Millennium Post

Invoking cannibals, provoking moderns

Primitive societies may not be so different from the postmodern world.

Can a cannibal in the more modern society be an evil agent? Distanced from the flashy cameras and super television screens, where one often gets into the jungles where serpentine branches of a tree coils your neck and your feet taken into the innards of earth, where are the cannibals existing in our time? A point of wonder and departure. Of course, there was a time when cannibals existed and cannibalism was more than a practicing ritual. The clash between civilisations and barbarism created histories of all victors or rather of those who believed they are the victors. Now with the pendulum swing, back and forth in time, from the annals of history, cannibals are coming back. Not as what they were - with clubs in their hands to smash the head of anyone whom they happen to meet and with a pot of water, but with the closed chapters of history. Catalin Avramescu, the Romanian historian’s book
An Intellectual History of Cannibalism
is both a testament of the primitive societies and even in the much ahead postmodern world where we invent a cannibal for our satisfaction.

The history of cannibalism goes back not only to the primitive beliefs and customs; but to the enforcement of law. Was there any law to punish the real criminals? This question, more than the author’s anxieties, would sound more relevant in our times. The sovereign as the custodian of a right which belonged to someone else is what is really tested by anthropophagy. The bloodthirsty despot and the savage are the ones who were punished most in the medieval and primitive times. Ironic, it may seem, they were the ones who were the claimants of many things also. The savage, from the deep jungles, later went into  towns and metropolises. But this savage never showed his anthropophagy later. The savage tried to adjust himself with the lineaments of the township; though he/she remained there as a full savage only.

Deep inside the history of cannibalism lies the intricate discourse of body. Avaramescu examines philosophers from the Grecian times including Diogenes and Aristotle to the thinkers of the Renaissance to the enlightenment ones. Diogenes, the cynic philosopher believed that after the death of human beings, the body should be given to the birds and animals for feeding. The belief in the natural cycle needs to be observed. Aristotle always had an ambivalent attitude to the human body, may be due to his serious ruminations in all fields of science. Thomas Moore’s utopians punished all those who committed suicide by forbidding a decent burial. The Christian concept of time and histories gave the human body a new dimension. Saint Augustine too was against the body postmortem. Later Voltaire, the whistleblower of the French Revolution underlined the aspect that the burial of bodies should be conjoined with the legitimation of cannibalism. Rousseau, another philosopher who contracted the state, institutions and body also sided with the legitimacy of cannibalism. It is believed that some of Rousseau’s tracts on the cannibals of the Carib islands are removed from the French museum due to infamy. No wonder Hume also believed the nature as the perfect mechanism of all recycling- a fact which the vegetative societies of the consumer world put into practice. Julien- Joseph Virey claimed that the nature is a scene of ‘universal carnage’, where creatures devour one another.

If a majority of philosophers and thinkers believed that cannibalism is not a big sin or a crime, at what point of time in human history cannibals became criminals? The criminal-anthropophagus cannot be by definition be the subject of an ethical discourse to coincide with the dynamics of nature. The removal of cannibals from the ruling cultures of Christianity and making them completely savage is what made them criminals. Francisco de Vitoria’s texts like On Dietary Laws or Self-Restraint were examples of creating a discourse around the ethical questions of eating and co-existence. Much later when Freud announced the relationship between the neurotic and the savage with his explication of the Australian aborigines, the conformist beliefs around the ethics began to change.

The science of anthropophagy is the science of eating flesh. When the anthropophagus went to the city, it is not only the history of cannibalism that was overturned, but the discourses concerned with the state and civil society. The Hobbesian formulation of the theory of the state of nature alienated anthropophagy. Avramescu believes with certainty that when the antropophagy disappeared, the idea of reconstructing law in purely utilitarian terms emerged. What interestingly evolved here is the State as the new agent of absolute cruelty. At the same time, the disappeared or rather the diminished cannibals reappeared as the master killers of all state. The difference between the chopped limbs and the torn body parts by a suicide bomb attack is an example of this transition.

Are we not then the descendents of cannibals? Our civility and manners may not entertain a question like this. The doubt which Columbus had in his mind in his first voyage to America about the tribe called 'Caniba' was that they may be the men of the Chinese Great Khan. We also nourish the same doubt in the world of simulations and cyber crimes. The art of eating flesh has translated into the  venerable platforms of good eating with the coming up of the Christian church fathers. What then is the role of a communist society? Avramescu claims that from Warville to Lenin, theft is seen as a component of natural freedom usurped by the civilised order. Who can deny the fact that the original communism is one of generalised theft? It is exactly in the same way that the cannibal societies are described. Far fetched it may seem, Avramescu’s argument is valid when we look at the histories of primitive communism and the transition to the modern state.

The time has come to reread and debunk the fixities of all philosophies. It is a fact no one can deny that cannibal cultures had a tremendous support from various schools of philosophy. The need for the needy is stressed, where one may not by any probability vanish like the columns in a punch cartoon. Alistair Ian Blyth has done an excellent translation of Avramescu’s text into English and no where the quality of the original, it seems, vanishes. This text, doubtless, is an important document for all discourse concerned with state, civility, ethics and the power domains comprising eating the flesh, manner creations and what the future philosophy may tell us about the living cannibals.

Krishnan Unni P teaches in English at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University. He can be contacted at
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