Montaigne: Incest and Cannibals

Alright, we’ve got our first true double-parter today. Last week was technically a double-parter, but it was all kinda education themed, so I’m not totally happy with it as like the flagship for Montaigne double features. This one’s much better: incest and cannibals. That’s the kind of juxtaposition I signed up for with this project, and damn it that’s what I’m going to produce.

Also, if you’ve been missing Aquinas, I’ve got good news: he’s sort of back! He’s got a bit of a guest spot in the first half of this week’s post, anyway. In Ch 30, ‘On Moderation’, Montaigne is talking about – yeah, moderation. You can’t go too hard at a good thing, or it becomes bad. It was one of his explanations last week for why it’s bad to learn too much: it’s like overfilling a lantern with oil. It’s also, Montaigne suggests, the reason why incest is bad. According to Aquinas, you already have a set amount of love for your family, and if you combine that love with sexual love, it’s too much love and you just fucking die or something. “Such an over-measure would ravish such a husband beyond the limits of reason.” Okay, so you don’t die from incest – you just lose your mind. I miss Aquinas. Montaigne also has a bunch of stuff about how you should just have moderate sex with your wife, and not give in to all the “shameless caresses which our first ardour suggests to us in our sex-play.” It’s too much sex for any normal human to have. Penis-in-vagina is the only sexual expression moderate enough to keep us safe: any other behaviours “are not only unbecoming to our wives, but harmful to them when practiced on them.” Handjobs hurt women: you heard it here first.

Meanwhile, over in cannibal-land, (Chapter 31, ‘On the Cannibals’), Montaigne is talking about the behaviours of people in far-off places: “I find (from what has been told me) that there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to.” Fair enough. I thought sushi was weird, first time I tried it; now it’s what I have most days for lunch. Montaigne goes on to suggest that so-called savages actually exist in a purer state than most of the rest of us:

“Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course; whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage. It is in the first kind that we find their true, vigorous, living, most natural and most useful properties and virtues, which we have bastardized in the other kind by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes.” 

This one’s interesting. We have this historical division that a bunch of writers and thinkers draw between the civilized and the natural. You’ll often find it set out as the cultured vs the savages, or the enlightened/educated vs the backwards. European colonizers often approached indigenous communities with that attitude: they’re uncivilized and we need to civilize them, to fix their inferior state. It’s not conceptualised as a technological issue so much as a moral or even spiritual one. We need to bring them enlightenment, the thinking goes, whether that be through religion, culture, or social structure. It goes back to that civilization/nature divide. Those in a natural state are treated as animalistic, brutish degenerates, while civilized people are refined and elevated above those primal impulses.

That’s one approach, anyway. The other approach is the one that Montaigne is taking, where the polarity is basically just reversed. Those in a natural state are pure, innocent humans, untainted by the smog of the city and the artificial constraints of civilisation. They aren’t savages, they’re free spirits, living in their natural uncorrupted state. You’ll often find nature associated with children, within this framework. It’s an attitude you find with Romantic writers – Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, say.

You might think that the second attitude is better than the first, because it’s less, like, ‘black people bad dumb dumb’, but ultimately neither is really acceptable. In both cases, it’s really just white people using foreign cultures as a type of mirror to reflect on their own situation, rather than considering those people on their own terms. It’s also a bad way to think about the different cultures involved. For example, if you’re going to go round acting like we’re civilized and some Amazonian tribe is more ‘natural’, you’re potentially going to overlook the qualities that don’t fit that narrative. You’re less likely to consider the ways in which we’re connected to nature in the West, or the ways in which this Amazonian tribe has its own forms and types of social structure – its own forms of civilization. The lens shapes your approach.

And I understand that sometimes this sort of thing can be really frustrating. Whenever I’m researching in a new area, I’ll find an introductory textbook, and it’ll always – unfailingly – rehearse the whole thing of ‘well yeah you want to know what X is but uhh none of the definitions are actually fully appropriate so like here’s a couple but like they don’t cover these random contingencies and nobody’s really fully happy with any of the definitions.’ And it’s like fuck, just tell me what it is. At the same time, it’s good that people are introducing things to you in a really careful and deliberate way. It’s important to prevaricate at least a little bit, because you want to make it clear that you’re dealing with a field in development, not a field that’s complete and absolute. And it’s the same with things like the nature/civilization binary. It’s not that some places aren’t more urbanized than others – it’s just recognising that things are also probably a bit more complicated than that, and that there’s maybe a bit of history around people taking the comparison too far.

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