Half-baked ideas on cannibalism

September 4, 1998

Compared to Frank Lestringant, the author of Cannibals, Tom Harrison, British amateur anthropologist and professional raconteur, did not mince words. Sensibilities, however, were another matter. In his stylish Living among the Cannibals, Harrison unabashedly proclaims his trusty "dark-skinned, woolly-haired, muddy-legged cannibal'' friends on the New Hebrides happily informed him that human flesh tastes like pork. As a sort of latter-day Montaigne on the spot, Harrison also appreciated cannibal mentalities. Thus, he takes some pains to instruct his readers that not only were these cannibals good spouses and parents but "just as sensible and intelligent as many of our own Members of Parliament''. From the perspective of Lestringant, this sort of characterisation of our presumed uncivilised brethren should have been extinguished some time ago as the cannibal was transformed over time from noble to ignoble savage in western discourse. Mid-century MPs may have preferred this outcome had it been the case, but my concern is with this rather curious little book rather than their public image.

Initially, Cannibals has much going for it. The author, described on the dust-jacket as "one of the foremost authorities on European encounters with the New World'', has hit on a now "hot" topic, considers the material - texts and images - from a trendy postmodern intellectual perspective, and proposes an elegant thesis. As intimated, Lestringant argues that for the French mind at least, the cannibal was transformed from an object of admirable curiosity in the 16th to a creature of loathing by the end of the 18th century. The reason for the initial perspective was derived from a vision of the cannibal "other" as bound by honourable warrior custom, if not the desire for holy communion, who was later downgraded by shifting political and economic trends in Europe to a creature responding to some primitive gustatory urge.

Lestringant supports this thesis by touring the major cannibal texts of the era. As is to be expected, he begins with Montaigne's encounter with "natural man" in Rouen and his justly famous apologia on the strange customs of this then-admirable creature. Lestringant notes that the allegorical character of Montaigne's discourse was derived not so much from the meeting between personified nature and culture, but rather from the work of previous commentators, such as Hans Staden, Jean de Lery and Andre Thevet who had met and described what they took to be South American cannibals. In tracing the shifting imagery over the next centuries, the author turns in postmodern fashion not as much to other subsequent ethnographic texts as to fictional accounts. In the process, Lestringant deconstructs such famous novelistic accounts of cannibalism as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Marquis de Sade's Aline et Valcour, which now portray the bestial horrors of the anthropophagists. At this point some doubts begin to creep in about the veracity of the author's thesis as elegant flourishes seem to be more important than documentation of it.

Lestringant provides little in the way of specific evidence as to how changes in Europe led in any direct fashion to a modification of the cannibal vision. Thus, Lestringant's thesis becomes divorced from historical reasoning, which is unsettling to anyone not committed to an extreme form of postmodernism. More striking is Lestringant's odd and unnecessary positivistic insistence on the reality of cannibalism in some times and places, which undermines his own perspective on the essentially allegorical nature of the creature. Specifically, he refers to such accusations against the Jews in Europe as trite anti-Semitism, which it obviously was, and accusations of such behaviour among Europeans levelled against each other in time of war as common propaganda, which they obviously were. Yet the definition of native South Americans, Africans and Pacific Islanders as cannibals is taken as the gospel truth of an illiterate "author" such as Staden, whose book was "ghosted" decades later, or a religious fanatic, such as Lery, who was obsessed with the idea. At times, it seems as if even fictional accounts alone are sufficient evidence for the deed. Lestringant adamantly insists we adopt this unconventional postmodern position of the "other" as cannibal as if such reality were essential to his argument. He writes in reference to these exotic peoples:

"For the cannibals did really exist...'' Thus, in reflecting on Lestringant's overall production, we sense a polite but distinct form of racism which mars this otherwise interesting academic exercise. This essential subjective feature of his sub-text suggests that intellectual perspectives have not changed as much over time as the author would have us believe.

William Arens is professor of anthropology, State University of New York, Stony Brook.


Author - Frank Lestringant
ISBN - 0 7456 1697 6
Publisher - Polity
Price - £39.50
Pages - 247

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