Karl Steel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Brooklyn College, CUNY
42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2007
Western Michigan University
BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms
How Delicious We Must Be: Anthrophagy, Again
Figure 1. Autumn Cannibalism by Salvador Dali (1937)
During Titus’s siege of Jerusalem, a rich woman despaired after robbers emptied her house; according to the record in the Golden Legend, she “strangled her son, had him cooked, ate the half of his body, and hid the other half. But when robbers smelled the odor of the cooked meat, they burst in and threatened the woman with death if she did not give up her store of meat.” She showed them the half-eaten body, and the robbers shrank in horror: both at the infanticide and at their realization that their appetite had betrayed them by making no distinction between animal and human flesh.
Human flesh smells like meat because it is meat. More than that: it is the best of meats, the most restorative and most delicious. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Brian, unable to find venison for his ailing uncle Cadwallo, feeds him a roasted piece of his own thigh; because he has eaten a flesh “of such sweetness,” Cadwallo regains both his health and his joie de vivre. In the Middle English romance Richard Coer de Lyon, Richard’s men trick an ailing Richard, who yearns for pork, into eating the spiced body of a “yonge and ffat” Saracen. While “hys ffolk hem tournyd away and lough,” Richard eats and like Cadwallo regains his health and vigor. The fifteenth-century hunting manual of Edward of York observes that “man’s flesh is so savoury and so pleasant that when [wolves] have taken to man’s flesh they will never eat the flesh of other beasts, though they should die of hunger.” In the Chanson d’Antioche, the rabble among the crusaders delight in feasting on the corpses of Turks, as they discover that human flesh “is delicious. It is better than pork or fat venison. No piglet’s flesh could be as good as this.” Marco Polo reports that the Japanese think human flesh “the choicest of all foods.” And two of Poggio Bracciolini’s tales remark on the deliciousness of human flesh. In one, a teenage serial killer, when caught, “confessed that he had eaten many other [children], and that he had done because they seemed tastier to him than any other flesh.”
Critical readings of anthropophagy usually treat it as a psychoanalytic or political metaphor. Freud conjectured that a primal horde of sons, jealous of their father’s monopoly of women, murdered and ate him. In a sense, the sons fail to kill the father, for through their bad consciences and individual weakness they internalize his prohibitions with his corpse; in so doing, they forever bar themselves from the full enjoyment only he had experienced. Melanie Klein argued that anthropophagy manifests itself in the infant’s oral-sadistic phase, when the infant, realizing the distinction between itself and the objects of its pleasure—stereotypically, the lactating breast—desires to recover objects lost to itself by reassimilating them, that is, by eating them. The child compensates for guilt over the violence of its appetite by imagining that its parents in turn wish to eat it or even by masochistically fantasizing about being eaten. Another explanation, straddling psychoanalysis and politics, ascribes anthropophagy, the most outrageous violation of the social and in fact the human order, to corporeally, geographically, or temporally liminal figures. This allows the inhabitants of the cultural center at once to seal up their own darkest fantasies in distanced others and to approve their own purified desires as comparatively wholesome. Think of the Giant of Mt. St. Michel in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a monster that dines from silver chargers filled with rich sauces and dismembered children, and whose belt, festooned with the beards of conquered kings, attests to his military might: he is thus the undisguised image of the elite economic and military exploitation through which the heroic Arthur enacts his own might. Also, as in Richard Coer de Lyon, anthropophagic fantasies can image the act of conquest itself through what Geraldine Heng termed “Christian military-gustatory aggression.” Fantasies of anthropophagy justified conquest and genocide against others both external and internal to the normative culture; anti-Semitism, for example, might portray Jews as a fifth column for the apocalyptic invasion of the maneating forces of Gog and Magog, or as deserving pogroms because of their anthropophagous outbursts of ritual murder.
Why should human flesh be thought to taste so good? Maybe because it did taste good. Post-medieval records of anthropophagy speak of it as tasting like pork, or beef, or tuna, or, according to Guy de Maupassant, as having no flavor at all. But, so far as I know, none of the medieval witnesses to the taste of human flesh themselves tasted human flesh; as so often in records of anthropophagy, what the tellers know they know only by hearsay. We need other reasons. Following Heng, the expected deliciousness of human flesh likely belongs to the pleasures of power. Nothing could please King Richard more than killing Saracens and ingesting their land into his polity. Less obviously, imagining the savor of human flesh is also an imagination of the savor of one’s own flesh. We might then think of the desire to sacrifice oneself, of Simone Weil’s conception of ethics beginning with offering yourself up to be eaten by others. What better illustrates the value of your sacrifice than the delight your beneficiaries experience in consuming you?
