Monday, January 17, 2011

Cannibalism & Moralism

Paul Raffaele's (2008) Among the Cannibals isn't, on the whole, a very good book. Perhaps the last sentence of the first paragraph should have stood out as a warning: "Few of us ever want to be cannibals, but most of us want to hear stories about them." Things start well, with a tour deep into uncharted parts of New Guinea, where PR meets Korowai warriors who still kill humans they believe to be overtaken by evil spirits, khakhua (the human technically no longer in the body), and then consume the flesh. PR then travels to India to find members of a Hindu sect called the Aghori, whose holy men seek enlightenment by performing taboo acts, such as consuming flesh from the funeral pyres in Benares. Here, the narrative starts to include the distractions of PR's travels--his visits with a tantra guru have relatively little to do with the mission of seeking out cannibals. The later section on the history of cannibalism in Tonga is also mainly a diversion (with lots of bar-hopping and sunbathing), sprinkled with some history of cannibalism in the South Pacific. Ditto for the final section on cannibalism and the Aztecs. Perhaps the most important section, from a journalistic perspective, is the one on the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda (which is still at it)--here, we learn the truly horrible details of how the leaders of the LRA force abducted children to kill and then eat other children who attempt to escape. The testimony he collects here is truly horrifying, and as one reviewer noted, it is unfortunate that this terrible story has been buried within a mediocre travelogue. (Here you can read about recent developments in the effort to stop the LRA.)

My irritation hit its peak at the end of the section on the Aghoris. PR meets several times with Anil Ram Baba, reputed to be the holiest of the Aghori, but also reputed by others to be a dangerous and evil man who would try (they warned) to control PR's mind. No doubt, Baba lives on the fringes. But there is, so far as I could make out in the book, a rationale to the Aghori engagement in taboos. (None of these actions involve, so far as I can tell, harming living persons.) Baba claims that the ability to perform these acts, without being repulsed or losing one's mind, depends upon an ability to see everything in creation as holy, and in that respect transcending one's sense of repulsion. One Aghori simply denies PR's charge of cannibalism: "I'm not a cannibal. The person is already dead, and so the body is just a lump of flesh." (It's worth noting here that dogs sometimes also eat the charred flesh on the cremation pyres, and this is considered acceptable precisely because the "lump of flesh" is serving as nourishment for another animal.) PR ultimately does not take kindly to this rationalization, summing up his views at the end of the section as follows, in parentheses:
Writing this months afterward, the emotion of being with Baba has long evaporated, and I am now harsher in my judgment of his behavior. Eating human flesh, unless you have no prospect of other food and are starving to death, is an evil act, justifying the taboos placed upon it throughout much of human history, and no amount of religious mumbo jumbo can sanctify it. (123)
I'm not particularly concerned to defend the Aghoris, but PR's comments here frustrated me for their utter lack of depth. Prior to these parenthetical remarks he offers a cursory analysis of the difference between the Korowai and the Aghori, which comes down, for PR, to a difference between tradition (in the case of the Korowai, killing and eating the khakhua is a deep part of longstanding practices) and "free will" (in the case of the Aghori and Baba, who "[decided] to become and Aghor sadhu when he had just left his teens"). However, what I found really strange was PR's utter conviction that all cannibalism is "evil" unless you happen to be starving. Does it then cease to be evil, or is it then just ok to do something evil? Obviously, the recent book and film The Road suggests a different take on starvation cannibalism (although I guess if we want to split hairs, it's more like subsistence cannibalism...). A careful reader of PR's book might realize by the end the obvious point that "cannibalism" is not really a deep and unified conceptual category, and this makes PR's convictions seem sorely confused, and at best, moralistic.

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