The Cannibalism Taboo And Becoming A Ghost

The use of cannibalism in Lon Fuller‘s “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers“–which I assigned as a reading this semester to kick off my philosophy of law class’ take on the nature of law and legal interpretation–is, of course, a deliberate choice to render the circumstances of that fictional case especially dramatic, to place the actions of those who killed and ate the unfortunate Whetstone beyond the pale. The presence of cannibalism makes plausible the claim by Justice Foster that the explorers, by their actions, had passed into ‘a state of nature’- presumably a zone where human moral and legal evaluation and regulation breaks down. Cannibalism is used too, in tales of post-apocalyptic horror, to indicate that the terminal stage of a breakdown in humanity and the social order has been reached. (Think of the aptly named ‘Terminus‘ in The Walking Dead; of the ‘meat locker‘ in The Road.) Cannibalism is where the road to perdition takes you; it is taboo.

In unpacking the meanings of ‘taboo’ in Totem and Taboo Freud marked out one cluster associated with ‘taboo’ as ‘uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean.’ He found ‘the real sources of taboo’ in places of the mind ‘where the most primitive and the most enduring human impulses have their origin, namely, the fear of the effect of demonic powers….concealed in the tabooed object.’ (These later become ‘autonomous’ and become ‘the compulsion of custom and tradition and finally the law.’)

In the case of cannibalism, the fear of the demonic powers is especially strong: the guilty cannibal perceives himself as consuming not mere flesh but a person. The presence of the person imbues the flesh that is eaten. Moreover, the flesh eaten by the cannibal is too familiar. There is no distance from it, the kind that makes the killing and eating of other animals possible. The visage reminds us of ours; we all too easily imagine ourselves as the animal killed for the feast; we can conjure up its visions of pain and suffering; we can place ourselves in its stead with little difficulty. The spirits that animated the body of the cannibal’s meal are not strangers to us then; we live with them every day. The ‘dangerous power which is transmitted by contact with the object so charged’ that Freud spoke of is, in the case of a human eaten by another human, just the life-force or the living spirit which is supposed to live on in non-material form in ghosts.  As Freud noted, ‘any one who has violated such a prohibition assumes the nature of the forbidden object as if he had absorbed the whole dangerous charge.’  To eat another human being is to make yourself into a living ghost; to risk contamination by an invading spirit by placing it within us. A cannibal eating another human is not just eating flesh but turning itself into a ghost. Perhaps this is why the cannibal seems inexplicable; we cannot imagine inviting demonic possession in the way he does.

Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Post-Apocalyptic Literature

There comes a moment, as the reader moves through Part Two of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement, of sensing something familiar and  recognizable, a deja-vu of sorts, in the sparse yet rich, brutal, unsparing descriptions of physical and moral catastrophe on the long, hot, bloodstained road of retreat to Dunkirk. They are all here: the dead–animal and human alike, the wounded–ditto, the breakdown of social order, the confusion, the  stupidity of attempting to impose order on the essentially chaotic, the slippage of  familiar hierarchy, the formation of new alliances and the disintegration of the old, the cruelty of the mob, the heroism of the individual, the relentless reminders of the eternal importance of the most basic things of all–food and water, the suppurating wounds that will not heal, the dirt and squalor, the fragility of life, the greed and desperation and violence of the desperate, the sordid and sublime actions of those trying only to survive, the fear hanging over all human actions and pronouncements, the grim determination to persist matched by the hopeless flopping down, the giving-up in despair. This is post-apocalyptic literature.

Descriptions and evocations of the aftermath of the apocalypse-whatever its reason, whether pandemics, or vampires, global heating or cooling, asteroid, comet and meteorite strikes, or killer zombies, or human interference with the order of nature gone terribly wrong–are a modern staple of literature and film and television. They exercise a peculiar and particular fascination on our imagination and sensibility; we are obsessed by the opportunity the various apocalypses provide for all manners of investigation and speculation. Here may be found laboratories for moral experimentation, that will reveal how human ethics will reconfigured by challenges to its comfortable verities; here exist all manners of paradigm shifting notions of politics–anarchism and libertarianism obtain traction, perhaps?–and economics and law–think new modes of property and ownership and inheritance and criminal justice.

