Cătălin Avramescu: The Raw Philosopher (An intellectual history of cannibalism). The enemy of God

Erwin Wurm, Fat House, installation, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

Erwin Wurm, Fat House, installation, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

 Because it would be more dangerous to imagine such a thing on Earth, it is on Cyrano de Bergerac’s Moon that a fundamentally anti-Christian ideology dominates. The inhabitants of the moon have notions about the immortality of the soul (a false dogma, they say), and one of them makes a systematic attack on the theory of the resurrection.i Suppose you were to eat a Mohommedan, says the Man on the Moon to the ‘visitor’ or man from Earth, and he is physically assimilated. Digested, the Mohommedan is transformed, variously, into flesh, blood and sperm. ‘Incorporated’ within a woman, the seed ‘[although] entirely deriving from the dead body of a Mohommedan, will produce a little Christian’. Cyrano’s text seems to suggest that the ‘little Christian’ is an abortion, thereby introducing into the argument another theological dispute, that concerning the fate of unbaptized children or fetuses. What will then occur at the Final Judgement? Will the Mohommedan receive his body back? If so, does that mean that the ‘little Christian’ is left without a body, since he is not ‘in his entirety, but part of the Mohommedan’. If not, then the Mohommedan remains without his body. And if God creates matter to make up for that which is missing? The Man on the Moon is clearly familiar with the theological niceties of earth-dwellers. In this case, he argues, another difficulty occurs; the damned Mohommedan is resuscitated in a new body, thanks to God, in place of that which the Christian ‘stole’ from him. The body, however, is connected to the soul and together they form ‘a single subject’, and God’s grace is manifested in this case by a body other than the Mohommedan’s being eternally punished. This new ‘subject’, rather than the original Mohommedan, is damned, as it is no longer a case of the same ‘individual’, and the punishment meted out to one body will be transferred to that ‘which did not lend its organs to committing any crime’. God thereby condemns someone other than he who deserved hell. ‘And what is most ridiculous is that this body will have deserved heaven and hell equally, because, insofar as it belongs to the Mohommedan it deserves damnation, and to the Christian, salvation. In the end, God can not admit it to Paradise because it would be wrong to reward with glory the damnation the Mohommedan deserves, but nor can he hurl him into Hell. As it would be an unjust reward in place of the eternal blessedness the Christian deserves. Ultimately, if God wants to be fair, he must [at the same time] forever damn and save the same man.’ After hearing such an argument, the visitor from Earth has the impression that he has been listening to the ‘Antichrist’. In these passages, the role of the cannibal is both to confound the theologian and to dumbfound God himself.

Together with libertinism and the philosophical radicalism of the Enlightenment, the cannibal becomes, as the embodiment of a problem, the vehicle for criticising the Christian religion. He is able to play this role because he is already associated with paganism of the most outrageous kind. A transgressor of natural law, as expressed by God’s will, he is in his essence a rebel against Holiness. An implacable enemy of Heaven, he embodies a hideous rejection of Christian principles. In the Middle Ages, he personifies the furthest reaches of non-belief and heresy. Modern writers, however, turn the charge around, focusing on a criticism of religious fanaticism. They note the use of the figure of the anthropophage as cover for the cruelty of wars of religion. In a pamphlet from 1646, ‘The arrow against all tyrants and tyranny’, Richard Overton, ‘the Leveller’ describes the intentions of the clergy as ‘wolflike, cannibalistic and inhuman’. In ‘A Modest Enquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity’ (1664), Henry More observes that ‘the forms of depravity are infinite. It is said that there is nothing more detestable than the cruelty of cannibals that feed on human flesh. But how mild that seems when we discover that adherents of this anti-Christian power [Spain] have used the brains of people as footballs and placed on their tables the flesh of women as though sweetbreads, having first raped these women and sliced off their breasts and a piece from an area that decency does not allow us to mention’.ii

The Enlightenment radicals resuscitate, in the interest of non-belief, another aspect of the Christian religion associated with anthropophagy; the suggestion of cannibalism inherent in the dogma of transubstantiation. If bread and consacrated wine are truly the body of Christ, are Christians not therefore cannibals? This was a recognized and debated theme in medieval theology and one which the philosophers of the 18th century were interested in deploying in the context of subversive arguments.iii

