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.

The Post-Apocalyptic World Of The War Refugee

A year or so ago, in writing about classroom discussions centering on Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, I had noted that the homeless–whom the Man and the Boy most resemble–live in a post-apocalyptic world of their own:

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk….the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered…they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night….the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

There is another way to think about the Man and the Boy in The Road: they are refugees. They have lost their home; their family is devastated; they are fleeing violence; they are seeking shelter and food and warmth; they are, as their name implies, seeking refuge. The world they knew is no more; they seek another world, one in which they might, perhaps, begin life anew.

It is easy to imagine–as we voraciously consume products of the post-apocalyptic genre in literature and film–that the post-apocalypse is a fantasy, a possible world about which we can safely speculate from a distance. But we forget all too soon that apocalypse stalks this world of ours; it is present in the lives of many. For zones of  war are zones of apocalypse. ‘Normal’ life is no more; daily existence is subsistence. Homelessness and sudden, violent death is the norm for civilians. Abandon all hope indeed, ye who enter here, and ye who dare escape.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this as we think about this war-stricken world’s refugee crisis. And in particular, of course, about the refugees fleeing the four-year old Syrian war. Over four million are now displaced, and many more will be, for the conflict shows no sign of abating. Most, if not all, have lost loved ones; all have lost their homes. They too, have passed through landscapes not too dissimilar to the ones depicted in The Road. Their life is reduced to the most elemental of all missions: food, shelter, clothing.

Perhaps this world might stop fantasizing about survival strategies in an imaginary post-apocalyptic worlds, and think about how it might address the problems of this all too real one.

The Road And The Apocalyptic World of the Homeless

Last week, the students in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class and I, as part of our ongoing discussion about Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, watched John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation of it. On Monday, we watched roughly half the movie in class, and then on Wednesday, we concentrated on three scenes: the encounter with Ely the ‘blind’ old man; the encounter with the thief; and the closing scenes, as the Boy meets his ‘new family.’

After we had finished viewing the encounter with Ely, I asked my students what they made of the differences between the novel and the movie’s treatment of that event. This spun into an interesting discussion about the imagery employed by McCarthy and Hillcoat, especially as many of my students felt that the movie could not quite conjure up the novel’s aura of apocalyptic destitution that swirls around Ely and his gnomic pronouncements on the state of the world.

Building on this, I asked my students what they made of the movie’s visual descriptions of the Man, the Boy, and Ely: their filthy dress, their dirty, unkempt, unwashed appearance, their patched up shoes, the cart containing their possessions that they push along. (The book also makes note of Ely’s terrible smell.) What did this most remind them of? A few hands went up: these characters looked like New York City’s homeless, an often familiar sight.

As this identification was made, my students realized, I think, what I was getting at.

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk. They might seem unfamiliar to us at first, because the world described in the novel and the movie–devastated by an unspecified catastrophe–looks comfortably distant from our normal, everyday existence. But the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered (as news bulletins often remind us). Unlike the Man, the Boy, and Ely, they don’t have to fear cannibalism (not yet anyway) but perhaps they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night, next to, and on top of, some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

So while we might sustain the illusion that the events described in The Road are fiction, the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

Re-Reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’

I’m re-reading Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road in preparation for discussing it with my students next week. It has been an interesting experience.

First, I am struck by how new the book seems on this second reading. I read it first a year ago, and yet, its prose seems just as pristine. There is some familiarity in the narrative, in the landscape the Man and the Boy traverse, and the central tragedy of their impoverished and stark existence, but the words are read anew all over again. They have not lost–in the slightest–their power to evoke wonder, pity, fear, and sorrow. Indeed, I’m struck by how much more I notice on my second journey through this bitter, desolate land (beginning with the dream on page one of “the great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake” on whose “far shore” is a “creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.”)

