Eating people

Claude Rawson

  • Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the ‘Mignonette’ by A.W.B. Simpson
    Chicago, 353 pp, £21.25, July 1984, ISBN 0 226 75942 3

Cannibalism haunts our fictions from Homer to Ovid, from Euripides to Shakespeare, from Defoe to Sade, Flaubert, Melville, Conrad and Genet. It has been a theme in the vocabulary of political and racial imputation, long before and long after Montaigne’s classic essay, and in this sense among others has been a staple of satire in Juvenal, Swift and elsewhere. From Antiquity to the present, historians and ethnographers have written of anthropophagy among distant tribes, or in battle, siege or famine. Survival-cannibalism has a whole literature to itself, in ‘true accounts’, ballads and novels, including a sub-genre on plane-crashes. There are even beginning to be books about the literature of cannibalism. One theme remains largely unexplored, however: that of the ways in which, in a culture which does not on the whole practise cannibalism, we talk and write about those who do, and the reticences and stylisations which this topic has imposed.

We are unremittingly aware of the subject. Of all proscribed acts, it is perhaps the most proscribed. It is fraught with unmentionability, but cannot be left alone. We do not practise it literally, or not very often and not in normal times. It has been absorbed into our culture and our forms of speech mainly as a matter of metaphor: in religious symbolism, for example, and in the language of sexual possession or endearment (‘honey’,‘dish’,‘devouring passion’) or of personal or social exploitation (as when we feed or batten on our victims). There is an ambiguous territory, where the literal and the metaphorical interpenetrate, in the political imputations by which we define the barbarian, the enemy, the alien who threatens to oppress us or whom we seek an excuse for oppressing, as one who eats human flesh.

The primary form of this imputation is that the ‘savage’ of your choice, Scythian, or Irish, or Amerindian, or African, or Polynesian, is cannibal and needs to be shunned, despised, conquered or civilised: a historical geography of the ‘civilised’ world, and a history of imperial conquest, can be charted through a list of the peoples whom Europeans have successively chosen, accurately or otherwise, to call cannibal (the word itself is a corruption of ‘Carib’ Indian). A secondary or reactive variant of the imputation says that it is the tyrant or conqueror whose cruelties are more savage and more cannibal than the cannibals. The primary imputation has almost always been literal, though sometimes untrue. One recent ideologue has indeed claimed that it was probably always untrue, and that ‘the man-eating myth’ has been kept alive by a metaphorical subtext of cultural defamation rather than by the actual occurrence of anthropophagous practice. Certainly the political motive of the imputation is often more important than any literal fact: some imputations have been knowingly false, and it appears that even purportedly cannibal tribes will sometimes resort to it to disparage an enemy. The secondary imputation, which says that it is the oppressors who are the ‘real’ cannibals, is usually metaphorical, as when Montaigne compared the vicious atrocities of the French religious wars with the local and restricted tribal rites of Amerindians, or when a modern psychoanalyst measured Australian aborigines who consume their ailing infants against Nazi war-criminals who organised mass extermination but shrank squeamishly from the thought of eating human flesh. History suggests that the metaphors are not always foolproof, and that literal enactments sometimes lurk behind such ironies: Montaigne’s religious wars included cases of survival-cannibalism under siege, as Montaigne knew – Léry, who wrote a book about Brazilian Indians, had published in 1574 a work describing cannibalism during the siege of Sancerre. And amid all the ironic doubletakes of Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ (an intricate web of both primary and secondary imputations) lie reports of cannibalism by the Irish poor in an earlier famine, including cases of children stolen for food and others eating their dead mother. The spectre of literalness haunts our metaphorical usages, giving them a queer evasive urgency.

Psychoanalysis is a discipline especially permeated with cannibal imagery, and with similar interpenetrations of metaphor and literalness. Some years ago the Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse ran a large special number quaintly entitled Destins du Cannibalisme. It deals with linguistic, anthropological and political aspects as well as with more traditional psychoanalytic themes, and it contains studies of vampirism and oral sexuality, including what a reviewer coyly referred to as the affair of the mother’s breast in the baby’s mouth and ‘cette forme tendre du cannibalisme qu’est la fellation’. There’s an erogenous twilight zone where actual ingestions are readily thought of as cannibal acts, literally enacted. They ‘validate’ on a restricted scale metaphors about sexual hunger or devouring passions, and wooing phrases of the kind Sweeney speaks to Doris:

            Yes I’d eat you!                    
In a nice little, white little, soft little, tender little,
Juicy little, right little, missionary stew.

