Attention to Detail in Montaigne's "Of Cannibals"


In his essay "Of Cannibals," Michel de Montaigne offers a meticulously detailed description of the lifestyle and customs of the people to whom the essay's title refers. In writing about the impressions of his "witnesses," Montaigne presents a portrait of an idyllically simplistic society, and he goes to great lengths to give the reader a sense of the harmony in which these so-called barbarians live. Not only does the author emphasize the positive components of this society, but he also catalogues aspects of it that merely concern its everyday operation. Through the mundane particulars that he relates in the following passage, Montaigne crafts an image of a quotidian existence that makes the subsequent revelation of the people's cannibalism even more shocking to readers than it would be otherwise:

As to the rest, they live in a country very pleasant and temperate, so that, as my witnesses inform me, 'tis rare to hear of a sick person, and they moreover assure me, that they never saw any of the natives, either paralytic, bleareyed, toothless, or crooked with age. The situation of their country is along the sea-shore, enclosed on the other side towards the land, with great and high mountains, having about a hundred leagues in breadth between. They have great store of fish and flesh, that have no resemblance to those of ours: which they eat without any other cookery, than plain boiling, roasting, and broiling. The first that rode a horse thither, though in several other voyages he had contracted an acquaintance and familiarity with them, put them into so terrible a fright, with his centaur appearance, that they killed him with their arrows before they could come to discover who he was. Their buildings are very long, and of capacity to hold two or three hundred people, made of the barks of tall trees, reared with one end upon the ground, and leaning to and supporting one another at the top, like some of our barns, of which the covering hangs down to the very ground, and serves for the side walls. They have wood so hard, that they cut with it, and make their swords of it, and their grills of it to broil their meat. Their beds are of cotton, hung swinging from the roof, like our seamen's hammocks, every man his own, for the wives lie apart from their husbands.

Although this passage certainly functions to create an arresting contrast between the tranquil activities it relates and the cannibalistic rituals described later, it also forms another key contrast: this passage contributes to the unfavorable comparison to European culture that Montaigne develops in his subsequent lauding of the cannibals' noble attitudes toward war and their wives. The details provided here are crucial to the plausible cultural portrait necessary for readers to appreciate the full weight of Montaigne's critique of his own society's values, in that they allow the reader to see an allegedly barbaric people as simple human beings.

Questions

1. Why does Montaigne relate the story of the natives' fright at the man on horseback? How might this anecdote affect the way the reader perceives the culture described here?

2. Does Montaigne's use of the technique of cataloging serve the same purpose as Swift's does in "A Modest Proposal"? What motives might the two authors have in common?

3. In claiming the extensive good health of the people in this society, does Montaigne undermine his credibility? Does he exaggerate this quality on purpose, or is the description in earnest? Why might he choose to go into so much detail about the complete lack of any ailment?

4. How might specific details that the author provides — e.g. "beds of cotton," buildings "like some of our barns" — lend this description a more immediate connection to its European audience?

References

Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

24 September 2007

20 September 2007