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In cannibal narratives, de Certeau's spatializing operation is manifested in a form of circular mapping that moves from Europe to the colonies and back to the West (in its contemporary formulations). Such stories effect a temporal and discursive circle, which discernibly shifts and changes over time, depending on religious movements, social customs, and global expansion. Indeed, as the projectory of cannibalism returns to its originary home in the West, it exemplifies the displacement of cultural boundaries of which de Certeau speaks because the borders between the familiar and the strange are established on constructions of anthropophagy. That is, although flesh-eating incidents were reported in pre-Columbian Europe, cannibalism as a recorded ritualistic practice was "discovered" only in far-flung imperial colonies, particularly those in the Americas, Africa, and the South Seas. In the ensuing pages, I will map this circle, following the patterns of cannibalism from Europe westward to the Americas and then back out from the Americas.
One of the first reported incidents of flesh-eating is embodied in the Cyclops in Homer's Odyssey, who ends his rampage searching for "No One." Frank Lestringant, in Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne, observes that early accounts of "man-eating" often were linked to sexual practices (83),leading one to wonder about the male bonding in Ulysses' travels and to ask just what the Cyclops wanted to eat. However one might choose to read that situation, certainly early flesh-eating incidents were overtly intertwined with sexuality and sexual power. For example, Chaucer, in The Legend of Good Women (VII, 2228), retells the classical tale of Philomela and Procne. This Ovidian story recounts Procne's revenge on her husband, Tereus, who had raped her sister Philomela and cut out her tongue to keep her from relating her ordeal. Philomela weaves the story into a tapestry for Procne, who is so furious over the mutilation of her sister that, in revenge, she kills her son, Itys, and feeds him to his father (Metamorphoses, Book 6).
In the early church, cannibalism found a ritualized home in the practice of transubstantiation (see Lestringant, Kilgour [Communion]). For Roman Catholics, the bread and wine of the mass were transformed into the body and blood of Christ, hence the lines "This is my body, this is my blood." Although the mass illustrates the ways in which aspects of anthropophagy were absorbed into organized religion, transubstantiation was also a "naturalized" miracle, a sanctified fundamental of Christianity, as opposed to an extension of cannibalism, a practice that was projected onto "heathen" others, who lacked the "normalized" forum. (See Kilgour [Communion] for an extended analysis of transubstantiation and cannibalism.) Consequently, when cannibalism per se appears in Christian works, it is posited as a practice of non-Christians, as in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, a play that incorporates a cannibalistic revenge narrative with sexual repercussions. Titus, a victorious Roman soldier, becomes embroiled in political machinations through which his sons are killed and his daughter raped. In the conclusion, Titus invites his enemy, Queen Tamora of the vanquished Goths, to dinner and feeds her her own sons in a pie.
Along a similar trajectory, a seventeenth-century pamphlet recounts the story of Cécile of Dole, who fed her profligate lover her son's liver "so that it might return to the place whence it had its origin" (quoted in Lestringant 82). As Lestringant notes, these examples of early cannibalism (and I use the term anachronistically here) were discerned as retributive, leading to the emergence of one of the first significatory fields of cannibalism: the perception of revenge cannibalism as more "noble" than the simple practice of eating flesh (82–93). Contrasting Cécile's case with that of "the Cannibal of Champagne" (who invited little children to a party, with one guest serving as the party fare), a man who devoured for the sake of devouring, Lestringant notes the differences in the condemned's executions: Cécile was decapitated, whereas the Cannibal of Champagne was burned at the stake:
At once the fire seizes on his bowels, the instrument of his repeated crimes. He then begins to grasp handfuls of burning sticks and throw them over the audience. At last he expires amidst "horrible cries and yells, like a man dying insane." The ogre of Châlon, whose identity was never revealed—does he even have a name?—is abominable through and through. His spectacular and disquieting death-agony exactly resembles that of a man possessed. The criminal remains a danger to the social order up to his last gasp. It is only when his ashes have been scattered to the winds "as the sentence required" that the malefic presence contained within him finally ceases to be active. Indeed, his cannibalistic violence can be neutralized by nothing less than the fire of the stake, which corresponds to, and is absorbed in, the cooking-fire; and by the ash-laden wind which finally dissipates the "horrible and frightful history." (85)
Just as the Cannibal of Champagne and Cécile of Dole offer specific Renaissance examples of flesh-eating, so, in earlier eras, tales of war generated stories of cannibalistic behavior. Seemingly, people were eaten when the Gauls were besieged by Caesar at Alesia and when the historical Titus attacked Jerusalem. But how these incidents were remembered depended on the political situation of the subjects in question; that is, flesh-eating was a stigma attached to Jewish peoples throughout Europe, who were often feared because of their supposed predilection for Christian baby-flesh. Notwithstanding these particular events, however, cannibalism generally is yoked to the so-called Age of Discovery because it was through the "discovery" of the Americas that cannibalism assumed the form of nonnormative ritualistic practices (see Kilgour [Communion] and Lestringant).
