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HUM 102 Montaigne, “On Cannibals” Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz.

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1 HUM 102 Montaigne, “On Cannibals” Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz

2 What is a cannibal? And why are ‘we’ so obsessed with them? Cannibal: “A person who eats human flesh… especially for religious or magical purposes… as among certain tribal peoples.”

3 What is a cannibal? And why are ‘we’ so obsessed with them? Etymology/history: derives from ‘Caribe,’ Spanish word for peoples of the so called West Indies, encountered in the 16 th century, who allegedly ate other humans. Also acquires connotation of animality, by relation to the Latin “canis,” (dog, canine).

4 “Cannibal” is a term one (colonizing) people uses to describe another (colonized) people. In other words, it is not a neutral term. Could be described as a kind of linguistic or terminological colonialism. But it is also a term born of cultural encounter, a term that does not fit squarely within one language.

5 Cannibalism and the Limit European obsession and fascination with figure of cannibal indicates that European self is constituted by a limit, by what it cannot include. In other words: European culture ‘invents’ the cannibal in order to invent itself. Production of absolute otherness as response to trauma of fact of plurality of human cultures.

6 Cannibalism and the Limit Cannibal is thus what cannot be incorporated (taken into the body). But the cannibal is also a figure of incorporation; the cannibal breaks the rules of what can and cannot be incorporated. Anxiety around limits – what can or cannot be incorporated, but also: Possibility of humor>>transgression of limits.








14 Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

15 Life of Montaigne Born Feb. 28 th, 1533; died in 1592. His biography and family history exemplify two important tendencies of the period we’re studying: 1. Religious conflict and wars of religion 2. So called “Renaissance Humanism”

16 Life of Montaigne: Religious Conflict Both of his parents were Catholics, but his mother converted to Protestantism. During the last 30 years of his life, France was torn apart by Wars of Religion between Catholics and persecuted French Protestants (Huguenots). Montaigne: 1533-1592 Wars of Religion: 1562-1598

17 Life of Montaigne: Religious Conflict Going back a few generations, there were also “Marranos” on both sides of his family. Marrano: Spanish Jew were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Expulsion of Jews (and Muslims) from Spain in 1492. Like “cannibal,” “Marrano” is a name for the Other, and also contains a reference to the animal; “Marrano,” from Arabic “Muharram” (“forbidden”), but also comes to mean “pig” in Spanish.

18 Life of Montaigne: Renaissance Humanism Renaissance Humanism: ‘Rediscovery’ of classical (Greek, but above all Latin, pre-Christian) texts and learning. Montaigne’s father decided that Montaigne should receive the best possible humanist education. From the age of 3, Montaigne was raised with Latin (rather than French) as a first language. A German private tutor lived with the family and taught Montaigne only in Latin (the tutor spoke no French). And the family only employed servants who could speak Latin.

19 Life of Montaigne Cont. At the age of 7, he was sent to one of the best boarding schools in France; he graduated at the age of 13. Went on to study law and work in various positions in the government and legal system, eventually becoming a courtier to Charles IX in period of Wars of Religion. In 1571, he retired from public life altogether and spent 10 years in seclusion in his personal library writing his famous Essays.

20 The Essay A genre more or less invented by Montaigne. From the French “essayer,” ‘to attempt.’ Descended from collection of common-places (Topoi) or quotations. Other essays: “On Friendship,” “On Experience,” “On Virtue,” “On Anger,” “On Drunkenness,” etc.

21 The Essay: Textual Self, Intertextual Self Self represented and constructed through the essay; to read The Essays is to get know a textual persona – “Montaigne”; self produced through writing; textual self. But we also get to know this self through the other texts it quotes or mentions; self composed of quotations; collection as self-portraiture; intertextual self. In “On Cannibals,” Montaigne thus cites, among others, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Virgil, and Horace.





26 Epistemology of the Essay: Montaigne Before Descartes Descartes in born in 1596, 4 years after Montaigne dies; Meditations is first published in 1641, about 60 years after the Essays. Like Descartes, Montaigne aims to move from skeptical doubt to knowledge. Like Descartes, Montaigne grants the “I” a key place in this process. Montaigne’s motto: “Que sais-je?” “What do I know?”


28 Epistemology of the Essay: Montaigne Before Descartes But unlike Descartes, Montaigne does not equate knowledge with certainty. Thus the ‘essay,’ the attempt; knowledge is never perfect or complete.

