Decline and Fall
Cannibalism Is … Cool?
In our very healthy culture, we are exploring the transgressive pleasure of eating human flesh
In the NYT, Jane Coaston says don’t listen to the doomers. As someone who is somewhere on the doomer spectrum, she has a point about how doomerism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy (by making people feel paralyzed and helpless). On the other hand, if the house is on fire, you don’t do people any favors by neglecting to tell them that the warmth coming from down the hall is not because of sunshine.
Also in the Times, a feature wonders why cannibalism is having a pop culture moment. Excerpts:
An image came to Chelsea G. Summers: a boyfriend, accidentally on purpose hit by a car, some quick work with a corkscrew and his liver served Tuscan style, on toast.
That figment of her twisted imagination is what prompted Ms. Summers to write her novel, “A Certain Hunger,” about a restaurant critic with a taste for (male) human flesh.
Turns out, cannibalism has a time and a place. In the pages of some recent stomach-churning books, and on television and film screens, Ms. Summers and others suggest that that time is now.
There is “Yellowjackets,” a Showtime series about a high school women’s soccer team stranded in the woods for a few months too many, which premiered in November. The film “Fresh,” released on Hulu in March, involves an underground human meat trade for the rich.
“Lapvona,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel published in June, portrays cannibalism in a medieval village overcome by plague and drought. Agustina Bazterrica’s book “Tender Is the Flesh,” released in English in 2020 and in Spanish in 2017, imagines a future society that farms humans like cattle. Also out in 2017, “Raw,” a film by the director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau, tells the story of a vegetarian veterinary student whose taste for meat escalates after consuming raw offal.
Still to come is “Bones and All,” starring Timothée Chalamet. The movie, about a young love that becomes a lust for human consumption, is expected to be released later this year or early next. Its director, Luca Guadagnino, has called the story “extremely romantic.”
The pilot episode of “Yellowjackets” shows a teenage girl getting trapped, bled out like a deer and served on a platter in a terrifying ritual. Bloodthirsty fans continue to dissect the scene on Reddit, where a subreddit message board dedicated to the series has more than 51,000 members.
People actually want to see that? On TV?
As to what may be fueling the desire for cannibalism stories today, Ms. Lyle, the “Yellowjackets” co-creator, said, “I think that we’re obviously in a very strange moment.” She listed the pandemic, climate change, school shootings and years of political cacophony as possible factors.
“I feel like the unthinkable has become the thinkable,” Ms. Lyle said, “and cannibalism is very much squarely in that category of the unthinkable.”
There’s something to that. It’s a sign that our culture and civilization has become so decadent, so enamored by sensation, that we actually fetishize eating death.
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In Live Not By Lies, I cite Hannah Arendt’s claim that one sign of a society rapidly progressing towards totalitarianism is one that embraces transgressiveness for its own sake. Excerpt:
The post-World War I generation of writers and artists were marked by their embrace and celebration of anti-cultural philosophies and acts as a way of demonstrating contempt for established hierarchies, institutions, and ways of thinking. Arendt said of some writers who glorified the will to power, “They read not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade.”
Her point was that these authors did not avail themselves of respectable intellectual theories to justify their transgressiveness. They immersed themselves in what is basest in human nature and regarded doing so as acts of liberation. Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:
The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.
Regarding transgressive sexuality as a social good was not an innovation of the sexual revolution. Like the contemporary West, late imperial Russia was also awash in what historian James Billington called “a preoccupation with sex that is quite without parallel in earlier Russian culture.” Among the social and intellectual elite, sexual adventurism, celebrations of perversion, and all manner of sensuality was common. And not just among the elites: the laboring masses, alone in the city, with no church to bind their consciences with guilt, or village gossips to shame them, found comfort in sex.
The end of official censorship after the 1905 uprising opened the floodgates to erotic literature, which found renewal in sexual passion. “The sensualism of the age was in a very intimate sense demonic,” Billington writes, detailing how the figure of Satan became a Romantic hero for artists and musicians. They admired the diabolic willingness to stop at nothing to satisfy one’s desires and to exercise one’s will.
We now live in a Culture of Death, in which we regard books, television, and film drama about the eating of human beings as pleasurable, as exciting. You know exactly where this is going, even if Jane Coaston doesn’t. Read the signs of the times.