Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review of Catalin Avramescu's An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (The Weekend Australian, 25/07/2009)

Catalin Avramescu, An Intellectual History of Cannibalism
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
PUP; $55.95; 350pp

It’s a funny thing, this business of coincidence. On the very day that Catalin Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism was thrown against the side of my house by an overburdened postal worker, the website Arts and Letters Daily linked to a story in the London Observer, the subject of which was a recent discovery of a Neanderthal jawbone in southwest France. This jawbone, it appears, had been butchered by humans: cut marks consistent with those found on deer bones suggested the use of stone cutting tools. For Fernando Rozzi, of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, the find was nothing short of momentous: ‘For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.’

Rozzi’s comments notwithstanding, the suggestion that early humans were cannibals is unlikely to cause any real apprehension in a public largely reconciled to the scientific view of life. In the not-too-distant past, however, the discovery of the butchered jawbone and the implications that flow from it would have had enormous consequences for our view of the world and of ourselves. But how did this shift in our thinking take place? How did the cannibal go from being a powerful figure of otherness to a scientific curiosity? In so far as this question is a philosophical one, Avramescu’s book attempts to answer it.

It is thus the story of a slow extinction, not of a species but of an idea. Avramescu’s cannibal is a theoretical creature, one that challenges and qualifies particular lines of philosophical enquiry. Once a widely recognised symbol of the boundaries of civilisation – one that throws the very idea of civilisation into relief – the cannibal is now, argues Avramescu, one of the ‘great forgotten figures of philosophy’. The image of man in a state of nature has ceased to serve as the philosophical backcloth against which modern man takes the stage, with the result that the cannibal has ceased to haunt the audience’s imagination.

An assistant professor of political science at the University of Bucharest, Avramescu shows how the cannibal makes frequent appearances in ancient literature, usually as a sort of quasi-monster of which the dog-headed cynocephalus is only the most exotic example. However, it was the discovery of the Americas and the subsequent explosion of travel literature – much of it highly sensationalised – that caused the cannibal firmly to enter the collective western imagination. It is easy to imagine the effect that this literature had on discussions of natural law, on which civil law was assumed by many to be morally and philosophically founded. If it is true that morality is innate, that our knowledge of moral norms is inborn, then how does one account for the cannibal? Is he subhuman, or merely a pervert? If neither, then what does that tell us about ourselves? Thus does the cannibal, argues Avramescu, expose the law of nature in two ways: ‘first of all negatively, as a deviation from it, and then positively, as the representative of it. The paradox is the royal road whereby the cannibal enters the history of philosophy.’

Needless to say, he also enters the history of theology. Indeed, he raises important questions about the nature of God Himself. Should the cannibal prove amenable to religion, ‘then this would obviously illustrate the general and benevolent will of God’. Should he prove unamenable to it then that would seem to suggest that God has earmarked some of his creations for sin. Of course, these issues did not exist in isolation from the world of events. They were employed in order to justify or attack the notion of natural slavery by which Europeans sought to subjugate and treat as chattel colonised peoples. Furthermore, the debate about cannibalism also served to throw certain teachings of official religion into relief, in particular the concept of transubstantiation by which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are said to become the body of Christ. Could it not be said, argued some, that Christians were in fact no better than cannibals?

Avramescu takes a thematic approach, the effect of which is to make his argument difficult, and at times impossible, to follow. Shuffling the pack of Hobbes, Locke, Montaigne, Rousseau and many others, he leaves the reader impressed but confused and, for that reason, on his guard against philosophical sleight-of-hand. Then there is the problem of his prose – a rather bland accompaniment to what is, or should be, a juicy subject. ‘Because the presence of the cannibal results in the material absence of other men, the anthropophagus plays the role of a negative operator in the political arithmetic of population.’ This is not a picturesque style. Indeed, it’s trying very hard not to be a style at all. After 350 pages of it I was ready to throw myself out of the window, thereby reducing the political arithmetic of population by precisely one.

Style is the physiognomy of the soul, and the style in this instance is only the reflection of a far more worrying aspect of this book: its indebtedness to postmodern theory. Clearly enamoured of Michel Foucault, An Intellectual History of Cannibalism is more than a little reminiscent of his pitiful Madness and Civilization. (Foucault begins with the Ship of Fools, Avramescu with the ‘raft of cannibals’.) Just as in the latter book Foucault seems to regret that insanity has gone from being a sign of otherness to something that can and should be cured, so in Avramescu’s book the pre-Enlightenment cannibal is seen as something beneficial to mankind’s ‘moral imagination’. The cannibal is ‘a subversive image of the subversion of the moral order’ and his disappearance from philosophical discourse is, for that reason, to be regretted. But the cannibal (as our author well knows) has also been invoked historically to justify horrendous crimes. That anthropophagy is now the preserve of scientists in southwest France and not of the moral imagination strikes me as a sign of progress.

Avramescu makes some interesting points in An Intellectual History of Cannibalism and his knowledge of philosophy is obviously profound. But his central idea that the world is worse off without the ‘radical alterity’ of the cannibal borders on the preposterous. I’m afraid that not even fava beans and a nice Chianti can induce me to swallow it.

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