Pass the cornflakes

Don't Do It! A Dictionary of the Forbidden
November 14, 1997

A slice of the headwords list reads: "... Arse, Auschwitz, Balls, Bananas, Bastard, Beards, Beef, Bestiality..." Not your ordinary dictionary, then, but something that retains a certain behind-the-bicycle-sheds flavour. It claims to be nothing less than a book for browsing and reference that "throws light upon systems of prohibition". Having acted as reader for the manuscript of this book and being quoted in the introduction, I feel as if I have entered into a protracted correspondence with the author. It would be silly to take a book of this kind too seriously. Both cover and title declare this obvious truth. It is not one to be read right through. That would be like eating a whole can of anchovies straight off. Rather it is one to be kept in the room that dare not speak its name and dipped into randomly in a spirit of periwigged absurdity. There is actually very little here about systems of prohibition. In a series of anecdotal, individual entries how could there be?

And yet... it comes equipped with all the barbarous magnificence of a scholarly apparatus, a philosophical justification and a liberational mission to the world. It seems to take itself very seriously indeed. The introductory tracing of the word taboo through academic history is somewhat irrelevant to a work that now omits taboo from its title but it sets the tone. Although Philip Thody disavows an anthropological audience, he quotes a lot of anthropology and although it is not exactly misunderstood the whole spirit of the thing is somehow lost. It is like watching the Pope reading the Koran and producing a Lambeth Palace interpretation. All that is retained is the use of prohibitions to mark off one group from another, a view anthropologists usually advance only to dismiss it as inadequate. So, we are confidently informed, "As with the comparable absence of taboos against cannibalism, this supports the view that taboos also function as signs distinguishing one tribe from another. Either all tribes in a particular area indulged in bestiality and cannibalism, in which case there were no interdicts; or the activities were so unthinkable that no taboos were necessary." This is factually false. There are areas (eg Sumatra) where only one people stands out for cannibalistic practices. And cannibalism is often rule-governed and is certainly not an either/or thing. People may eat in/out, friends/enemies, male/female. It can be a matter of great cultural subtlety.

Secondly, as with many of the headings here, it is not simply that certain kinds are forbidden, others are obligatory. Eating the dead may be an unpleasant duty. A book on prohibitions that does not mention positive rules is as bizarre and unhelpful as a learned study of left feet that does not mention that man is bipedal. And what can it mean to make a distinction between something being "tabooed" and being "unthinkable"?

The basic argument is that the modern (western) world is unlike any other in that it seeks to base its prohibitions upon utilitarian criteria. The only rule is not to hurt others. As such we are heading towards the desirable enlightened state of being taboo-free and law-governed. Evolutionist assumptions stalk the text which is based on this unsustainable distinction. For there is nowhere on earth where "taboos" are not justified by arguments of utility and regarded as hard-wired in nature. African Muslims cannot drink because it has been proved to lead to incest. Pagan montagnards are fined for rubbing gourds together though they know full well this causes landslides. An American Jewish friend assures me that recent research shows beyond all doubt that eating pork increases the risk of cancer. And in pre-literate cultures it makes no sense to try to draw a line between written law and unwritten taboo.

What results here, then, is a very interesting discussion of John Stuart Mill for beginners that serves to show clearly his grave limitations as a basis for moral life. The whole philosophical debate on rationality of the last quarter of a century goes unremarked. It is the world view you left home to get away from.

The entertainment value of the book lies in its separate entries and there is great delight in mixing together the most disparate material in a single section. There is more to the world than professional anthropologists and this is a book that will certainly appeal to readers who share the author's straightforward and simplistic view of reality and seek entertainment rather than epistemology. It offers a marketable mix of parochial British and sensationalist exotic together with large quantities of sex sauced with quirky detail. The individual entries are swift-moving and articulate, motivated rather by the urge to give a good read than be ruthlessly relevant or logical. They are subdivided under the headings Actions, Nourishment, Words and Themes, Ideas, Books and Pictures, Signs. Inevitably this involves a fair amount of repetition and cross-referencing. The standard format - bit of Bible/Koran, bit of ethnography, bit of law, bit of history, bit of litcrit - works well enough.

There are some nice facts to amaze your friends. In 1806 more men were hanged for sodomy in Kent than for murder. Female bicycle riding was seen as a thinly disguised form of masturbation. Fifth-century Athenian playwrights would joke about anything except menstruation and the plague. Clerics called down divine wrath on the head of the 11th-century Venetian doge who introduced the use of forks. "Fuck" has been omitted from the American Scrabble dictionary. Cornflakes were originally intended to take the mind off sex. Given the overwhelming obsession with it in these pages, cornflakes all round might be just the ticket.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

Don't Do It! A Dictionary of the Forbidden

Author - Philip Thody
ISBN - 0 485 11478 X and 12116 6
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £42.00 and £16.95
Pages - 339

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