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An Altruistic Writer15 February 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
If humans have something in common with chickens it must be having a pecking order. Hierarchy is absolute among chickens. Number one eats first. Put hens too close together and they will peck each other to death. That is why battery hens’ beaks are trimmed.
Two scientists from the Dutch University of Wageningen have managed to breed peaceful chickens. They selected the most delightful specimens to keep their breeding programme going. It succeeded to considerably decrease the number of chicken hooligans.
You would almost want to apply this to human beings. As a matter of fact, we are packed as close together as our feathered friends. When walking through a shopping precinct on Saturdays I occasionally can’t help thinking that if you substituted rats it would be called a pest.
Massive crowds turn me into a misanthrope. When watching a beach in summer I catch myself thinking, well hippos don’t wear bikinis.
Yet you shouldn’t tamper too much with people. Before you know it, you qualify for a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. In Never Let Me Go they breed people for an entirely different reason.
Paul Maynard, the Conservative MP for Blackpool North, suffers from a minor form of cerebral palsy. Recently in an interview with The Times, he reported that during his speech in a debate, members of the opposition pulled faces at him.
You notice the same at school playgrounds. The single redhead isn’t given an easy time. Among chickens this is the order of the day. Only they pull off your head if you look somewhat different.
Put me into a group and I will make sure that I am high up in the pecking order. I excel in this. Even in primary school the strongest boy would fight for me in exchange for friendship.
Yet as soon as I am high up in the pecking order I start hating myself. Every human being harbours aggression. You adhere to being civilised when you direct this towards yourself instead of someone else. This may well be a good definition of civilisation: it is defined by how you deal with your aggression, for example direct it towards yourself or the tea service. Besides I do not bother anyone; I live on my own.
Friends who create a pecking order are reduced to acquaintances. Also love affairs with a hint of a pecking order are doomed to fail.
Actually I had planned to avoid any pecking order for the rest of my life. Yet it is difficult to escape it entirely and certainly not in literature.
The top guy in the Dutch literary pecking order was the recently deceased Harry Mulisch. On the day his fellow writer Boudewijn Büch died, he even managed to declare that Büch hadn’t written a single decent novel. At the death of his colleague Gerard Reve he just stated that his earlier work was quite good. The older Mulisch got, the more he resembled a hen; though he rather identified with a cockerel.
Last week, Martin Amis created some commotion. He said in an interview with Sebastian Faulks, ‘Only if I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.’ Amis also declared that he wasn’t conscious to whom he was directing his writing but he would not start to write below his standard. You think of an appropriate animal; I suggest a gorilla.
In the mean while, the scientists in Wageningen don’t only work on adorable chickens but also on friendly pigs. When nosing is encouraged, pigs seem to thrive. Nosing sounds lovely. I will have to try it. ‘Hello, I am your little pig!’
One PhD student even works on developing ‘an altruistic tilapia’. This is a fish! Well, all we need now is a friendly, altruistic author who writes splendid books and doesn’t peck.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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