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Bones and All, a romantic horror about two cannibalistic teenage lovers on a road trip across 1980s America, received a ten-minute standing ovation when it debuted at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month. It is the latest in a growing trend of non-fantastical films and series juxtaposing cannibalism alongside themes of self-discovery or coming of age, such as Cannibal (2013), Raw (2016), Yellowjackets (2021), and Fresh (2022). “Cannibalism has a time and a place,” The New York Times tweeted this summer. “Some recent books, films and shows suggest that the time is now. Can you stomach it?” With the body central to nearly every moral debate of our age, this trend merits our reflection.

Timothée Chalamet, who stars in Bones and All alongside Taylor Russell, told Rolling Stone, “It was a relief to play characters that are wrestling with an internal dilemma absent the ability to go on Reddit, or Twitter, Instagram or TikTok and figure out where they fit in.” There are now millions of people doing just this, from the so-called spoonies (young women, mostly, suffering from invisible and hard-to-diagnose illnesses) to incels (“involuntary celibate” young men raging against their perceived sexual ostracism). 

“I think societal collapse is in the air—it smells like it,” Chalamet said. “And, without being pretentious, that’s why hopefully movies matter, because that’s the role of the artist . . . to shine a light on what’s going on.” Whether Bones and All speaks intelligently to our crises remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be the first time artists have successfully used the metaphor of grotesque eating disorders to illuminate cultural pathologies.

Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” written in 1922, follows a man who exhibits himself in public while undertaking spectacular fasts that leave him emaciated. At first, townspeople look upon him with horror and fascination, but other sights distract, and soon his feats of asceticism no longer generate allure, or income. He eventually joins a circus, where he runs into the same problem—other animals in the show are more impressive. When asked, near death, why he fasted, he says, “Because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” They are his last words. He dies and is buried in the straw on which he used to sit. He is replaced in his cage by a muscular and menacing black panther that devours red meat.

The social theorist René Girard highlights this story in his 2008 monograph, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire. He argues that our socially-mediated pathologies are really disorders of desire, which are exacerbated by secular modernity’s denial of a teleology of desire. Human nature is treated as an “unknowable X”; the desires of another person are thus his own private domain, one of near-absolute authority. 

Nobody has the courage to speak to or help Kafka’s hunger artist until it is too late. Instead they look upon him as an object of amusement. Their only act of charity toward him is burying his corpse.

A society that lacks a teleology of desire also lacks normative, transcendent models of desire. “Few people want to be saints nowadays,” wrote Girard, “but everybody is trying to lose weight.”

Absent those models, people assign false transcendence to the worldly objects of desires that are mediated to them by other deficient people. Thus their competition for social media engagement and follower counts, their obsession with political correctness (or its obverse), and their strict dieting and fasting. Dietary pathologies like orthorexia (the unhealthy obsession with healthy eating) and anorexia nervosa result from subordinating the needs of the body to one’s desire for what is physically impossible.

Girard observed that such desires are metaphysical—one desires to be someone or something different from what one is. In a world where the idea, let alone the hope, of becoming a son or daughter of God is alien to most people, metaphysical desires converge on the most literal changes in identity: to desire a much thinner body or different sexual organs or a different skin color is to desire a different mode of being. Cannibalism is perhaps best understood as the attempt to possess an other’s being by literally consuming it.

It is unsurprising that our decadent society has seen an increase in diet-related pathologies. What is surprising is that they are still called pathologies at all. To say that an anorexic person’s desire to lose an extra five pounds is disordered is to recognize a teleology of bodily nature and to name as good those desires that contribute to the body’s health. When the Empire of Desire is fully constructed, this observation will be seen as wicked.

People are not their desires. By identifying a person wholly with their desires, we give those desires an unimpeachable status, as if their mere pronouncement were a divine edict. Any suggestion otherwise becomes blasphemy. Yet if we don’t speak, and if we continue deifying our own pathologies, our gods will soon outnumber the stars in the sky. 

Luke Burgis is the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.

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Image by Nine Stars licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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