this way of living, will we not have need to visit the doctor more often?

Glaucon: We would have such need.

Socrates: If we pursue our habit of eating animals, and if our neighbor follows a similar path, will we not have need to go to war against our neighbor to secure greater pasturage, because ours will not be enough to sustain us, and our neighbor will have a similar need to wage war on us for the same reason?

Glaucon: We would be so compelled.

Socrates: Would not these facts prevent us from achieving happiness, and therefore the conditions necessary to the building of a just society, if we pursue a desire to eat animals?

Glaucon: Yes, they would so prevent us.

3. Plutarch – De esu carnium (On the Eating of Flesh)

Plutarch, another great ancient philosopher, describes meat eating as unnatural.

Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man who did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? [De esu carnium, I]

In addition, he explains that if humans really had no other choice due to different weather conditions and shortage of food, this is not the case anymore (quick reminder: we are talking about a philosopher who claimed this 2000 years ago). We live in an age where it’s easiest to have a plant-based diet.

We declare, then, that it is absurd for them to say that the practice of flesh-eating is based on Nature. For that man is not naturally carnivorous is, in the first place, obvious from the structure of his body. A man’s frame is in no way similar to those creatures who were made for flesh-eating: he has no hooked beak or sharp nails or jagged teeth, no strong stomach or warmth of vital fluids able to digest and assimilate a heavy diet of flesh. It is from this very fact, the evenness of our teeth, the smallness of our mouths, the softness of our tongues, our possession of vital fluids too inert to digest meat that Nature disavows our eating of flesh. If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill for yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources, unaided by cleaver or cudgel or any kind of axe. Rather, just as wolves and bears and lions themselves slay what they eat, so you are to fell an ox with your fangs or a boar with your jaws, or tear a lamb or hare in bits. Fall upon it and eat it still living, as animals do. But if you wait for what you eat to be dead, if you have qualms about enjoying the flesh while life is still present, why do you continue, contrary to nature, to eat what possesses life? Even when it is lifeless and dead, however, no one eats the flesh just as it is; men boil it and roast it, altering it by fire and drugs, recasting and diverting and smothering with countless condiments the taste of gore so that the palate may be deceived and accept what is foreign to it. [De esu carnium, I]

4. Federico Garcia Lorca – The Cow

Lorca is one of the best Spanish poets of all time. He expressed his love towards animals and gave voice to the voiceless through his poems.

“The cows, the quick and the dead,

the ripening light or the honey of stables,

bawling with half-opened eyes.

“Cows, dead and alive,

blushing light or honey from the stables,

bellowed with half-closed eyes.

“The dead cows and the living,

redness of light or honey of the stable,

bleated with their eyes ajar.”

5. Isaac Bashevis Singer – Shadows on the Hudson

Nobel laureate in literature, Singer often included vegetarianism in his literary works. As a Jew who escaped the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, he described slaughterhouses as “an eternal Treblinka” for animals. In his book “Shadows on the Hudson”, he shares his thoughts on justice, ethics and animal sacrifice in religion.

“How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood?”

6. Voltaire – Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary)

In his philosophical article named “Viande” (Meat), the French philosopher talks about the noble ability of the humankind to empathize with animals. As a philosopher of the Lumières (literally: Enlighteners, a French philosophical, cultural and intellectual movement fighting against irrationality), Voltaire underlined that human reason and ethics go together.

We feel that we should excite compassion if the same were done to us”

How pitiful, and what poverty of mind, to have said that the animals are machines deprived of understanding and feeling.
Judge (in the same way as you would judge your own) the behaviour of a dog who has lost his master, who has searched for him in the road barking miserably, who has come back to the house restless and anxious, who has run upstairs and down, from room to room, and who has found the beloved master at last in his study, and then shown his joy by barks, bounds and caresses. There are some barbarians who will take this dog, that so greatly excels man in capacity for friendship, who will nail him to a table, and dissect him alive, in order to show you his veins and nerves. And what you then discover in him are all the same organs of sensation that you have in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel? Has he nerves that he may be incapable of suffering?

7. Claude Lévi-Strauss – Nous sommes tous des cannibales (We are all cannibals)

The french anthropologist and sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss imagined a future without the meat industry: “A day will come when the thought that to feed themselves, men of the past raised and massacred living beings and complacently exposed their shredded flesh in displays shall no doubt inspire the same repulsion as that of the travellers of the 16th and 17th century facing cannibal meals of savage American primitives in America, Oceania or Africa“. This was one of the ideas that made him become vegetarian himself. As a sociologist, he links exploitation of animals with human exploitation, as being able to harm an animal may lead to harming people. Interestingly enough, he predicted global health crisis such as today’s pandemic whose cause is supposed to be a bat-to-human infection (result of animal consumption). Other examples are the Nipah virus, caused by human contact with infected pigs or avian influenza, infection found in domestic poultry.

