Friday, August 10, 2007

Cannibalism Runs in My Family: On Blurton's Self-Eaters and Beyond

It really does--cannibalism, that is. One of my ancestors was Matthew Joy, second mate on the nineteenth-century whaling ship the Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket in 1819 in search of sperm whales. Sometime in November 1820, when they were right on the equator and about 1,500 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, the ship was attacked by a large [85 feet?] sperm whale and capsized, leaving the captain and crew in three small boats. Even though they were not that far from the Society Islands, apparently at the urging of my relative, second mate Joy, who expressed the belief that if they sailed further into the South Pacific they would be sure to be eaten by cannibals, the captain, George Pollard, decided they should head for South America, which was over 3,000 miles away. Big mistake.

Still wandering at sea in January 1821 [after a brief pit-stop on a small island that did not have enough resources to sustain them for too long], my relative Matthew Joy was lucky enough to be the first to die and was given a burial at sea. This was early enough in the voyage that cannibalism had not yet been resorted to, but when another crew member, Isaac Cole, died in February, first mate Owen Chase suggested they consume his remains in order to stay alive, and this was agreed upon, perhaps with some reluctance. Initially, the crew members in the different boats only ate whoever died of whatever causes [mainly dehydration], but later, in extreme desperation, they also drew lots to select which of them would be killed and eaten next. As Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex, has said, "the great, terrible irony of the 'Essex' story" is that "their fear of cannibalism drove them on this impossible voyage and ultimately required them to enact their own worst fears, to cannibalize the bodies of the dead sailors because they had nothing left to eat." Further,

All the boats would become separated. One of them would never be heard from again. And it was really the captain's boat, which was out for 94 days, more than three months, where the most excruciating sufferings occurred. It would come down to the captain and a teenage boy, Charles Ramsdel, just two of them. And they would be found by the crew of a Nantucket whale ship almost within sight of the Chilean coast. And these men were found sucking the bones of their dead messmates. And I'm quoting here, "which they were loathe to part with." Even after they had been rescued, these men were so delirious with their sufferings, that they were reluctant to surrender the bones. And they had been living for about a week on just the marrow that they could get out of the center of these bones. [Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick]

Technically speaking, I am not descended from cannibals, but from someone who helped create a situation in which cannibalism was unavoidable. "Cannibalism happens," or something like that, is the moral of this story of danger and disaster at sea in which the very palpable fear of being cannibalized caused a group of whalers [most of whom were only in their twenties, including the captain] to make a very stupid decision which led to their cannibalization and even murder. Apparently, the shameful stigma of what might be called necessary acts of cannibalism is so great that survivors of such "ordeals" do not always fare well afterwards. Owen Chase, who wrote the Narrative of the Most Extra-Ordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (published in 1821), suffered from debilitating headaches most of his life, eventually became mentally unstable, and was found late in his life to be hoarding food in his attic. The descendants of the famous "Donner Party," to this day, often seek to either minimize or claim as falsified mythology the episodes of cannibalism that occurred when the Donner travelers were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846-47. So, even though "cannibalism happens"--has to happen, even, in certain circumstances--it carries with it the deep shame of what Heather Blurton refers to in her book, following the terminology of the Old English poem Andreas, "self-eating."

And herein, I think, lies the difficulty of defining what, exactly, cannibalism is--whether as, in the case of the Essex and Donner disasters, an actual historical event or, with Cyclops and Grendel, as a fictional event, or as what Blurton calls a politico-cultural "discourse" or "metaphor." For, if cannibalism, at some level, has to mean self-eating [and I think it does] it implies a necessary intimacy--a biological, species-specific intimacy or "likeness," more specifically--between eater and eaten. To eat humans [anthrophagy] is one thing; to eat oneself [cannibalism] is yet another. But is this just the academic splitting of semantic hairs, or does the difference between the two really matter, and how? At some level, it would have to matter a great deal, I think, for when humans slaughter cows and chickens and quails and pigs, etc. for dinner, or when a grizzly bear decapitates and eats a human, neither is cannibalism, although the latter, in "polite society," is deemed more "savage" than the other. "Meat is murder," the vegetarian's political adage goes, and that, too, is something else. Likewise, to return us to Blurton's book, is the eating of a human by a dog-headed "man," a "Donestre" [which would appear to be part-lion, part-man, but which is derived from the crocodiles and half-hyena/half-lioness "corocottas" of classical legend], a Mermedonian, a Grendel, and an "eoten" [capitalized or otherwise] the same experience of "cannibalism" in each instance, or are there varying degrees and types of "self" being consumed by "self" in each, and how might that matter in our interpretation of these cannibalisms [with an emphasis on the plural]? Is the "sameness" or "likeness" between eater and eaten in these cases dependent upon physiology, biology, language, gesture, cultural habits (of eating, hygiene, dress, and otherwise), religion, politics, or some combination thereof and to what degree?, and why does that matter? Further, if the so-called "cannibal," whether a Cyclops or a Donestre or a Grendel, only kills and eats what is foreign or culturally "strange" or Other to him [a traveling Greek warrior or Anglo-Saxon or Dane], what "self," exactly, is he consuming, and why and how does that matter?

