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.

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