Drooling, in the little TER that takes me to Sète station, I think of the octopus feast that awaits me. In this Hérault fishing town, dear to Georges Brassens and Agnès Varda, people worship the “pouffre” (the name of the cephalopod in Occitan) – to the point of having erected it as a statue on the large square facing the city hall. This afternoon, I will probably bite into the octopus meatballs at the Fritto restaurant, where Marilou Fassanaro serves them (crispy as you wish) to dip in a squid ink mayonnaise. Tomorrow morning, I’ll get up early to go and buy some of those fresh rock octopus tentacles (to be grilled on the plancha with a good parsley, I’ve been told) that are sold on the stalls. from the De Ranteau fish market, in the central Halles. Later, going up to the Théâtre de la Mer, I will stop at Paradiso or La Cettoise to stock up on perfectly golden tielles – these famous local pies, topped with octopus and a slightly spicy tomato sauce. Well settled in the shade of the mole, opposite the marina, I will finally carefully take them out of their cardboard box; before sliding them, as is customary here, with a chilled glass of picpoul-de-pinet from the Thau lake. Only then will I take a moment to collect myself in memory of all the octopuses I have devoured.
It may seem a little strange, worded like that, but since I saw La Sagesse de la octopus (“My Octopus Teacher”, in VO), it is clear that I no longer look at octopuses in the same way. . In this documentary series, broadcast on Netflix and awarded at the Oscars in 2021, we start by following the sea trips of Craig Foster, a filmmaker in the Cape Peninsula, in South Africa. During his excursions in the seabed, the snorkeler meets a young octopus, well hidden in his den, but intrigued by the repeated visits of this artificially webbed human being.
After a few days, the animal finally lowers its guard, comes out of its hiding place and begins to establish a first contact. Between the two entities is then established a daily dialogue, both poetic and disturbing, made of games, attentions and hands (or suction cups) stretched out towards each other. For a few moments, it seems that octopus and man speak the same language: that of affects and feelings. At the sight of these images, taken by the emotion, I could not help but see the tentacled creature from another angle. A question continues to haunt me: if we manage to communicate with the octopus, and recognize ourselves in its behavior, can we consider it as one of our fellows?
In fact, many studies of ethology (the science that focuses on animal behavior) have highlighted the different cognitive abilities developed by octopuses. We all have in mind this experience in which an octopus miraculously manages to unscrew the cap of a jar to seize prey. In a May 2021 article on The Conversation titled “The Fascinating Intelligence of Octopuses”, neuroethology doctoral student Lisa Poncet sets out to highlight the many other intelligence traits observed in octopuses in aquarium. Cephalopods excel in discriminative learning (“when faced with two objects, they learn to attack an object in exchange for a reward, based on its characteristics, such as hue, shape, texture, or taste”), in conditional discrimination (“they can modify their choice depending on the context”) – and, more disturbingly, octopuses are able to learn and memorize knowledge by observing their conspecifics…
Reading this last piece of information, my pulse quickened. Like a convict climbing the scaffold, is it possible that the octopuses will see their lives slip away the moment we finish them off? I eat beef, pork and poultry meat without batting an eyelid. I never faint at the sight of a sea bream, a beautiful sole or a platter of shellfish. In general, I care about animal welfare and its breeding and slaughtering conditions, but for the first time, when I was about to bite into the suction cups and the flesh of an octopus, I I felt remorse.
Where did this strange feeling of eating a similar thing come from, which was almost cannibalistic guilt? I decided to ask the question to Olivier Assouly, author of Who is the meat?, a book to be published at the end of August by Pocket (192 pages, 8.75 euros). “When you eat meat, you’re not just eating a product – an anonymous thing – but something that refers to a living thing that, in some cases, you can identify with,” the professor explains to me. of philosophy. With the octopus, the difference that we established until then and which gave us a right over this animal – namely that we are endowed with intelligence when it is not – cancels out in a certain way. This makes the very possibility of eating it more problematic, because basically eating an intelligent being is eating a bit of a man. »
As I leave the phone conversation, I think back to that terrifying scene from Park Chan-wook’s film Old Boy (2004) in which the tortured hero, Oh Dae-su, passes out after trying to devour an octopus alive. The camera lingers on the lifeless body of the man lying on the restaurant counter, as the animal’s tentacles, driven by a vengeful and triumphant instinct for survival, continue to squirm at the bottom of the plate. . And there, suddenly, on the port of Sète with my little white wine, the share of tielle that I hold in my hands appears to me in a very different light.