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The Rabbit Slaughter

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An anthropologist examines the meanings of sacrifice and slaughter—with his own life as the case study.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Lydia-Janssen_Rabbit_600.jpg
Lydia Janssen, Rabbit Run, 2009. Oil on canvas, 70 68 inches.

I must have been five years old, because we had not yet moved from cottage seven to cottage five. Cottage five was much bigger than cottage seven. My parents had to wait several years until one of the larger houses—for some reason the houses were all called cottages—had been vacated through either the death or the retirement of one of the senior resident physicians. Very rarely did they leave for another position. My mother used to say they were more institutionalized than the patients in the hospital. “Institutionalized” was one of her favorite words, and it must have been one of the first words I learned, though I had no idea what it meant other than my mother’s disapproval.

My father was always trying to raise animals—rabbits, chinchillas, chickens and ducks, tropical fish, and a canary. They all died, the chinchillas because the room they were kept in was too hot and the tropical fish because the water heater went on the blink and boiled them. The canary just dropped dead one morning. The chickens and ducks stopped laying eggs, and so we ate them. I was ten or eleven at the time and held them tightly as Mr. Axelson, our handyman, cut their throats. Or maybe it was my father who cut their throats. I can’t remember. It seems unlikely, though, because my father always wore a suit and tie and never liked the sight of blood. Once the chickens’ throats were cut, I dropped them and watched them flutter around, spurting blood all over the cellar floor, before they finally died. I was horrified and fascinated but mainly trying not to throw up. I don’t think I was still holding any of them by the time they died and probably didn’t feel the sudden weight of lifelessness. That came later, about ten years ago, when Pico, our Bouvier, died in my arms.

But did Phil feel the death of the rabbits he had slaughtered, if it was in fact he who killed them? Phil was one of the patients who worked for us as a handyman when we lived in cottage seven. He stoked the coal furnace, tended the rabbits in the hutch at the bottom of the garden, and did the heavy cleaning, but he spent most of the time in his “office” in a corner of the cellar, reading comic books and drinking coffee out of a bowl he shared with Gargy—a gun-shy Spinone that a hunter had given my father just before I was born. Phil was, as I now remember him, a small, timid man, perhaps in his thirties, who had a lock of greasy blond hair that was always falling over his left eye, causing him to lose his place as he read the comics. He had created his office—sometimes he called it his “hideaway”—by blocking the cellar corner with old, rusted gym lockers that were arranged so that they not only walled him in but also created a “secret passageway” that was closed off by two open locker doors that were hooked together with a chain. I had to know the secret number of knocks for Phil to open the door. The problem was that he kept changing the secret number without telling me, so I usually had to call out, “It’s me.” “Who’s me?” he would ask, adding, “I’m me,” and laughed as he unhooked the door. The lockers were filled with the smelly old clothes and raggedy dolls and stuffed animals that he collected. They were headless or missing limbs or split at the seams. “I’ll have to call the doctor,” he would say as he showed them to me and told me their names, “but you’ll have to remind me. I’m always forgetting, and they never cry.” I was never sure whether he was pulling my leg or serious.

I loved Phil but was only allowed to go down to the cellar for a half hour before dinner. Phil thought of himself as a scientist and used to explain how things worked, but when I repeated those explanations to my parents, they could barely contain their laughter. Phil’s science was his and no one else’s. I didn’t care. I liked his science and—I remember—kept a chunk of coal that Phil had cracked open to show me a fossil. Phil saw a very rare ancient worm in the coal, but I couldn’t see anything. Still, I kept the fossil under my bed until Clara discovered it and threw it away. I wasn’t upset. In fact, I preferred reading comics with Phil over listening to his science. He was only supposed to read Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Elmer Fudd to me, but, in fact, he read Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. It was our secret, my first real secret from my parents. Phil was sure that if my mother knew (and I suspect she did) he would be fired. So I never told my parents. Clara knew because she was always spying on us, but I don’t think she told anyone. There was a conspiracy among the three of us, though Clara did not like Phil and Phil did not like Clara. As it was Sunday, she wasn’t at home when I discovered the dead rabbits. They had all been strangled and thrown about the hutch and on the lawn in front of it in what must have been a terrible frenzy.

