Robert Mack is the editor of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweeney Todd is the tale of an infamous London barber who partners with a pie-maker to do devilish things with his customers. Below Mack mulls over cannibalism. This post first appeared on Powell’s.
Have you ever noticed just how many cannibals there seem to be about these days? I don’t mean the real thing (well … not just yet, at least, although be patient; we will come to them in time). No, for the moment I simply mean: have you ever noticed the extent to which the actual language we use on a day-to-day basis itself remains to an extraordinary degree permeated by the signs or the lingering rumours of what might also be described as ‘lustful cannibalism’ — a common rhetoric of erotic possession and physical consumption?
Inoffensive enough, you might at first think. Lovers, for example, still typically call each other by pet names like ‘honey’, ‘honey bun’, ‘sweetie’, ‘sweetie-pie’, ‘cookie’, and ‘sweetheart’. Objects of sexual desire — both male and female — can be referred to in popular slang as ‘hot tomatoes’ or, on occasion (as in Cole Porter’s You’re the Tops), ‘hot tamales’. Women are sometimes described not only as looking ‘hot’, but often ‘luscious’ or (and this would not be Cole Porter) ‘bootylicious’ — defined in one on-line ‘Urban Dictionary’ as ‘sexually attractive in a way that causes males ages 18-25 to desire to grope, fondle, lick, or otherwise touch the booty cheeks’, as in the charming approbation ‘Yo, g, yo bitch is bootylicious! Her ass is off da hook’ ). Some are said to look ‘good enough to eat’. ‘I could eat you up’, the beloved might very well be informed by his or her ‘lip-smacking’ admirer.
A similar rhetoric of peculiarly edible behaviour pervades a great many other aspects of our social lives as well. Some sit and ‘chew the fat’; in arguments or disagreements, opposing sides are said to ‘chew’ each other out, to ‘snap’ at their opponents, or to make ‘biting’ and ‘bitter’ remarks when ‘mouthing off’ or ‘biting back’. Adversaries might offer enemies a ‘taste’ of their prowess, or claim to be powerful enough to ‘swallow them whole’, to ‘chew them up’ and then ‘spit them out’. ‘Don’t bite my head off!’ we cry when someone appears to yell at us without due provocation. Similarly, we ‘chew over’ matters or quite explicitly ‘ruminate’ when making difficult decisions. We ‘digest’ opinions or ideas that are difficult to ‘swallow’ or ‘stomach’, or offer others a ‘taste’ of some innovative approach. We ‘sink our teeth’ into ‘choice’ or ‘meaty’ subjects that might provide ‘food’ for thought, and – when feeling unusually adventurous – we are perhaps encouraged to ‘take a bite’ out of life. More recent slang contemptibly reduces an antagonist by dismissing their own cannibalistic capability or prowess as negligible: ‘Bite me’.
In a manner closely related to the use of such language in our everyday lives, the well-known folklorists and story-collectors Iona and Peter Opie were able to trace a number of lyrics and phrases used by British schoolchildren well into the twentieth century when referring to food such as school dinners as – if not explicitly cannibalistic – then certainly intimately related to the subject. A meat pie served in a shop or institution was ‘cat’s meat’ or (up North, in Manchester) ‘growler’ – a designation signifying that the meat used in its composition was supposed to have originated from local dogs (hence the region’s similar reference to the mince used in such pies as ‘hound pudding’).
The fate of the physical human body and cannibalism is further intertwined by the bizarre and ancient tradition of lore that has gathered around the notion of ‘cannibal rags’ – the wearing by those living of clothes that have already been worn by the dead. In his typically wonderful ghost story ‘A Romance of Certain Old Clothes’ (1868), the novelist Henry James wrote of a young bride distressed by the fact that the remarkably appealing wardrobe of her suddenly departed sister had been left unused and unworn in a chest. ‘Was it not a pity’, the narrator asks, ‘that so much finery should be lost, for lost it would be, what with colours fading, and moths eating it up, and the change of fashions?’ Needless to say, the results of the young woman’s attempt to revive her sister’s clothing, as it were, are predictably disastrous. (Strikingly, the figure of Dracula, in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel of the same name, first ‘cannibalizes’ the protagonist Jonathan Harker’s clothing before moving on to his fiance Mina and his other victims; ‘it was a new shock to me’, Harker writes in his journal after a nocturnal glimpse of Dracula while immured in the Count’s Carpathian Castle, ‘to find that he had on the suit of clothes which I had worn whilst travelling here’.) The supposedly supernatural power of human garments has in fact been thought to be such that those who wear the clothing of dead people are suspected not only to bring the concept of death much closer to themselves than is in any way comfortable or desirable, but also extends to the notion that the clothes of the deceased will rot and decay simultaneously along with the decomposing corpse. More particularly, if there are knots of any sort in the clothing, the current wearer’s own good fortune in life is liable likewise to rot away forever.
Of course, despite this sustained predilection for metaphors and turns of phrase that are obsessed with oral-erotic consumption – the constant use of language that relies explicitly on acts of cannibalizing others – the actual practice of man-eating tends reassuringly to be extremely rare. The desire to consume human flesh is typically classified in modern Western society as the aberrant manifestation of an extreme psychosexual disorder that is seldom deliberately acted upon. Odd and extremely uncommon individuals, perhaps provoked or motivated in some way by unspeakable social or psychological conditions, may be attracted to or can even resort to such pathological behaviour. But the sheer inhumanity and current, fundamental irrationality of cannibalism as a physical and psychological act render it a mercifully rare phenomenon. When it comes to the subject of cannibalism, in other words, it would appear that however much we still like to talk the talk, as it were – and so retain something of the posture of cannibalism’s threat of brutal and painstakingly thorough annihilation – we seem at the same time successfully to avoid walking the walk; we seem to have suppressed the atavistic impulse to follow through on such possibly instinctive behaviour in any grotesquely consequential way. So it is, again, that the idea of human bodies eating other human bodies is today more often than not perceived and addressed as a matter more of anxious symbolism and cultural distinction than it is of any actual reality. There yet remains some fetishistic impulse even in the most ‘normal’ of human responses to the phenomenon of cannibalism – a compelling, lingering, sadistic fascination in the very act of witnessing or (more typically reading or hearing tales of) this supreme act of ‘the power of the gaze’ when it is wielded over and against another human being. We may be compelled to refrain from acting on it, but we are just as likely to remain closeted, scopophilic cannibals deep down inside.
And yet – accidents will happen. But more about that tomorrow… .