As befits a subject that is at once fascinating and proscribed, eating other people is usually talked about out of the sides of our mouths, as if daintily eating ribs with a toothache. Besides the stories of crazy people turned cannibal––be it Hannibal Lector or Issei Sagawa––we tend to talk about cannibalism obliquely, metaphorically, encoded so as not to draw attention to our interest. We are attracted and repulsed at once, held in a sort of stasis that is both too close for comfort and not close enough to make a meal out of it––we sublimate these desires and, like many a deeply flawed person, we blame our exact inclinations on others. Colonial conquerors, ravenous, savage, happily name the indigenous populations as cannibals. Men speak of women in terms of consuming them, the ultimate sort of possession. We joke about it, write satires about it, project it onto others so that we can live vicariously through them. We fantasize about eating people accidentally––surely it’s not that bad if it’s accidental––or maybe blaming it on capitalism, or both. Eating Raoul, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and Delicatessen were all popular films that dealt with our disassociated desire to eat somebody and not be blamed for it. And who, especially upon hearing that the Vatican has basically endorsed it in some cases (e.g. the Andes plane crash) hasn’t fantasized about landing in a situation where it might be ok? Who among us doesn’t have a map of their neighborhood with their neighbors ranked in terms of likely deliciousness? But I digress. The Christian Eucharist, the pomegranate as body in the Persephone myth, Kronos eating his children––our myths are steeped in cannibalism, but it’s frowned upon to talk about it, especially at the dinner table. No wonder it pops up again and again, reminding us that no matter how much we try to disguise it, we can’t help but wonder…
Jack and the Beanstalk (date of origin unknown): First written down in the 1730s, this fairy tale was reputedly passed around for centuries before that. People often recall the giant threatening “fee-fi-fo-fum” to make bread from Jack’s bones, but are generally more forgiving of Jack breaking into the giant’s home, stealing all his nice stuff, and then murdering him.
Michel de Montaigne, Of Cannibals (1580): Montaigne compares the relatively inoffensive practice of eating people to the barbarism of “civilized” Europe. Though thick with ideas of the noble savage, it still reads as a thoughtful and progressive piece of literature.
William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (1588-1593): This most violent of Shakespeare’s plays features a famous bit of people pie, adapting the scene from Seneca’s Thyestes when, at a feast seeking to reconcile their differences (!), Atreus serves Thyestes a pie in which he has baked his sons after having murdered them. The big reveal is worthy of the GBBO. Again, English folk get to enjoy the idea of eating someone accidentally.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719): So many cannibals and so much imperialism. More silver-tongued critics than I have connected it to the colonial project, so I will just ask: How did this ever become a children’s book?
Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729): Swift’s satire famously suggested a system whereby poor Irish mothers could sell their babies to be eaten by rich English people. To this day it remains unclear whether the English who took Swift’s satire at face value were appalled at the suggestion that they should eat children or that they should be paying for it.
The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance (1846-1847): Originally published in serial form and better known now as Sweeney Todd, this xenophobic parable features a greedy barber who murders his monstrous customers and conspires with a baker to cook their bodies into pies for profit. These human pastries are eagerly devoured by the unknowing residents of London—the most famous example of the English horror/fantasy of eating people accidentally.
Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô (1862): Soldiers who get trapped in a canyon turn to cannibalism, and get a taste for it. Flaubert offers readers a variation on the cozy apocalypse where we imagine ourselves in a situation in which it is not only necessary but somehow noble for us to eat each other.
Charles Dickens, All the Year Round (1868), Volumes XIX & XX: Two volumes of Charles Dickens’ weekly periodical contain the cannibal cookbook “Pastry and an Entremet of Great Merit” with dishes like “Pudding à la Citizen’s Wife,” “English sailor à la maítre d’hôtel,” “Sea captain au gratin.” It was hardly uncommon for the English to pawn off their enthusiasm for eating people by thrusting it onto the subjects of their imperialism. Veins of cannibalism also run through Great Expectations (the felon Abel Magwitch is reputedly based on a cannibal character from a penny dreadful who fascinated a young Dickens), Pickwick and David Copperfield both have boys speaking of girls in cannibalistic terms, and A Tale of Two Cities features a pair of ogres with a taste for young mothers and their children. See Harry Stone’s The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity for more on this.
Diego Rivera, My Life My Art (1960): Rivera claimed to have eaten only people –– procured through a source at the morgue –– for some months. He even gives a few recipes (brains in vinaigrette) and professes a distinct fondness for eating women.
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