Jennifer Brown, Cannibalism in Literature and Film, Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on December 11, 2012 in Reviews tagged with , ,

Jennifer Brown, Cannibalism in Literature and Film (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Although its title may sound impossibly ambitious, Cannibalism in Literature and Film is actually a very contained and focused volume. Complementing recent histories of the cannibal such as Daniel Diehl and Mark F. Donnelly’s Eat Thy Neighbour (2008) and Jimmy Lee Shreeve’s Cannibals (2009), Jennifer Brown’s book traces the emergence of this myth in the colonial novel and brings it into present times via Italian films and serial killer novels. Her main thesis is clear: the image of the man who eats human flesh is highly metaphorical and has therefore been used to negotiate a number of historically delimited fears and anxieties, but it also returns with disturbing frequency to the possibility that such desires may be endemic to humans. Brown develops this idea by offering an interdisciplinary account of representations of cannibalistic nightmares in popular culture which, in Mark Jancovich’s words, ‘demonstrate[…] continuities in our cultural understandings of these fears’ (p. x). The unpalatable conclusion, that it is mainly the white middle-classes that have always already harboured such transgressive desires, appears all the more interesting because it is partly unexpected. The move from a system that sees cannibalism as premised on the savage other to one where this practice is largely ‘enacted from within’ (p. 13) by Western societies allows us to read the popularity of cannibalism less as the fascination which develops from all things taboo and more as an engagement with the logic of capitalistic consumption.

The book opens with a consideration of the early colonial cannibal. According to Brown, a cursory look at selected works from Daniel Defoe, Edgar Wallace, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard evinces that cannibalism is often used in adventure novels to establish a binaric delineation between civilised Westerners and human-eating savages. This clear-cut distinction, used to legitimise ‘the necessity and advantage of imperialism’ (p. 26), is, however, quickly complicated in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). A lengthy and refined analysis of this paradigm-shifting novella assesses the relevance of restraint in the cannibal other, the role of mirroring and the excess of power symbolised in the imperial scramble for Africa, and concludes that Heart of Darkness questions the validity of such oppositional social systems. Following the impact of Conrad’s complex treatment of the cannibal motif, Brown glosses over Graham Greene’s travel writing in Journey Without Maps (1936), the Tarzan films and the Italian cannibal film boom to show how ‘[i]n times of post-colonial turmoil, questions about the West’s colonial guilt, appetite for the world’s resources, and tendency to exploit others began to be asked’ (p. 81). Such a critical stance explains the resurgence of the cannibal other not as a continuation of the rhetoric of conquest, but as a break or shift towards an internalisation by the West of the alterity it once defined itself against. Cannibalism thus becomes a way of exploring, even deconstructing, the very notions of civilisation and culture though an extreme and marginal figure which sidesteps the pitfalls of colonial discourse.

The second part of the book is dedicated entirely to the domestic or regional cannibal, which Brown unravels through two different case studies: the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean and the American hillbilly. Despite their historical and contextual distance, Brown shows the texts and cultural configurations of the cannibal deriving from them to be intimately related. A close examination of the specificities of the otherness they predicate reveals that it serves as a less strongly politicised articulation of geographical biases linked to class, money and education. Regional othering, particularly in the case of the hillbilly in films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), speaks to a literary tradition that had already tackled similar national anxieties in the form of what we now term ‘frontier gothic’. Even though these texts exploit local stereotypes to grotesque extremes that include inbred deformation and monstering, they also overturn expectations and, especially in their recent remakes, seem willing to picture the city-dweller as arrogant and power-hungry. The rural cannibal thus, to a certain extent, inherits the atavistic qualities once ascribed to the colonised subject, but also initiates the third and most interesting move in the book’s narrative. This one entails the internalisation of the other, who becomes ‘frighteningly more and more like the Self, and […] drives the Self to become Other’ (p. 150). According to Brown, the regional cannibal is finally replaced by the city cannibal, which plays out fears of corporate life, alienation and mindless consumption.

The third part, entitled ‘Cannibals in Our Midst’, reflects briefly on the cannibalistic serial killer in London and then switches to a longer analysis of a number of contemporary American novels. Focusing first on the popular urban figures of Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd, Brown reads them as expressing fears related to immigration coming from the colonies and the nature of capitalist consumption. Both myths initiate a cult of the serial killer that has been accentuated through their various filmic reimaginings. The second half of this section illustrates the valence of some of the ideas suggested previously by applying them to the main characters in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996) and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. These new city cannibals, in their objectification or commodification of other people’s bodies, expose the base corporeality of life in consumer culture and criticise its consequent effect upon social and interpersonal practices. At the same time, these killers look for a form of visceral contact that seems to demonstrate a ‘desperate need to be close to another human body’ in what is essentially a ‘gory metaphor for the broken urban identity’ (p. 197). The city cannibal disrupts the boundary between self and other by uncovering all urban dwellers as potential murderers. The monstering of the self invests the othering encouraged by the regional and colonial cannibal models with a new sense of exploration: of limits, of social interaction and of late capitalism.

All in all, despite some of the obvious theoretical shortcomings of such a vast historical and transcultural endeavour, Cannibalism in Film and Literature manages to make an important contribution to Gothic Studies. It is particularly welcome because cannibalism is an area that had remained largely ignored since Maggie Kilgour’s From Communion to Cannibalism (1992) and the Eating Their Words anthology (2001). Brown’s book offers a powerful defence of the ambiguous nature of popular portrayals of cannibalism, which both help to vilify the other and to challenge the presumed distance between cannibal and prey/meat. Turning the myth on itself, this volume acknowledges the interdependence of these apparent polar opposites and complicates their function in contemporary texts. Not content with this, Brown also offers a few predictions on the future of the cannibal, which she sees flourishing in the context of post-apocalypse and of eating disorders. Although both these areas remain underexplored, her suggestion that ‘[n]o longer colonial subject, regional degenerate, or serial killer madman, the cannibal of the future is simply hungry and the human body is simply another product’ (p. 233) may go some way towards opening up these areas to more sustained scrutiny. If it is true that, as Jancovich puts it, the cannibal ‘not only tells us about monsters or about food consumption, but about the modern world more generally’ (p. ix), its study might have a strong bearing on future considerations of the body in contemporary Gothic texts.

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