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153 CHAPTER 8 Honor Eating Frank Lestringant, Michel de Montaigne, and the Physics of Symbolic Exchange ROBERT APPELBAUM At first glance, Frank Lestringant’s Cannibals (first published in French in 1994) appears to belong to the tradition of what Michel de Certeau called “heterology,” or the study of writing about “the Other.”1 Lestringant’s text takes the reader from the origin of the idea of New World cannibalism in the journals of Christopher Columbus to the mid-­ nineteenth-­ century perspectives of writers such as Jules Verne and Gustav Flaubert.Central to Lestringant’s study,as it is to de Certeau’s,is Montaigne’s essay“Of the Cannibals,”in which,according to de Certeau, a key instability lies in the use of the words “savage,” “barbarian,” and “barbaric” and the so-­ called Other is always at arm’s length, a figure of indeterminacy. But Lestringant’s study is not a heterology . It is rather a literary history of a fantasy or, to put it another way, the history of heterology itself, where the key theme is the degradation of the fantastic idea of the cannibal in French literature.At first the trope of a challenging natural nobility, imagined as embodied in the light-­ skinned and worthy nations of South America, the cannibal eventually becomes a pathetic,animalistic,slavish being,barely articu­ late, embodied in the dark-­ skinned captives originally hailing from sub-­ Saharan Africa, forced into cannibalism by economic necessity. As the idea of the cannibal degrades in Western literature, so a degradation in the West itself becomes apparent, according to Lestringant, when European countries come to dominate the world order,aided by 154 Honor Eating convenient attitudes of racial superiority and a smug faith in the idea of progress. But a subsidiary idea also comes to the fore: when cannibalism becomes imagined as a characteristic of desperate peoples, it also becomes imagined as a desperate measure to which the most civilized of people might revert because it signifies the ghastly primitive impulse of life itself, from whose power no one is immune. There is an important omission in Lestringant’s work: the concept of the Noble Savage. The Noble Savage survived in Western mythology in a way that the Noble Cannibal did not.2 The story of American Indians was largely behind it. Here is what Benjamin Franklin wrote on behalf of Native Americans in an essay published in 1784: Savages we call them,because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs. . . .Perhaps,if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude, as to be without any Rules of Politeness; nor any so polite, as not to have some. . . . Having few artificial Wants, they [Indians] have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning,on which we value ourselves,they regard as frivolous and useless.3 Franklin’s idea of Native Americans impacted countless literary adventure stories, for example James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), westerns in print and on the screen, and science fiction in print and on the screen. In many Star Trek episodes, crews encounter noble primitives and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the enemy Klingons are refashioned into a noble warrior race. The 2010 Oscar nominee and blockbuster Avatar is essentially a noble savage story. In France, some of the writings of Diderot can be said to foster the myth of the Noble Savage, especially his Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (1772). And among the great anthropologists of the twentieth century, Claude Lévi-­ Strauss can be seen staring the myth in the face in Triste Tropiques and arguing that it is not so mythic. He observes that“contemporary anthropology supports the theses of the eighteenth-­century philosophes.”4 But Lestringant insists on ignoring this strand of thought.Anthro­ Honor Eating 155 pophagy and the cannibal,noble or degenerate,real or imagined,is his theme. The loss of respect for the noble eater of human flesh, according to Lestringant, is something to be lamented. It leaves us, at least until the time of the development of modern anthropology, with a horrible decadence. Lestringant chooses his evidence selectively; after 1700, he tactically chooses texts to support his thesis about decadence, ignoring counter-­ examples he sometimes feels compelled to acknowledge (like Diderot’s work) and...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781610756563
Related ISBN
9781682260814
MARC Record
OCLC
1043151613
Pages
250
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-05
Language
English
Open Access
No
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