From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation

From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation

by Maggie Kilgour


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From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation by Maggie Kilgour

Focusing on such metaphors as communion and cannibalism in a wide range of Western literary works, Maggie Kilgour examines the opposition between outside and inside and the strategies of incorporation by which it is transcended. This opposition is basic to literature in that it underlies other polarities such as those between form and content, the literal and metaphorical, source and model. Kilgour demonstrates the usefulness of incorporation as a subsuming metaphor that describes the construction and then the dissolution of opposites or separate identities in a text: the distinction between outside and inside, essentially that of eater and eaten, is both absolute and unreciprocal and yet fades in the process of ingestion--as suggested in the saying "you are what you eat."Kilgour explores here a fable of identity central to Western thought that represents duality as the result of a fall from a primal symbiotic unity to which men have longed to return. However, while incorporation can be desired as the end of alienation, it can also be feared as a form of regression through which individual identity is lost. Beginning with the works of Homer, Ovid, Augustine, and Dante, Kilgour traces the ambivalent attitude toward incorporation throughout Western literature. She examines the Eucharist as a model for internalization in Renaissance texts, addresses the incorporation of past material in the nineteenth century, and concludes with a discussion of the role of incorporation in cultural theory today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691608556
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 322
Sales rank: 1,026,669
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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From Communion to Cannibalism

An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation

By Maggie Kilgour


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06792-6


Classical Incremental Visions


In his discussion of the nostalgia for a lost pastoral ideal that underlies the antithesis between the rural and the urban in The Country and the City, Raymond Williams notes how such an ideal is infinitely regressive, projected backward in time by each generation to an immediately preceding time, which it glimpsed briefly in childhood. The Golden Age of harmony between man and nature, the "good old days," has always just turned into an Iron Age with the present generation's passage into adulthood. As Williams notes, although each "fall" involves the perception of some real change — the most significant of which being the industrial revolution that totally metamorphosed the relations between man and nature — it is obvious that the Golden Age is to a certain extent the projection of an adult's fantasy of an idealized childhood. Such Golden Ages typically appear as worlds of plenitude, in which all appetites are satisfied by a generous nature that voluntarily offers itself to man, and in which there is no private property or sense of divisions at all. These are states of total identity and harmony between subject and object, man and nature, microcosm and macrocosm, inside and outside, comparable also to Freud's oral phase and Lacan's Imaginary. It is the discovery that such a world is imaginary, that there are boundary lines around private property and around the even more private territory of the individual, lines that divide him from the world outside and introduce the possibility for an antagonistic relation with this external surrounding environment, that constitutes the fall.

Attempts, whether religious, anthropological, or psychoanalytical, to locate a stage of unfallen existence assume that if one could go back in time far enough one would come at last to a truly unfallen world. Traditionally, early Greek culture has been described in terms that recall the depictions of the Golden Age: "In Greek classical society man is at home in the universe, moving within a rounded, complete world of immanent meaning which is adequate to his soul's demand." The early Greek is represented as inhabiting a world dominated by mythic thinking, in which life "is felt as an unbroken continuous whole which does not admit of any clean-cut and trenchant distinctions. The limits between the different spheres are not insurmountable barriers; they are fluent and fluctuating. There is no specific difference between the various realms of life. Nothing has a definite, invariable, static shape. By a sudden metamorphosis everything may be turned into everything." Reconstructions of the Homeric universe, in particular, imagine it as this world of correspondence between inside microcosm and outside macrocosm, a harmony between man, nature, and the gods. It is described as a world in which the individual is not divided, as body and mind are not yet seen as distinct. But neither is the individual individuated, for the self is seen merely as an aggregate of faculties, and there is no sense of it constituting a unified structure separated from the world outside of itself. The identity of Homer is undeterminable and ultimately irrelevant because he has no identity in the way we conceive it. As Eric A. Havelock has shown, Homer is a product of an oral culture, in which the individual is entirely submerged in a tradition from which he is unable to separate himself. It is a culture that can be described as oral in a number of senses, based as it is on a kinship model that has at its center the sharing of food around a hearth that unites host and guest. It is furthermore described as a gift culture, in which the primary form of exchange is seen as the voluntary bestowing and receiving of gifts.

