Beastars, the Addictions of the Flesh, and Cruciform Asceticism

By David Armstrong

Caveat Lector: Spoilers follow for Netflix’s Beastars.

Beastars is objectively a little ridiculous. The first season follows Legoshi, a wolf living in a society of anthropoid animals tenuously held together across the division between herbivores and carnivores, the latter of whom struggle and periodically refuse to contain their violent and flesh-eating instincts. Legoshi’s school, Cherryton High, has had a recent tragedy: Tem, an alpaca in Legoshi’s Drama Club, has recently been devoured by an unknown carnivore. Legoshi, who struggles with his strength and awkwardness around herbivores, comes into contact and falls in love with a white dwarf rabbit, Hal, as he works through his desires both to protect and consume her. With the help of Rouis, a male deer and lead actor in the Drama Club, Legoshi saves Hal from consumption by the leader of the Shishi-Gumi, a Yakuza-like organization of lions who operate in the Black Market, where carnivores can find illegal access to herbivore meat. In the second season, Legoshi is tasked with discovering Tem’s killer and works to overcome his desire for meat. Upon discovering that the killer is Riz, a giant brown bear in the Drama Club, Legoshi also trains to develop the strength to defeat him, avenging Tem and protecting the other herbivores in the school. In the final showdown, Rouis offers some of his flesh to Legoshi to empower him to defeat Riz. The sacrificial friendship of Legoshi and Rouis causes Riz to realize the error of his actions, as he sees that Legoshi’s consumption of Rouis’ volunteered foot does not affect his Zen disposition of detachment from meat. Legoshi’s respectful meat-consumption, in fact, helps him to understand and forgive Riz’s weaknesses.

The melodrama of a high school anime in the mouths of animal characters agonizing about eating or being eaten can be a touch silly at first. But as I watched this series, I was struck by the fact that this show reflects on carnality in a way only enabled by this sort of medium. It would be absurd to watch a live-action version of this series, based on the award-winning manga by Paru Itagaki, and Western animation would not capture the distinctive sense of realism and melancholy that are the special genius of much Japanese animated storytelling, even when the genre is fantasy or science fiction. The conceit of the show—talking animals who have to honestly face their animality and the lingering predation which hangs over their interactions—was hinted at by C.S. Lewis at different points in the Narnia, as he had to periodically clarify the distinctions in dignity between Talking and Dumb Beasts, but it is here treated in a very adult key. How can wolves and rabbits be friends or lovers, when one is hardwired to kill and eat the other? And how can one pursue true justice when one’s own flesh rebels against one’s ideals? How can Legoshi be “one of the good” carnivores?

I can think of at least two broad ways to read the show’s chosen symbolic language. The first would be that the show is an extended argument for vegetarianism, which should certainly be the ideal of anyone interested in living a spiritual life. It is the obvious expectation of the spiritual elite in most religious traditions: perhaps surprising for contemporary Christians in the West, it has historically been the expectation of Christian monastics, adopting the “angelic life,” that they abstain from the consumption of flesh to imitate the life of Adam and Eve in Paradise. And even if this does not interest us, the utterly inhumane and unethical way most meat-animals are raised, sold, slaughtered, and prepared by the contemporary farming industry should shame us into minimally eating less meat when we can and maximally abandoning it altogether. I principally judge myself here, since adopting a meatless life has for many years been an aspiration of mine about which I have done relatively little to nothing. Mea maxima culpa.

Another, more humanistic way to read the show, however, would be to see predation as a metaphor for social oppression. In our context, Legoshi’s struggles to understand what to do with the privileged strength of his carnivorous nature feel familiar, as historically victimized and oppressed people groups become more and more vocal about the way that privileged power have exploited, abused, indeed, consumed them. “How does one be a good carnivore?” sounds not dissimilar to “How does one be a good man?” or “How does one be a good white person?”, questions that should naturally arise for men or for white people who engage in deep listening to women and people of color on the ways that patriarchy and white power have harmed them. They can be difficult questions to answer, since one potential response is that there is in fact no such possibility. This nihilistic assessment can come from either place: cultural critics who suggest there might be something intrinsically wrong with maleness or with whiteness are in that sense echoing what many already feel to be true of themselves, that they are irredeemably trapped by the sins of their ancestors inscribed in their flesh, for which they can offer no sufficiently meaningful repentance. And often, victims of oppression are rightly intolerant of the notion that they have any responsibility to comfort their oppressors or those silently complicit with them: surely the charmed lives of the privileged, carnivorous few can minimally handle the existential angst which their systemically protected inequality generates without relying on the oppressed many to relieve them. From that vantage, the vast literature providing pointers on what it means for the socially privileged to be allies in causes for liberation, like, say, feminism or Black Lives Matter or return of land to indigenous peoples or what have you, is a deep mercy, extending a chance at redemption beyond what is due to those who have benefited all their lives from systems of oppression. Yet, to a great degree, it is precisely the retraction and diminution of the ego that is required of those who would so repent: it is letting go the very desire to be seen as heroic, to be exempted the prophetic stigma against those wider categories of corporate belonging, that proves true commitment to the cause of liberation. Part of the way to be a “good carnivore” is to accept that as a carnivore, there is an earned social distrust for carnivores that our behavior alone will not absolve; so too with our privileges.

