Readers around the world are mourning the loss of David Foster Wallace. Hailed by The Boston Globe as “probably the most important novelist of his generation,” Wallace was a writer of seemingly unstoppable imagination whose deft word play and dark wit and, of course, those famous footnotes could leave one dizzy. His 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, topped many “best of” lists, and his brilliant essays—on topics as diverse as pornography and presidential politics—graced publications such as The New Yorker and GQ.
But I will remember David Foster Wallace for his lobsters.
In August 2004, Gourmet magazine published “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace’s nearly 8,000-word dispatch on the Maine Lobster Festival. Rather than focus on the expected—the food or the crowds or even PETA’s obligatory protest—Wallace turned his attention to the lobsters themselves, desperately trying to escape the pot.
“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” he asked.
At the time, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl admitted that she “wasn’t quite prepared” for Wallace’s treatise on “lobstercide.”
But, as usual, Wallace was one step ahead of the rest of us. While the lobster industry would like us to believe that crustaceans are incapable of feeling pain, Wallace soundly debunked that idea. And he reminded readers that “lobsters are maybe even more vulnerable to pain” than are other animals since they lack opioids, mammals’ built-in painkillers.
Animal behaviorists back up Wallace’s observations. When researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast daubed acetic acid on prawns’ antennae, the animals responded by vigorously rubbing and grooming themselves to try to remove the irritant. Dr. Robert Elwood says that his study, which was published in New Scientist late last year, shows that prawns and their crustacean cousins, lobsters and crabs, are sensitive to pain.
To doubters, Professor Elwood offers this thought: There “seem to be a multitude of reasons that stop people wanting to enquire about pain in invertebrates.” Perhaps one of those reasons is the deeply discomforting sound of a lobster’s claws frantically scraping the sides of a boiling kettle.
Jelle Atema, a marine biologist and one of the U.S.’s leading lobster experts, says, “I personally believe they do feel pain.”
And invertebrate zoologist Jaren G. Horsley believes that lobsters who are cut in half or dismembered before cooking—two gruesome but not uncommon preparation methods—are “in a great deal of pain” and remain so until their nervous system is destroyed during cooking.
But you don’t need to be an animal expert to recognize that lobsters suffer when they are cut or plunged into boiling water—you just have to be honest. “[A]fter all the abstract intellection,” wrote Wallace, “there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.”
As news of Wallace’s death spread, his books began to climb Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Several, including Consider the Lobster, the collection of essays that includes the Gourmet piece, quickly went out of stock. Wallace knew that “the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable.” It’s also important—and I hope that readers will honor this gifted and compassionate writer by considering not just lobsters, but all the animals upon whom we casually inflict violence (or pay others to do so for us) for nothing more than the fleeting taste of their flesh.