Along with gold and precious objects, Columbus's voyage brought back tales of cannibalism from the New World to the Old. Whether or not the Arawaks' descriptions of their cannibalistic enemies, as recorded by Columbus, were located in anything other than fear or self-preservation, flesh-eating rituals were believed to have been practiced in the Americas. In Brazil, the Tupinamba were said to eat their prisoners of war, and another group of "cannibals," living beyond Cape Sã Aghostinho as far as the estuary of the Maranhão, was reported to eat flesh for meat (Lestringant 241). A further discursive split occurs here in yet another distinction of consumption, locating a more discerning taste in one group over another. Comparing the Tupinamba with the Maranhão group, André Thevet, in his 1557 explorer writings, refers back to the first cannibalistic significatory field (wherein revenge was denoted as a more noble reason for cannibalism) and implies that ritualistic cannibalism or isolated incidents of flesh-eating should be deemed more acceptable than the simple consumption of human beings as food (Lestringant 241).
Therefore, where ritualistic cannibalism was perceived as a more civilized practice, indicative of the religious practices of the "savages" (and, not coincidentally, reminiscent of the Catholic Eucharist, thereby exemplifying a projection of Christian parallelism), flesh-eating of any sort was soon to be deplored. With the widespread acceptance of humanism and the consequent breakdown in centralized Western Catholicism, it became more acceptable to condemn any form of flesh-eating without veering too close to heretical condemnations of transubstantiation. Thus, more widespread coverage of cannibalistic episodes was recounted and spread.
Jonathan Swift played on this anthropophagic abhorrence in his infamous "A Modest Proposal," promoting the consumption of flesh for food. Calling for the sale of Irish babies as tasteful delicacies for the rich English, Swift satirically made his point that the plight of the Irish deserved more attention than it had received. This use of cannibalism for political purposes recurred in later periods, but during Swift's own era, the practice of flesh-eating underwent another discursive turn.
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), for example, embodies a shift in perceptions of anthropophagy. The paradigm it offers, indicative of the decline of Roman Catholic thought in England, divorces flesh-eating from its uneasy alliances with transubstantiation. Instead, by positioning cannibalism as a heathen practice, Defoe's novel elides the ways in which flesh-eating, in its transubstantiative form, is one of the very bases of Christian ritual.
In Robinson Crusoe, the title character finds himself shipwrecked on a desert island somewhere "within the circle of the Caribbee-Islands" (62). Believing himself to be alone, Crusoe is surprised when he stumbles upon a campsite, which shocks him on two accounts: because it is proof that he is not isolated and because it endangers his very being. The campsite, with its evidence of cannibalistic activity, horrifies Crusoe: "This was a dreadful sight to me, especially when going down to the shore, I could see the marks of horror which the dismal work they had been about had left behind it, viz. the blood, the bones, and part of the flesh of human bodies, eaten and devoured by those wretches" (188–89). Fearing for his life, Crusoe begins to watch for the natives, and during one of their raids he kills two and captures another, who becomes his "man Friday." The "natural" racial hierarchy between Crusoe and Friday is presented through their responses to the corpses of the fallen natives: "As we went by the place where he had bury'd the two men, he pointed exactly to the place, and shewed me the marks that he had made to find them again, making signs to me that we should dig them up again, and eat them; at this I appeared very angry, expressed my abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the thoughts of it, and beckoned with my hand to him to come away, which he did immediately, with great submission" (209). Crusoe attempts to teach Friday that eating people is wrong, and when the two find another campsite, even more gruesome than the first, the differences between him and Friday are made manifest.
When I came to the place, my very blood ran chill in my veins, and my heart sunk within me, at the horror of the spectacle: indeed it was a dreadful sight, at least it was so to me; though Friday made nothing of it. The place was covered with humane bones, the ground dy'd with their blood, great pieces of flesh left here and there, half eaten, mangled and scorched; and in short, all the tokens of the triumphant feast they had been making there, after a victory over their enemies. I saw three skulls, five hands, and the bones of three or four legs and feet, and abundance of other parts of the bodies. (210)
Friday makes "nothing of it," and the passage ideologically works to establish the innate superiority of Crusoe over the baseness of his "servant."
