Monday, May 09, 2016

Of cannibalism

When travelling abroad, one of the most interesting things to do is to look what the local people eat and to enjoy their dishes. However, in this era of globalization – and I must admit that just by travelling I contribute to it – taking traditional local dishes has become increasingly difficult. As so many other things, also what people eat tends to become international or “global”, which are other words for “everywhere the same”, in this case. Is this “everywhere the same” the price of globalization? It seems so. Nevertheless, there still are local differences and there still is local food to enjoy. In terms of my blog two weeks ago, where I distinguished three kinds of eating: It’s still possible to take a traditional meal, although more and more eating on holiday gets the feature of getting food, so to speak. At last one has to eat.
It’s weird – and I am the first to admit it – but in this context of talking about food, meals and travelling I had to think of cannibalism: eating your fellow man. It sounds as if men are bred for that purpose, like pigs and poultry. As if it is one of the dishes you can enjoy when you travel in an “uncivilized country” and make your choice from the local specialties in a restaurant. Happily, it’s not as simple as that. Man is not seen as a delicacy. Although sometimes men are eaten for satisfying one’s hunger, especially in times of a serious famine, it seems to be rather exceptional and generally cannibalism has a ritual or spiritual or sometimes a medical reason. Modern man calls this practice barbarous, and with right. However, one has to put the practice into perspective, for what is barbarous? Look around and see what people do to each other.
Montaigne describes the custom of cannibalism practiced by a people in South America that he doesn’t mention by name. Apparently he had borrowed the story from a book by the French geographer André Thevet who travelled in 1555 in Brazil. Thevet told that people there ate prisoners they had taken during their wars with surrounding people. The prisoners were held captive for some time but they were well treated. In the end they were slaughtered and consumed in a public ceremony. Montaigne agrees with those who call this practice cruel and a barbarous horror. However, he says, isn’t it so that “every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.” (in “Of Cannibals”) But then, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.” Montaigne had seen a lot of cruelty and barbarism in his life. Also today we still have a lot of cruelty around us. How then can we condemn other acts that are in fact less barbarous? Shouldn’t we first look at ourselves before we point a finger at others? Apparently the so-called “barbarians” often live in closer accord to our belied morality than we often do ourselves, is what Montaigne wants to tell us; a lesson that needs to be told again and again – also today.

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