Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A pig for all seasons By Lewis H. Lapham

[Reprinted from Harper's Magazine, June 1986 Issue]
Toward the end of last month I received an urgent telephone call from a correspondent on the frontiers of the higher technology who said that I had better begin thinking about pigs. Soon, he said, it would be possible to grow a pig replicating the DNA of anybody rich enough to order such a pig, and once the technique was safely in place, I could forget most of what I had learned about the consolations of literature and philosophy. He didn't yet have the details of all the relevant genetic engineering, and he didn't expect custom-tailored pigs to appear in time for the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue, but the new day was dawning a lot sooner than most people supposed, and he wanted to be sure that I was conversant with the latest trends.
At first I didn't appreciate the significance of the news, and I said something polite about the wonders that never cease. With the air of impatience characteristic of him when speaking to the literary sector, my correspondent explained that very private pigs would serve as banks, or stores, for organ transplants. If the owner of a pig had a sudden need for a heart or a kidney, he wouldn't have to buy the item on the spot market. Nor would he have to worry about the availability, location, species, or racial composition of a prospective donor. He merely would bring his own pig to the hospital, and the surgeons would perform the metamorphosis.
"Think of pigs as wine cellars," the correspondent said, "and maybe you will understand their place in the new scheme of things."
He was in a hurry, and he hung up before I had the chance to ask further questions, but after brooding on the matter for some hours I thought that I could grasp at least a few of the preliminary implications. Certainly the manufacture of handmade pigs was consistent with the spirit of an age devoted to the beauty of money. For the kind of people who already own most everything worth owning-for President Reagan's friends in Beverly Hills and the newly minted plutocracy that glitters in the show windows of the national media-what toy or bauble could match the priceless objet d'art of a surrogate self?
My correspondent didn't mention a probable price for a pig made in one's own image, but I'm sure that it wouldn't come cheap. The possession of such a pig obviously would become a status symbol of the first rank, and I expect that the animals sold to the carriage trade would cost at least as much as a Rolls-Royce or beachfront property in Malibu. Anybody wishing to present an affluent countenance to the world would be obliged to buy a pig for every member of the household - for the servants and secretaries as well as for the children. Some people would keep a pig at both their town and country residences, and celebrities as precious as Joan Collins or as nervous as General Alexander Haig might keep herds of twenty to thirty pigs. The larger corporations might offer custom-made pigs-together with the limousines, the stock - options, and the club memberships as another perquisite to secure the loyalty of the executive classes.
Contrary to the common belief, pigs are remarkably clean and orderly animals. They could be trained to behave graciously in the nation's better restaurants, thus accustoming themselves to a taste not only for truffles but also for Dom Perignon and béchamel sauce. If a man needs a new stomach in a hurry, it's helpful if the stomach in transit already knows what's what.
Within a matter of a very few months (i.e., once people began to acquire more respectful attitudes toward pigs), I assume that designers like Galanos and Giorgio Armani would introduce lines of porcine couture. On the East Side of Manhattan, as well as in the finer suburbs, I can imagine gentleman farmers opening schools for pigs. Not a rigorous curriculum, of course, nothing as elaborate as the dressage taught to thoroughbred horses, but a few airs and graces, some tips on good grooming, and a few phrases of rudimentary French.
As pigs became more familiar as companions to the rich and famous, they might begin to attend charity balls and theater benefits. I can envision collections of well-known people posing with their pigs for photographs in the fashion magazines-Katharine Graham and her pig at Nantucket, William Casey and his pig at Palm Beach, Norman Mailer and his pig pondering a metaphor in the writer's study.
Celebrities too busy to attend all the occasions to which they're invited might choose to send their pigs. The substitution could not be construed as an insult, because the pigs-being extraordinarily expensive and well dressed - could be seen as ornamental figures of a stature (and sometimes subtlety of mind) equivalent to that of their patrons. Senators could send their pigs to routine committee meetings, and President Reagan might send one or more of his pigs to state funerals in lieu of Vice President Bush.
People constantly worrying about medical emergencies probably wouldn't want to leave home without their pigs. Individuals suffering only mild degrees of stress might get in the habit of leading their pigs around on leashes, as if they were poodles or Yorkshire terriers. People displaying advanced symptoms of anxiety might choose to sit for hours on a sofa or a park bench, clutching their pigs as if they were the best of all possible teddy bears, content to look upon the world with the beatific smile of people who know they have been saved.
I'm sure the airlines would allow first-class passengers to travel to Europe or California in the company of their pigs, and I like to imagine the sight of the pairs of differently shaped heads when seen from the rear of the cabin.
For people living in Dallas or Los Angeles, it probably wouldn't be too hard to make space for a pig in a backyard or garage; in Long Island and Connecticut, the gentry presumably would keep herds of pigs on their estates, and this would tend to sponsor the revival of the picturesque forms of environmentalism favored by Marie Antoinette and the Sierra Club. The nation's leading architects, among them Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei, could be commissioned to design fanciful pigpens distinguished by postmodem allusions to nineteenth-century barnyards.
But in New York, the keeping of swine would be a more difficult business, and so I expect that the owners of expensive apartments would pay a good deal more attention to the hiring of a swineherd than to the hiring of a doorman or managing agent. Pens could be constructed in the basement, but somebody would have to see to it that the pigs were comfortable, well fed, and safe from disease. The jewelers in town could be relied upon to devise name tags, in gold or lapis lazuli, that would prevent the appalling possibility of mistaken identity. If a resident grandee had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night, and if it so happened that the heart of one of Dan Rather's pigs was placed in the body of Howard Cosell, I'm afraid that even Roy Cohn would be hard pressed to work out an equitable settlement.
With regard to the negative effects of the new technology, I could think of relatively few obvious losses. The dealers in bacon and pork sausage might suffer a decline in sales, and footballs would have to be made of something other than pigskin. The technology couldn't be exported to Moslem countries, and certain unscrupulous butchers trading in specialty meats might have to be restrained from buying up the herds originally collected by celebrities recently deceased. Without strict dietary laws, I can imagine the impresarios of a nouvelle cuisine charging $2,000 for choucroute de Barbara Walters or potted McEnroe.
But mostly I could think only of the benign genius of modem science. Traffic in the cities could be expected to move more gently (in deference to the number of pigs roaming the streets for their afternoon stroll), and I assume that the municipal authorities would provide large meadows for people wishing to romp and play with their pigs.
Best of all, terrorists might learn to seize important pigs as proxy hostages. A crowd of affluent pigs would be a lot easier to manage than the passengers on a cruise ship. If the demands for ransom weren't promptly met, the terrorists could roast the imperialist swine and know that they had eaten the marrow of their enemies and sucked the bones of fortune.

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