Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.
I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.
I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.
Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.
I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:
Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:
Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.
I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.
There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.
Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.
I miss writing full-length blog posts for each book I read—and, maybe, I’ll get back in the habit when I start reading for my qualifying exams, since I need to take some sort of notes on those books anyway——but I have a huge backlog of books that will never get full posts. Here, then, are short (and pithy?) post-lets on the books I read in my “Race as Text” seminar (led by the inimitable Steve Weisenberger).
William Faulkner, Light in August (1932): Dude named Joe Christmas (seriously) rolls into a Mississippi town in the 1930s, takes a job shoveling sawdust at a mill. That shit job is cover for his lucrative bootlegging operation. Nobody—not even him, because he’s an orphan—knows if he’s black or white. Lots of flashbacks: turns out his dad was a carnie, and either black or Mexican, which makes Joe black, at least in the South, especially in the 1930s. He kills a white woman (they’d been having lots of sex, by the way, and everyone hated her because she was a Yankee), and then he gets shot—but he deserved it, because he was black. (Just to be clear: the novel and its characters are racist, but I’m not. Really.)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610): An exiled duke (Prospero), his marriageable daughter (Miranda), and their not-exactly-human servant (Caliban): they live on an island. The duke, who’s also a magician, shipwrecks his brother (who betrayed him) and some other folks (who were also involved in said betrayal) on the island with them. Some stuff happens. The villains eventually repent, Prospero forgives them, Miranda marries the son of the King of Naples, and everybody goes home to Italy—except Caliban, who stays on the island, because nobody wants him. Nobody dies, which is disappointing.
Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (1668): One white (English) dude, three white women, one black woman: shipwrecked on an Edenic island in the Indian Ocean. They don’t have to work for their food, so they have lots of sex. Their kids have sex. They get divided into clans. Eventually there’s clan-on-clan violence, because the descendants of the black woman just can’t behave in a civilized manner. A Dutch merchant ship happens across the island, helps the three nice clans put down a revolt by the “bad” clan, and then leaves, taking the story (scandal! sex! incest!) back to Europe. Also: “pines” and “penis” are anagrams. Because, you know, penises.
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688): An African prince and his true love are separated—as all true loves are—sold, separately, into slavery in Surinam, where they’re reunited—as all true loves are. The prince (Oroonoko, who gets renamed “Caesar”) eventually leads a slave rebellion, but the rest of the slaves decide they’d rather not. Oroonoko beheads his very pregnant wife, and is going to then go on a killing spree, but instead spends several days on the ground, in the woods, next to the body of his dead wife. He’s eventually captured, at which point he disembowels himself—which is pretty awesome—and the colonial governor has him sewn back up and nursed back to health so that he can be executed properly (castrated, dis-armed, burned).
Mary Hassal, Secret History, or the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808): Letters from an American woman in Haiti to Aaron Burr—written during the brief period (1802-1803) in which the French attempted to retake control of the island following the 1791 revolution. Mostly the letters are about the narrator’s sister’s unhappy marriage to some French dude (the letters are vaguely fictional, but not far removed from “what really happened”: the author, whose real name was Leonora Sansay, was married to an unpleasant Frenchman, and was probably having an affair with Burr, who was—and I’m quoting Weisenberger here—”a notorious womanizer”). Not nearly enough horrors: somewhat disappointing.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787): Lots of stuff about forests and rivers and ports and census data and blah blah blah—I skimmed a lot of this book—with some fairly vitriolic anti-black rhetoric in the middle of a chapter on “Laws.” An example: black people smell bad, because their kidneys don’t work as well as white folk’s kidneys, and so they secrete from the skin what white people piss out. Seriously. In his defense, I guess, he wanted to abolish slavery—but he also wanted to send all freed slaves back to Africa, because he thought whites and blacks couldn’t coexist without killing each other in a war of total extermination. Our third president, ladies and gentlemen!
David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829): “Fuck you, white people. God is going to punish you for making us slaves, and—in His great mercy and justice—he’s going to punish you by letting us kill you all. Get yourselves ready.” (This is an eloquent and passionate pamphlet, despite the fact that it’s also fairly violent in places—lots of “God’s going to let you fill your cups to the brim with wickedness and then pour out His fiery wrath on you.” Good stuff.)
Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799): A tale of two sleepwalkers: the Irish Clithero (such an unfortunate name) and the American Edgar. Things get really interesting when Edgar wakes up in a cave, with no memory of how he got there. He proceeds to kill a panther with his “tom-hawk,” eat it (or part of it) raw—in the dark—and then he kills a bunch of Indians on his way home. Spoiler: Clithero drowns at the end (he is, after all, Irish, and therefore unfit to survive).
Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856): Impossibly, stubbornly unperceptive American (merchant) ship captain encounters Spanish ship at a watering-hole in the South Pacific. Spends almost the entire novella thinking that the Spanish captain is both rude and mentally unstable—finally realizes that the slaves have taken over the ship and killed the real captain, and are planning to murder him and his crew, and take their ship, too. Lots of killing, at the end—and based on a true story!
George Schuyler, Black No More (1931): A satire: A black doctor (Dr Crookman) invents a cheap, quick, painless process to turn blacks white (by giving them accelerated vitiligo): no blacks means no racism, right? No, not really. Follows the exploits of Matthew Fisher, a whitened black, who goes to work for the Knights of Nordica (the new Ku Klux Klan), stoking white fears of blacks who don’t look black anymore but are still really black underneath—making lots of money in the process. In the end, white is the new black, and everybody’s still racist.