Crazy people, the Zeitgeist, and cannibalism

Crazy people have always reflected their own society’s pathologies.  In a pre-modern era, crazy people thought they were the Devil or, perhaps, the Hammer of God.  In the atomic/space exploration age, insanity tended to involve aliens.  People thought they were abducted, thought aliens were among us, or thought that they were themselves aliens.

What are we to make of modern crazy people, though?  They’ve taken all of the old pathologies — Devil worship, hammer of God, aliens — and added a new twist:  cannibalism.  Just in the past few days, we’ve had one guy eat off another’s face, although he didn’t live to tell the tale; a Maryland man dine upon his roommate; and a Devil-worshipping gay porn star film himself murdering his lover, whose flesh he later ate.  A few years ago, a Canadian man killed and ate a fellow traveler on a bus, claiming his victim was an alien.  Richard Fernandez has collected other recent cannibal stories that are impossible to ignore.

What the heck zeitgeist is this that sees so many insanities end with cannibalism?

Cannibalism is nothing new.  Starving people have routinely resorted to cannibalism.  In the Soviet Ukraine, when Stalin implemented policies that deliberately starved the peasants off their land, “an orphan was a child whose parents hadn’t eaten him.”  The Donner party survivors reputedly ate those who died.  When a plane crashed in the Andes, the survivors also turned to cannibalism.

Cannibalism also has a long medicinal history.  Stealing gold wasn’t the only reason grave robbers pillaged Egyptian mummies.  Powdered mummy was an important part of many pre-modern medicine chests.  Blood from a hanged criminal was also believed to be good for people.

Many religions have also promoted cannibalism.  The Aztecs were notorious for their human sacrifices, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands for important religious festivals.  This not only kept enemies in line, but it also ensured that a society that had systematically stripped the surrounding landscape of animals, was still able to get the iron and protein necessary for survival.  Pagan tribes throughout Europe (and the Americas) also engaged in cannibalism, believing that they strengthened themselves by eating their enemies’ flesh and blood.

The first religion to take a stand against cannibalism was Judaism.  The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac — which, of course, ends without any sacrifice at all — saw the Jewish people put to rest any notions of satisfying God with human flesh.  Jews took that idea and made it concrete when they institutionalized rules that barred body mutilation (no tattoos or piercings for religious Jews) and required that bodies get buried within 24 hours of death, thereby depriving surrounding pagan tribes of the opportunity to mutilate and eat Jewish bodies.

The genius of Christianity (and I have no idea whether this was accidental or on purpose) is that Christians understood, and were able to convince others, that Jesus Christ was the last and best blood sacrifice.  By drinking the wine and eating the wafer at the sacrament, the potency of actual cannibalism was transmuted into the even more potent effect of symbolic cannibalism.  And that was the end of ritual cannibalism in the Judeo-Christian culture.

Proscribed by Jewish law, and elevated to the ultimate non-corporeal mingling with God under Christian doctrine, Westerners not only did not want human flesh, they disdained it.  They’d eat it medicinally or under starvation conditions, but theirs would not be the hands that struck the death-blow.  Instead, the more superstitious or desperate among them might take advantage of an already dead body, be it a hanged criminal, a thousand-year old mummy, or a dead comrade in the Ukraine, the Sierras, or the Andes.  Killing for blood . . . a big Western cultural no-no.  (The recent market in dead babies in Asia shows that this cultural no-no is certainly not universal, but it has taken hold in most parts of the First World, and the pseudo First World.)

So, where are we?  Judeo-Christian culture proscribes cannibalism.  We no longer believe in the medicinal use of already dead bodies.  And none of the killers mentioned at the beginning of this article were starving.  Instead, they were crazy.  So why is cannibalism resurgent?

And while I’m asking that, what’s with the Zombie craze?  This is not an irrelevant question.  Not only are zombies the un-dead, they also dine on human brains.  They’re somehow part of this zeitgeist that has Western culture seeing itself as cannibalizing itself.  But while normal people joke about it, and watch scary movies, the crazy people are on the move, looking for their next meal.

I don’t have answers.  I just have questions.  Do you have answers?

Los Angeles Times columnist proves that there are zombies

If you’ve been trolling the internet at all the lost couple of days, you’re aware by now that Christopher Knight, who has what is apparently a paying gig at the Los Angeles Times, has taken umbrage at a political cartoon likening the profligate Mrs. Obama to Marie Antoinette, who was herself no slouch at spending other people’s money.  If you haven’t heard about this kerfuffle, let me lead you through it.

First, here’s the original Marie Antoinette portrait and the companion political cartoon:

Michelle Antoinette

And second, Christopher Knight’s fevered fulminations:

A baldly racist depiction of First Lady Michelle Obama that appeared Tuesday on a right-wing website is based on a 1775 portrait of Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty (1740-1786). The full-length painting hangs outside Paris in the Palace of Versailles.

The Internet image grafts Obama’s face onto Gautier-Dagoty’s lavish depiction of the French queen, dressed in full regalia. It also replaces the draped left arm of the young monarch, then barely 20, with a muscular black arm and shifts the position of the right hand to place it in front of a world globe.

The caricature of Obama as a profligate queen relies on the racist stereotype of an “uppity Negro,” which emerged among slave masters in an earlier American era. Obama, born into a working-class Chicago family whose roots are traced to the pre-Civil War South, graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, prior to holding several high-level positions in the academic and private sectors.

The racist image appeared Tuesday on the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit; the slur was later called out by Media Matters for America. A post by Gateway blogger Jim Hoft paired the picture with a clip of the first lady’s guest appearance on a forthcoming episode of “iCarly,” a Nickelodeon sit-com. In the script, Obama commends the cast for their support of military families. Responding to a cast member who mistakenly addresses her as “your excellency,” the script has Obama jokingly reply, “I kinda like it.”

The doctored painting also turned up in August 2010 on the right-wing Instapundit website, where it apparently originated.

You can read the rest here, if you want a laugh and have a strong stomach.

I’m not usually moved to comment on MSM articles (too many comments mean mine get buried, a dreadful fate for an egotist), but this time I couldn’t resist.  Here, in its entirety, is my comment:

Dear Mr. Knight: I’ve pretty much ignored the whole zombie phenomenon, thinking it’s kind of stupid to fear the living dead. (I find the actual living much more frightening.) Your post, however, is causing me to rethink my rejection of the zombie trope, because you have just provided living (or, rather, undead) proof that zombies are actually sucking people’s brains out.

Is it possible that you’re unaware of Marie Antoinette’s reputation for living extravagantly while the ordinary people around her starved in the street? And are you unable to make the connection between Marie Antoinette’s reputation (and she was Austrian, by the way, not African American) and the fact that Michelle Obama just recently went on a $4 million tax payer funded vacation, while wearing $1,200 sundresses, even as Americans have been struggling desperately with unemployment and rising prices? For the informed mind (or just the living mind), the comparisons are inevitable, appropriate and non-racist.

Sherlock Holmes famously said that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Since it must be impossible for a major publication such as the Los Angeles Times to have hired an idiot, the improbable truth we are dealing with is that, since being hired, you have had your brain sucked out by zombies.