In Radicati’s ‘A comical and true account of the religion of the modern canibals’ (1734), a traveller whose ship is seized by pirates ends up as a prisoner in a country called Taurasia, where he is pressured to convert to a strange religion. This involves a cermony in which the devotee wears white clothes and attends a ‘mosque’, where he is asked questions he doesn’t understand and which someone else answers on his behalf. Water is poured over his head and he becomes ‘pagan’ as a result, it seems, of the liquid’s ‘occult qualities’.iv

Having been converted, he discovers the Taurasian religion’s frightening secret. A second incarnation of a local divinity takes the form of a ‘biscuit’, which the devotees believe to be composed of the actual flesh and blood of the man-god.v In order always to eat large amounts of this biscuit, the Taurasians have become ‘the most expert butchers of human flesh in the entire world’.vi Christians are in this sense ‘modern canibals’. Having examined their ‘Koran’, the initiate concludes that their religion has been corrupted by the depravity of priests. Disgusted, he converts to Deism, in the manner of a good philosopher for the Age of Enlightenment.

In the Account, the cannibal adopts the mask of satire that he will wear in many of his later apparitions. The cannibal as a personage, and the focus of the public’s amused gaze, is one of the enduring bequests of the radicals of the era of the Enlightenment. Radicati expresses a grotesque version of the theory of the circulation of elements through the body of the anthropophage. Thanks to digestion, he maintains, through ‘the orifice by which nature relieves itself of that which is superfluous, innumerable tiny particles of this supposedly incorruptible divinity’ have been spread through the world.vii With time, these particles mix with others, and, resulting from ‘the eternal duration of Nature’, they combine with innumerable other bodies.viii In the end, all the elements in the world in this way become ‘deified’.ix Such an absurd religion is the result of priestly corruption, concludes Radicati.x

Then there is the scatological humour of Kames, in Sketches on the History of Man in which priests traffic in the Dalai Lama’s excrement, which the pious hang around their neck in lockets like relics. Of such a substance there will never be a shortage, just as there is no lack of fragments of the the true cross or traces of the Virgin’s milk, observes the Scottish philosopher, as the priests, ‘charitably, will themselves produce the raw material rather than allow the poor believers to go away without being able to spend their money due to a finity of supply’.

The idea that cannibalism forms part of the mystery of the Christian religion returns with Hume, in his Natural history of Religion. A Turk held captive in Christian Europe and converted to Christianity is asked by a priest, a day after partaking in the sacraments of baptism and communion, how many Gods his new religion has. The Turk replies: ‘None… They kept telling me there was only one and yesterday I ate him’.xi

From the classic problems of the resurrection and transubstantiation, the critics of Christianity progress to criticising religion in general and Christianity in particular. In his ‘Jewish Letters’ (1742), Boyer d’Argens attacks the institution of monasticism. Most of the heads of families in Paris, he argues, behave as barbarously with their own daughters as the Peruvian peoples who keep women as the spoils of war, feeding them well and breeding from them, only to eat the children. The French, for their part, once they have three or four daughters, marry off the eldest. The remainder are destined for a kind of prison (a convent, naturally) where they suffer in a thousand ways.xii

Other salvoes in the war against the rites of the Catholic Church were fired several decades earlier, in A Description of the Island of Formosa (1704), a fabrication by a certain George Psalmanaazaar.xiii Here we are treated to extravagant descriptions of ‘Formosan’ priests who rip the hearts from the breasts of twenty thousand children and distribute to the faithful egg-sized chunks of meat boiled in human blood.xiv

In an anonymously published text from 1770, d’Holbach delivers a general indictment of religion. The founders of religions conceived of terrible gods, to whom they began to offer sacrifices. Human blood began to flow from the altar and the most painful, revolting and barbarous sacrifices were used to propitiate these man-eating divinities. Peoples began to tear children from the breasts of their mothers to feed their gods. Biblical sacrifices indicate, d’Holbach believes, that the Christian God is at least as cruel and opposed to the human realm as the gods of the Greeks, Phoenicians or the Mexicans.xv D’Holbach would resume this thesis in The system of nature (1781). Theology is a true source of earthly evil. Human sacrifice became possible because an infinite god could not be appeased except through an infinite victim.xvi

