Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

Synopsis

In this radical reexamination of the notion of cannibalism, Gananath Obeyesekere offers a fascinating and convincing argument that cannibalism is mostly "cannibal talk," a discourse on the Other engaged in by both indigenous peoples and colonial intruders that results in sometimes funny and sometimes deadly cultural misunderstandings. Turning his keen intelligence to Polynesian societies in the early periods of European contact and colonization, Obeyesekere deconstructs Western eyewitness accounts, carefully examining their origins and treating them as a species of fiction writing and seamen's yarns. Cannibalism is less a social or cultural fact than a mythic representation of European writing that reflects much more the realities of European societies and their fascination with the practice of cannibalism, he argues. And while very limited forms of cannibalism might have occurred in Polynesian societies, they were largely in connection with human sacrifice and carried out by a select community in well-defined sacramental rituals. Cannibal Talk considers how the colonial intrusion produced a complex self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the fantasy of cannibalism became a reality as natives on occasion began to eat both Europeans and their own enemies in acts of "conspicuous anthropophagy."

Excerpt

Cannibal Talk is almost entirely based on previously written articles and papers delivered at various universities during the period 1989–2003 amidst other writing commitments. My first foray into cannibalism was during my tenure as a fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1989–90 while working on my book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (Princeton University Press, 1992). That was a wonderful year in my intellectual career, and I must thank the center’s staff, especially those working in the library, for making my stay so successful. My first lecture on cannibalism was delivered there, and I am grateful to the president of the center, Bob Connor, for his insightful comments and to Henry Louis Gates who urged me to publish the text of my lecture in Critical Inquiry under the title “‘British Cannibals’: Contemplation of an Event in the Life and Resurrection of James Cook, Explorer” in the volume Identities (Chicago University Press, 1992), edited by Gates and by Anthony Kwame Appiah. That paper has been revised and expanded into chapters 2 and 3 in the present volume. Chapter 2 benefited from the assistance of my favorite folklore guru, Alan Dundes, who helped track down an obscure reference to Thackeray visiting the great cannibal Napoleon Bonaparte in St. Helena.

“British Cannibals” set the stamp for my future research on cannibal talk. Although this book may be considered a continuation of my earlier work, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific, it should also be seen against the backdrop of my recent book, Imagining Karma: Ethical Trans-

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