"Watch Out for My Uncle... He's a Cannibal!"
The title of today’s post was the response, by a young niece, when she learned that I’d been writing a book about eating our fellow man. As it turned out, How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, & the Nature of Eating was only the first of two books I did on the subject.
Most people—on hearing about what they consider to be an unpleasant fixation—are either amused, horrified, disgusted, curious, or are merely anxious to change the subject.
I get it.
The subject of cannibalism is the literary equivalent of driving by the scene of an accident; we know it’s wrong to look too intently at it, but it’s damned difficult to put a stop to our rubber-necking.
I first became interested in the subject when I read Margaret Visser’s book, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. At one point in her text, she wrote about the conventional supposition that only civilized people have table manners—elaborate sets of rules that govern the proper way to eat. She then pointed out that even cannibals (presumably as uncivilized a group as one could imagine) have very strict notions about how—and whom—they should consume at the dinner table.
It was almost a throw-away comment on her part, but it occured to me that a study of anthropophagy might provide some insight into the host of irrational ideas we hold about the stuff we stuff into our mouths each day. “The rest,” as the saying goes, “was history.”
And children’s games.
And popular entertainment.
In time, I found that suggestions of cannibalism lurked inside nearly every corner of our culture—possibly all cultures. But, before I could get into all of that, I needed to provide a more visceral version of why the subject interested me:
The Unmaking of a Vegetarian
Back in the late Sixties, I was, for a time, a vegetarian. Today, we might call it Politically Correct or Globally Responsible—but back then it was just the thing to do. It was cool. It was hip. It was cheap. A craving for meat was regarded as a sign of spiritual underdevelopment. A craving for red meat indicated something approaching depravity.
It was not cool.
It implied a callous disregard for the sanctity of life.
However, being old enough to make my own decisions in the late Sixties meant that my tastes were formed in the early Fifties. I liked red meat. I wouldn’t eat it, of course, but there was no way to avoid thinking about eating it.
Eventually, I saw that much of my objection to meat was associated with the banality of plastic-wrapped meat. It was hard to accept the notion that most consumers actually preferred the anonymity of the foods they ate. How could they eat those chemically-enhanced, cruelly-raised slabs of unrecognizable protein—without a second thought? Being rather self-centered, this perceived aversion to truth was incomprehensible. It did, however, suggest a way out of my carnivore/vegetarian conflict. I needed a way to eat meat consciously and responsibly.
First, I would have to be an active participant in the meat-eating cycle. No Styrofoam trays of half-frozen products of the agri-business/chemical industry for me! I refused to chew my way through the culinary equivalent of toxic waste. Nor could I condone the lifelong abuse of some dumb animal just so that I could fill my face. I was cool. I was aware. I would do the right thing.
I would learn to hunt.
How hard could it be? I’d been fishing since age eight, and wasn’t hunting just fishing writ large? This was going to be a snap. Nothing to it.
All I had to do was buy a rifle, learn how to use it, take the hunter safety course, get a license, and find some unposted woods to hunt. Simple steps.
The hunter safety course was designed to decrease my chances of shooting myself or another hunter. There was an admirable logic to it all, and I was grateful that such lessons could be learned by other than trial-and-error. The course, however, did not contain a single fact about hunting itself. This was puzzling, but I assumed that the actual hunt must be instinctual, natural. When the time came, when I needed to know, I would simply know.
After completing the prerequisites, I was ready.
So, it was off to the woods. I jumped out of the pick-up, pulled on my day-pack, listened to the satisfying click of brass against steel as I slid cartridges into the .22, inhaled the cool, wet-leaves smell of the October afternoon, and plunged into the wilderness in pursuit of the elusive Eastern Gray Squirrel. I felt a sense of purpose, a rightness, a completely-in-tune-with-nature joie de vivre.
The only catch was that there were no squirrels to be found.
I was a clumsy—but well-armed—jerk in a fluorescent orange vest, crashing through the woods. Every squirrel within a mile knew I was there. Frustration only increased my frantic thrashing. The woods remained strangely silent.
Eventually, exhaustion and disappointment slowed me down. I stopped making so much noise. I started seeing the woods as they were, instead of how I imagined them.