As both Marcel Mauss and Lewis Hyde have suggested, gift-giving may provide a model for relations that can offer an alternative to the economic, market-oriented paradigm that later becomes the standard in the Western world. But in terms of early Greek social arrangements, the notion of the gift in fact covered a variety of relations that we would consider as precisely trade, and even bribery. Gift-giving could be read as a benign cover for real hostility, just as the ancient emphasis upon hospitality can be seen as a way of controlling an intense ambivalence toward the stranger or outsider who enters a host's home.

Moreover, out of this background emerges the figure of Odysseus, who from the very beginning appears as a problematic hero. Within a tradition that values consistency and "the elimination of contradictions" appears a totally contradictory hero, grandson of the shape-shifting Autolykos, himself a thief and a liar, who "knew how to say many false things that were like true sayings" (19.203). Odysseus's use of lies and disguises depends on a division between an outward sign and its internal referent, and between his own outer metamorphosing appearance and a stable inner identity. As a brilliant storyteller, he will become, as he does in Ovid, a figure for the poet; but by Virgil and Dante he will be mistrusted for some of the same reasons that Plato and his followers mistrust all arts in which appearance and essence are not identical. Within the mythic harmony usually associated with the Homeric universe, Odysseus suggests the presence already of a difference, a gap between inside and outside, which anticipates the writings of Plato.

The story of Odysseus is one of return and constitutes "the fundamental quest romance" that retells the story of loss and the restoration of unity with which I began. To return is to come home, to be no longer a foreigner, a guest eating at another's hearth, but to be the true host once more. For Odysseus, to quest is to be not only an outsider but literally to be hungry. The Odyssey shows one form of appetite, the hunger for home, that is often threatened by its more literal model, as the hero's return is delayed by a series of banquets. As Fielding pointed out, it is a great "eating poem," whose hero "seems to have the best stomach of all the heroes." Reflecting the significance of feasting and gift-giving in ancient Greek culture, the primary relation in the poem is that of host and guest. But it is already an ambivalent relation. As Peisistratos explains, "a guest remembers all his days the man who received him / as a host receives a guest, and gave him the gifts of friendship" (15.54–55). Zeus is "the guest god" who, repairing the sins of his father, is associated with law and order and taboos against cannibalism. His law is hospitality and he avenges wrongs against guests (9.270–71). But because this is a world where gods can still consort with men there is a further pressing need to be kind to strangers:

For the gods do take on all sorts of transformations, appearing as strangers from elsewhere, and thus they range at large through the cities, watching to see which men keep the laws, and which are violent.


One needs to be careful, for one doesn't always know who one's guest is until it's too late.

Furthermore, behind the story of Odysseus's return lurks that of Agamemnon, who found his home and wife invaded by a treacherous guest. The feast in celebration of his return is the scene of his murder. As eating is the time when the body is most vulnerable to influences from abroad, so banquets can be suspicious occasions, especially for the members of the house of Atreus, who can never be totally sure what — or who — is for dinner. Agamemnon's murder is the perpetuation of the intestine war within his family. His death is avenged by his son, Orestes, who is presented as a possible model for Odysseus's son, Telemachos, to follow. For while Odysseus has been away, his home has been invaded by tricky guests who, though not feeding on him literally, are, as Homer repeatedly puts it, eating up his "substance." The aim of his quest is not only to come home, but to come home properly: to remove the guests who have appropriated his place and recover his property that marks his true identity as host.