Crusoe decides to spend his time on the island quelling the cannibals and trying to convert Friday to Christianity: "I began to instruct him in the knowledge of the true God" (218). This knowledge, presumably, is Protestant, excising as it does the practice of transubstantiation. Accordingly, Crusoe teaches Friday that flesh-eating is uncivilized and to be avoided at all costs. The lessons go well, although Friday's predilections for his former lifestyle appall Crusoe. But he perseveres and tries to make of Friday a sort of apostle to send out among the "savages" so that he might "'tell them to live good, tell them to pray God, tell them to eat corn-bread, cattle-flesh, milk, no eat man again'" (226). A new split occurs in Robinson Crusoe, separating good, non-Catholic "Christian behavior" from "heathen" practices and affirming the Christian evangelical practice of conversion (to Protestantism). Or, as Cottom puts it, "It was Defoe's genius to suggest that cannibalism is nothing more or less than society with the middleman cut out: unmediated sociality" (157).
Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, and the novel's fictive accounts and belief systems apparently were substantiated by the travels of Captain James Cook. Cook, who "discovered" the Antipodes, encounters an enactment of cannibalism on his second trip to New Zealand. One of his shipmates, Lt. Charles Clerke, writes in his diary about his own interaction with one of the cannibals: "I ask'd him if he'd eat a peice there directly to which he very chearfully gave his assent. I then cut a peice and carry'd [it] to the fire by his desire and gave it a little broil upon the Grid Iron then deliver'd it to him—he not only eat it but devour'd it most ravenously, and suck'd his fingers a dozen times over in raptures" (Barker et al. 21–22). Not only is the cannibal involved in activities that shock Clerke, but the native's animalistic behavior is apparent in the ways in which he relishes his victuals. By emphasizing the native's bestial inclinations, the account neatly sidesteps how Clerke is involved in this conduct by asking his companion to eat human flesh.
Ironically, Cook himself met with an anthropophagic fate, dismembered and possibly eaten by indigenous Hawaiians in 1779. His death provided further "evidence" of cannibalistic savagery for his Western audience. From a different perspective, Cook's end was also used by Karl Marx to support his contentions about capitalist ideology. As Jerry Phillips argues in "Cannibalism qua Capitalism," Marx demonstrated how "civility and cannibalism were born together in the colonial imaginary, insofar as the former made of the latter its absolute moral antithesis" (192). Phillips builds on Marx's arguments by noting,
Colonial discourse was heavily invested in the spectacle of savage cannibalism because, as Marx pointed out, "civility," and a cultural ethics of negotiating stark human differences, was obliged "to go naked" in the colonies—revealing itself as a "morality" of plunder and murder. To the extent that it encouraged a certain moral violence against the unity of humankind, that is, the hierarchical division of people into races, states, and types ,the discourse of civility gave leave to barbarous trading practices. Once "Man" discovered "the beasts," primitive accumulation could proceed without shame—and indeed it did. We know that the white man's burden made of the subaltern a beast of burden, who laboured, from "sunup to sundown," on plantations, down mines. (193)
Philips's reading of Marx clearly posits cannibalism as a raison d'être for the imperialist impetus. And, indeed, with the rise of imperialism, industrialization, and the increase of capital in the nineteenth century, connotations of cannibalism shift yet again as flesh-eating becomes a means of condemning other cultures and justifying their subordination.
By the mid-nineteenth century, when imperial "discoveries" gave way to colonization, Europeans used incidents of cannibalism to justify the rightness of their behavior in the colonies. Thus, the fascination with cannibalism continued—and escalated. Novels such as H. Rider Haggard's She (1887) fan the ideological flames by drawing much of their impetus from tales of brave white hunters' escape from indigenous peoples. In She, natives engage in sports such as "hot-potting," which involves putting a "red-hot pot upon [the] head" of their chosen victim (79). The narrator, Holly, is shocked by the "cold-blooded" behavior he witnesses and discusses it with a "kind" native: "'Thou seest, my son, here there is a custom that if a stranger comes into this country he may be slain by "the pot", and eaten.' 'It is hospitality turned upside-down,' I answered feebly. 'In our country we entertain a stranger, and give him food to eat. Here ye eat him, and are entertained'" (85). The kind native agrees with the narrator, but for different reasons: "'It is a custom.... Myself I think it is an evil one; but then,' he added by an afterthought, 'I do not like the taste of strangers, especially after they have wandered through the swamps and lived on wild-fowl'" (85).
Excerpted from Our Cannibals, Ourselves by PRISCILLA L. WALTON Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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