I had gone down to play with the rabbits, and when I saw them, I just stood there immobile, entrapped in so intense a perception that I could feel nothing, neither the horror nor the grief nor even the violence of the act.

It was, as I said, a Sunday. My grandparents were coming to dinner, as they always did on Sundays. Just before they arrived, I had gone down to play with the rabbits, and when I saw them, I just stood there immobile, entrapped in so intense a perception that I could feel nothing, neither the horror nor the grief nor even the violence of the act. I had had no experience of death—its finality. Five-year-olds cannot grasp “finality,” psychologists say, but this doesn’t mean they can’t experience it. I did for an instant, and it left its mark. I could not cry. I don’t know how long I stood there. I didn’t hear my grandparents drive up to the house. I didn’t hear anyone call me, though someone must have. I didn’t even hear my grandfather’s footsteps as he approached me, but I wasn’t surprised when he put his arm around me, instinctively covering my eyes, though it was far too late. He didn’t say a word. Nor did I. There was nothing to say. He stooped down and touched several of the rabbits. “They’re still warm,” he said aloud but to himself. “It must have happened this morning.” I wanted to touch the rabbits, to feel their warmth, to make them come alive again. I knelt down, but before I could actually touch one—although my fingers were close enough to feel their warmth—my grandfather pulled me away, ordering me not to touch them with a severity I had never before heard. “They may have been poisoned,” he said. Holding my hand, he walked me back to the house to tell my parents.

I don’t remember much of what happened then. I wasn’t allowed into the living room, where my parents and grandparents were talking. I listened at the door until my father suddenly opened it, catching me and sending me up to my room. I don’t know exactly what I heard, but I knew then that my mother was sure it was Phil who had killed the rabbits. My grandparents agreed with my father, who said it could have been any of the patients in the hospital, anyone, in fact. I lay on my bed. It couldn’t have been Phil. How could my mother accuse him? He was my friend. He loved the rabbits, and the rabbits loved him. I knew because I had helped him feed them. He had given them names and talked to each of them as he held out lettuce leaves for them to nibble. They even waited their turn. Phil had a way with animals, my mother used to say. I could hear them nibbling and began to cry.

I’m sorry I never really felt the rabbits’ warmth, because then, perhaps, my memory of their contorted bodies, their heads twisted grotesquely, might have dissipated. Dead, they seemed much longer and skinnier than when they were alive. Their fur had lost all luster, and I could practically see their bones through it. But without that warmth, or maybe because of it, my memory of them has remained cold. Sometimes I do see myself looking at them, but that image is not the same as my image of myself in my earliest memories. It is a distancing image—a defensive self-scrutiny that shields me from the warmth I never felt.

My sympathy was with Phil. So was my grief, for I knew that I could never again accept the affection I had had for him. The next morning, I heard my mother and Clara asking each other who could have killed the rabbits. Like my mother, Clara was sure it was Phil. I thought of her as a traitor (though I probably didn’t know the word “traitor”). She had betrayed our conspiratorial bond. She said that Phil was sure we would give away the rabbits before we moved, that they would be slaughtered and eaten. He preferred to kill them himself. My mother agreed and used Clara’s argument—I was to learn later—when she fought with my father about keeping Phil on. She wanted to dismiss him immediately. My father won, and Phil moved his office to cottage five. Well, not quite, since my mother refused to let him bring his lockers and his smelly old clothes. He did manage to bring a robin’s egg blue clothes bag, which he hung from one of the pipes in the cellar in front of the little table on which he had stacked his comic books.

It was never the same for Phil. He stopped sharing his coffee with Gargy and didn’t much like talking to me. As he had only one chair, he no longer read the comics to me. He kept telling me how cottage five was dangerous. Five was his unlucky number; seven had been his lucky one. He had seen snakes in the garden, and they were going to get us. They didn’t want us there. I told my parents, but they said not to pay any attention to Phil. He was having one of his episodes. He would have to spend a few weeks in the ward, and then everything would be okay. I knew that everything would never be okay, but I didn’t say so.