A squirrel appeared, not forty feet away. I froze, but not before he saw me. He was up the back of a small oak tree in a second. I lifted the rifle, sliding off the safety as quietly as I could. Now was the time—if the squirrel showed itself, I was ready. I thought a bit about what I was about to do. This animal was about to die so that I could feel better about eating meat. The prospect seemed more silly than noble.
The frosted tip of a bushy tail flicked nervously on the right side of the tree. I did nothing. The squirrel chattered crankily, trying to force me to reveal my location. I did nothing. I noticed a bump on the left side of the tree, the squirrel’s head, trying to spot my response. There was none. The squirrel continued chattering, trying to force me to make a revealing movement. There was no movement.
Just the shot.
The squirrel leapt from the tree, frantically kicking in the dry leaves. Oh God, I wounded the poor thing—what a stupid, selfish, thing to do. But no, it stopped. I ran to the spot where the dead squirrel lay, a few brown oak leaves sticky with its blood. I thought about what I’d read about primitive hunters—how they honored the game they killed. I whispered, under my breath, “I’m sorry.”
Truly, I was sorry—but guilt was only a small part of what I was feeling. I had known that I would have had to do something like this to justify my carnivorous nature. I’d been confident that I could do it when the time came.
I hadn’t known that I would like it.
I lifted the squirrel from the leaves, surprised at its weight. I suddenly recalled that its viscera would have to be removed, or the meat would spoil. I had cleaned many fish, finding the process messy but not difficult—but now I was uncertain. What lay within the white furry abdomen? Were there hidden musk glands that must be removed? If I accidentally punctured something, would the meat be ruined, diminishing the squirrel’s death to a selfish and meaningless exercise? Worse—was indecision wasting the very time needed to complete the job satisfactorily?
There was nothing to do but to start. Poking the point of my knife through the unexpectedly tough skin of the lower abdomen, I pulled the edge of the blade up and through the thin ribcage. The entrails sagged out, hot and sticky, steaming in the cool air, onto my hand. There was no wave of revulsion. I looked at them, recognizing in an instant all the organs I had memorized in high school. They were essentially the same as my organs, organs I could never see, part of the hidden mysterious inside of us that we know of, but can never know.
This was no fish.
It was myself reflected.
My decision to hunt had been an ethical choice, but now it was something else. Kneeling in the woods with a handful of steaming entrails, I began to see carnivory as a dialog between the eater and the eaten.
The predator/prey relationship became richer, more complex. Hunger and fear are part of it, of course, but also identification with The Other and compassion for experienced pain—whether pain of capture or of capturing. At some level, predators require the cooperation of the prey—the prey must submit to the predator. Maybe the squirrel preferred to risk death, over uncertainty behind the tree. The predator, perhaps, requires some reflection, a short interval between the killing and the eating, to compensate the prey for its sacrifice.
I began to understand why “civilized” society prefers to keep its distance from the things it eats—and, conversely, why other societies need the predator and prey to be as similar as possible. Anonymous, mechanically-kept, stupid animals do not allow this relationship to develop. Their lives are meaningless for them; their deaths meaningless for us.
In a sense, we really do become what we eat. Not thinking about the animals we choose to eat deprives us of some essential, if non-physical, nutrients. We need to know, more intimately, the sources of our power. We are hungry most of the time, without knowing it. We eat, but we are not filled.
The squirrel’s viscera suggested other questions. If there is a dialog between the predator and the prey, what would it be like if they were the same species? How much recognition of, or identification with, our food do we actually need to be satisfied? Is there something in our choosing of food taboos that guarantees a perpetual gnawing in our guts? Was there a suggestion of this hunger in my woodland epiphany?
Is cannibalism just meat-eating writ large?
That handful of miniature human-like entrails contained a hint of the answers to these questions, a hint we have managed to avoid taking for a long time. Somewhere, inside us—in a place we have learned to disguise and deny—ancient cannibal ancestors wait for the return of this most meaningful of relationships. They are crafty and resourceful creatures, silent and cunning—and they have many, often subtle, ways of stalking their prey.