What for Sweeney is a façon de parler turns in some modern novels – Genet’s Pompes Funèbres, Monique Wittig’s Le Corps Lesbien – into full-scale devourings of the loved one, graphically described. There the erotic metaphors are totally literalised, on an unrestricted scale, though a studied uncertainty exists as to whether the story is offered as the narrator’s fantasies of actual eating or as an account of actual actual eating. This uncertainty principle, as to whether a cannibal act was committed, or if it was, as to whether it was strictly cannibal, is a staple of cannibal storytelling: you find it in various forms in Conrad or Golding, for example, and the mystery which is generated is integral to the effect and not offered for resolution.

Freud’s own usages are almost invariably metaphorical. In the dozen or so places where he refers to cannibalism he is concerned with the oral or pre-genital phase, with aggressive sexuality, with ‘incorporation’ of parental qualities, and with narcissism and homosexuality (the latter, and incest too, are sometimes linked to the cannibal theme through the common factor of prohibition, though psychoanalytic writers like to posit something closer than mere analogy based on guilt or transgression). So far as I know, the only literally cannibal act described by Freud occurs in the accounts of the ‘primal horde’ in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, where the father is slain and eaten by the sons, who want possession of the father’s women and who in eating the father ‘incorporate’ the latter’s qualities. The model is derived from 19th-century anthropology. Its interest for Freud is as a parable of the primitive origins of the Oedipal situation, and as a psychoanalytic explanation of the atavistic rite which consists of absorbing the virtues of a leader or a god by ingestion of parts of his body, and of which the Eucharist was seen by Freud as well as by Frazer as a deliteralised or sublimated variant. Though this fable tells of a literal act, Freud was understandably uneasy over its factual status, on the one hand insisting on the necessary lack of exactitude or certainty of the account, on the other stridently proclaiming its essential soundness against the determination of modern ethnologists to discredit it. But this soundness is inevitably based not on evidence of factual occurrence but on the ‘evidential value’ of the story as told for explaining such ‘historically attested’ phenomena as totemism, male confederacies and the Eucharist. In the first telling in Totem and Taboo, the language of factual narrative – ‘One day the brothers ... killed and devoured their father’ – is immediately qualified in two footnotes by warnings against taking the story too precisely. When Freud returned to the story in Moses and Monotheism he said that although the story was told ‘as though it had happened on a single occasion’, it must in fact have been repeated ‘countless times’ over thousands of years. It is clear that Freud valued it as a model of notional enactment, a ‘hypothesis’ deemed applicable to the relevant moment of each tribal origin, but ultimately of interest to him in its application to the understanding of non-cannibal psyches.

This is unsurprising given the fact that literal acts of cannibalism were unlikely to have been very frequent among Freud’s patients, or his readers. Freud himself rather solemnly declared on at least two occasions that of the three most forbidden instinctive desires, cannibalism, incest and the lust to kill, the first was the only one which seems to have been ‘completely surmounted’ in the civilised world, adding that it could be observed only by the psychoanalyst in its psychic survivals. The survivals presumably include not only totemism and the Eucharist but those phenomena of the oral phase and those processes of identification and incorporation which Freud normally represents in cannibal metaphors rather than as temporal derivatives of primitive man-eating. Freud’s usual relegation of the topic to the relatively safe domain of metaphor is part of a tendency which may be seen in other writers, whether or not for similar reasons. Freudian discussions, so far as I know, do not normally raise the question of whether the use of cannibal metaphors might be implicated in a deep cultural reticence about the literal deed. In Golding’s novel The Inheritors, where anthropophagous acts are supposed to have been committed, the fact is never, I believe, stated in so many words, whereas in Pincher Martin, where cannibal images abound, they are figurative of aggressive sexual or exploitative behaviour of a non-ingestive kind. Cannibal situations occur not infrequently in fictions of what might broadly be called the realist tradition, from Defoe onwards, but, with the exception of the important cannibal episode in Flaubert’s Salammbô, they are hardly ever presented by the normal descriptive methods we associate with that tradition. The circumstantial and psychological particularity which the same author might apply to a murder is seldom extended to cannibal acts, although the menace of murder in ourselves and our society is, as Freud says, more common than that of cannibalism and might be expected to activate stronger signs of stylistic ‘resistance’. From Homer to Conrad, from the macabre comedy of Euripides’s Cyclops to that of Sweeney Todd, the topic has almost always been subjected to ‘de-realising’ stylisations and circumventions of various kinds: an idiom of grisly melodrama or the comic grotesqueries of Grand Guignol, an atmosphere of pregnant hints and averted eyes or the unspecific sensationalism of ‘unspeakable rites.’

