The Art of Eating One’s Fellow ManAn essay by Montaigne reduced to a morsel for popular consumption.
(From The Invalidity of all Guarantees)
The testimony of a plain and simple fellow is likely to be truer than a man who fancies himself as an intellectual. The latter makes it his business to notice more, worrying what he sees in order to talk about it, establishing and substantiating an interpretation. He finds it difficult not to rearrange the facts a little, touching them up to meet with his hypothesis. ‘I’m adding something of my own’, he thinks, and omits an inconvenient detail. ‘If you can’t straighten the grain of a crooked stick, you can go with the distortion.’ So the facts accommodated themselves to his purposes. A story bettered is more likely to be believed.
Even the most painfully honest intellectual finds himself hanging the facts on an ideological line. He thinks he knows the theoretical ropes and how to tie them between secure factual posts so they hold tight and are convincing. But theory does not stand unless the conditions are ideal. And more often than not the ropes of his line tangle until they strangle the truth.
What is needed is a man not wedded to any idea, whose education does not furnish him with material to embellish theories. All he wants is to shares the wonders he has seen with his fellows on this earth. He speaks the plain and simple facts without spelling them out. It’s not a matter of ignorance or innocence or embroidering a story by employing the imagination. The information he gives satisfies without wanting to consult the cosmologists or scientists who speak on behalf of physical reality. What’s good enough for seasoned travelers - seamen and merchants – is good enough for me. The travelers have come upon strange events in their time and have an idea or two what to credit.
I met up with a ‘plain and simple man’ from Antarctic France (now known as Brazil), and what he said about his tribe of cannibals was to be trusted. I believed every word. He wasn’t buying or selling anything. He was just telling his tribe’s story. If only Plato had spoken to such men, rather than the sombre savants lurking in his cave, the history of philosophy and the ideas that rule the world would have been very different.
All things, Plato said, ‘are produced by nature, or chance or Art. The greatest and most beautiful are by nature or chance, the least and the most imperfect by Art.’ He had more than an inkling of the original virtues of a world governed by the natural law, uncorrupted by the Artful. If Plato had not got distracted by wise old Socrates he would have appreciated (with Propertius) that while birds sing sweetly untaught, Art cannot reconstruct a spider’s web or a swan’s nest. He would have learned from my plain and simple man that fruit gathered from the wild is natural. It can be said to be tamed. While fruit force-grown in an orchard has been ‘savaged’ by man and is therefore wild.
The men plucking fresh fruit from the hands of the gods that Plato imagined would populate his Republic are a far cry from the people my cannibal described. For the tribe could scarcely be called one. It lacked the structure of a society as known to us. No commerce, knowledge of letters, science of numbers, no formal laws or politics, no customs to define duty, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no inheritance, no division of property, no kinship system, no clothes, no agriculture, no metals, no corn, no wine. The words that denote lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, betrayal and forgiveness did not exist in their tongue.
The plain and simple man’s people lived on the seashore, shut off on the landside by a range of mountains. There is an abundance of fish and after some night-fishing the men spend their days dancing while the women chew manioc and spit out its juice for them to drink. The concept of ‘more than you need’ is unknown to them. And yet their life is an excess of sort. They get on with one another – in both senses - so this never gets out of hand. They sleep off their intoxication until the small hours when their day begins again.
Two beliefs drive them, resolution in battle and love of their wives. They have their soothsayers who encourage them in these pursuits, and occasionally make predictions. The battle will be won, the wife faithful. If the predicted proves false, these priests are sacrificed. Calling on higher powers when they have no right to because they don’t know how is unforgivable. Reading the dregs of their root juice is something else. A source of amusement when their warnings of sore heads come true, and blessed relief when they don’t.
If a tribe from the mountains becomes envious of their plenty and invades their settlement, , they send them packing, capturing a token brave who is befriended and drawn into their pleasant life in order to sacrifice and eat. It is a ceremony, which everybody part-takes in, even the children. Morsels of flesh are sent like wedding cake to absent youths learning to live self-sufficiently in the wild so they harden into hunters. They play reed instruments and drums which echo in the valley so the defeated tribe knows what is happening and watch from afar their punishment. The cannibalism is not a matter of nutrition. It is a theatre with a moral for the foolish mountain men. Their incursions are rare. So it works.
I wonder if eating a man dead is more barbarous than tearing a man apart on a rack still full of life, roasting him slowly and throwing him still breathing to starved dogs. A practice that was institutionalised in Europe, and still exists in living memory, and, indeed, persists in less flagrant forms, though nonetheless cruel for that. Who indeed are the savages? The plain and simple people that Plato should have met, or, say, the Spaniards and their faithful who are eating alive not warring tribes and ancient enemies, but their own, and all in the name of religion and piety.
Surgeons cut up living bodies to serve our health. And physicians feed us with dead tissues as a remedy against death. But no matter how knowledgeable these hackers and healers are they cannot cure the fundamental malady of man. That which is in the head. The mind remains sick with treachery, disloyalty, tyranny and cruelty. Conditions that plague Europe, and the civilised world.
The plain and simple man’s testimony makes clear the sacrifice of the captured brave is a medicine to treat self-proclaimed enemies, whose envy and avarice is endangering their peaceful existence. True, the brave resists his captors rather than submitting to the treatment, trying to incite his captor’s anger, but the more he taunts them the kinder they are to him. He tells his guards, ‘get on with it, you cannibals’ His final sally is ‘You’re about to eat your own grandfather and great grandfather. Mine ate yours.’ Everybody laughs because it’s possible. The brave’s moment comes when he calms down. He has been purified in the theatre of life and death, the plain and simple people like to say. Stubbornness the last refuge of aggression has evaporated. He accepts his fate, and is ready. The sacrificial brave is tenderly prepared and swiftly dispatched. The dissection and distribution of parts is as respectful as the handling of the Host at Mass, All this is observed from a distance by the mountain men, and a lesson is learned. They will think twice before they attack the plain and simple cannibals. Peace is restored until the memory fades, and the raiders will return. Like unseasonable weather, they come in cycles. Nothing to be done about that. That’s how nature is.
The plain and simple tribe’s isolation from the world is over. How did it happen? Hunters are open to exploring the unknown. My man with two fellow tribesmen encountered a strange animal, a horse. A new trading route had crossed their beaten track. They followed the horse back to the coast, and stowaway on a ship to Europe. The trip for them was a long detour home. In Rouen Charles the Ninth, the boy king, got to hear of them. He took them around his palace and showed them the glories of the city. Afterwards someone asked them what they thought about all this, and they said three things. Firstly they found it strange that so many tall strong bearded men were willing to obey a child, and didn’t chose amongst themselves a leader. Secondly, they noticed how some men gorged to the full while others starved. They wondered why those subject to this injustice didn’t take the exploiters by the throat and burnt down their houses. And thirdly, I can’t remember. Or maybe he kept his council. His guide, the boy king, was suffering from tuberculosis and was shortly to die.
My plain and simple man has returned to the settlement bearing gifts of ideas. As customary after any long hunting trip, he and his friends will act them out for the entertainment of their people. I will figure no doubt as one of the fabulous monsters. A benign one I hope. A walk-on part. But I fear for the tribe. This time their theatre will not be in the round. A rudimentary proscenium arch squares off the performers from the audience. And they have separate entrances and exits. The play will no longer be a story self-perpetuating itself within the collective imagination of the tribe. Outside influences are knocking on every door. A route to their settlement has been established. They can be found. Strangers will be coming to observe them, and the first stirrings of self-consciousness troubles the tribe, and that’s the slippery slope to the extinction of primal innocence.