In an epistolary novel, The Letters of Amabed (1769), Voltaire too returns to the comparison between Christianity and cannibalism. The story is set in Goa, and the letters written by an Indian couple who are arrested by the Inquisition and charged with apostasy. The Inquisitors are called ‘anthropophages’, and their religion ‘the religion of bandits’. În the Philosophical Dictionary (the article on Atheism) Voltaire argues that it is religious fanatics who pose the greater danger to society. Hobbes, ‘who is considered an atheist’, lived a quiet life in a time when religious passion drenched England, Scotland and Ireland in blood. ‘Spinoza was not only an atheist, he preached atheism; but it was not he who… cut the two De Witt brothers to pieces and ate their grilled flesh’.xvii In his ‘History of the American Indians’, James Adair reflects on the cruelty of Indian women who torture prisoners of war horribly. This was the result of training and tradition, he says. Which is also what occurs in Europe, in Lisbon for example, where society ladies attend as an amusement the burning on a pyre of religious martyrs.xviii In Robinson Crusoe, the Englishman learns from Friday that there are priests on the island. From which he concludes: ‘There is a priesthood even among the most ignorant pagans in the world, and the practice of creating a secret religion, to ensure the veneration of the clergy by the people, is not restricted to the Roman [Catholic] church, and may be common to all the religions of the world, even among the most animal and most barbarian of savages’.xix

Starting with a graphic description of the different types of cannibalism, the Enciclopedia Yverdon (the entry on Meat) states, rather vaguely, that ‘delirium’ is at the root of these senseless acts.’This is the source of embarrassing customs such as squashing one’s nose, piercing ears or lips, lengthening the earlobes, chopping bits off fingers, removing a testicle, binding the body, making incisions, sticking needles in the buttocks, removing hair, extracting teeth [the list continues in this vein for a quarter of a page] … damning, burning, eating one another and writing moral treatises on goodwill and charity’.

The adversaries of the philosophers return the compliment. In his ‘Philosophical catechism’ (1749), the abbot Flexier de Réval compares the new philosophy to a ‘corrosive powder’ that ‘gnaws at living flesh, eating through bone right through to the marrow’. Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, in an article in the Mercure de France published in 1757 about ‘Cacouacs’ (‘evildoers’ in Greek), attacks the philosophers: ‘A nation of savages, stronger and more ferocious than the Caribs ever were, has been discovered recently on the 48th parallel of the northern hemisphere’.xx

The spectre of the anthropophage is also invoked by philosophers to criticise particular religious practices. In Philosphical researches on the Americans, de Pauw perorates against circumcision and infibulation. Modern-day Jews ‘circumcise in a manner that is very disgusting and which in itself would be enough to inspire abhorrence of their religious absurdities’.xxi A ‘mohel’, who has the privilege of never cutting his own nails ‘and who is infinitely respected for this deformity’, cuts the foreskin of the child, who is all this while screams ‘as though being killed’. Following which ‘the circumciser grimaces, places his lips on the genitals of the initiate, takes them in his mouth and proceeds to suck with all his power’ in order to draw blood. Sometimes he spits out the child’s foreskin, other times he swallows it, ‘as do the circumcisers of the island of Madagascar’.xxii

The excesses of the savage and the anthropophage are a mirror in which the Enlightenment discovers the excesses resulting from religious belief. By means of these comparisons, official Christianity is reconstructed by the radicals of the Enlightenment as a kind of artefact incompatible with the progress of civilisation. The duality of Christianity and cannibalism reveals a historical dimension that becomes morally suspect.

Fragment from the second edition of the book ‘An Intellectual History of Cannibalism’.

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh.

Cătălin Avramescu is a Romanian philosopher and specialist in moral and political philosophy. is reader in political science at the University of Bucharest and a docent in philosophy at the University of Helsinki. He published in numerous journals and newspapers. He published the first edition of An Intellectual History of Cannibalism at Princeton University Press. He was a researcher at Collegium Budapest/Institute for Advanced Study, Department of Social Philosophy (Helsinki University), Institute of Philosophy (Oslo University, Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities (University of Edinburgh), Clark Library/Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies (University of California, Los Angeles), Sigurdur Nordal Institute (Reykjavik), Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Science (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wassenaar) (2000) – Visiting Scholar and more. He lives and works in Helsinky.