As productive as all these approaches to anthropophagy have been and will continue to be, they have in common the occlusion of its materiality: the flesh itself and the violence of butchery and slaughter. Inasmuch as such a project is possible, I want to refuse metaphorical sublimations. Michael Uebel’s comments on the Richard romance in his Ecstatic Transformations suggests a new route in observing that however anthropophagy might signify politically, there is “a meaningful surplus present in these desires [that is] the foundation of a community and the notion of enjoyment as communifying process.” I want to argue for the imagined deliciousness of human flesh as a communifying process that references neither ethnic nor political identities, nor familial identities and insatiable infantile appetites, nor generalized metaphors of interiority, exteriority, sacrifice, and incorporation, nor even the ceremonial anthropophagy of the Mass. To keep the flesh in anthropophagy, I argue for anthropophagy—at least in its deliciousness—as a communifying process for the human itself, as a communifying process against animals, the creatures against which and through which humans define themselves as human, the creatures that suffer for the sake of and by comparison to humans.
Like humans, animals are animate creatures of flesh, subject to growth, injury, disease, death, and putrefaction, creatures who—or rather that—also communicate, love, consume, and desire. Faced with creatures so much like ourselves, how do humans break themselves off from animals, how do humans know themselves as human, as creatures deserving a who rather than a that? How do humans recognize themselves as creatures uniquely possessing reason, language, and immortal souls, uniquely destined—according to mainstream Christian resurrection doctrine—to enjoy impassable bodies in eternity? How do they deny these traits to animals? By dominating animals: whatever humans and animals have in common, humans know themselves as reasonable because no animal tames a human and because no animal’s death can be called murder. There is no prediscursive human identity; if there is any prediscursive identity, it is one of species and individuals within species: that cat, this bat, that ape, and this human. Derrida argues that the disavowal of the possibility of animal subjectivity traverses “the whole history of humanity.” What he terms “carno-phallogocentrism,” the violent relationship to animals that grants humans their claims to reason and selfhood, “institutes what is proper to man, the relationship to itself of a humanity that is above all careful to guard, and jealous of, what is proper to it.” Thus we discover, for example, a maxim in Anselm’s Monologion, “For anyone who doubts that a horse is by its very nature better than wood, and that a human being is more excellent than a horse, should not even be called a human being,” and in William of St. Thierry, Physics of the Human Body, “Lest he eat grass like an ox, he has subjected the ox to himself.”
I propose that the deliciousness of human flesh helps establish the superiority of humans over animals: simply put, since humans are superior to animals, their flesh must be superior too. The deliciousness of human flesh naturalizes this purportedly most natural of differences. Nonetheless, if this separation succeeds in preserving human specialness, it does nothing to prevent anthropophagy: in fact it encourages it. Consider this explanation from Aquinas on why Lenten dietary rules forbid humans the flesh of quadrupeds:
For, since suchlike animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.
If the consumption of quadrupeds incites lust because of the flesh’s resemblance to human flesh, what pleasure could be greater than anthropophagy? What flesh other than that of humans, to recall Cadwallo’s consumption of Brian’s thigh, could posses “such sweetness”?
Distinguishing animal from human flesh distinguishes animal from human deaths. In the story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, Nicholas, dissatisfied with the meat the butcher tries to sell him, demands the three clerks the butcher has murdered, butchered, and salted; he describes the clerks as “so wel as thou wost,” the very best flesh the butcher knows. Nicholas’s elevation of the dead clerks above the common run of meat, his anticipation of the quality of the clerkly flesh, rescues the clerks from mere porcine animality. Not only the clerks, but also the readers of the vita, who, through this and other assertions of the savor of human flesh, experience what Žižek terms interpassivity, “believing or enjoying through the other.” Whatever doubts one may have about the specialness of one’s own humanity, doubts that perhaps inhere most deeply in the similarity between human and mere animal flesh and indeed in their indistinguishability, the delight of others in our savor convinces them, and us through them, of the specialness of human flesh and thus in the existence of a uniquely human identity.