This reticence or pudeur is especially surprising in a culture like ours, which nowadays likes to think of itself as more than usually accustomed to the free exposure of secret or unmentionable topics. It extends in a modified form to writers like Genet and Wittig, not known for shrinking from things that dare not speak their name, whose presentation comes over in supercharged or hyperbolic stylisations rather than in unspecific hints, and who withhold any clue as to the circumstantial status of their intensely realised cannibal fantasies. Mailer thinks there are ‘cannibals in all of us’ clamouring to be released while we wrestle for good or ill (Mailer seems to think for ill) to repress them. Like the others, he is coy or slippery when it comes to indicating or proposing enactment. There is a belief, reported in Simpson’s book, that once ‘the taboo ... has been broken’ the eater finds the practice pleasurable and even addictive: Flaubert, who also studied the pathology of starvation from medical textbooks and the literature of shipwreck, describes in Salammbô the quickening of cannibal activity as ‘le goût de cette nourriture’ develops. Whether this implies the release of a primitive urge, or merely relief at overcoming an interdiction that had stood in the way of desperately needed nourishment, need not be and perhaps cannot be determined. The suspicion of the former might be enough to induce a defensive attitude to the subject, given the powerful symbolic status which cannibalism has acquired over the centuries as an indicator of cultural identity. Modern man has mythologised his introspective suspicions of kinship with the tribal primitive to a point where it is hard to tell whether his defences are mainly erected against primary instincts or a secondary fear derived from the supposed kinship.

Freud, who wrote in cannibal metaphors, thought the literal expression of the instinct had been ‘surmounted’ and spoke of this, in The Future of an Illusion, as an example of cultural prohibition successfully internalised. He told Marie Bonaparte that ‘most of us would find it quite impossible’ to eat human flesh, though there are ‘no grounds whatever’ against doing so on any rational calculation of ‘social harm’. In this, cannibalism differs, in his view, from both homicide and incest, which are nevertheless widely practised as cannibalism is not, so that the ‘surmounting’ seems especially complete. It is evidently not so complete as to seem unproblematic. I once cited to a seminar I was teaching at Berkeley his remark that of the three taboos only cannibalism had been eliminated, adding, as an intended local joke, that it was probably true even in the Bay Area that cannibalism occurred less often than incest or homicide. A student replied that she worked in a lawyer’s office and that yes, they had plenty of instances of incest and of homicide, but as to cannibalism, she could remember only a single case.

When I told this story in Los Angeles, I learned that a sex-related cannibal murder case was being tried in the city. It was not unique. Since that time a Japanese student ate his girlfriend in Paris in 1981 – Simpson reports that a novel about the case has just won a Japanese literary prize. The case of a woman killing and cooking her lover in West Germany was tried in February 1984, and police found ‘ten video films with brutal cannibalism scenes’ in her home. (An odd traffic between art and life seems to dog cannibal incidents, as we shall see.) From time to time cases are reported of survival-cannibalism, as in the Andes air-disaster: the common earlier variant of shipwreck cannibalism would have been known to Freud from some of the famous 19th-century cases Simpson cites in his book. Battlefield and wartime cases are not confined to ancient historians. Examples from World War Two are given in Mick Anglo’s Man eats man, and others are reported from more recent conflicts – in Cambodia, for example. The Guardian reported in 1982 that young Argentinian soldiers captured in the Falklands ‘had been convinced that if they were captured they would be eaten’ – a variant of the cannibal imputation previously used by slave-traders to dissuade slaves from escaping to other masters or foreign jurisdictions. In 1978 the Times reported that ‘three tribesmen were convicted of cannibalism in ... Papua New Guinea ... and sentenced to 15 months jail.’