29 Knowing the Other/Judging by the Test of Reason “Having surveyed, during his invasion of Italy, the marshaling of the army that the Romans had set out against him, King Pyrrhus remarked: ‘I do not know what barbarians these are.’ – for so the Greeks called all foreign nations – ‘but the ordering of the army before me has nothing barbarous about it....’ We see from this how chary we must be of subscribing to vulgar opinions; we should judge them by the test of reason and not by common report (105).”

30 Knowing the Other/Judging by the Test of Reason “Barbarian” is the term Greeks use to describe non-Greeks and, more specifically, those who do not speak Greek. For Greeks, languages other than Greek sound like mere stuttering: ‘bar-bar-bar-barians.’ [Onomatapoeia] Scene represents a rupture with this Greek logic: just because they are foreigners, just because they speak a different language, does not mean they are “barbarians.”

31 Knowing the Other/Judging by the Test of Reason For King Pyrrus, this is a problem of practical knowledge; the name/concept of“barbarian” does not help him win the war against Rome; discarding this concept is a practical necessity. In this example, the question of ‘knowing the Other’ is ultimately in the service of defeating the Other. Question of abstract theoretical knowledge of Other is not answered (or posed at all).

32 Knowing the Other/Judging by the Test of Reason Theoretical knowledge of Other is more difficult problem; how do we know we’ll come up with a better name or concept than “barbarian,” “Marrano,” or “cannibal”? What if we just replace one misunderstanding with another? In other words: problem of cultural translation; how can we be sure we’ve understood?

33 The Problem of Knowing the Other: 3 Strategies in Montaigne 1. Foregrounding fact of mediation; that our knowledge depends on translations or testimonies that may be imperfect. 2. Inversion: Using our concepts of the Other (e.g., “cannibal”) to try to understand ourselves. The purpose of knowledge of the Other is ultimately self-critique. 3. Assume that distinction between Self and Other is never absolute. Note that Montaigne holds on to the term “cannibal” but generalizes its use.

34 The Simple Man and the Man of Intelligence “This man who stayed with me was a plain, simple fellow, and men of this sort are likely to give true testimony. Men of intelligence notice more things and view them more carefully, but they comment on them; and to establish and substantiate their interpretation, they cannot refrain from altering the facts a little….We need either a very truthful man, or one so ignorant that he has no material with which to construct false theories and make them credible: a man wedded to no idea. My man was like that…” (108)

35 The Simple Man and the Man of Intelligence These two figures are not exactly ‘real people’; instead they are theoretical constructions, which allow us to grasp the problem of knowledge. If we have too much knowledge and too much theory, it can be difficult to grasp the new, the strange, and the particular – in short, what we don’t already know. But: pure experience without theory or prior knowledge is – strictly speaking – impossible, and moreover, would be entirely useless.

36 The Simple Man and the Man of Intelligence The essayist must too be a “man wedded to no idea,” but he must also finally produce some kind of knowledge. He must simultaneously forget what he knows – become the simple man – and draw on his knowledge.

37 Cosmography v. Topography “Therefore I am satisfied with this information, and do not inquire what the cosmographers say about it. We need topographers to give us exact descriptions of the places where they have been.” Cosmography – ‘writing of the cosmos,’ ‘writing of the whole.’ Topography – ‘writing of the place.’ Montaigne aligns himself with the place; interested in knowledge of particulars, rather than of wholes; modest knowledge. “I would have everyone write about what he knows and no more than he knows, not only on this, but on all other subjects (108).”

38 Cosmography v. Topography But there’s an additional twist: the place, the topos is not stable or self-identical; it is dynamic and temporal. The river is the ultimate paradigm of place (or topos): “It would seem that there are movements, some natural and some feverish, in these great bodies, as in our own. When I consider the encroachment that my own river, the Dordogne, is making at present on its right bank, and that in 20 years it has gained so much, undermining the foundations of several buildings, I see clearly that this disturbance is no ordinary one.” (107)

39 Cosmography v. Topography “For if it had always done so at this rate or were always to do so, the face of the world would be totally transformed. But rivers are subject to changes; sometimes they overflow one bank, and sometimes the other; and sometimes they keep to their channels.” (107) Paradigm of the river gives us a law of change. It is this law of change that makes the essay an essay, that is, an attempt: one can never fully or finally grasp that which is changing.

40 Some Principles of the “Cannibals” Two main duties: “valor against the enemies and love for their wives” (111). “They believe in the immortality of the soul, and that those who have deserved well of the gods have their abode in that part of the sky where the sun rises; and those who are damned in the West (112).”

41 ‘Cannibal’ Limitation on Political- Theological Authority “[The prophet] prophesies things to come, and tells them what outcome to expect from their enterprises; he encourages them to war, or dissuades them from it; but all this with the proviso that should he make a false prophecy, or should things not turn out for them according to his predictions, they will cut him into a thousand pieces if he is caught, and condemn him as a false prophet (112).” Relationship of power and counter-power is institutionalized.

42 ‘Cannibal’ Limitation on Political- Theological Authority The essayistic mode is also defined in opposition to the theological (prophetic) mode: “Those who undertake matters that depend only on the human capacities for guidance, are to be excused if they merely do their best.” (112) – In other words, if they make an attempt [essai].

43 The Cannibalism of the “Cannibals” “Every man brings home for a trophy the head of an enemy he has killed, and hangs it over the entrance of his dwelling. After treating a prisoner well for a long time, and giving him every attention he can think of, his captor assembles a great company of his acquaintances. He then ties a rope to one of the prisoner’s arms, holding him by the other end, at some yards’ distance for fear of being hit, and gives his best friend the man’s other arm, to be held in the same way; and these two, in front of the whole assembly dispatch him with their swords. This done, they roast him, eat him all together, and send portions to their absent friends. They do not do this, as might be supposed, for nourishment as the ancient Scythians did, but as a measure of extreme vengeance (113).”

44 The Cannibalism of the “Cannibals” The cannibals do not torture their captives – unlike many so called advanced nations in today’s world. They do not hide their violence. And they share their meal with the whole community (including absent friends)

45 Transition/Reversal “I am not so anxious that we should note the horrible savagery of these acts as concerned that, whilst judging their faults so correctly, we should be so blind to our own (113).” Montaigne’s true subject turns out to be European society. He does not idealize the New World, but he is much more concerned with European hypocrisy – a subject about which he knows far more.

46 Transition/Reversal (continued) “I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead; to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling, to roast it by degrees, and then give it to be trampled and eaten by dogs and swine – a practice which we have not only read about but seen within recent memory, not between ancient enemies, but between neighbors and fellow-citizens and, what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion – than to roast and eat a man after he is dead (113).”

47 Cannibals as anti-bourgeois, anti- individualists “They do not strive for conquest of new territories…” (114) “They leave to their heirs the undivided possession of their property, to be held in common…” (114) “The most valiant are sometimes the most fortunate. There are defeats, therefore, that are as splendid as victories.” (116) “The true victor lies in battle rather than in survival; the prize of valor in fighting, not in winning.” (117)

48 Citing and Collecting the Cannibals If the cannibals do not privilege accumulation, expansion, and survival, they may in fact die out. Or put slightly differently, they might become “classics.” Just as Montaigne cites Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Virgil, and Horace, he also cites the cannibals. The essay is the virtual place where different times and places can exist side by side. The “New World” and classical antiquity both have the function of showing an alternative to contemporary Christian/European morality.


50 Collecting Cannibal Wit “‘These muscles,’ he says, ‘this flesh, and these veins are yours, poor fools that you are! Can you not see that the substance of your ancestors’ limbs is still in them? Taste them carefully, and you will find the flavor is that of your own flesh.’ A shaft of wit that by no means savors of barbarism (117).” Cannibal wit ‘tastes good’ (“by no means savors of barbarism”). Montaigne (cultured man or ‘man of taste’) shares the same taste as the cannibal.

51 Collecting Cannibal Wit Why? Point of anecdote is that ‘eating the other’ may in fact mean ‘eating the self’; like Montaigne’s intertextual self, it problematizes the self/other distinction. The cannibal thinks he’s eating the other, but is in fact eating the self. The essayist presents a ‘self’ composed of quotations from others. Montaigne cannibalizes the classics, and Montaigne cannibalizes the cannibals. “I am afraid that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs” (105).


53 Anthropology in Reverse (Reversal of Colonial Gaze) “They said that in the first place they found it very strange that so many tall, bearded men, all strong and well armed, who were around the King – they probably meant the Swiss of his guard – should be willing to obey a child, rather than choose one of their own number to command them. Secondly – they have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another – that they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at the door, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses (119).”

54 Cannibal Cop Headlines

55 Patti Smith, Summer Cannibals

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