Following this line of thought, I was particularly impressed with chapter 1 of Blurton's book, "Self-Eaters: The Cannibal Narrative of Andreas" [pp. 15-33], in which she appears to be raising some of these same questions in her delineation of how that hagiographic narrative, rather than simply affirming a particularly well-worn story of heroic Christian ethics and conversion [which, in Blurton's view of this text, is also a type of colonization and vice versa], actually complicates "the identification of cannibal and colonized" and suggests "that the borderlines of identity are the territory that is at stake" [p. 16]. The Mermedonians of this story, unlike Homer's Cyclops or the Donestre of the Anglo-Latin Wonders tradition, are clearly all human [if seemingly morally depraved and therefore ethically "monstrous" or "twisted"], and while their cannibalism is initially [and even legally] restricted to foreigners whom they imprison and then apportion in systematic and bureaucratic fashion, in a time of dire necessity [when Andreas sets all their prisoners free, kills the guards, and destroys the prison], they do resort to killing and eating their own "members," which, in Blurton's view, "highlights their depravity, and by extension, the righteousness of Andreas' mission" [pp. 17-18]. And yet, the poet is also at pains to let his readers know, as Blurton points out, that the Mermedonians are "self-eaters," not because they prefer human flesh over anything else [which would indicate a deep and self-willed wickedness as well as a depraved "appetite"], but because they don't have any other alternatives: "there was neither sustenance of bread . . . nor drink of water . . . to partake of" [qtd. on p. 21]. In this way, the poem would seem to keep open a border, if even a slim one, between less and more acceptable practices of cannibalism [after all, since the Mermedonians exist only through a necessary cannibalism, their availability as Christian converts is made possible through that very same cannibalism], as well as between different "like" selves [i.e. it is worse for a Mermedonian to eat another Mermedonian than it is to eat, say, a wayward Scythian--therefore, to be "foreign," depending on your placement on a map, even an imaginary one, at any given moment, affects your quality of "self-sameness," which also affects, ultimately, your "human" rights].

Ultimately, in Blurton's analysis, Andreas is a political narrative that is more about colonization than it is about conversion [although the two terms often appear collapsible into each other], and because the poet, as Blurton describes in detail, conflates the geography of Mermedonia with England and also the social habits and bearing of the Mermedonians with that of the Anglo-Saxons, "the collapsing of Mermedonia into England, alongside the simultaneous confusing of generic, political, and religious categories of difference between cannibals and Christians, frames the question of the construction of individual and corporate identity," and "[g]iven this accumulation of associations, it is suggestive to read the narrative of Andreas as a response to the complex cultural negotiations that accompanied the continuous barrage of invasion and settlement by the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries" [p. 30]. And since a forceful and violent conversion of the Mermedonians by Andreas and his military forces can be viewed as a kind of metaphoric cannibalism [the consumption of Mermedonians and their subsequent absorption into the corporate "body of Christ" as well as into the "body politic" of Andreas' "nation," wherever that may be], the poem frustrates an overly simplistic exemplum-type reading, for the "eating" of foreigners [and foreign races] is necessary to the project of empire-building. Eating "others," in other words, is okay. Eating "yourself" is not. In other words, "go out to eat [yourself]."

The real truth of human history is that all living matter [whether trees or cows or pigs or humans] is potentially a disposable resource if the occasion can be justified in such a manner to "warrant" it. But human societies, although they have always had need to consume others in order to both "survive" and "consolidate," have also always had need to erect borders between "inside" and "outside" [borders, moreover, which they can shift at will in a given moment and without warning and with great harm to those living on "the other side"]. This is one reason, I really believe, that "cannibalism," not as historical action but as myth, has such force in our culture as what might be called a "warning system." The truth is, we are, all of us, cannibals, but we have need of the prohibition against cannibalism in order to fool ourselves into thinking we are, if not human, then humane. Thanks to Blurton's analysis, I can see that the Old English poet of Andreas was well aware of this fact.