It is, in fact, usually in a legal context that we nowadays learn of these things, except in the special cases of survival and war. Cannibalism seems to be prohibited by law in Papua New Guinea, but not (according to Simpson) in the United Kingdom. I assume that in the recent cases in France, Germany and the United States the legal issue was murder, not the cannibal act, just as it was in England in the case of the Mignonette in 1884. Cannibal events tend to be of a kind which invite legal intervention but are not normally themselves the subject of legal determination. When the case of the Mignonette exploded into legal history, it did indeed create a major legal precedent, but in what the student of cannibal mythologies would perhaps regard as a crypto-metaphorical displacement. Simpson’s study is mainly concerned with the emergence of this case as ‘a central authority on what is called the “defence of necessity” ’: ‘If circumstances make it “necessary” ... to kill ... in order to survive, does the law permit such an act?’ Cannibalism was the sensational feature of the case. But the fact that ‘necessity’ took the form of starvation and could be met only by a cannibal act was purely contingent: any non-cannibal form of ‘necessity’ would legally have been of equal weight or non-weight, and the subsequent ‘authority’ of this legal precedent has presumably been confined to non-cannibal cases.

In July 1884 the sea-going yacht Mignonette sank in the South Atlantic, midway between St Helena and Tristan da Cunha. The captain, Tom Dudley, and a crew of three named Stephens, Brooks and Parker drifted on a dinghy for 1050 miles in 24 days, until they were rescued by the German barque Moctezuma some nine hundred and ninety miles east of Rio de Janeiro on 29 July. At that moment, Dudley was to say, ‘their hearts were in their mouths’: ‘a peculiarly unhappy expression,’ explains Simpson, in one of the fits of commentator’s jokeyness that are a minor irritant of this interesting book, since a few days earlier the three older men had killed Parker, the youngest, and consumed his heart, liver and other parts. Dudley also said the rescue-ship was sighted ‘as we was having our breakfast we will call it’. He was no master of language, and by the time he was making his depositions he was facing murder charges and had (in the one phrase of that kind which Simpson seems not to have used) a lot on his plate. Dudley’s lapses of stylistic decorum are easier to understand than Simpson’s bumptiously nervous jocularities, until one recalls that such jocularities are frequently found in popular ballads about shipwreck cases and even (in an ascending order of stylistic finesse) in the literary ballads of Gilbert and of Thackeray and in Byron’s great orchestration of comedy and pathos in Canto Two of Don Juan. They are part, it might be said, of the cultural embarrassment: a domestication and a coming to terms, often archly elaborate in their wordiness. Perhaps the greatest of all the literary ballads or verse-narratives, Laforgue’s ‘Le Vaisseau Fantôme’, a fiercely laconic adaptation of ‘Il était un petit navire’ to the Ugolino story (to which Byron also jokingly alluded), is anything but wordy, an uncompromising tour de force of macabre wit.

