© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
A Paper Eichmann (1980) - Anatomy of a Lie (1)
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992),
English translation © 1992 Columbia University Press
Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel - No reproduction except for personal use only

We are very grateful to Pierre Vidal-Naquet and his american publisher, Columbia University Press, for allowing us to make this text available here.

1. On Cannibalism, Its Existence, and How It Has Been Explained

Marcel Gauchet devoted his first column in the journal Le Débat (May 1980) to what he has called "inexistentialism." It is in fact a characteristic of contemporary "culture" to declare of a sudden "inexistent" social, political, intellectual, cultural and biological realities which were assumed to be well established. There have thus been relegated to nonexistence sexual relations, woman, domination, oppression, submission, history, the real, the individual, nature, the state, the proletariat, ideology, politics, madness, and trees. Such minor diversions, however sad, may indeed also amuse, but are not necessarily dangerous. The notion that sexuality and sexual relations do not exist hardly inconveniences lovers, and the nonexistence of trees has never taken the bread out of the mouth of a logger or a manufacturer of paper pulp. It is occasionally the case, however, that such a diversion ceases to be innoncent. This situation maintains when what is called into question is no longer an abstraction such as "woman," "nature," or "history," but a specific individual expression of humanity, a specific painful moment of its history.

In the long undertaking of supplying a definition of man - in relation to the gods and to animals - the fraction of humanity to which we belong has chosen, at least since Homer and Hesiod in the eighth century before our era, to posit man, as opposed to animals, as he who does not eat his fellow creatures. Thus, in Works and Days does Hesiod say: "Such is the law prescribed by Zeus, the son of Kronos to men: that fish, beasts, and winged birds devour each other, since there is no justice among them." There are transgressions of the law, which are rather rare in practice, but more frequent in myth. There are above all transgressors, who are cataloged as such: there are certain categories of barbarians, who are thus excluded from the ranks of humanity. A cyclops is not a man.

Not all societies place the barrier at precisely that level. There are some that are neither less nor more "human" than Greek society or modern Western society, and which accept the ingesting of human flesh. There are, I believe, none that regard such a practice as an act commensurate with others: human meat does not fall into the same category as game meat or the mat of agriculturally raised animals. To be sure, such differences are not apparent to outside observers, rushed as they are to treat as non-human men who are simply other. Here, for instance, is the view of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who was one of Cortés's companions in Mexico during the beginning of the sixteenth century, in his True History of New-Spain (1575):

I must say that most of the Indians were shamefully ridden with vice: ... they were almost all given over to sodomy. As far as the eating of human flesh is concerned, it may be said that they make use of it exactly as we do with butcher's meat. In every village, their custom is to construct cubes of huge wooden beams, in the form of cages, in order to enclose men, women and children in them, to fatten them up and dispatch them to be sacrificed when they are ready and then to delect in their flesh. In addition, they are constantly at war, province against province, village against village, and the prisoners they succeed in taking are eaten after first being sacrificed. We observed the frequency of the shameful practice of incest between sons and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces. Drunks are numerous, and it is beyond me to depict the filthiness of which they are capable.[3]
The author of this narrative combines two different types of data: factual information, which meshes with other sources on human sacrifices and cannibalism; and a strictly ideological discourse intended to justify the Christian conquest. It goes without saying that the generalized incest that has just been evoked does not exist in any society.

Sorting out reality from fiction and attributing a meaning to each are the tasks of the anthropologist and the historian, whether the focus be anthropophagy, marriage rites, or the initiation of the young.

Anthropophagy, or (to use a word generalized from a Carribean term meaning "blood") cannibalism, has provoked in recent years two different - and oppositely symmetrical - interpretive models. The first, which is "materialist" in tendency, has been proposed by Marvin Harris in a book intended quite simply to explain simultaneously "the origins of war, capitalism, the state, and male supremacy." If men eat human flesh, it is, in the last analysis, because they need protein: a perfect example of a totalizing explanation that, in fact, explains nothing at all.[4] How is one to account for the fact, under such conditions, that Aztec society disposed of ample sources of nourishment? And how account for an additional fact: the inhabitants of Mexico, besieged and starved by Cortés's men in 1521, sacrificed their prisoners, and them alone, but without consuming anything other than the bodily parts ritually permitted, none of which prevented them from dying of hunger? As Marshall Sahlins has written: "Clearly the cultural content at issue, this stupendous system of sacrifice is too rich, logically as well as practically, to be explained by the natural need for protein by which Harris proposes to account for it. To accept his view, we have to make some sort of bargain with the ethnographic reality, trading away what we know about it in order to understand it. Or, at the least, it takes a heroic act of utilitarian faith to conclude that this sacrificial system was a way the Aztecs had of getting some meat." Posing the problem of human sacrifice and anthropophagy in terms of econmic rationality and considerations of profit leads to incredible absurdities: the system was in no way profitable, and in fact partook of an economy of wasteful expenditure.

