You are (not) what you eat.

In which I continue this post.

“You are what you eat”—a common enough phrase, and one to which every nine-year-old ever has snarkily responded, “Oh yeah? So I’m a(n) [whatever junk food is to hand]?”

A digression: Michael Pollan (apparently) amended it: “You are what you eat eats.” And as my father says: “It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms.”

A further digression: I can’t find any information on the origin of this phrase—none of the dictionaries of phrases/idioms/clichés in the campus library had an entry for it. The internet at large wants to attribute it to Brillat-Savarin, who, in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste, wrote (in French): “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That’s not the same thing at all, though it’s possible this aphorism is behind the cliché under consideration. This website cites one Dr. Victor Lindlahr as the person responsible for the stubbornly literal version of the phrase.¹

“You are what you eat.” Except, of course, we’re not: we are human, and humans are the one thing we don’t eat.

This is going to be a post full of digressions: other humans aren’t the only thing we don’t eat, of course. Even if we limit ourselves to “living organisms,” there are plenty of things we don’t eat—depending on who that “we” includes, of course. There are plenty of things white middle-class Americans don’t eat that are edible elsewhere—bugs, various organs, rodents, probably some plants too but those aren’t as gross, you get the idea.

And, of course, cannibalism happens: as a cultural practice, in extreme situations, and as—for want of a better word—an aberration.

What I’m after is this: if I ate a bowl of live cockroaches, most people who are culturally similar to me would find it—the act of eating the roaches—disgusting, and—depending on why I ate the roaches—some portion of that disgustingness would attach itself to me. The dude who eats roaches is a gross dude. However: a person who eats roaches is still human. A person who eats other humans ceases, I’m arguing, to be human.

I don’t know why that’s the case. I feel pretty certain that it is the case: see, for example, the word “subhuman” in the first sentence of the above-linked HuffPo article. Also: google “recent cannibal attacks” and scroll through a half-dozen pages of results: along with words like “horrific” and “terrifying” and “flesh eater,” you will probably notice how often the word “zombie” occurs (you may also notice that the CDC weighed in on the question).

Zombies are, of course, not human.² And the contemporary conflation of cannibals and zombies strongly suggests that cannibals—at least, those cannibals of the “aberrant” type—have, in the act of eating human flesh—lost or given up their humanity. Whether that loss is temporary or permanent, I don’t know. I do know that at least one (fictional) cannibal—Crusoe’s man Friday—was rehabilitated and “humanized” (and it’s probably significant that, in the second novel of the trilogy, Friday was killed during a sea battle with a host of cannibals).

But if zombies and cannibals are not human, they’re also not not human—which is a subject for another post.

1 This website seems legit enough, though I remain somewhat skeptical—I’d really like to see the 1923 ad, for instance. I’m also a bit disappointed by the scant attention paid to this phrase: it was in none of the dead-tree phrase dictionaries in the campus library (and I looked in at least a dozen).
2 That “of course” should bother you—because I haven’t actually demonstrated yet that zombies aren’t human. And I might not—maybe I’ll just assert it, and hope it sticks.


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