Sleeping With Cannibals

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Sleeping With Cannibals

Jorge Rodriguez

"Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?" (p. 242), Herman Melville questions in his novel 'Moby-Dick' as the narrator, Ishmael, suggests that those of us who are considered to be civilized are actually no better than savage man-eaters. Over two hundred years before, Michel de Montaigne presented a similar idea in his essay 'On the Cannibals' where he explains that those who we consider to be cannibals are not as savage as we have made them out to be. Montaigne argues that "we can indeed call those folks barbarian by the rules of reason but not in comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarism" (p. 87). These two authors then invert our understanding of what a savage truly is and reverse our notion of who the real cannibals are in our society. Montaigne sustains that "there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples [i.e. cannibals], but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to" (p. 82). In turn, Melville introduces us to Queequeg, an alleged cannibal from the island of Kokovoko who, despite his extensive tattooing, turns out to be more refined than any other man aboard the Pequod. Through this character and his classic novel, Melville embraces Montaigne's revised notion of cannibalism and teaches us what needs to be done if we want to become as civilized as the savages they describe.

In his essay 'On the Cannibals', Montaigne establishes how nature is underappreciated by our society and how it has consequently been replaced by the artificial products of mankind: "It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than Nature... We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely" (p. 83). In our eagerness to develop technologies and in our endeavor to promote culture, our self-proclaimed civilization has forgotten about Mother Nature. Montaigne then recognizes that those who we consider to be cannibals are only so because they have not been 'bastardized' by our supposed progress: "Those peoples, then, seem to me to be barbarous only in that they have been hardly fashioned by the mind of man, still remaining close neighbors to their original state of nature" (p. 83). Are we then not the true savages for disassociating ourselves with nature in our effort to develop artifice? Montaigne concludes that our allegedly advanced society needs to embrace the fact that we are the real cannibals since "all our strivings cannot even manage to reproduce the nest of the smallest bird, with its beauty and appropriateness to its purpose" (p. 83).

In introducing readers to Queequeg, Melville's 'Moby-Dick' provides a clear example of how a cannibal can amount to be more refined than those who take pride in being civilized. Since Queequeg, who never was exposed to the complexities of our world, is free of all the artifices found in our society and therefore more in touch with nature, he becomes a model, in Montaigne's words, of the savage's "true, vigorous, living, most natural and most useful properties and virtues" (p. 83). This is why, despite his grotesque appearance which initially scares him away, Ishmael discovers a true and 'bosom' friend in Queequeg. He, in fact, admits to having found in him a more honest friend than in those cultured individuals who claimed to be so far superior to the noble cannibal: "I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy" (Melville, p. 56). It comes as no surprise then that Queequeg proves wrong everyone's suspicion that he was an uncivilized, unintelligent fellow as it turns out that his virtue and value is based on nature, and not on artifice.

Queegueg is so alienated from the artificial constructions of our world that, as Ishmael discovers, the cannibal is unable to read. This apparent disadvantage, however, does not distance him from the rest of the world as one would expect, but actually works to his benefit as he is then aware of his surroundings and consequently closer with nature. This is demonstrated in the instance when Ishmael visits the Whaleman's Chapel, where worshipers piously scrutinized the tablets on the walls, and he realizes that "the savage was the only person present who seemed to notice my entrance; because he was the only one who could not read, and, therefore, was not reading those frigid inscriptions on the wall" (p. 44). The text then suggests that reading prevents us from perceiving what takes place in our environment by focusing our attention on artifice.

Through his novel, Melville continues to deconstruct the value and importance of reading as he illustrates Queequeg systematically counting the pages of a book. Upon his return from the chapel to the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael describes how Queegueg "going to the table, took up a large book there, and placing it on his lap began counting the pages with deliberate regularity; at every fiftieth page... stopping a moment" (p. 54). Having thus established that the savage is not interested in the pretense of reading, Ishmael's account of the savage suggests that Queegueg is not concerned in counting properly either: "He would then begin at the next fifty; seeming to commence at number one each time, as though he could not count more than fifty" (p. 55). Not only is Queegueg unable to read and count, but he is not interested in learning how to engage in such activities as they appear to be mere trivialities to this cannibal. Consequently, their importance is diminished as we are forced to question whether mathematics and literature are vital to our survival or if we should regard them with the same pettiness with which Queequeg does.

Should we then raise our children to become illiterate and hope that they will fail at math? Should we rid all forms of reading from our culture so we can follow Montaigne's advice and become more like the cannibals who remain one with nature? It seems that Melville would certainly agree with Montaigne in his desire to eliminate all artifice from our society. In fact, Melville implies so when describing the sperm whale and the right whale's heads hanging on each side of the Pequod, he says: "on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's, and you come back again... Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right." (p. 261). Just like we would throw overboard the heavy weight of these philosophers' ideas, we are told to discard everything that has been artificially constructed by man because it obstructs our approach towards nature and we are thus unable to become more similar to Queequeg

It seems that both Melville's and Montaigne's hope that once we reject all these pretenses, we will then change the focus of our lives from the artificiality that our mind's have fashioned and redirect our attention to the products of nature and how they enrich our lives. By discarding math, science, and literature, Queequeg is not only able to better appreciate the beauty of nature, but he is also capable of experiencing life instead of merely reading and learning about it all. We should be more like the cannibal who is more interested in living rather than gaining knowledge about how to do so. Melville comments on the case when he writes in his novel: "perhaps, to be true philosophers, we mortals should not be conscious of so living or so striving. So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have 'broken his digester'" (p. 55). The author suggests that the true art of living does not lie in being conscious of living and dissecting that consciousness, but that in doing away with such we dedicate our full awareness to simply living.

It should then come as no surprise when Ishmael tells us: "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian" (p. 36). Opposite to common belief, cannibals can be more advanced than the greatest of civilizations because, unlike the latter, they are the ones who truly experience life by remaining close to nature. Based on this notion, Michel de Montaigne suggested in the sixteenth century that our society should retreat to nature in order to emulate the civilized cannibal's lifestyle. The ideas he presents in his essay 'On the Cannibals' help us understand the character of Queequeg and how through him, Melville manages to deconstruct the importance of reading. Melville expands Montaigne's ideas by demonstrating in his novel 'Moby-Dick' how we need to dispose of artifices such as reading and counting if we aspire to become truly civilized like the savages. Therefore, not only do Montaigne's essay and Melville's novel support one another's theories, but they actually provide us a better comprehension of the messages the two authors are trying to convey.

Works Cited:
Herman Melville. 'Moby-Dick'. 1851; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Hershel Parker, Harrison Hayford. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Michel de Montaigne. 'The Essays: A Selection'. 1993; Penguin Books. Ed. M.A. Screech, England: London.

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