Second, my first reading occurred after I had already seen John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation. Then, my appreciation of the novel’s imagery had been significantly impacted by that of the movie; I could not but help invoke the movie in my mind’s eye as I read the book. It made for an often jarring experience. Now, a year or so has passed since I last saw the movie, and the novel stands on its own. And I dare say its brilliance is even more acutely on display. I’m more aware of the poetic sparseness and harshness of its language, its deployment of wondrous words and sentences (“lozenges of stone veined and striped”), and the interiority of the Man, his bitter railings and his love and anger. Then, I had read the novel to see what the movie was based on; now, as I read the novel there is nothing else in mind. My attention is commanded entirely by the novel; its spells are ever more efficacious.

Third,  I am not reading alone. My students are reading it with me, even if they are not physically present at the moment. Because I’m reading the book in preparation for a classroom discussion, I’m actively and aggressively marking up passages to bring up in class.  I am looking, keenly, for its suggestions and symbolisms and allegories;  I am thinking anew about the meanings of even the briefest dialogues. I’m anticipating my students’ reactions to each passage, wondering whether one of them will comment on the same line I have marked up in the margins, whether they will be horrified, saddened, and enthralled as I was a year ago, and as I am now. Because I will be bringing my reading of the book to them, and hope they will do the same, my reading is tinged with a sense of foreboding: yet another encounter with it awaits me. Who knows what my students’ backgrounds and lives will produce in their meetings with the text? And perhaps our joint discussion will throw up ever newer meanings and interpretations.

Truly, the classics pay rich dividends for our persistent devotions.

Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a ‘trigger warning’ for the readings in future.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Addendum: Thanks to all for your comments. I’ve deleted the email text I had originally reproduced here and replaced it with a paraphrase.

Back To Teaching – I

On Wednesday, I return to teaching after a one-year hiatus (on sabbatical). Here are the–admittedly skimpy and sketchy–course descriptions of the three classes I will be teaching this coming fall semester. I am looking forward to them. I’m sure my enthusiasm will soon be tempered by encountering my university’s mind-numbing bureaucracy (and the dubious pleasures of grading) but for now, it’s good to be able to anticipate my forthcoming encounters with students and classroom discussions.

Philosophy of Religion

The philosophy of religion queries the foundations of religion and religious thought. Its central questions are among the most enduring in philosophy; they may be engaged by both theists and atheists, and involve the major branches of philosophical inquiry such as epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and ethics.

Among the most important of the questions raised in the philosophy of religion are: What is the nature of religious belief?  What is the relationship between faith and reason? Does God exist? If so, what is (its/his/her) nature? Does morality require religious belief? What is evil? What problems does it create for arguments for the existence of God? What is the nature of religious experience? Is there a difference between religious belief and religious feeling? What are religious language’s distinguishing characteristics? What is the relationship between religion and science?

We will examine these in the context of several philosophical and religious traditions, finding sources in philosophical and literary texts.

Social Philosophy

In this class we examine social theory and social thought—beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing on to twentieth-century postmodernism. The issues we tackle include equality, social justice, gender relations, political structures, family life, ethnic relations, and political economy. We will read philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, economists, novelists; all contribute to grappling with the complex questions facing societies and those who interact within them.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Literature offers us a lens through which to view the human condition; it enables a literary grappling with metaphysical, epistemological, logical, ethical, aesthetic, and political issues of philosophical interest and significance. In this class, we will read several works of post-apocalyptic fiction to facilitate an exploration and discussion of some of these issues.  What is the ethical and political and aesthetic vision these works embody? By imagining a radically altered state of existence, they allow us to speculate about the changes in the world and the humans who live within it; they permit a safe exploration of alternative modes of living, ethical and political systems. Of especial relevance to us is the following question: Why are the concept of the apocalypse and human responses to it of such enduring interest to novelists and philosophers?

The following is the reading list:

As the semester progresses, I hope to blog here about the material I teach, drawing upon reflections triggered by my preparations for the class meetings, as well as the actual discussions in the classroom.

Tomorrow: a report on my first day back in class.

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.