and prejudice. This week’s subtitle could be “Savages?”
Bakewell returns in this chapter to Montaigne’s interest in the Tupinambá visitors he’d met in Rouen, noting that Montaigne had avidly read Léry’s account of his travels with the Tupinambá in his “On Cannibals.” Montaigne wrote that the Tupinambá cannibal rituals, far from being degrading, showed primitive people at their best…Montaigne was impressed by the doomed’s capacity to show Stoic firmness in the face of his enemy. They were not just fascinating for their own sake, though, he noted: they made an ideal mirror for him and his countrymen to be awakened out of their self-satisfied dream.
Sure, Montaigne’s desire to respect and honor the foreigners was probably overly romantic (anticipating indeed the full blown Romanticism of his sympathetic 18th century readers). Still, he notes that Europeans in dire circumstances had had to resort to cannibalism too so we should be wary of judging those ritualist war-time practices of the Tupinambá. But the lessons Montaigne (and Bakewell) hoped we’ll take from the encounter with the radically different but honorable were lost on at least one reader in our group who could not buy any account of cannibalism except in extremis. In fact he found the ritualistic nature of wartime sacrifice far more condemnable than when the more civilized descended to it in a frenzy. He returned again and again to the Savages! pronouncement, in spite of a number of great counter arguments from other members of the group (including one very odd ball one about the FDA’s allowable level of human detritus in our food we consume every day), not to mention the framing of the tales in the chapter itself about the blinding powers of habit. We did not have a chance when in the thick of the debate to step back and think about it in the very context of the message of the chapter: the value of the mirror such experiences provide us with, and likewise the value of looking at ourselves from radically fresh new angles. Next time.