Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Is Cannibalism in Our DNA? Part 1 of 3

Might we harbor a "cannibal within?"

The Language of Cannibalism

I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around. ~ James Beard

Can it be mere coincidence that our lexicon is teeming with cannibalistic metaphors? Whether it's in the diction of anger or aggression, sex or love, it's almost impossible not to figuratively employ such flesh-rending or flesh-consuming terminology. Even though virtually no one is conscious of it, in our parlance it's actually so common as to be almost foundational. Consider, below, my systematic employment of such language to convey irritation, annoyance, or (especially) rage:

Have you ever gotten so mad at someone--so impatient, so miffed, so enraged by their behavior--that you just wanted to snap at them? chew them out? gnaw away at them and grind them down? sink your teeth into them? pick them apart? break them into little pieces? crush them? carve them up? Even, well, bite their head off?! . . . At the time, were you maybe feeling so furious that it was hard to resist the impulse to absolutely devour them? pulverize them? eviscerate them? tear them apart? "fillet" them? make mincemeat of them? Or (dare I say it?) have them for lunch?--and I don't mean as guests (!).

Did you maybe fantasize taking them to task and really letting them have it--making comments that would be bruising . . . wounding . . . scathing . . . searing . . . scorching . . . caustic . . . biting . . . cutting . . . piercing . . . lacerating? After all, if you were really exasperated with them you probably were just about ready to break them, rip them apart, or tear them to shreds. Your fangs were out, so it might have been a real struggle to keep yourself from cutting them down to size; taking them apart, piece by piece; decimating or demolishing them, completely dismantling or dismembering them.

Get the (metaphorical) picture? When we become upset, or lose our temper, our everyday expressions may betray a cannibalistic predisposition to conquer, cut up, and consume our prey--an instinct lurking in the innermost recesses of our being.

The funny thing is that even our carnal desires (a most interesting term!) hint at a kind of "sublimated cannibalism". It's certainly curious that we don't talk about our financial appetites, or educational, shopping, or relationship appetites. But we regularly speak of our sexual appetites--and in much the same way we talk about our hunger or craving for different foods. In addition, the linguistic hints of such flesh-eating proclivities at times overlap with the human-devouring figures of speech that accompany our more aggressive tendencies. And doubtless, what links together the two strangely kindred impulses is passion--though in the former its object is seen destructively and in the latter, well, let's say, dotingly. So, for example:

Have you ever (particularly if you're male) been so attracted to someone that you wanted to eat them up? Wanted to overpower them with love bites? Just nibble away at them? feed on them? Gobble or swallow them up? rapaciously feast on them? gorge yourself on them? simply DEVOUR them? Did you, frankly, have really ravenous feelings for them?

In all honesty, might you have found them so desirable and appealing, so sweet and tender, so toothsome and savory, so enticing and alluring, so tantalizing, captivating, and downright ravishing that, although you may not have wanted to reduce them to mere sex objects, you had to admit that to so objectify them was actually pretty tempting. For you found them to be just so palatable . . . delectable . . . mouthwatering . . . succulent . . . luscious . . . scrumptious . . . or (to employ a colloquialism) "yummy".

Well, if you've ever been guilty of such lascivious thinking, you're probably not all that different from the rest of us. So whether it's in love or hate, ardor or anger, the primal desire to literally consume another of our species may be etched deep in our DNA. Over millennia, we may have become much more civilized in our treatment of others (though, frankly, when I reflect upon ongoing genocides--and even the most wealthy still "preying" today on the middle and working classes--I can't help but harbor some doubts about this). Yet, despite whatever moral progress we humans may actually have made, our essential kinship with our primordial ancestors may be much closer to the surface than we'd care to acknowledge.

To conclude, I might mention that before I started to compose this piece, I'd already decided not to--grimacing as I shook my head and told myself that I just didn't have the stomach for it. But then I realized what I'd just said and "re-decided" that the subject was simply too intriguing, too compelling, for me to turn my back on it.

NOTE: Parts 2 and 3 of this post (note links) are designed to provide a much broader context for the argument that we may each have an "inner cannibal". They will deal with a variety of related topics that, collectively, support the notion that the primitive instinct toward cannibalism must somehow be in our blood--although such flesh-eating impulses are, thankfully, well-controlled (or repressed).

More specifically, part 2 will discuss: (a) the widespread existence of cannibalism, not only in humans but also in lower animal forms and--more to the point--in primates (our closest non-human relatives); and (b) the fundamental reasons--and rationalizations--that have been offered to account for this grisly phenomenon. The concluding segment, part 3, will (a) briefly look at the theme of cannibalism in myth, religion, literature, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and works of art--as well as in the cinema (a "nice chianti" anyone?); and (b) explore our curiously enduring, however perverse, fascination with this lurid subject (anyone want to dress up as a zombie for their next Halloween party? or a vampire? child-eating witch, perhaps?).

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

---If this piece somehow "speaks" to you (for shame!), please pass it on. And follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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