Sunday 17 March 2013

Monsters of Imagination

Those who have read Robinson Crusoe will recall the point when the hero discovers that he is not alone on his island when he rather ludicrously finds a single footprint! A duffelpud, perhaps? Defoe is really setting the mood, one of horror and one of fascination. And it’s with horror and fascination that the cannibals made their way into the western imagination, from Robinson’s Island to the feasts of Hannibal Lector. 

I had so much fun – if that’s the word! - in picking my way through An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Catalin Avaramescu, translated by Alastair Blyth and published by the Princeton Press. It really helped me to put the practice in a the wider context of history, civilization and imagination

I love Hannibal Lector as much as the next girl but - oh my - when it comes to the real thing some of the details of the cannibal life are truly hard to take in. I remember when I was in my teens reading about the case of one Armin Meiwes, who lived in the German town of Rotenburg an der Fulda. This man went into a website called Cannibal Café and there advertised for a “well-built eighteen to thirty-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed.”

Who on earth is going to volunteer for that? Well, someone did, someone by the name of Bernd Brandes. The actual details of what followed are truly repellent. Let me just say that dinner began while Brandes was still alive, the hors d'oeuvre being a certain part of the anatomy that most men find dear. Found to be too rubbery, it was sautéed and fed to the dog! 

To a certain extent, as Avaramescu explores, cannibalism began really as an invented concept, a dividing line between civilization and savagery. It was another form of ‘here be dragons,’ filling out the space on empty maps, those barbarous places “...of the Cannibals that each other eat.” Cannibals, in other words, entered the western imagination alongside such fabulous creatures as the dog-headed men and monopods. 

For Thomas Hobbes the cannibal was a useful concept, a warning of the depths that the war of all against all could descend to in the absence the social contract and the state. But it became something more in the real world; for the discovery of supposed cannibal ‘savages’ became an excuse for far greater savagery, as the Spanish fully demonstrated in the Americas. The hypocrisy, not just in this, but in much of the practice of ‘civilization,’ was touched on by Montaigne;

I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but lately seen, not among the inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow citizens, and which is worse, under the colours of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead. 

I suppose the modern cannibal, cannibals in the form of the fictional Lector or the factual Meiwes, are really the creation of civilization rather than savagery, a notion supported by arguments advanced by the Marquis de Sade, who saw the absorption of ‘the other’ as a perfect expression of one’s freedom. Alas, there are some forms of freedom one would rather not have. 

Avaramescu has performed commendably in exploring the darker side of human imagination; for this is a journey less into the practice than the perception. It touches on assumptions about barbarism that allowed supposedly civilized societies to behave towards others in a wholly barbarous way. As much as anything An Intellectual History of Cannibalism is an exploration of evil, of ideas and practices that go well beyond the consumption of human flesh.


  1. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    But, there is, in fact, plenty of physical and anecdotal evidence for anthropophagy - including the discovery of human bones gnawed by human teeth, and pot-polished human bones, in numerous archaeological sites in many locations, dating from thousands of years ago to recent times. Some skeptical anthropologists reject such evidence on the grounds that they themselves have not been eaten . . . but then, anthropologists who have been eaten are less likely to publish - which tends to skew the literature.

    And then there is this:

    (After 2:10)

    I think you'll like this site:

    1. I suspect that anthropologists would be rather dry and stringy. :-)

      Thanks for those links, Calvin.

  2. Cannibalism has been in practice since time immortal by various cultures and sheer necessity to ensure survival. The 'Donner Party' 1846-1847 American pioneers snowbound in the mountains with exhausted supplies resorted to cannibalism to survive. 'Michael Rockefeller' was killed and eaten by the Asmat tribe New guinea. the film 'Alive' is about a football team from Uruguay whose plane crashed in the Andes mts. and the survivors ate the dead to stay alive ( true story ) There were incidents cannibalism in the Eastern front in WWII to advert starvation. Most cases of cannibalism are of necessity for food but in primal third world areas it was a cultural issue as was headhunting, tribal rivalries etc. Now in cases of pure mental depravity, well you will always have some people who have compulsions to commit or witness unusual acts like bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, rapine, sodomy, sadism, masochism, etc. Films like 'Salo', 'A Serbian Film', ' Cannibal Holocaust' and others cover some of these subjects. When there is no rule of law the primal nature in man is just under the surface, nothing new really.

  3. Islam compares backbiting to eating human flesh.
    “O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion, in deeds some suspicions are sins. And spy not neither backbite one another. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it (so hate backbiting). And fear Allah, verily, Allah is the one who accepts repentance, Most Merciful”

    It also gives men permission, or orders them, to eat human flesh if no other means of sustenance is available. Which, of course, is appalling. I would rather die. Though my duty would be to live so that Islam could survive. The protein composition of human flesh and pork have been found to be the same. Human flesh, I have heard, also tastes salty, similar to pork. Actually, in a book called the Orbit of Darkness, a grandfather and his children were forced to eat human flesh as they fled being caught by German soldiers on the Russian front.

    I am from Milwaukee were Jeffery Dahmer was convicted. He murder 17 people and ate their flesh, and then melted the bodies in acid (his father was some sort of chemist or worked with acid or something, I cannot remember.

    The Donner Party was a group of 87 American pioneers who in 1846 set off from Illinois in a wagon train headed west for California, only to find themselves trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada. The subsequent casualties resulting from starvation, exposure, disease, and trauma were extremely high, and many of the survivors resorted to cannibalism, but research by historical archeologists now casts doubt on this part of the story.

    The book Alive, about the downed plane and survivors ate human flesh was an awesome read.

    And of course there were Native American tribes (or maybe they were not American, or S. American. Warriors who thought eating a mans heart would give them more power, or give them the power of the person they were consuming.

    1. Thanks for this, Alan. I think I too would rather die than eat human flesh. I hope I am never in a position, like those in the Donner Party, where I have to make a choice.

    2. One can only assume what one might or might not do until actually in a particular situation.

    3. On assumption I think I would rather starve.

  4. Ana, who is off to Louisana.

    When I read this...'Who on earth is going to volunteer for that? Well, someone did, someone by the name of Bernd Brandes. The actual details of what followed are truly repellent. Let me just say that dinner began while Brandes was still alive, the hors d'oeuvre being a certain part of the anatomy that most men find dear. Found to be too rubbery, it was sautéed and fed to the dog! '

    Guess where my hands ended up!