McEwan’s revisitation of an old disaster reminds us post-apocalyptic speculation is as old as the hills. (Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah is a Biblical tale of the supposedly oldest apocalypse of all.) And the most familiar member of that genre is the war novel or film. The battlefield is the oldest venue of apocalypse; the scorched, smoking, stinking, corpse-littered lands through which invading armies moved have always been classic settings for post-apocalyptic reckonings of the changes induced in man and world by catastrophic, deranged violence. The Grande Armée‘s retreat from Moscow was an apocalypse for its soldiers, as they fell, stumbled, froze, were picked off by wolves and Cossacks, or were sometimes beaten to death or had their throats slit by vengeful villagers. They too found occasions for heroism and cowardice; they too, fought for scraps of food and drops of water and betrayed friends and rescued strangers. They too, found on those frozen wastes of the endless, pitiless, Russian landscape, moments for the most elemental decisions of all, and found themselves turned into either saints or sinners.

To be fascinated by the apocalypse is the oldest form of staring into the abyss.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: Portrait of the Apocalypse

If you find speculation about post-apocalyptic situations interesting, then you should find speculation about the progression of an apocalypse interesting too. Steve Soderbergh‘s Contagion is a fine cinematic take on this eventuality.

The movie’s plot is simple: a deadly new virus jumps the animal-human barrier, and is transmitted quickly by contact. The virus’ first appearance occurs in the Far East, and then, thanks to its method of transmission and modern international travel, it quickly acquires a global presence. Its rate of progression is geometric, and as disease control centers struggle to study its molecular biology–“a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses”–and devise a vaccine, the virus spreads, killing dozens, then hundreds, thousands and millions. This is a global pandemic, one that could terminate civilization as we know it. 

As the pandemic progresses, successive scenes in the movie–often sustained by Cliff Martinez’ excellent soundtrack– ratchet up the tension, leading finally, to the dreaded scenes of a possibly irreversible breakdown in social order.  It is all here: the run for food at supermarkets; the hoarding; the looting; the spreading panic; the evacuations and the exodus. Conspiracy theories make the rounds; the unscrupulous find ways to profit; the principled find new occasions for bravery; the diligent die; there is space aplenty for displays of love, cowardice, fear, and bravery.

Many entries in the post-apocalyptic genre leave the apocalypse unspecified; Contagion details it quite carefully.

It is be too simplistic to suggest, as many are often tempted to when confronted with such portrayals of social degeneration in response to catastrophe, that these are occasions when “true human nature”, inevitably described as “selfish” and “cruel”, is on display. Instead, as I have argued before,

There is an alternative moral to be drawn…the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

What makes Contagion as compelling as it manages to be is ultimately its commitment to scientific and political fidelity: the genetics, the virology, the epidemiology, the development of a vaccine, are all carefully and knowledgeably described and deployed in storytelling, as are the machinations of interactions between state and federal officials, and national and international public health authorities. This is a cerebral thriller, whose slickness of production artfully complements its keen eye for detail.

Mankind makes it back from the brink, but it has been a narrow escape, and it will not bring back to life the twenty-six million that do lose their lives. This is fiction, but the perils it depicts are not too far from actuality.

The Post-Apocalyptic Famine

A couple of days ago, I viewed Tim Fehlbaum’s directorial debut Hell, which “tells the story of a group of survivors in post-apocalyptic Germany in the year 2016, when solar flares have destroyed the earth’s atmosphere and temperatures have risen by 10°C.” As my posts here on The Walking Dead and The Road would indicate, I often find my mind wandering to cheerful thoughts of post-apocalyptic times. One of my dominant obsessions in this domain–as it appears to be of the productions just named–is food, or rather, the lack of it.

Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Somehow, through this all, the most unsettling image yet was [of] a row of empty food shelves at a coffee shop; on asking the barista why their normal snack offerings were not available, I was told it was because the usual deliveries were not being made by trucks.  At that moment, again, I became aware I lived on an island, one serviced by road and train connections to the ‘rest of the world,’ that bridges and tunnels were still lifelines for it, that most connections between its points occur in relatively mundane, non-glamorous, and as Sandy showed, eminently disruptable ways. It was at that moment too, that the fragility and contingency of our existence here became just a little clearer; I was reminded again of the logistical connections, of the coordinated work of hundreds and thousands of men and women that keeps everything  ’normal’ on a day to basis: those trucks that make deliveries day and night, the gas that keeps them running (and that heats our buildings). All those supermarket shelves–normally bursting to the seams with packaged goods and produce efficiently delivered from afar–would rapidly empty, if the gas-tunnel-truck disruption continued. (For remember: we live on an island, we don’t grow our food around here.) This city is only able to play home to ten million people because a vast interdependent network of supply chains lets it do so.

The vast majority of us do not grow or produce our own food; we buy it from stores, which are supplied by a vast transportation network, in turn supplied by a vast manufacturing network (dependent on other networks of supply and manufacture and so on). When the apocalypse strikes, the first thing to go will be these two networks: those who man them will be incapacitated, production lines will break down, deliveries will cease. In response, panicky runs on the remaining food supply will begin, as will hoarding. Violent clashes for food will be inevitable; these will continue as it will become increasingly evident that no more supplies are forthcoming. And because fuel will be in short supply too, looking for food will become extremely difficult. Cities will rapidly become dying–and killing–zones.

The resultant desperate situation is, I think, only dimly grasped; the cannibalism that is a recurrent feature of modern takes on the post-apocalypse is a grim acknowledgment of it. (The Walking Dead comics feature it; the television show has not done so yet.) The shortage of food and the ensuing mass starvation will almost certainly be the grimmest–and least ennobling–aspect of the disaster that our modern culture seems to spend so much time speculating about.

‘The Road’ and the Centrality of Love for Existence

How can a difficult read be an easy one? It can be easy because the difficulty is compelling and seductive, because ‘difficult’ does not mean ‘obscure’, because difficult can be worthy of admiration.

A few days ago, when I saw John Hillcoat‘s The Roadbased on Cormac McCarthy‘s novel of the same name, I had not yet read it. Today I did so. It was an unputdownable book that pulled me into its grasp and didn’t let go till I was done, its pages all turned and marked ‘read.’ It was an easy read for the reasons mentioned above; McCarthy is a virtuosic writer, a master of the  spare and savage prose he deploys to bring alive a chilling, gray, slowly sickening and dying world; you read because are compelled to. And The Road is a difficult book because of its central subject: the possibility and desirability of hope in a world without one.

Why live if there is nothing to live for? This is not an easy question to answer. Is continued existence a worthy enough objective to warrant endless self-privation and misery, the killing of others, and acts of deliberate cruelty? In ‘normal life’ we may excuse seeming exceptions to the moral order we dimly glimpse because we are convinced by some calculus of consequences that a ‘better world’ will be realized because of our actions. But what if the only outcomes to our actions are ignoble and base, narrowly conceived and realized?  In a world where existence never rises above the level of mere non-death, and is destined to never get better, why persist? The inhabitants of a world like the one through which the Man and the Boy journey resemble nothing quite as much as terminally ill patients. The contours of the ethical debate surrounding their demise will be similar to those engaged in by those who, like the Man and the Boy, persist and persevere in order to stay alive.  For their death is foretold; discomfort and despair is their only lot.

The Man’s wife sensed that there would be no survival if stronger reasons than wanting to preserve one’s own life are not found:

The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with some words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.

