Atomic essay #26 – I am going to eat you

When Michel de Montaigne described the cannibal Tupinambá of Brazil, he thought it odd that 16th century Europeans would consider them ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’.

Atomic essay #26 – I am going to eat you
Photo by Hana Lopez / Unsplash

When Michel de Montaigne described the cannibal Tupinambá of Brazil, he thought it odd that 16th century Europeans would consider them ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’. It wasn’t that the Tupinambá weren’t violent, or didn’t have what one might deem ‘savage’ practices, but that the behaviour of prominent and ostensibly noble Europeans was no better. In ‘Of Cannibals’, Montaigne revels in this irony, urging his readers to look inward for self-betterment, not outward to judge and denigrate others.

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Montaigne was right. Man has great capacity for cruelty. We’re especially cruel to those who are different to us; we’re quick to mock and demean those who hold different beliefs. I write ‘we’ not to write in judgment, but because I do it, too.

Why do we have such a problem with eating other people? It isn’t because human meat is disgusting to us; there are reports that it tastes almost exactly like veal, which many find delicious. It’s because of what the human body represents. The flesh represents the personhood, which is something almost metaphysical to us. It’s the self we’re worried about violating.

But we can change the conversation. The Wari’, also of Brazil, also used to practice cannibalism. It wasn’t though, as Montaigne reported of the Tupinambá, to celebrate martial victory. It was a mark of utmost respect for the decedent. The body would be eaten to assuage familial grief, because it meant that the soul would be kept in the bodies of other human beings instead of having to wander the forest alone. This consumption would cause the mourners gastric distress, but it was an act of love.

It’s easy to look at a part and assume knowledge of the whole. Montaigne observes:

A man may well have detailed knowledge or experience of the nature or property of one river or stream, yet about the others he knows only what everyone else does; but in order to trot out his little scrap of knowledge he will write a book on the whole of physics!

It's easy to measure someone, too, by using one's own self as a starting point. The Tupinambá were seen as savages by their European contemporaries partly becauase they were being seen through a Eurocentric lens. It was judgement that made no effort to see someone on their own terms.

Why someone eats someone, whom they eat, and how they eat them are complicated. It tells us a lot about the self. Maybe it’s done out of self-preservation. Maybe it’s down to insecurity. Maybe it’s about a belief. Maybe it’s to protect someone else.

Maybe it’s an act of love.