But what then are we to do with cannibals if they thought neither nourishment nor a maximization of profits? It is at this juncture that a second explanation intervenes: cannibals don't exist; in other words, they are a myth.

Let us open a parenthesis here: like many historians, my predecessors and contemporaries, I am interested in myths, in the history of imagination, believing that the imagination and its products are an aspect of reality, and that their history should be undertaken exactly as one attempts a history of grains or of marriage practices in nineteenth-century France. No doubt; and yet that "reality" is nonetheless plainly less "real" than what normally passes under that rubric. Between the phantasms of the Marquis de Sade and the Terror of the Year II of the Revolution, there is a difference of nature and even, to take things to the limit, a radical opposition: Sade was a rather gentle individual. A certain vulgarization of psychoanalysis has played its role in this confusion between phantasm and reality. But matters are more complex: it is one thing to account for the role of the imaginary within history, one thing, that is, to define, as does Castoriadis, the imaginary institution of society, and quite another, to declare in the style of J. Baudrillard, that social reality is composed only of imaginary relations. For that extreme affirmation entails another, which I will have to take into account: one decreeing a whole series of quite historical events to be imaginary. As a historian, I feel a measure of responsibility for the delusions I shall presently be discussing.

It is W. Arens who has bestowed on us this dazzling bit of evidence: there never were any cannibals.[5] As is the rule in this kind of discovery, Arens arrived at it through several stages, which he explains to us at great length. Convinced that anthropophagy was a rather common practice, he was surprised by the rather imprecise character of the anthropological literature. He then set out in search of decisive proof, and placed a personal ad in a journal, searching for an eyewitness. The responses were vague, but a young German researcher, Erwin Frank, told him that he had scoured the entire literature on cannibalism among Indians in the Amazon basin from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and that he was unable to find a single instance of first-hand testimony concerning the act of eating a fellow human being. Little by little, he thus arrived at the bitter and joyous realization that there were no cannibals, and that anthropophagy was an invention of anthropologists on the basis of inconsistent testimony. The function of that invention was to justify the domination of conquered societies by their conquerors.

A few lines will suffice to establish the grotesqueness of such a theory: we will, no doubt, always be lacking the testimony of the victims, the on testimony capable of satisfying Arens's requirements, but there does exist a quite sufficiant quantity of testimony and information for no doubt to subsist. Marshall Shalins and others have reminded us of as much, but the American anthropologist has had the singular merit of analyzing the logic underlying this kind of exercise, which is less in the order of reseach than of academic gamesmanship. In concluding, he aslso pointed out the inevitab;e connection with what will henceforth be the central theme of this essay:

It all follows a familiar American pattern of social science journalism: Professor X puts out some outrageous theory, such as the Nazis didn't really kill the Jews, human civilization comes from another planet, or there is no such thing as cannibalism. Since facts are plainly against him, X's main argument consists of the expression, in the highest moral tones, of his own disregard for all available evidence to the contrary. . . . All this provokes Y and Z to issue a rejoinder, such as this one. X now becomes "the controversial Professor X" and his book is respectfully reviewed by non-professionals in Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker. There follow appearances on radio. TV, and in the columns of the daily newspapers.[6]
In other words, what we are confronted with in this manner of affair is neither truth nor science, but quite simply public relations and academic gamesmanship.

We may state things differently: take the case of a poorly known individual from ancient history, whose existence has hitherto being accepted without question - such as the Athenian legislator Cleisthenses, who lived at the end of the sixth century B.C. One fine day I decide that he did not exist and I prove it: Herodotus was in no position to know; Aristotle was repeating sources that were themselves untrustworthy. But my actual objective is different: to impose a split among historians on my own terms. I will call all historians preceding me "Clesthenians," while I and my followers will together constitute the anti-Clesthenians. Everyone will realize that my theory is absurd, but since I will have respected the rules of the game, my reputation will not suffer from it. Marshall Sahlins says rather harshly what should be said about such customs: "So the publishing decisions of academic presses and ultimately the nature of scholarly research are drawn irresistibly into the orbit of the average common opinion of the consumer public. It's a scandal."

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