Privileged Christians have a special task of trying to discern those resources in the Tradition for making this act of cultural repentance. It seems to me that Beastars helpfully gestures towards the very phenomenology and ontology of flesh as among the most compelling. For the Christian Tradition, it is clear that sarx or caro, “flesh,” is in diametrical opposition to pneuma or spiritus, “spirit.” “That which is born of flesh is flesh,” says John’s Jesus, “and that which is born of spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6); the Johannine Logos has “become flesh” (Jn 1:14) precisely to enable flesh to become spirit. The flesh and its fruits are utterly opposed to the pneumatic life of the baptized, such that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions (pathemasin) and its cravings (epithumiais)” (Gal 5:19-24). Generations of Western exegetes, stretching all the way back to late antiquity, have attempted to make the argument that by “flesh” Paul means something like “sinful nature” or a social construct of life in the world that one must abandon. Certainly, Pauline flesh is sinful, and it is socially constructed in a variety of ways that become obsolete through baptism: and yet “flesh” is no metaphor for Paul, but the description of a certain kind of present corporeality that he believes is transcended at the resurrection, since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:35-50).[1]

The pathe or “passions” of the flesh, its unique sufferings, are the roots of its epithumiai, its cravings or desires for food, sex, and domination—in other words, the possession and use of other flesh for the maintenance of our own.[2] For ancient and medieval people, these were not incidental aspects of flesh but essential to sarkic existence, fundamental features of the way that flesh exists in its conditioning by generation, vulnerability, and decay in the terrestrial world. The kinds of bodies that gods and angels and other cosmic beings have are not quite so passible and addicted as our own because they enjoy corporealities that are not so fragile as these frames of ours. For Paul, flesh is the source of sin, individually and corporately, spontaneously and systematically, because it exists as this principle of need, hunger, and frustration. Sarkic mortality, the fear that it breeds—these are the things that not only generate our predatory instincts towards one another and towards the animal world, but they are the things that define our mentalities around kinship, ethnicity, and enmity for the other. The spiritualized body of the resurrected Christ, of baptized, communing, and eschatologically deified Christians, has left behind this mode of existence: Christians are no longer defined by sarkic divisions of ethnic Judaism or Hellenism, of slavery or freedom, of masculinity and femininity, but by Christ into whom we have been baptized and whom we have put on (Gal 3:28). Insofar as Christ has become a “life-creating pneuma” (1 Cor 15:45), and we hope to bear his image (15:49), it is incumbent upon us to put aside the soiled garment of the flesh and to don the radiant garment of the pneumatic Christ: monastics through renunciation, cosmics or seculars through ascetically moderated embrace. The eucharist, as the gift of Christ’s pneumatic body or flesh to us, models and enables the cruciform way we may overcome the flesh, by offering it in sacrificial thanksgiving to be eaten, as metaphorical (or, in Beastars, literal) food for the life of the world. Just as Christ conquers death by death, so, too, he conquers flesh by flesh.

If this all sounds kind of gnostic, it is, but it is gnostic in an orthodox rather than a heterodox fashion.[3] The early churches rejected the harsh ditheism of Marcion, Valentinos, and Basilides as out of bounds for their beliefs or those of their students that there were two Gods, the Creator of the world and the Father of Jesus Christ, and that the former was an ontologically and morally inferior, possibly evil demiurge of the material universe, a prisonhouse for true pneumatics. The Symbol’s belief in “one God the Father Pantokrator, Creator of heaven and earth” is a rejection of this theology as a misreading of Scripture. But the Greek Fathers especially, from Origen through to St. Maximos the Confessor, nevertheless agree with the gnostics that the corporeal world as we presently experience it is fallen, and that in its redeemed state matter will not conceal the divine, spiritual glory of God. For them, Christ’s incarnation and ascension has opened our pathway back to the true kosmos of God’s creation, of which this fallen universe is an economic shadow.

Beastars might remind us that to respect, defend, and uphold the dignity of all life is always going to require mortification of the flesh, which is evolutionarily cultured for predation of other flesh. In a culture that is having as many flesh addictions—both to animal meat as well as to the exploitation of vulnerable people in the interests of the wealthy and the powerful—as ours is, all the Christian Tradition can prescribe by way of medical treatment is asceticism—that is, the way of the cross.

David Armstrong writes regularly at A Perennial Digression, which also has an attached YouTube channel.  

Notes


[1] On all of this, see David Bentley Hart, “The Spiritual Was More Substantial than the Material for the Ancients” (https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/). See also my own article on the Pauline Eucharist, “Paul Was Not A Zwinglian”  (https://perennialdigression.substack.com/p/paul-was-not-a-zwinglian).

[2] See Paul Griffiths, Christian Flesh (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[3] See my article, “Should Men Exist?” (https://perennialdigression.substack.com/p/should-men-exist).

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