Sharpen your knives, file your teeth, tuck into cannibalism. It is not that Hollywood thrillers about zombies, mutants and assorted cannibals have become predictably common. It is not just that pulp fiction about cannibals or “fact books” such as Nigel Blundell’s fresh-from-the-press Serial Killers: Butchers and Cannibals have exploded in recent months. There are actually at least three new academic studies of cannibalism in the market right now: Catalin Avramescu and Alistair Ian Blyth’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism, Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly’s Eat Thy Neighbour: A History of Cannibalism, and Nathan Constantine’s A History of Cannibalism: From Ancient Cultures to Survival Stories & Modern Psychopaths.
Cannibalism is in. There is no doubt that it has always haunted the European discourse of identity and difference. To construct the non-European as non-European was often to imply that he was a potential or actual cannibal. Whether or not cannibalism existed in the recent past, we do know that many supposedly “cannibalistic” sights reported by European explorers in Africa and Australia were mistaken readings of complex funerary rites. As Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iversen point out in Cannibalism and the Colonial World, whatever the actual fact of humans eating humans, the European discourse of cannibalism in the non-European world was in gross excess of the evidence. A paradigmatic case, as they illustrate, is the account of Diego Alvarez Chanca, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the Caribbean. On 4 November 1493, according to Chanca’s account, a captain went ashore and found a hastily abandoned village in which a house contained “four or five bones of the arms and legs of men”. From this Chanca concluded that the Caribbean island was inhabited by cannibals. This account was circulated as an eyewitness account in Europe, but—as Hulme notes—it was not. It was a report of something purportedly reported to Chanca, and a culturally mediated onclusion based on no objective evidence.
Continental fare: Cannibalism has always fascinated Europeans.
But a few years later, in the influential account of Peter Martyr, who never even went to the Caribbean, Chanca’s account had been embellished with skewered human flesh, boiling pots and a dripping head. The myth continued to grow, and to some extent continues to grow. Even today, it is common to come across “popular” books that regurgitate such accounts with little or no introspection and contextualization.
If the splurge of popular accounts of cannibalism still carries this taint of colonialism, at least the better academic studies try and engage with its gaps and silences. Cannibalism, it appears, allowed Europeans to construct others in certain ways and justify their conquest, conversion, enslavement, among other things. There is no doubt about that. But cannibalism—even in early texts, such as those by Jean de Léry and Montaigne or in Melville’s great 19th century novel, Moby Dick—was also an engagement with essentially European matters. It was used, as it is by Melville, to criticize the selfishness and gluttony of “civilized” people; it was used, as it is in a story by Mark Twain, to criticize American politics; it was used, implicitly in Karl Marx, to criticize capitalism.
One is less certain of the uses to which cannibalism is being put in recent fiction and films. Has it become just entertainment in a postmodern world of play? Or does it address some deep anxieties about our cultures of waste, excessive consumption and xenophobia? One is tempted to say, as some critics do, that cannibalism continues to fascinate the “European” mind. Tempted, but one refrains, if one is Indian and remembers that even in our epics cannibalism is sometimes attributed to our internal “villains” too—starting with the post-Vedic asuras.
Light on jihad
Maulana Yahya Nomani’s The Truth about Jihad (translated by Yoginder Sikand and just published) seeks to address popular misconceptions regarding the concept of jihad. This necessary book by a major Islamic scholar argues that the ideology of violence in the name of Islam as articulated by various terrorist groups is a crass misinterpretation of theIslamic scriptures.
Tabish Khair is an Indian writer based in Denmark. His latest novel is The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at email@example.com