I am not sure if it was the next morning or a few days later that Phil didn’t show up. I thought at first that he wasn’t allowed to leave the ward, but there was too much whispering going on for me to believe that for long. Something more serious had happened, something children shouldn’t hear. Maybe the police had proven that Phil had killed the rabbits. The hospital police had been called in that day to investigate, but, as far as I could tell, all they did was stuff the rabbits into burlap bags and haul them away.

“What’s happened to Phil?” I asked my mother.

“He’s not coming back,” she said.

“Why? He’s done nothing wrong. I miss him. He’s my friend.”

“Yes, I know,” she said with forced sympathy. “Wait until your father comes home for lunch. We’ll talk about it then.”

“No, you won’t,” I cried, and ran to my room.

I was wrong. My parents told me that Phil had died during the night. “He had a weak heart,” my father said.

I didn’t believe them. I knew he wouldn’t come back, but I didn’t believe that he had died.

The next day, a new handyman appeared: Mr. Axelson, also a patient. I already knew him because he had built the bookcases in our old house. He was told to clean out Phil’s things. I was ordered not to go near the cellar, but I sneaked through the garden entrance and saw a bottle of strawberry jam fall through the rotted bottom of Phil’s clothes bag when Mr. Axelson took it down. The jam splashed all over. It was moldy and filled with maggots. I vomited. When I was older Clara told me that Phil had hanged himself. I had no reason not to believe her, but I preferred to think he died from a weak heart. What other reason would my father have had to tell me, a five-year-old, that Phil was very young to have died of a weak heart?

It left me with a longing, yes, if I am honest with myself, to have touched death, the corpse, and the fear, and the desire to overcome that fear which came with the longing.

I’m not at all sure how I understood the slaughter of the rabbits at the time. I’ve never forgotten it, but I can’t say that it has haunted me. I can’t say that it traumatized me. It left me with a resonant but unreachable space—the space between my fingers that might have felt the rabbits’ warmth and the rabbits themselves. It left me with a longing, yes, if I am honest with myself, to have touched death, the corpse, and the fear, and the desire to overcome that fear which came with the longing. It also left me with the thought that had I been able to touch the rabbits, they would have come to life.

I keep returning to a painting of a French king, touching a man who is covered with scrofula. My mother explained that for centuries it was believed that a royal touch could cure skin disease. I admired the king. How could he bear to touch such a disgusting lesion? Wasn’t he afraid of contagion? But he did do it. I am quite sure that I did not think of the dead rabbits at the time, but I wonder if they didn’t fuel my fascination. For years I wanted to become a doctor, but after a long and painful struggle I decided against it.

When I told my wife, Jane, about the rabbit slaughter years later, she reminded me of Julian Nibble. Marta had given Julian, a fluffy white rabbit, to our daughter, Wicky (now Aleksandra). Marta was an old peasant who lived with her brother in a single room on the ground floor of a tower in Bonnieux, in the Vaucluse, where we were spending the summer. Marta owned a beautiful mas—a farmstead—above the village, which even in those days was worth a fortune, but she refused to sell it despite the many extravagant offers she received. She was childless. Rumor had it that she had an incestuous relationship with her brother. It is true that they shared the same bed. Some of the villagers called her a witch. She would wash the sheets and pillowcases only when the moon was full, because they would be whiter if they dried in the moonlight. Each day we would take Wicky to see Julian, and on her first birthday, Marta gave her a present. It was Julian Nibble, skinned and stuffed with rosemary.

