The Comedic Ethics of Cannibalism

17May07

Last week PBS’s show American Experience ran an episode on the Donner Party. The Forlorn Hope, the fifteen who set out from the party trapped in the snow storm, as it is well known, eventually resorted to cannibalism. When they butchered the dead for eating, the survivors made sure to label the wrapped packages of meat with the names of their previous “owners” so that no one would have to eat their own kin. Why does this seem so strange? While preferring to eat a stranger as opposed to a family member is not weird in and of itself, assuming you are already in a place where it is required to eat someone, there is something almost unsettling about such a conscious decision in a situation we would like to declare completely and utterly inhuman. One of the party members, Joseph Breen wrote in his journal ”Friday, February the 26th. Hungry times in camp. Mrs. Murphy said she thought she would commence on Milt and eat him. I don’t think she has done so yet. It is distressing.” Why is this interjection of formality so disturbing?

This kind of strange rule is played with in the South Park episode “Cartman’s Mom is Still a Dirty Slut” in which several of the characters caught in a snow storm resort to cannibalism after only four hours without food and are criticized for resorting a little too quickly. The song played when the characters are freed from the snow storm is “Ava Maria” referencing the film Alive: The Miracle of the Andes which is about the Andes flight disaster in which the survivors ate their dead teammates to stay alive.
In the Andes flight disaster the survivors too made a formal choice – they decided before hand not to eat any of each other’s kin out of respect for each other.

[Incidentally one of South Park's creators Trey Parker, is responsible for the film Cannibal! The Musical which plays with the story of Alferd Packer who ate his fellow travelers after becoming hopelessly lost in Colorado. The University of Colorado at Boulder dedicated a statue to Parker and one of the grills there is named Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill with its slogan being "Have a friend for lunch!"]

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Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa

Maybe these formal choices seem so amazingly awkward (and hence funny?) because we cannot imagine the situation of cannibalism without being in it. The painter Theodore Gericault became obsessed with trying to accurately represent the misery, murder, (and cannibalism) in his painting The Raft of the Medusa spending night after night in morgues, trying to build wood and wax replicas, starving himself etc. He endlessly tried to capture the moment but ended up dismissing the work after the fact. Interestingly survival cannibalism at sea in the 1880s and perhaps before was referred to as the custom of the sea. As long as the survivors had drawn lots they would not be prosecuted for eating their shipmates.

So isn’t this division itself a large part of humor? As Zupancic discusses comedy is about the short circuit between the symbolic mask of a person and the vulgar ordinariness of everyday life so that they are interchangeable. Isn’t this why cannibalism can be funny? In cannibalism they very banal act of eating is elevated into the most weighty symbolic act whereas the sanctity of life is reduced to names on butcher paper and the drawing of lots.

On the other hand isn’t what is funny equally horrifying? Gericault’s inability to recreate the raft of the Medusa should be viewed then as the very inability of art itself to represent. This gap, this failure of representation, speaks to the very horrid realness of ‘reality’ that the symbolic fails to grasp.

This is discussed somewhat by Slavoj Žižek in response to the rise of holocaust comedies, Benigni’s Life is Beautiful in particular. In “LAUGH YOURSELF TO DEATH! the new wave of Holocaust comedies” Žižek writes:

“When, in a holocaust comedy, the laughter stops, when the comic rendering of the resourceful persistence of life reaches its end, we thus get either pathetic dignity or nausea. This nausea marks the self-cancellation of the comedy: it emerges when the hero persists to the end in his survivalist stance. That is to say, both comedy and tragedy involve a kind of immortality, albeit the opposite ones. In the tragic predicament, the hero forfeits his terrestrial life for the Thing, so that his very defeat is his triumph, conferring onto him the sublime dignity, while the comedy is the triumph of the indestructible life – not of the sublime immortality of the tragic hero, but of the very vulgar, opportunistic, terrestrial life.”

So then this is why the formalism of cannibalism can make us uncomfortable, because the formal decision in that situation speaks to the alienating nature of law, that it is necessary but perhaps impractical, and at the same time speaks to the old game of speaking to our inward ‘beastial’ tendencies. It is a very precarious balance, this amount of formalism.

The Gate at Dachau

The tragic formal such as the message at the gates of several concentration camps “Arbeit macht frei!” (Work will set you free!) is tragic in its assertion in the face of the camp’s production of misery.

The comedic formal then, and to bring us back to cannibalism, is best exemplified in The Simpsons episode “Fear of Flying” where Homer, in his usual stupidity, tries to help Marge get over her fear by showing her the aforementioned film Alive – here is the comedic play on the film’s end:

“Homer: Now Marge, “Dear Abby” says seeing films about air travel can
calm your fears. Ooh! Here are some upbeat titles: “Hero”,
“Fearless”…”Alive!”
[at home, Marge watches them]
Man 1: No thanks to the plane, many of us are still…
Everyone: Alive!
Man 2: [through full mouth] We certainly are. [chews]
Man 3: Pass me another hunk of copilot.”
-The Simpsons [2F08] “Fear of Flying”

The final point is a Lacanian/Kantian one (by way of Zupancic) – that jouissance is at the very basis of the ethical, to show the enjoyment in eating each other does not completely betray the ethical but it does show that there is a certain amount of distance, a certain amount of formality but not too much, not so much that we perform the ‘Himmler trick’ where we place the responsibility on a big Other, on a obscure sense of duty.

So eat up!

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One Response to “The Comedic Ethics of Cannibalism”


  1. 1 La comedia ética del canibalismo « PENSAMIENTO DEL VACÍO

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