And for The Man, the existence of the boy will be all the reason he needs to go living before, eventually, his body and mind give way and he lays himself down to sleep. In the end, all the cruelty and privation of the world he left behind cannot disguise the fact that though ‘love’ is not a word that is uttered too often in it, it was always present when the Man and the Boy were together.

The Post-Apocalyptic Zone of Moral Instruction

During a Facebook discussion in response to my post yesterday on The Road, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

I am never sure what to make of “post-apocalyptic porn.” On the one hand they seem to be thought experiments about the “State of Nature.” On the other, they seem to tend to express exaggerated exasperation with “civilization,” as if reinforcing the feeling that “nothing can be done.”

Maureen is right that a standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed.’ This is the fiction of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ alluded to in yesterday’s post; it is will be revealed once the civilizing layers of our civilization are removed and we revert back to the original ‘state of nature’. The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true. (This lesson may be imparted with varying degrees of sanctimony depending on the artist.)

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

Maureen’s second point illustrates the ways in which post-apocalyptic depictions may be read as making the claim that civilization’s  promises were always illusory; the changes and improvements it supposedly brought about were transient, contingent and ultimately fragile; the apocalypse destroys our civilization’s claims to have improved us; we remain just as uncivilized as we ever were. Because its hold on us is shown to be so tenuous, we feel serious doubt awaken within us about whether it’s a civilization worth saving in the first place. If its moral lessons weren’t permanent, if the order it created was only a temporary imposition. then what good is it anyway? How much commitment can it demand if its legacy is only a thin veneer of restrained behavior, a temporary cessation of an otherwise incessant hostility?

The post-apocalyptic genre is both forgiving and condemnatory in its views of humans and the world they make for themselves.

John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’: Bleak and Unsparing

John Hillcoat’s The Road is a faithful cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic world. It is almost unrelentingly grim because it is unsparing about the bitter truths of a world in which food and morality are both in short supply: existence is a mere step up from the eventual slow death that awaits most; its contours are brutal and painful at the best of times.

Cinematic and literary post-apocalyptic visions have been the rage for a while; indeed, one might even see them as a testing and training ground of sorts for a very particular breed of auteur. Perhaps one’s imaginative vision and conception of the world we live in can best be captured by trying to imagine its end, its destruction, its breakdown in the face of disaster. Our normal weekday world and its human relationships are covered and disguised by layers of artifice; perhaps its ‘true nature’ will be discovered only when all excuses for pretense are absent; that stage is most likely in a post-apocalypse world. (There are interesting fictions at play here about ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ of course, but they’ll do for the time being.)

The Road captures several aspects of the post-apocalyptic world far better than that contemporary icon of popular culture, The Walking Dead. It is more skeptical about the chances of obtaining food and more cognizant of the possibilities of malnutrition and starvation; the danger from other survivors is greater (the Governor looks like a pretty friendly gentleman compared to the cannibalistic marauding predators in The Road); the question of why continued existence is meaningful is more present (and as the suicides show, it is often answered in the negative). To be entirely fair to The Walking Dead, it is set much earlier in the aftermath of the ‘end of the world as we know it’; its treatment might have been darker too, were it as late in the post-apocalypse period as The Road is.

The Road is grimmer than The Walking Dead in its palette too, which is gray, somber, and cold, one only intermittently illuminated by a sun that struggles fitfully to break through the all-enveloping haze; trees are broken, burnt and devastated as are cars, homes, bodies and minds. Its world is deathly quiet; the interruptions to this silence are almost always unwelcome because they speak not of company and solace, but of greater danger. There is detritus strewn around; the humans are just as twisted and disfigured as their surroundings. Once the world is done doing its worst to people, the humans will continue to do its dirty work.

It would seem bizarre to suggest that a movie like The Road could have a ‘happy ending’ in the conventional sense of the word. Yet so cruel has the movie’s vision been till its closing stages that its final resolution is perhaps its most hopeful moment, one that offers some relief, a minor respite, after we have been allowed to imagine a loneliness that might be more painful than any death. Small mercies indeed.