There is a fine line between slaughter and sacrifice. Did Phil sacrifice the rabbits? Was it a private ritual? Can a sacrifice, at least the sacrifice of an animal, be a private affair? I doubt it. Sacrifices require the presence of a group. Poor, gentle Phil, all alone, unable, I imagine, to give to the rabbit slaughter that sacral quality that would turn the rabbits into sacrificial victims. Or perhaps he did, imagining, hallucinating, a public. After all, he was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He was not a Marta, who could never have imagined our upset when she arrived with Julian in a basket. She said that way Wicky would have her friend with her forever. Fortunately, Wicky was too young to know what had happened to her friend. Jane and I did eat Julian. We felt obliged to, for such is the power of the gift, of the gift giver, but it had lost what taste it had. I couldn’t even smell the rosemary.

I have seen animals slaughtered, and even more sacrificed. I remember the excitement that surrounded the slaughter of a sheep when I lived on the Navajo reservation. That excitement was coupled with hunger, but, while purely secular, it was somehow celebratory, too. There had been nothing celebratory about my father’s slaughtering the chickens. Nor, I imagine, in Marta’s slaughtering Julian Nibble. She was far too practical. She may have lived in a world of superstitions, but her act did not rehearse the kind of sacred drama that students of religion and some anthropologists once claimed. Some still do.

Sacrifices are a different matter altogether. I witnessed, and in fact participated in, many of them in Morocco, where I was doing fieldwork with teams of exorcists in the late sixties. I went with Youssef Hazmaoui, my field assistant, to buy a sheep for ‘Id al-Kabir, the Great Feast, in which Muslims commemorate Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismael (Abraham’s of Isaac). The market was filled with excitement. Shepherds had brought thousands of sheep there. There was much haggling. Everyone was interested in how much everyone else was paying for a lamb, a sheep, or a goat. It was said that the king would sacrifice a camel. When we brought the sheep back to Youssef’s house, his neighbors came out to appraise its size—its cost. I had the feeling that they were calculating the salary I was paying him.

On the ‘Id, as we were going to Youssef’s for his family feast, Jane and I were taken aback by the blood that was literally flowing in the streets. (Muslims, like Jews, do not eat blood.) We had assumed that when travelers described the streets flowing with blood, they had been speaking metaphorically. Knowing how poor most of Youssef’s neighbors were, we felt we were witnessing a gigantic potlatch that extended across the Muslim world and were immediately embarrassed by the thought, since, succumbing to market calculus, we had ignored the sacred quality of the feast.

The ‘Id is a joyous event, unlike the sacrifices that were performed at the Hamadsha exorcisms I attended. (The Hamadsha was the name of the religious confraternity to which the exorcists belonged.) There was no joy there, even when the possessing spirits, the jnun, had released those whom they had possessed. The sacrifices were weighted by obligation. There was always that sense of imminent danger that accompanies contact with the spirits. Strictly speaking, the ceremonies were not exorcisms but, technically, adorcisms; for rather than ridding the possessed of the malign spirits that had entered them, their goal was to convert the jnun into benign, protective spirits. The French classicist Henri Jeanmaire has suggested that exorcisms which aim at the permanent expulsion of the demon occur only when the spirits are considered evil (as in Christianity); when they are considered amoral, then exorcistic rituals seek their transformation, much as the Furies were transformed into the Eumenides in Aeschylus’s tragedy. However transformed, the jnun were quick to anger and would punish those they protected if the person offended them. They acted as a sort of extrapolated conscience.

Women did not mutilate themselves, but they, too, danced wildly in trance, bent over, their hands, their loosened hair nearly touching the floor as they swayed side by side…

The ceremonies were long, lasting well into the night. They were bloody affairs, since some of the men possessed were forced by their possessing spirits, mostly female spirits, to slash their heads with knives (in the past with halberds), to release the heat, the intolerable pressure they felt as their blood—the spirit—mounted to their heads. Women did not mutilate themselves, but they, too, danced wildly in trance, bent over, their hands, their loosened hair nearly touching the floor as they swayed side by side—repeating the same movement, though far more rapidly, with which they washed their floors each morning—until finally they lost control and fell to the floor. I could not help but think that this ecstatic, at times epileptoid collapse was their only respite from the burdens of the cloistered world in which they were imprisoned, if not by their husbands than by the conventions that, unacknowledged by most men, entrapped them as well. The ceremonies were exhausting to watch. Not even the feast that ended them—a meal at which the meat of the goat or sheep that had been sacrificed earlier that day was served—revived me. Though I awoke drained, the Hamadsha who had fallen into trance felt rejuvenated the next day.