The fifteenth-century vernacular moral treatise Dives and Pauper proves that the verb “occidit” of the Sixth Commandment does not apply “boþyn to man & of beste,” but it still places limitations on the slaughter of animals: anyone who butchers an animal “for cruelte & vanite,” that is, anyone who enjoys killing the animal, has sinned. For humans, however, there must be something in us more than mere life; we must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; our slaughter should not be simply a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure.
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———. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
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1. For a rich discussion of the various textual histories of this woman, Mary or Maria of Jerusalem, see Merrall Llewelyn Price, Consuming Passions: The Uses of Cannibalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Medieval History and Culture 20 (New York: Routledge, 2003), 65-81. The story originates in Josephus or, just as well, in Leviticus 26:27-9, Deuteronomy 28:53-7, Lamentations 4:10, or 2 Kings 6 :28-29.
2. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, Acton Griscom ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1929), 518, “quod tantam dulcedinem in aliis carnibus non reperisset.” For brief observations on the obvious sexual aspects of this meal, see Michelle R. Warren, History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300, Medieval Cultures 22 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 250 and Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 55-56. Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
3. Karl Brunner, ed., Der mittelenglische Versroman über Richard Löwenherz: kritische Ausgabe nach allen Handschriften mit Einleitung, Anmerkungen und deutscher Übersetzung, Wiener Beiträge zur englischen Philologie 42 (Wien: W. Braumüller, 1913), lines 3088 and 3114. A critical industry has sprung up around this romance: see Alan Ambrisco, “Cannibalism and Cultural Encounters in Richard Coer de Lion,” JMES 29 (1999), 499-528; Heng, Empire , 63-113; Nicola McDonald, “Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,” in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 124-50; Price, Consuming Passions, 9-11; Leona F. Cordery, “Cannibal Diplomacy: Otherness in the Middle English Text Richard Coer de Lion,” in Albrecht Classen, ed., Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2002), 153-71;and Michael Uebel, Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 44-50.
5. Jan A. Nelson, ed., La Chanson d’Antioche (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), “Mout est or li morsiaus de ces Turs savorés. / Mius vaut que cars de porc ne cars de cerf lardés. / Nule cars de porcel ne poroit ester tés” (4984-6). For more texts like these, see Jill Tattersall, “Anthropophagi and Eaters of Raw Flesh in French Literature of the Crusade Period: Myth, Tradition, and Reality,” Medium Aevum 57 (1988): 240-53.
7. Poggio Bracciolini, Facezie, trans. (into Italian) Marcello Ciccuto (Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1994), CLXXI, “Horribile de puero qui infantulos comedebat,” “fassus est se plures alios comedisse, idque se agere, quoniam sapidiores reliquis carnibus viderentur.” In the other tale, CXXXII, “De Iudaeo Mortuo Assumpto Ignoranter in Cibum Per Florentinum,” a Florentine (presumably Christian) unwittingly consumes the spiced corpse of a Jew whose dismembered body had been concealed in a jug: “et, cum sibi cibus sapidissimus videretur, totum fere dolium edendo ea nocte paulatim consumpsit, existimans rem optimam comedisse” (and, since this food seemed to him most tasty, that night, he consumed little by little nearly the entire jug, thinking that he had eaten the best thing).
9. For a summary of Klein’s theory, see Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Consumption (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 5. Following Klein, Kilgour’s capacious study discovers cannibal desires in any desire for a lost, unified origin.
10. See Alex Blumstein, “Masochism and Fantasies of Preparing to be Incorporated,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 7 (1959), 292-98. I would like to thank Michael Uebel for his bibliographic assistance with psychoanalysis and anthropophagy.
11. Larry D. Benson and Edward E. Foster (rev.), eds., Alliterative Morte Arthure, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994), “He soupes all this sesoun with seven knave childer, / Chopped in a chargeur of chalk-white silver, / With pickle and powder of precious spices, / And piment full plenteous of Portingale wines” (1025-28).
14. See Andrew Colin Gow, The Red Jews: Antisemitism in an Apocalyptic Age, 1200-1600, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought 55 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995) and for additional texts Andrew Runni Anderson, Alexander’s Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations, Monographs of the Medieval Academy of America 5 (Cambridge: The Medieval Academy of America, 1932).
