Why eating people is just not on

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The Independent Online

Perhaps we should have dug out the Scrabble board, my inamorata and I. (Forgive inamorata, but I am resolved this January never again to employ the barbarism "partner".) Or maybe bought a new jigsaw. Or gone to watch the fireworks. As it was, as a consequence of deciding we would have a super-civilised New Year's Eve à deux, stay sober, not turn on the television or otherwise descend into folly, cannibalism broke out between us. No, neither one of us in actuality ate the other. It was the subject of cannibalism which erupted, not the practice. But you know what it's like when argument gets heated - if biting the other person's head off is the only way to prove your point, you are tempted to try it.

We had been reading, earlier in the day, about Armin Meiwes, the German computer technician who stands accused of eating Bernd-Jürgen Brandes, another computer technician, whom he had invited to his gingerbread house hidden in a Brothers Grimm forest in the frozen north of that terrifying country.

She was nutting out the moral and legal implications of this case, the unusual element in it being Herr Brandes' willing, not to say hungry, assent to his own devouring. I, on the other hand, saw nothing to nut out. According to the laws of hospitality you do not eat your houseguests, however much they would like you to.

Ah yes, but according to whose laws of hospitality?

I could detect Zeno in the room, the Stoic philosopher who held that in time of need it was allowable to feed on human carrion. And Montaigne, wondering how we dare judge the mores of consenting cannibals, we who daily practise inhumanities of our own?

"According to my law of hospitality," I answered, meaning her to understand that such a law was not whimsical or idiosyncratic, but based on the best models of refined behaviour.

So that was not only Zeno, Montaigne and my inamorata I had against me now, but the full weight of modern thought. If the last hundred years have been anything intellectually, they have been relativist. No absolutes, no certainties. Whatever we previously took to be the will of God, or the inexpugnable law of our nature as enshrined in culture, has been shown to be arbitrary, at the mercy of language which is political through and through. That's the argument, anyway. Myself I don't mind arbitrary and have always taken culture to be a political decision which we choose to embrace because it seems to be a good one. As in the matter of cannibalism. Eating people is wrong.

Except that my interlocutor did not think it was as wrong as I did, allowing for the consensual nature of it in these circumstances. And what was more, expressed surprise to hear me invoking Flanders and Swann to rebut Lacan, Derrida, and whoever else.

Never knock Flanders and Swann, I say. And to demonstrate my preference for them over Derrida, I plucked an even better line from their sketch The Reluctant Cannibal. "I won't let another man pass my lips," I sang, only to see censure flicker in the eyes of her to whom I sang it. What did she see she didn't like? Homophobia? No, I could never live with a woman who was capable of accusing me of that. Moral timidity on the other hand was a charge to which, just possibly, I was susceptible. I remembered the scene in Moby Dick, where Ishmael feels uncomfortable about sharing his bed with Queequeg, the tattooed cannibal.

"What's all this fuss I have been making about," he finally pulls up the bedclothes and concludes - "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." But would I have been capable of sleeping as soundly as Ishmael did that night? And if not, why not?

Consenting adults - a phrase laden with contemporary assumptions of the sexually allowable, however the sexes arrange themselves: they are what set this case apart. Herr Brandes was only too pleased to share his penis on a plate with Armin Meiwes, after which he expired happy in the knowledge that Meiwes was going to enjoy the rest. A consummation devoutly to be wished. God knows how long Brandes had been waiting to be eaten, but you have to enter sympathetically into his good fortune at finding a person who would appreciate him at last. A bit sentimental maybe, but theirs was the ideal romance of our time, its outlandishness built firmly on the premise that there is someone out there for all of us. So what was my objection? The gourmand got what he wanted; the human dinner got what he wanted; and, as far as one can ascertain, no woman was expected to clear up after them.

Not only shouldn't I object to the cannibalism, I shouldn't think of what Meiwes had done, however he might have done it, as murder. He was carrying out a request. Not assisted euthanasia exactly, but in the same ethical frame. Live and let die.

What's wrong with me then? Why can't I accept harm as the arbiter of wrong, and agree that where there is no former there can be no latter? Intrinsicality - that was the best I could come up with. An action might be odious in itself, regardless of the harm it does or doesn't cause. No man is an island blah blah. Do something ugly and we are all the uglier for it. And though ugliness is another of those arbitraries we have been taught to mistrust, I do not see how we can do without it in the ethical sphere any more than in the aesthetic. If we can have moral beauty, we can have moral ugliness. Concede that, and repugnance must no longer wait upon palpable damage to an unwilling party, for we are all unwilling parties to deformation.

She let it go at that, my inamorata. She is pondering it. But eyeing me strangely, I think. As a bit of a dinosaur. The one advantage of which being that no one wants to eat a dinosaur.