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Men on the Menu
July/August 2009

Previously, cannibals had been almost symbolic figures, mentioned as distant oddities by classical and medieval geographers. But now, thanks to reliable observers such as Dr Chanca (Christopher Columbus's physician, who visited the Caribs) or Garcilaso de la Vega (the half-Spanish, half-Inca historian whose accounts of Andean tribes were based on local knowledge), anthropophagi could be seen as a part of normal life in some parts of the world.

Various explanations were offered: in some cases cannibalism was a follow-up to human sacrifices. Sometimes, it was an act of triumph over defeated enemies. For some societies, it was a way of disposing of the sick, or even an act of piety towards one's deceased parents. But several writers insisted that the motive was essentially gastronomic: according to Louis de Poincy, the natives of Florida declared that human flesh was a tremendous delicacy, noting that "the sole of the foot is the most delicious bit".

To a Western philosophical tradition brought up on general theories of human nature and "natural" laws, this sort of information was very disturbing. Avramescu explores the many ways in which Western thinkers tried to dismiss or deflect it, or to incorporate it in their theories. For some, such as Montaigne, all evidence of bizarre behaviour was grist to a relativist mill, and it was always possible to find even worse behaviour closer to home. Discussing the cruel punishments of Western societies, he wrote that "the savages do not so much offend me in roasting and eating the bodies of the dead, as they do who torment and persecute the living." Others used the possibility of cannibalism to demonstrate that "despotism" (previously classified as a genuine form of government, in which the ruler had total proprietary rights over the ruled) could not be legitimate.

Gradually, the issue faded; 18th-century political theorists found ways of explaining cannibalism away, as a product of climatic influence, population pressure and other such scientific mechanisms. At the same time, the "noble savage" was reinvented by proto-Romantic thinkers, such as Rousseau. But, according to Avramescu, a line of filiation does connect the early descriptions of cannibal societies, which were usually portrayed as egalitarian and atheistic too, with the thinking of the early communists — which, has a grim appropriateness, given that communism is the only political system to have produced cannibalism (in the Ukrainian terror-famine) in modern times.

This is a fascinating book, but not an easy one to master. Divided into broadly thematic chapters, it moves forwards and backwards in time, sometimes revisiting the same material, and the argument is often elusive. Almost anything to do with cannibalism has been thrown in. There is, for example, a rich discussion of how the early Christian theologians defended the resurrection of the body against the objection that the same material would need to be used both for my body and for that of the cannibal who ate me, but its connection with the central arguments of the book is hard to see. The author's admiration for Michel Foucault is unfortunately reflected in his prose style ("Surgery is the figure of modernity that displaces punitive practices as a method of the extreme visibility of the body"), and the translation from the Romanian is far from perfect. Nor, for that matter, is Avramescu entirely reliable on Hobbes, thanks to his strange failure to distinguish between Hobbes's concept of "natural right" (which might, exceptionally, permit cannibalism) and his theory of "natural law" (which never could). Still, this is a remarkable work and there really is no other book like it.

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March 3rd, 2010
3:03 AM
It was an enlightening read. I seriously hope no one's practicing cannibalism but then again, with the changes in our climate, who knows one day we'll run out of food and humans becomes the next viable option! Yikes, Patty

Uta Scholz
March 1st, 2010
3:03 PM
Good luck to professor Catalin. I remember my research papers about law system and it's gaps. it was long work and I had to follow too many authors with different points of view.

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