But, is Grendel a cannibal? And can every instance of "eoten" in Beowulf really be construed as "cannibal"? That, my friends, is a tale for me to take up in my next installment.

3 comments:

J J Cohen said...

Moral of the story: when Eileen invites you over for dinner, decline. Or if you do accept, have the good social grace to rub yourself down in sage-infused butter beforehand to ensure you'll come in good taste.

Eileen, can you comment upon the relationship of this sentiment:
the real truth of human history is that all living matter [whether trees or cows or pigs or humans] is potentially a disposable resource if the occasion can be justified in such a manner to "warrant" it. But human societies, although they have always had need to consume others in order to both "survive" and "consolidate," have also always had need to erect borders between "inside" and "outside" [borders, moreover, which they can shift at will in a given moment and without warning and with great harm to those living on "the other side"]. .. The truth is, we are, all of us, cannibals, but we have need of the prohibition against cannibalism in order to fool ourselves into thinking we are, if not human, then humane.

to Karl in What Does Caninophilia Matter?, where he writes:
Although I'm willing to entertain the possibility of prediscursive species identities and prediscursive individual identities within species--that cat, this dog, that bat, this human--there is no prediscursive human identity so long as "human" is understood to mean, as it has traditionally, a creature uniquely possessing a set of capacities that relegates every other living creature to the status of mere animal. ... humans know themselves as human--as the sole possessors of self-consciousness, reason, language, the capacity to apprehend things "as such," immortal souls, and so forth--because only animals suffer deaths that cannot be murder

Wasn't that the "throw-down match" where you wrote:
I *am* different, but the ultimate question [if we are talking ethics here, and god knows I hope we are] might have to be not what makes one thing different from another ... but rather how, in Kristeva's phrasing, we can "brush by" difference, to touch it even, without altering it or ever calling it into question ["Strangers to Ourselves"].

Then, you went on to speak of love:
How to account for the variety, the difference, of life forms, that nevertheless, make the possibility, at the same time, of "human" and "dog" possible in a way that is mutually sustaining?
I'm wondering, do we want to apply the lesson of love -- and the caveat of not dismantling ourselves and our boundaries so that demarcation fails -- to the cannibal? And you know what I must mean is "the one whose place the cannibal holds')

dan remein said...

One thing that seems to be at stake here--for me--(and I have held off repsonding to anyone so far only because I was trying not to get eaten by a pile of latin flashcards trying to graft itself onto the descendants of mama grendel), is not so much the "becoming human" formula but the becoming non-human.

Is Grendel a cannibal becomes, as Eileen intimates, a question of difference or sameness with the people of herot as well as Beowulf and his retainers. Grendel "descends" (almost like a noun "declines" from its (falsely) most pure nominative state in other more prosthetic, less "connected" cases). We do not think of Grendel as an animal, but as a monster. One who, Blurton does a good job of noting, is described obscurely--so his threat could become quite human--and so the threat of other invaders might become more monstrous.

On this line, I agree with Eileen's:".. The truth is, we are, all of us, cannibals, but we have need of the prohibition against cannibalism in order to fool ourselves into thinking we are, if not human, then humane."

This other part becomes more difficult:

"How to account for the variety, the difference, of life forms, that nevertheless, make the possibility, at the same time, of "human" and "dog" possible in a way that is mutually sustaining?"

Perhaps the way to crack at this in _Beowulf_ is simply to ask--forcing a hermeneutic moment (not matter how contrived)--in what way Grendel and Heorot work as part of Deleuzian machines--what do they _do_, _together_?

Finally, It also occurs to me that the metaphor of incorporation, as a political metaphor which most of the commentators have mentioned so far, could also _be used_ as a metaphor of resistance by the invaded. With all the risk of simply playing to all of the thinking that led a former Joy to fear the south seas (if we, white sailor/invaders show up, we will be defeated by cannibals), I cannot help but point out as an area of possible expansion to Blurton that assimilation can work both ways, and that Viking insular "invaders"/"settlers" can be thought of as being dealth with in terms of an inviting incorporation. Sure, come all the way on down to the Danelaw and we will slowly swallow you up!

