- Today is Friday the thirteenth—but then, hasn’t every day been, since November 9? New horrors greet us each morning and tuck us in each night. Rebecca Solnit runs a long, thorough postmortem on the election that got us here, imploring us to remember the sexism that coursed through it from start to finish: “In the spring, Trump retweeted a supporter who asked: ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ Perhaps the president is married to the nation in some mystical way; if so America is about to become a battered woman, badgered, lied to, threatened, gaslighted, betrayed and robbed by a grifter with attention-deficit disorder … Hillary Clinton was all that stood between us and a reckless, unstable, ignorant, inane, infinitely vulgar, climate-change-denying white-nationalist misogynist with authoritarian ambitions and kleptocratic plans. A lot of people, particularly white men, could not bear her, and that is as good a reason as any for Trump’s victory. Over and over again, I heard men declare that she had failed to make them vote for her. They saw the loss as hers rather than ours, and they blamed her for it, as though election was a gift they withheld from her because she did not deserve it or did not attract them. They did not blame themselves or the electorate or the system for failing to stop Trump.”
- While we’re pressing our noses to the cold, clear glass of reality, we might as well ask—just to be prepared—how our society could practice cannibalism without hating ourselves for it. It just seems like it might be a valuable skill in the not-too-distant future, I don’t know. Bill Schutt’s new book Cannibalism offers some guidance. Libby Copeland writes in her review: “What does cannibalism look like in a culture that doesn’t attach as much stigma to it? Like many other peoples, the Chinese practiced survival cannibalism during wars and famines; an imperial edict in 205 B.C. even made it permissible for ‘starving Chinese’ to exchange ‘one another’s children, so that they could be consumed by non-relatives.’ But, according to historical sources cited by Schutt, the Chinese also practiced ‘learned cannibalism.’ In Chinese books written during Europe’s Middle Ages, human flesh was occasionally cited as an exotic delicacy. In times of great hunger or when a relative was sick, children would sometimes cut off their flesh and prepare it in a soup for their elders. One researcher found ‘766 documented cases of filial piety’ spanning more than 2,000 years. ‘The most commonly consumed body part was the thigh, followed by the upper arm;’ the eyeball was banned by edict in 1261.”
A letter from Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning from February 1803. Lamb, an English essayist, was born on this day in 1775; his correspondence is known for veering into what he called “nonsense.” Here he responds to news that Manning, one of Europe’s earliest Chinese Studies scholars, will embark soon for China and Tibet—he went on to become the first Englishman to secure an interview with the Dalai Lama. “Independent Tartary” is an outmoded term for Central Asia. —DP
My Dear Manning,—The general scope of your letter afforded no indications of insanity, but some particular points raised a scruple. For God’s sake, don’t think any more of “Independent Tartary.” What are you to do among such Ethiopians? … I tremble for your Christianity. They will certainly circumcise you. Read Sir John Mandeville’s travels to cure you, or come over to England. There is a Tartar man now exhibiting at Exeter Change. Come and talk with him, and hear what he says first. Indeed, he is no very favorable specimen of his countrymen! But perhaps the best thing you can do is to try to get the idea out of your head. For this purpose repeat to yourself every night, after you have said your prayers, the words “Independent Tartary, Independent Tartary,” two or three times, and associate with them the idea of oblivion (‘t is Hartley’s method with obstinate memories); or say “Independent, Independent, have I not already got an independence?” That was a clever way of the old Puritans—pun-divinity. My dear friend, think what a sad pity it would be to bury such parts in heathen countries, among nasty, unconversable, horse-belching, Tartar people! Some say they are cannibals; and then conceive a Tartar fellow eating my friend, and adding the cool malignity of mustard and vinegar! … The Tartars really are a cold, insipid, smouchy set. You’ll be sadly moped (if you are not eaten) among them. Pray try and cure yourself … Shave yourself oftener. Eat no saffron, for saffron-eaters contract a terrible Tartar-like yellow. Pray to avoid the fiend. Eat nothing that gives the heartburn. Shave the upper lip. Go about like an European. Read no book of voyages (they are nothing but lies); only now and then a romance, to keep the fancy under. Above all, don’t go to any sights of wild beasts. That has been your ruin. Accustom yourself to write familiar letters on common subjects to your friends in England, such as are of a moderate understanding. And think about common things more … You’ll never come back. Have a care, my dear friend, of Anthropophagi! their stomachs are always craving. ‘Tis terrible to be weighed out at fivepence a pound. To sit at table (the reverse of fishes in Holland), not as a guest, but as a meat!
God bless you! do come to England. Air and exercise may do great things.
Talk with some minister. Why not your father?
God dispose all for the best! I have discharged my duty.
Your sincere friend,
Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.
At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.
Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.
He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More