8. Franz Kafka – Letters to Grete Bloch

Rumor has it that the Czech author Franz Kafka once looked at a fish in an aquarium and said, “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.” This thought sums up the serenity one feels after giving up meat. You may call him extreme, but he was brutally honest and realistic in the following quote: “One sits at the table laughing and talking and meanwhile tiny shreds of meat between the teeth produce germs of decay and fermentation, no less than a dead rat squashed between two stones.”
In his letters to Grete Bloch, he recommends the vegetarian diet as a healthy way of living.

9. Leo Tolstoy – Unpalatable Pleasures

One of the greatest Russian novelists, Leo Tolstoy wrote in defense of animal liberation. He became vegetarian after visiting a slaughterhouse himself, which he described in details:

“Even at the entrance one noticed the heavy, disgusting, fetid smell, as of carpenter’s glue, or paint on glue. The nearer we approached, the stronger became the smell. The building is of red brick, very large, with vaults and high chimneys. We entered the gates. To the right was a spacious enclosed yard, three-quarters of an acre in extent—twice a week cattle are driven in here for sale—and adjoining this enclosure was the porter’s lodge. To the left were the chambers, as they are called—i.e., rooms with arched entrances, sloping asphalt floors, and contrivances for moving and hanging up the carcasses. On a bench against the wall of the porter’s lodge were seated half a dozen butchers, in aprons covered with blood, their tucked-up sleeves disclosing their muscular arms also besmeared with blood. […]Through the door opposite the one at which I was standing, a big, red, well-fed ox was led in. Two men were dragging it, and hardly had it entered when I saw a butcher raise a knife above its neck and stab it. The ox, as if all four legs had suddenly given way, fell heavily upon its belly, immediately turned over on one side, and began to work its legs and all its hind-quarters. Another butcher at once threw himself upon the ox from the side opposite to the twitching legs, caught its horns and twisted its head down to the ground, while another butcher cut its throat with a knife. From beneath the head there flowed a stream of blackish-red blood, which a besmeared boy caught in a tin basin. All the time this was going on the ox kept incessantly twitching its head as if trying to get up, and waved its four legs in the air. The basin was quickly filling, but the ox still lived, and, its stomach heaving heavily, both hind and fore legs worked so violently that the butchers held aloof.

He concludes: “We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist. This is especially the case when what we do not wish to see is what we wish to eat. If it were really indispensable, or, if not indispensable, at least in some way useful! But it is quite unnecessary, and only serves to develop animal feelings, to excite desire, and to promote fornication and drunkenness.”

And see, a kind, refined lady will devour the carcasses of these animals with full assurance that she is doing right, at the same time asserting two contradictory propositions:

First, that she is, as her doctor assures her, so delicate that she cannot be sustained by vegetable food alone, and that for her feeble organism flesh is indispensable; and, secondly, that she is so sensitive that she is unable, not only herself to inflict suffering on animals, but even to bear the sight of suffering.

Whereas the poor lady is weak precisely because she has been taught to live upon food unnatural to man; and she cannot avoid causing suffering to animals—for she eats them.

Happy World Vegetarian Day !

On this day, five years ago, I cut meat out of my diet. By some coincidence, today is my birthday and the World Vegetarian Day. Becoming vegetarian was my birthday wish which meant no contribution to animal suffering. I’ve always loved animals and I could never understand the contradiction of having a dog as a friend and a calf on your plate. Why would I get grossed out from seeing footage from the Yulin dog meat festival, but thought that slaughtering a pig was part of life? I realized that the line we draw between the animals we love and the animals we eat is what we are taught from a very young age, so it becomes a habit which is hard to break later in life. I had these reflections for years but what was stopping me from changing my lifestyle were obviously customs, tradition, the fact that meat is the most accessible food, the myth that it’s the most affordable and healthy. Any vegetarian or vegan who managed to ignore all these myths has certainly only one regret: not doing it earlier. The result is better than expected when we have a balanced diet. After a quick nutrition education it is obvious that meat nutrients can be easily replaced. In fact, there is nothing that can go wrong with a plant-based diet. We can only be healthier and happier (and fitter !).
When I started being a vegetarian, I was trying to make it less evident and to keep my views to myself. I even despised activists who would make fools out of themselves by trying to impose their values on others. I stopped eating meat mainly for ethical reasons and none of the arguments I heard against it could ever convince me I was wrong. However, I was always afraid of “imposing” my views on others. Today, I don’t think sharing your thoughts is the same as “imposing”. On the contrary, I believe that sharing ideas and education are the first steps in making the world a better place. Plant-based diet is much more than a simple diet. It’s more ethically and environmentally orientated, as meat production is responsible for the global greenhouse gas emissions as well, contributing to climate change.

Regarding the ethical issue, here’s what the activist Gary Yourofsky says:

“The problem is that humans have victimized animals to such a degree that they are not even considered victims. They are not even considered at all. They are nothing; they don’t count; they don’t matter. They are commodities like TV sets and cell phones. We have actually turned animals into inanimate objects – sandwiches and shoes.”

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.

Paul McCartney

As humans, we are lucky to have a choice, but with choice comes responsibility. We must choose wisely.

This is the best choice I’ve ever made and only now do I truly understand why peace begins on your plate.