15. For Guy de Maupassant, who ate a piece of human flesh during a dissection, see Wilhelm Stekel, “Cannibalism, Necrophilism, and Vampirism,” in Sadism and Masochism (New York: Grove, 1965), 305. Stekel’s analysis is a good representation of the conviction that anthropophagy in “modern” societies represents a return of the primitive repressed. Issei Sagawa, a graduate student in literature at the Sorbonne who murdered and ate his classmate Renée Hartevelt in 1981, thought human flesh tasted like tuna. For beef, see Gananath Obeyesekere, Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 139 and pork, in the same book, 28.
16. See William Arens, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) and the restatement of his position in “Cooking the Cannibals,” in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, ed. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), 156-66. For a survey of the cannibalism debates, see Lawrence Osborne, “Does Man Eat Man? Inside the Great Cannibalism Controversy,” Lingua Franca April/May (1997), 28-38. Most recently, see the first chapter, “Anthropophagy and the Man-Eating Myth,” in Obeyesekere, Cannibal Talk , which establishes a position somewhat between Arens and traditional anthropology.
17. See Alec Irwin, “Devoured by God: Cannibalism, Mysticism, and Ethics in Simone Weil,” Cross Currents 51 (2001): 268, “Ethics, in Weil’s sense, begins when we refuse to eat people, and instead offer ourselves to be eaten by them.”
19. Here I especially reference Kilgour, Communion to Cannibalism. Other metaphorical approaches to anthropophagy are of course available. For salutary remarks on its use for cultural critique, see C. Richard King, “The (Mis)uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique,” Diacritics 30 (2000), 106-23 and Rob Latham, “Cannibals and Kitchen Sinks [Review of Priscilla Walton, Our Cannibals, Ourselves],” Contemporary Literature 47 (2006), 502-4.
20. For resurrection doctrine, see Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, Lectures on the History of Religions, New Ser. 15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) and Richard M. Grant, “The Resurrection of the Body,” Journal of Religion 28 (1948), 120-30; 188-208.
23. Derrida, “Animal,” 383. Derrida began this line of critique at least as early as Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 57, and “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” Cardozo Law Review 11 (1990): 951, where he observes, “In the space in which I’m situating these remarks of reconstituting this discourse one would not speak of injustice or violence toward an animal, even less toward a vegetable or a stone. An animal can be made to suffer, but we would never say, in the sense considered proper, that it is a wronged subject, the victim of a crime, of a murder, of a rape or a theft, or a perjury.”
24. Anselm, Monologion and Proslogion with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm, trans. Thomas Williams (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1995), IV, 13-14 and Bernard McGinn, ed., Three Treatises on Man: A Cistercian Anthropology, Cistercian Fathers 24 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 137.
25. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947), 2a2ae 147, 8. 1 Corinthians 15:39 (“All flesh is not the same flesh: but one is the flesh of men, another of beasts, other of birds, another of fishes”) might have provided a place for a discussion of the difference between human and animal flesh, but the usual exegesis, which seems to derive from the pseudo-Ambrosian commentary of Ambrosiaster (PL 17: 268C-269A), speaks only of the differences in glory in the resurrection and the differences between stars: see Peter Lombard’s commentary on 1 Corinthians (PL 191: 1685D-1686C), which is much the same thing as what is said in commentaries by Bruno the Carthusian (PL 153: 204A) and Rabanus Maurus (PL 112:151). Haymo of Halberstant (PL 117: 600B) provides the same reading with a different beginning that suggests Aquinas’s approach (although all flesh is one, birds were made from air, humans from the earth, and fish from flowing water).
26. South English Legendary, excerpt), in Wace, St. Nicholas ein altfranzösisches Gedicht des zwölften Jahrhunderts aus Oxforder Handschriften, Delius, Nikolaus ed. (Bonn: 1850), 92-95. Delius does not provide line numbers, nor does he identify the manuscript. Otto Edwin Albrecht, ed., Four Latin Plays of St. Nicholas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935), 33 n83 identifies it as Cambridge, Bodleian MS Bodley 779. For this manuscript (c. 1400-1450), which contains many stories, such as this one, told in no other manuscript of the South English Legendary, see Manfred Görlach, The Textual Tradition of the South English Legendary (Leeds: University of Leeds School of English, 1974), 75-77.