As the sacrifices I observed were always performed in the center of a circle of onlookers, I was never very close to them; that is, until I attended a Hamadsha performance at the annual music festival in Essaouira in 2002. Essaouira—a fortress town known as Mogador to the Portuguese, who had built it in the sixteenth century—is one of the most beautiful cities in Morocco. Each year it hosts a music festival at which there is both traditional music played mainly by the Gnawa, a secularized group of exorcists who perform all over the world, and jazz from the United States, Europe, Africa, and Cuba. Since the Hamadsha participate in the opening procession but don’t perform (for fear, I suspect, that they might fall into trance, mutilate themselves, and thereby tarnish Morocco’s image as a modern nation), I was asked to speak about them to a group of invited scholars—the côté intellectuel of the festival—who were to attend a Hamadsha ceremony staged especially for them. Reluctantly I went to the ceremony. I had spent the afternoon talking to a young Hamdushi (a member of the brotherhood) who was disgusted by the secularization and commercialization of the rites. They will anger the jnun, he told me with rage, fear, and worry in his eyes.

I found myself sitting next to the sheep that was to be sacrificed. Trembling with fear, its eyes bulging, it pressed itself against me. I had never felt such fear. It took possession of me. I could not distinguish its fear from the fear I was now experiencing. What was even more extraordinary was that when the sacrificer approached the sheep, he, too, began to tremble. It was as though the three of us were caught within the fear. I felt no relief when the sheep’s throat was cut, its blood pouring into a pail as it twitched into death. Judging from his expression, I do not think the sacrificer, who had no doubt performed many such sacrifices, felt any relief either. I wondered whether his reaction and, by contagion, mine arose from the primordial danger of having performed a sacrifice for profane rather than sacred reasons. It was a demonstration rather than an offering. Those gathered were an audience rather than participants in an offering and recipients of the blessing—the baraka—that the ceremony would normally have conveyed. The Hamadsha who were present were either apprehensive, as was the sacrificer, or disengaged. The few women who danced and fell into trance did so in a desultory manner. As far as I could tell, none were possessed. None of the men danced. Under such circumstances, the death of the sheep was meaningless: a slaughter rather than a sacrifice.

The line between the sacred and the profane is never as clear as we assume it to be. The performance of a ritual in a space that is not demarcated as sacred does not necessarily render the space in which it occurs sacred. Rituals can fail not only in terms of their efficacy—a rain dance that does not bring rain—but also in consecrating themselves, as I believe the Hamadsha ceremony I described did. They lose what self-transformative power they have. But what occurs in hallowed precincts is not necessarily sacred. Cathedrals have often been meeting places for purely secular activities—children playing, dogs running about, women gossiping, and men playing cards—as can be seen in some of the Dutch genre paintings of the 1600s—or meeting places for spies and lovers in countless movies. Still, a sacred precinct can affect the secular. I find it slightly disturbing when the audience applauds after a concert in a church, especially one in which religious music is performed. As I have had no religious training, I might be attributing greater sanctity to a church than does the believer, who by definition responds at least as much to the sacrament as to its location, but the two are hard to distinguish ceremonially. Elation knows no boundaries. Or does it?

G

Excerpted from Recapitulations by Vincent Crapanzano, to be published by Other Press on March 17, 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Crapanzano. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.

Vincent Crapanzano is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of six books—The Fifth World of Forster Bennett: Portrait of a Navajo, Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan, Waiting: The Whites of South Africa, Hermes’ Dilemma and Hamlet’s Desire: On the Epistemology of Interpretation, and Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench—and has published articles in major periodicals and academic journals such as American Anthropologist, Les Temps Modernes, The New Yorker, New York Times, and Times Literary Supplement. He lives in New York City.

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