Dudley belonged with the wordier narrators, though his accounts were plainer and on the whole less given to stylised defensive mannerisms than those who wrote about cannibal incidents at a literary remove. It’s what one would expect, though also what writers will tend to say about nautical tale-tellers, like Gulliver on his own ‘plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style’. Melville writes in Moby-Dick of Owen Chase’s ‘plain and faithful narrative’ of the wreck of the Essex in 1820, one of Simpson’s subsidiary examples and a source both of Moby-Dick and of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Poe’s novella, published in 1837, tells a story with remarkable similarities to that of the Mignonette, down to the fact that its cannibal victim bore the same name as the Richard Parker of the real-life story. Simpson says the coincidences were noted at the time of the trial, and it is also said (I do not know how reliably) that Dudley happened to read Poe’s story during the voyage and might have regarded the name of the victim as an activating omen. Poe’s account of the cannibal act, unlike Dudley’s, belonged to the reticent type. After some prolonged skirmishing with the rhetoric of unspeakability (‘last horrible extremity’, ‘words have no power’), the event is dispatched, like the rape of Clarissa, in a single sentence. This dramatic economy was not emulated by Dudley, though if he was both wordier and plainer, it was probably not in total innocence of literary precedent: whether or not he read Poe, he cannot have escaped some dim intertextual influences from the demotic balladry and other maritime folklore which attached to his theme. He certainly indulged from the start in a self-conscious connoisseurship of the whole experience, with a penchant for collecting mementoes.

By most standards, however, Dudley told the facts ‘plainly’ and neither his German rescuers nor the people at Falmouth seem to have reacted with special astonishment or horror. At Falmouth he went ‘beyond mere frankness’ and volunteered a long detailed account, whether he was exhilarated into garrulity by the euphoria of rescue, or secure in his and his audience’s sense of the commonness of the event. Survival-cannibalism at sea was accepted as normal in maritime communities, a normality which the ballads and other ‘literary’ treatments reflected more by their frequency than in their style. ‘Normality’ was inevitably complicated by unease, and Dudley’s clear sense of guiltlessness may have made him insensitive to this essential complication. There is irony in the possibility that it was his unusually frank and open particularity which brought about the entire unhappy circumstance of the trial. Simpson offers plenty of evidence of previous cases, widely reported, written about, converted into ballads, where the normality was taken for granted and no action was taken. This almost happened in this case too, and was what Dudley expected. He and his mates ‘were quite astonished at being arrested’, and indeed official attitudes to the matter were divided. The assumption of normality now merged, on a wider national stage, with a sense of high drama, and the case eventually became the subject of a sensational trial. The law wished to establish that the murder should not be condoned, and the prosecution had ambitions to establish a ‘leading case’. But the prosecution, as well as the maritime community, sympathised with the cruel ‘necessity’ which had caused the cannibal acts. It established that this ‘necessity’ could not justify the murder, and a death sentence was therefore mandatory, with the expectation of a royal pardon, or commutation to a short prison-term (as in fact happened), once the legal point had been made.

Although the law’s interest was in the murder and not the cannibalism, it is clear that in popular sentiment, and in at least one of the ballads written about the case, the opposite emphasis prevailed. In fiction, where the human mind has freedoms sometimes denied by the scenarios of legal procedure, this opposite emphasis has sometimes been even more marked. In Conrad’s Falk, written 17 years after the Mignonette case, the hero kills a man at sea in self-defence, and subsequently eats the corpse in order to save himself from starvation. Legally as well as morally, Falk’s crime if any was in the killing – though self-defence, unlike ‘necessity’, might have been a viable plea. Once the victim was dead, as Jocelyn Baines says, ‘it would have been foolish for starving men not to eat him.’ But the mysterious thrill and the brooding Byronic glamour surrounding Falk’s guilty secret are focused on the eating, not the killing. Simpson’s book is in its own way caught up in this split perspective, just as its style is caught up in some of the jumpy mannerisms which seem to go with the theme. As an academic lawyer and legal historian, he is interested in the legal implications of the Mignonette case, and his account, though ‘not intended as a law book’, is at its best in its narrative of the legal process and its significance as a ‘leading case’. But he is fascinated by ‘the strange world of survival cannibalism and its conflict with Victorian parlour morality’, and this leads him into an unco-ordinated and often flounderingly anecdotal exploration of other cannibal cases, maritime and non-maritime, pertinent and impertinent, which frequently overwhelms the discourse. He also announces himself as ‘an avid maritime buff’, and readers whose stomachs are strong enough to cope with his cannibal matter may yet find their digestion unequal to his unrelenting barrages of yachtsmanship. But he still has a lot to tell us, and has written one of the few non-anthropological books on the subject which are worth reading.