Penelope claims that Odysseus was the best and most generous of hosts (19.314–16); she also tells the disguised Odysseus that he is the best and most thoughtful of guests (19.350–53). While he incorporates and so potentially reconciles both terms of relation, it is as a guest, an alien and outsider, that we see both him and Telemachos most frequently throughout the poem. Telemachos leaves home to seek his father and is received with elaborate hospitality and gift-giving by Nestor and Menelaos. Odysseus encounters a benign host in Alkinoos, but his account of his travels is of a series of dangerous and potentially fatal receptions. He appears first in the narrative as the captive of the infatuated Calypso. As Menelaos remarks (15.69–71), excessive friendship can be as dangerous as intense hatred in a host, and love as much as hate creates the obstacles blocking Odysseus's return. Hospitable alien territory is still alien, and therefore threatening. Circe turns men into pigs, "to make them forgetful of their own country" (10.236), and those who succumb to the temptations of the lotus-eaters "forget the way home" (9.97). In foreign lands it appears to be extremely dangerous to eat indigenous substances: the men who eat the oxen of Helios are appropriately punished when "the god took away their homecoming" (12.419).

This is the worst fate imaginable to a Greek of Homer's time: to be an alien, a barbaros in exile forever. To eat in a country is potentially to be eaten by it, to enter into a false identification by being absorbed by a foreign culture — what we call "going native"— and so be prevented from returning to a place of origin in which one is truly at home. The opposite of returning to one's own hearth is ultimately to be subsumed totally by a hostile host. The episodes of the lotus-eaters and Circe, hosts who offer dangerous substances that once taken in take over, serve as frames for the two encounters with the most threatening hosts of all: the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops Polyphemos.

Homer's description of the land of the Cyclops reveals the ambivalence inherent in Greek descriptions of the Golden Age that I have already mentioned. Like the Golden Age in its typical depictions, the world of the Cyclops is without labor, law, or any social organization, for, "each one is the law / for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others" (9.114–15). Like Hobbes's state of nature, this presocial order consists of isolated individuals who relate to others outside their private kinship system by cannibalism. According to Aristotle, a man who lives outside of society, and so who appears to be totally self-sufficient, must be either a god or a beast. The Cyclops suggest the ambivalence toward both extremes, which are identified as "outside" the order of the body politic. Polyphemos appears primarily as subhuman, "a monster of a man," and even as nature incarnate, for he is "not like a man, an eater of bread, but more like a wooded / peak of the high mountains seen standing away from the others" (9.190–91). But the figure of the "man-mountain," to which I shall return in relation to Ben Jonson, is also a version of the primal man whose body contained the whole world, suggesting that from a human perspective the superhuman is difficult to distinguish from the subhuman.

Furthermore, Polyphemos is also a grotesque literalization of Odysseus's own appetite, his hunger for home, which has been inflated into a monstrous form that is almost entirely all mouth and eye: a huge gaping hole eager to take everything into itself. In order to resist absorption, which would result in total identification with this image of appetite incarnate, Odysseus has to negate himself temporarily, reducing himself to "Nobody." This capacity for nominal self-annihilation ensures the perpetuation of "Odysseus," and it is dependent on his ability to divide himself, to separate essence from appearances, a true identity from the various embodiments it undergoes, in order to keep the inside true self intact and uncontaminated by external influences. Throughout his travels Odysseus is able to play the part of a shapeshifter because of his assumption that underneath the different personae is a true, unchanging, proper, or literal identity to which he will be restored on his return home.

Part of this division involves the separation of his quest from its material bodily base, appetite, which begins with the encounter with Polyphemos. Furthermore, before revealing his true identity, Odysseus appears in Ithaka in a parodic form of himself, as a beggar seeking food. In this shape, he appears to reduce his own quest to its lowest level, turning it into a form of human appetite that becomes the essential motive for all human action. He tells Eumaios:

there is no suppressing the ravenous belly, a cursed thing, which bestows many evils on men, seeing that even for its sake the strong-built ships are handled across the barren great sea, bringing misfortune to enemies.


As Odysseus is ironically demonstrating, the voyager is no different from the beggar because all motives are ultimately appetitive. According to Eumaios, hunger is the source of lies (14.123–25), as the belly is the origin of both deceit and poetic fictions. To quest is simply and literally to be hungry and to beg food from hosts, often through the telling of stories.

In order to regain his proper identity, however, Odysseus has to separate himself from this materialistic definition. The fake beggar fights a real beggar, Iros, who is described as all appetite, an empty hulk who is the humanized form of Polyphemos and so also Odysseus's projected double and rival. Odysseus pretends to fight solely because "my villainous / belly drives me to do it" (18.53–54). By winning he detaches himself from his lower appetitive form. The loser is eaten, thrown to a cannibal king, for by the laws of poetic justice the punishment for greed fits the crime.

