When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire…Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
In my opinion, all art is part of a triptych, whether it admits it or is conscious of it at all. A triptych has three parts: The Garden of Eden/The Fall; The Crucifixion/The Sacrifice; The Restoration/The Kingdom of Heaven. Another way of saying it would be to say, there are three realms in art: Heaven, Earth and Hell. There is something very human about being fascinated with hell. Perhaps this is why the Inferno appeals more to people than either the Purgatory or the Paradiso. Perhaps it is the same instinct that draws people into horror films summer after summer. I know that I have difficulty looking directly into the heart of Evil, but that it is those books and works of art that do so that are the most powerful to me. They have also the stature of Great Literature: 1984, for example, is the most harrowing thing I’ve read from the 20th century. Catch-22 literally made me sit down in exhaustion and fear when I got to The Part. Dogville made me weep with anger and horror. 28 Days Later still haunts me. Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies all made me look at my fellow human beings a little more warily. And just last night I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and it’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read. And I’m not even halfway through, and I haven’t even got to The Part yet (which the man who recommended the novel to me assures me will come). I’m not sure what The Part is, yet – does he kill the boy? Does he eat the boy? Does he meet his mother on the road and kill her? I’m not even sure I want to know.
This unflinching honesty, though, is the sort we do need in our coddled 21st century first world cocoon. It is necessary. It is necessary to be jolted out of the complacent stupor that comfort and abundance lull us into. For Man’s Heart is very dark, very very dark indeed – for there is a beast within each of us. What I love about The Road is its bleak portrayal of a world under Natural Law – that is, under the Laws of the Jungle. With no constraints, with no Leviathan, with, most importantly, no God, this is what becomes of Man. The child is a natural theist – so far the jury is still out on the father, but I have already met the old man who is a nihilist whom they feed. And I know that the heart of nihilism is destruction. And that the child would not stand a chance for even a second if he were alone, because he would be slain and devoured.
I think I first understood cannibalism a little better after watching the brilliant 1999 Julie Taymor film version (which makes you want to go vegetarian) of Shakespeare’s most gruesome play (featuring amputations, rape, torture, and the cooking of sons to be served to fathers and mothers), Titus Andronicus. It is so visceral, and really made me realize what a redeemed horror is at the heart of Christianity and what an irredeemable horror lies in the breasts of men. Steeped in the horror of the Spanish Civil War, Goya expressed this best when he painted Saturn devouring his own children.This is, after all, what war is: the sending of sons and daughters to protect fathers and mothers. Even worse, Civil War – the war of brother against brother, of father against son – senseless, timeless, uncontrollable. This is also genocide, the wiping out of entire tribes of brothers – and of course, this is cannibalism itself: the killing of brothers to devour human flesh.
Freud explained this phenomenon as occurring in the unconscious, due to prehistoric events at the time when consciousness arose in Mankind. He posited a band of brothers killing their father and eating him – a ritual which brought about (according to Freud) a rule of law. Indeed, before Christendom, this was pretty much the norm everywhere. It still is, in many places in the world today – the law of the survival of the fittest. C.S. Lewis also talks about the Fall of Man in the Problem of Pain, and posits that the first human ancestor, once self-consciousness had arisen, had to make the choice between himself and God. It would not, I guess, be a stretch to make that between himself and the Imago Dei in another man. Certainly we know that Cain killed Abel, one generation outside the Garden of Eden.
But it is child sacrifice that is the rankest thing to the nostrils of God – idolatry He tolerates for a certain number of years. But when the “abomination of abomination” occurs – making children pass through the fire, as the peoples did to Molech – judgment is at hand. Before the invention of childhood in around about the Victorian era, children were less than nothing in most societies. Some societies didn’t even name them until they came of age, because the emotional investment would be just too great. Children worked as a matter of course, were abused, used as cheap labor or slave labor (see Oliver Twist), were bought and sold as chattel. In other words, children, especially orphans, were the weakest of the weak, along with widows, who also had no protection. To sacrifice one’s children was then not only an affront against all natural familial love, but also against God’s justice, which is always on the side of the poor and weak.
We may not set up pyres or literally eat up our children, but what does it say when, in societies where achievement is the end goal, or where parents try to live vicariously through their overachieving offspring, and twelve-year-olds regularly leap off tall buildings or hang themselves or slit their wrists because they cannot live up to expectations? Or conversely, where children are had and not cared for, abandoned to the roving militias of the ghetto, to addiction and crime and violence? Remember that God provided the Ram, and that because of that Abraham did not have to slay the son he loved.