Eileen Joy said...

Here's what JJC does: he cuts and pastes little morsels [pun intended] of previous comments in order to pose impossible questions! Sheesh. [But also: haha, um, hehe, okay, now I'm nervous, um . . . whew].

First, I would have to say, with Karl [I think], that there are such things as pre-discursive species identities [some things really are biologically, genetically different from other things, and even with hybridization, designed or accidental, some cross-species are more possible than others], while at the same time, also following alongside Karl [I think], the ways in which "humans" have, historically, *known* and *defined* themselves "as human" is highly suspect, contingent, not open enough, oppressive, requires murder, etc. So, in my final comments to my post here, "Cannibalism Runs In My Family," I think I was mainly trying to say, in too much of a short-hand manner [I fear] that, historically, the definition of cannibalism has always depended on this notion of "self-eating" [humans eating other humans; i.e., eating "themselves"], which, nevertheless, also serves as a category of action [consumption] whereby some persons [particular "tribes," etc.] can be deemed, if still biologically or physiologically "human," less than "humane" [which means their humanness is "in question" and available for "purchase": conversion, conquest, enslavement, extermination, etc., all of which, in Blurton’s view are also “cannibalisms” of a sort].

So, the whole notion of cannibalism depends on a structuration of the term & category "human" that has to be open enough to allow for some "selves" to eat "themselves" in such a manner that they are really eating "others"--those who, by virtue of being non-self-eating "victims," are "more" than the "selves" eating them, while also being "less" [i.e., because they are consumed/absorbed]. Oh man, just looking at what I wrote, I'm asking myself: huh? Eileen, can you make more sense than that, please? I'll try.

Okay. The term "human" depends on cannibalism existing as a marker of a supposedly depraved or decadent human-ness, against which something "more human" has to emerge and/or define itself [and here I hope Karl would agree since I kind of learned this from Karl]. The borders that we want to erect between "human" and "animal" are mainly bogus since they depend on the idea that other living forms [even humans sometimes, if we can label them, as with the Jews during World War II, as "vermin," or as with blacks in America, as "niggers," etc.] can be viewed as distinctly and wholly separate and "less than" [mind-wise, soul-wise, capacity for expression-wise, body-wise, etc.] *us* who have need of these borders in order to justify expansion, consolidation of empires, commerce, the use of "subjects" for "medical" "study," food or labor "supply," etc. In this sense, Blurton's main argument, throughout her book, that cannibalism is really a discourse of political power, makes perfect sense to me [although I worry that she pushes too far who and what "count" as cannibals and cannibalism in the various texts she analyzes--more on that later]. And in this respect, I also really like dan remein's idea of the Danelaw as big mouth swallowing up the Danes [Anglo-Saxon assimilation, essentially].

Having said all that, though, and returning to JJC's question--

". . . do we want to apply the lesson of love -- and the caveat of not dismantling ourselves and our boundaries so that demarcation fails -- to the cannibal? And you know what I must mean is 'the one whose place the cannibal holds'?"

--I say "yes." Following my comments on earlier exchanges with Karl that JJC highlights here, I think we have to try to grasp [through love, which might mean, not grasping, but being grasped by] two ideas simultaneously:

a. difference exists, but:

b. it is never as clearly or cleanly demarcated as we like to think; thus:

c. we must try to accept the fact that a human is not the same thing as a bat or a cow, but the possibility of these living forms "touching," through love or wonder or other forms of affect or "thought" [a “touching,” moreover, that would be more like Kristeva’s “brushing by”—i.e., not violent] is highly to be desired and sought after for the purposes, let's say, of enlightenment, but also for the pursuit of what Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit term, in "Forms of Being," an "ontological passivity" leading to a "shattering" of individual identity that allows for a fuller "being" to emerge--a "being," moreover, that would be large, open, full, multiple, and connected. I'm still trying to work through all of Bersan's and Dutoit's ideas in this book, which I am very "in love" with, but also wary of in some respects. One cannot allow oneself [or an idea of oneself] to be "shattered" in order to "connect" with a more full, more enworlded "being" without first having, not just some *notion* but some actual *possession* of an an embodied self that can then be let go of. And the question is also raised: can we not have *both*: the bounded *and* the unbounded self? Do we even have a choice?

Also, what about cannibalism *as* a form of love? On that note, check this out:

http://www.vanderbilt.edu/exploration/news/news_cannibalism_nsv.htm