'The Eucharist of Hell'; or, Eating People is Right: Romantic Representations of Cannibalism[Notice]

  • Peter J. Kitson

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  • Peter J. Kitson
    University of Dundee

Recently a number of critics of Romanticism have explored the thought and literature of the period in the context of Britain's imperial history, bringing to bear, with differing degrees of sophistication, some of the insights of contemporary post-colonial thought. The period roughly coincided with the sustained historical process that was to culminate in Britain's domination of roughly one quarter of the surface of the globe in the later nineteenth century. The acceleration in this material process that had begun in the sixteenth century brought with it a sustained awareness of human variety and difference, both cultural and physical, as well as a growing anxiety about the status of European civilization. Increasingly subjects of the metropolitan centre sought to define themselves against a non-white and non-Christian 'other'. This construction of an imperial subjectivity coincided with the growth of the sciences of human taxonomy, which we recognize today as the beginnings of the 'race idea'. Frantz Fanon, some time ago, demonstrated how colonial subjects are produced by colonial ideology and discourses. Other post colonial theorists have argued that this subject is characterized as 'other' through discourses such as primitivism and cannibalism, establishing the binary separation of colonizer and colonized and, at the same moment, confirming the naturalness of the colonizing culture and its ideology. Cannibalism, one might say, is the most notorious process of colonial 'othering', both as an alleged practice and as a critical construct. It is clear that cannibalism was used as process by which imperial Europe distinguished itself from the subjects of it colonial expansion while concomitantly demonstrating a moral justification for that expansion. This essay discusses the use of the cannibal trope in a number of Romantic period works in an attempt to investigate how this process of 'othering' functions in both colonial and domestic writing. The process is not confined to the colonial encounter itself, but is apparent in a number of separate overlapping discourses. Rather than simply functioning as a psychic adjunct to the material process of nineteenth-century colonial expansion, the cannibal trope, I argue, is used to shore up a white Christian subjectivity against the anxieties that haunted the Romantic self, during a period when extreme hunger and starvation made the prospect of 'white cannibalism' a very real possibility or, at least, a very palpable fear. This anxiety is particularly pronounced in the practice of survival cannibalism at sea. In using the word 'cannibal' anthropologists usually denote the social practice of the eating of human flesh in the form of a ritual. The eating of human flesh is then a socially significant act, which is a part of a larger system of signs. Cannibalism in Levi-Strauss's terminology is thus confined to the sacred. This is the subject of most anthropological work on the topic; by and large anthropologists do not find the subject of the other main type of cannibalism, survival cannibalism, to be a fruitful area of debate, despite the fact that survival cannibalism is well-documented and clearly occurs, whereas there is scepticism about the extent and significance of ritual or social cannibalism. My concern in this essay is with these two forms of cannibalism, ritual and survival and their representation in Romantic period texts. There have been at least four influential explanations for ritual cannibalism which derive from Enlightenment discussions of the subject. The first stresses the importance of the word or symbol over the deed. This argues that ritual cannibalism resulted from social vengeance. Montaigne claimed, in his essay 'Des cannibales' (first published in 1580), that the Tupinamba Indians were cannibals for reasons of revenge and they were thus easily assimilated into …

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