Generations of Mythic Identity

Nathan Deuel, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Montaigne's essay, "On Cannibals," does throughout seem obsessed with both the notions of ancestry and identity. Often, a paragraph will contain the four objects of his scrutiny: "we," his contemporaries; "they," the barbarians; "I," the narrator; and, variously named, the ancestors (cf. Plato, Virgil, etc.). To judge his satire, consider the following from page six:

I have a song composed by a prisoner which contains this challenge that they should all come boldly and gather to dine off him, for they will be eating at the same time their own fathers and grandfathers, who have served to feed an nourish his body. "These muscles," he says, "this flesh and these veins are your own, poor fools that you are. You do not recognize that the substance of your ancestor's limbs is still contained in them. Savor them well; you will find in them the taste of your own flesh." An idea that certainly does not smack of barbarity.

How does Montaigne here seem to treat ancestry? If there exists a human community, as Montaigne seems to suggest by marshaling Plato and "cannibals" alike to satirize his own generation, what does it mean to "nourish" a body with the flesh of ancestors? Does the song seem odd? What seems different in Montaigne's treatment of a "cannibal's" text (this song) and, for example, a quotation from Virgil?

Consider the final line of the paragraph.

Truly here are real savages by our standards; for either they must be thoroughly so, or we must be; there is an amazing distance between their characters and ours.

Here it seems Montaigne's conception of ancestry is based on how each builds myths of identity. What kind is the "distance" he refers to as separating these "characters"?


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Last modified 13 February 2002