HUM 102 Montaigne, “On Cannibals”

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Transcript HUM 102 Montaigne, “On Cannibals”

HUM 102 Montaigne, “On
Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz
What is a cannibal? And why are ‘we’
so obsessed with them?
• Cannibal: “A person who eats human
• especially for religious or magical
• as among certain tribal peoples.”
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 16th
century, who allegedly ate other humans.
• Also acquires connotation of animality,
by relation to the Latin “canis,” (dog,
• “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
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
• 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
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.
Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592
Life of Montaigne
• Born Feb. 28th, 1533; died in 1592.
• His biography and family history exemplify
two important tendencies of the period we’re
• 1. Religious conflict and wars of religion
• 2. So called “Renaissance Humanism”
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
• Montaigne: 1533-1592
• Wars of Religion: 1562-1598
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
• 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.
Life of Montaigne: Renaissance
• Renaissance Humanism: ‘Rediscovery’ of classical
(Greek, but above all Latin, pre-Christian) texts and
• 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
• And the family only employed servants who could
speak Latin.
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.
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.
The Essay: Textual Self, Intertextual
• Self represented and constructed through the essay;
to read The Essays is to get know a textual persona –
“Montaigne”; self produced through writing; textual
• 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
• In “On Cannibals,” Montaigne thus cites, among
others, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Virgil, and Horace.
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
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.
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).”
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.’
• 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.”
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).
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
• In other words: problem of cultural
translation; how can we be sure we’ve
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.
The Simple Man and the Man of
• “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…”
The Simple Man and the Man of
• 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.
The Simple Man and the Man of
• 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
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).”
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)
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.
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).”
‘Cannibal’ Limitation on PoliticalTheological 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
‘Cannibal’ Limitation on PoliticalTheological 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].
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).”
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)
• “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.
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).”
Cannibals as anti-bourgeois, antiindividualists
• “They do not strive for conquest of new territories…”
• “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)
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.
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.
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”
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).”
• Cannibal Cop Headlines
• Patti Smith, Summer Cannibals