THE LAST TABOO
`I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout’ Jonathan Swift A Modest Proposal. (1729)
`EATING PEOPLE’, sang the reluctant cannibal in the comic song of the sixties, `is wrong’. And his unpersuaded colleague replied with an argument not unlike LGCM’s justification of homosexuality. `People have always eaten people. If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat’.
Cannibalism, for reasons I can hardly begin to guess, is in the news.
Christmas brought the predictable advertisements for indigestion tablets; this year with a sinister twist. Two men drifted alone in a small boat on a deserted ocean; after the passage of time only one remained. The voice of Richard Wilson, who has cornered the market in lugubrious misanthropy, gave the sombre message: `Alka-seltzer, when there’s something you ought not to have eaten’.
Perhaps it was all by way of subliminal allusion to Anthony Hopkins’s brilliant portrayal, in `The Silence of the Lambs’ of a cannibalistic psychopath of superior intelligence whose final escape into suburbia is a parable of our times. It came as something of a shock that the man who made us weep as C.S. Lewis, with so much human fragility and resilience, could sink his teeth into human flesh. And now news has reached us that the Russians are at it again.
Cannibalism is a recurrent feature of Russian society. It was well attested in the great famines of the nineteenth century. As Orlando Figes points out in his splendid new survey of the Russian Revolution A People’s Tragedy, it was, in the starving twenties, `a much more common phenomenon than historians have previously assumed’ (pp.777ff.). Now The Sunday Times (December 29, 1996) informs us that there are over thirty cases before the courts of the Russian Republic of people who have been caught eating people. And a close survey of the abattoirs of Siberia would probably come up with a whole lot more.
There is a gruesome fascination to these reports. It is as though a polite society with a high estimate of its own altruism is fascinated by the ultimate in depravity: Frederick West become Sweeney Todd. Elegant vegetarians in frankly fake fur coats, veal-crate protesters and hunt saboteurs are all forced to face up to the fact that they are – for better or worse – part of a race of carnivores. We eat meat and we are meat.
The literate cannibals of the People’s Tragedy agreed with the cannibal in the comic song. It all seemed natural, inevitable even. ‘…the craving for human flesh which starving people can easily develop once they have eaten it, ‘ writes Figes, ‘ was not peculiar to any social class. Hungry doctors often succumbed to eating it after long spells of relief work in the famine region, and they too stated that the worst part of the experience was “the insuperable and uncomfortable craving” which they acquired for human flesh’.
Beside all this it is easy to see how for some the dogmas of a religion which teaches the enfleshment of God, and has at its heart the eating of his `body and blood’, can seem primitive to the point of disgust. From Arius to Daphne Hampson the thoroughbred intellectual Houyhnhnms have always despised the theological Yahoos. Like vegetarians in an abattoir, they cannot stomach the smell of offal; and so they cannot credit a God who would enter the sordid particularities of the fleshly world and make them his own.
This can be put in a very cerebral way. Hampson put it classically in the first chapter of her Theology and Feminism:
`Christians believe in particularity. That is to say that they believe that God was in some sense differently related to particular events…However they may describe this uniqueness, they must say of Jesus of Nazareth that there was a revelation of God through him in a way in which this is not true of you or me. God is bound up with particular events, a particular people, above all with the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore reference must needs always be made to this history and this person. Now I myself am not a Christian because I do not believe that there could be this particularity…I do not believe there could be peculiar events, such as a resurrection or miracles, events which interrupt the normal causal relationships persisting in history and in nature. I do not believe in uniqueness.’ [p.8]
For all the rational analysis this is as much a thing of the heart as of the mind. It is not so much a rejection of a God who improperly intervenes in a material world, as of the material world itself, which is somehow perceived as unworthy of God. Miss Hampson’s God is not a person, or even an independent agent. S/He is nothing more or less than Miss Hampson herself as she would be shorn of all the unsatisfactory fleshy bits.
But the particularities which underlie the Christian heilsgechichte are gruesome and fleshly in the extreme: one thinks of the stench of blood and the thick flies of midsummer which must have characterised the temple mount in Jerusalem; of Abraham poised, knife in hand, a hair’s breadth from infanticide. Over every Christian altar hangs a victim of the most lurid form of public execution; and the happy birthday of the Saviour is every year followed by a commemoration of the slaughter of the innocents.
Revulsion from the human condition is, of course, a necessary part of it. And cannibalism fascinates and revolts us because for carnivores like ourselves it is always a lurking possibility. But orthodox Christianity, the religion of the logos enfleshed, allows us both to face our bestiality and to transcend it. It is, after all, not cerebration but sacraments which can turn cannibals into saints.
Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark.