A poetics of cannibalism
the teeth in love
-Lucretius, De rerum natura
You must sit down, sayes Lave, and taste my meat
-George Herbert, Love [III]
“If a native falls from a tree… .he is generally killed and eaten.”
At sixteen, Saint Augustine stole an armful of pears from a neighboring orchard, though the sin he confessed was not a theft inspired by his taste for pears-they were a shriveled, worm-eaten lot in any case-but an appetite inspired by his taste for sin: “For if any of these fruit entered my mouth, the sweetener of it was my sin in eating.”
In the story of the Garden, Eve “took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” But far from satisfying a hunger, their small feast exposed a terrible secret- “the appetite grows by eating”-a secret that eventually came to serve as a judgment upon the living: “What is commonly called love, namely the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh.”
Less naked in the mirror than she is to us-who, in the late seventeenth-century fashion, view her discreetly from our place behind-the model for Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, still warm and damp from her morning bath, seems not to be about “the immobility of myth” so much as “some fruitful trace” of who she is. While she regards herself, we regard her from a perspective that reveals “all together, / Face, shoulders, waist, delectable smooth thighs.” In the modern version-Picasso, Gorky, Schiele, et al-a radical change occurs. The reclining figure, no longer viewed as a site of passive contemplation, becomes instead the site of appetite itself, the instinctual field of a ravishment, where pleasure, abduction, gluttony, power will bring to bear the full and ancient prerogatives of exogamy. In the modern version, the hunger of a thousand years becomes the subject of what it consumes.
At dinner one evening a visiting English anthropologist explains to everyone seated around the table, “Though cannibalism is not confined to the human-a lion might eat lion flesh, for example, and it’s also considered a cannibal-only when practiced by humans is it considered beneath
the species. Only a human can be inhuman. Only a human can yield to inhumanity.” Later, the coffee and dessert dishes shoved to one side, the informal lecture successfully delivered, he pushes back heavily into his chair with the air of a man unhappy to see his appetites end.
But then-as if “out of the eater came forth the meat”-when the graduate assistant assigned to him returns from the upstairs restroom, her lipstick and hair restored, he appears to watch her with an eager, newly rekindled hunger. And, as with all his earlier observations, they see what he means, indeed it seems they acknowledge it right along with him, the not-altogether-unthinkable fact-figures of speech aside-that she looks truly good enough to eat.