There remain still Odysseus's rivals for his wife as well as substance to dispose of. For the suitors too the final feast, which should mark the end of Odysseus's quest, involves an unexpected sacrifice, when the alien in their midst suddenly reveals himself to be their host and presents them with the guest-gift of death. The host comes home, exterminates the parasites, repossesses his wife and property, and regains his true identity.

However, as a means of resolution and restoration of original identity, the narrative of return is incomplete, for the code of revenge necessitates retaliation on the part of the suitors' families. While Athene intervenes and persuades Zeus to make peace, we know from Tiresias's prophecy that Odysseus will have to make a second voyage to expiate his crime (11.121–25). Even if you get home and the coast is clear, you may not be able to stay there. No one is ever just a host; no one, not even the man who is "Nobody," can avoid being, most of the time, a hungry guest dependent on others.

The tradition after Homer raises further questions concerning Odysseus's independence and capacity for total self-division. The possibility of a return to original identity, especially that of the host, seems undermined by certain parts of Odysseus's character that make him open to conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, his story was read by the neoplatonists as an allegory of the soul's purification and return to its source. On the other, he comes to be seen as a liar inseparable from his own fictions, who lacks a stable, unified self to return to, and whose real desire, especially in Dante's revision, is not for home but for endless wandering. In this century, moreover, his quest has been read as a type for the bourgeois individual: the self-affirming wanderer who, like later merchants and explorers, constructs a unified self against an external diversified landscape — which includes the diversity of his own forms and disguises. In his study of The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov has shown how the oral orientation of the New World natives, who were heavily embedded in the tradition, ceremony, and ritual that identify meaning and expression, made them vulnerable to exploitation by the Old World conquerors, who knew how to improvise and play roles, which separate them. Centuries before this colonial encounter, the expert improviser, Odysseus, emerges out of an oral culture to prophesy its end through the discovery of the separation of the individual and tradition, essence and appearances, that an oral culture identifies. The hero in fact embodies the attributes that the Western tradition will associate with the opposite of the speech that is idealized as self-authenticating: its derivative and debased as self-divided form, writing. Moreover, he is the model for later explorers and shipwrecked men, such as Robinson Crusoe, who epitomize homo oeconomicus, "the principle of capitalist economy," as their "very isolation forces them recklessly to pursue an atomistic interest." Odysseus and Crusoe struggle not only against cannibals but also against the temptation to go native, to return to a past that seen from an enlightened perspective is a primitive state from which man has just managed to emerge. They struggle to preserve their substance against forces that threaten to waste and consume it.

The words Homer uses for the substance of Odysseus that the suitors waste typically identify life and livelihood, suggesting a close connection between man and nature as well as a belief that one is what one has. The identification of man and property is usually seen as typical of feudal relations, read as the class analogue of the oral phase of sexual development. In capitalism, considered as essentially anal (partially through the association of money and excrement), the relation is one not of identification but possession. This later stage requires a sense of difference, in which nature becomes a separate thing that can be known and owned because of its alienation. This difference, however, is certainly available to Homer's near contemporary, Hesiod, for whom the landscape is an object to be worked upon in order to make money. But it is present also in the Odyssey in the concept of an essential self that can be abstracted from its "properties," in the philosophical sense, from its accidents or various embodiments that exist prior to and so unaffected by expression.


Excerpted from From Communion to Cannibalism by Maggie Kilgour. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY 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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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Introduction: Metaphors and Incorporation, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER I. Classical Incremental Visions, pg. 20
  • CHAPTER II. The Word and Flesh, pg. 46
  • CHAPTER III. The Reformation of the Host, pg. 79
  • CHAPTER IV. Under the Sign of Saturn, pg. 140
  • CHAPTER V. The Reformed Deformed, pg. 167
  • Conclusion: In Which Everything Is Included and Nothing Concluded, pg. 226
  • Notes, pg. 249
  • Index, pg. 301

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