Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The relation of flesh to money and value in various literary modes

In this blog piece, the term “flesh” will be used to describe both human and animal bodies. The question of whether flesh and money are inextricably linked appears to require the answer “yes” as throughout history they have been. Not only is there the obvious value in human sexuality through prostitution, which has been prevalent for hundreds and hundreds of years, but also the value of a dead body is important. I am going to discuss three pieces of literature here which discuss the issue of the value of flesh in the 1600s in England, the 1800s in America and the Second World War in Germany. The temporal and spatial spread of these texts allows for some recognition of the universality of the flesh trade.
Firstly, Thomas Middleton’s play A Chaste Maid in Cheapside examines the importance of the value of flesh in a time at which the consumption of meat had been banned. During Lent at this time people were not allowed to buy or sell meat unless it was for someone who was pregnant or very ill and therefore needed it. Thus not only was animal meat incredibly valuable, but also incredibly hard to find. Another level of value was attributed to the meat as a result of the corruption of the officers who were controlling the consumption of meat: bribery was not unheard of. There is an irony in this play in the comparison between animal meat and children. A child is unfortunately misrecognised as being a piece of meat and thus is seized by the officers. The mother, willing to get rid of the child, gladly hands it over to them. Thus, the corruption of the officers resulted in flesh losing them money rather than making them some. Children are valued as being a negative type of meat for some and a positive type for others. For example, for Allwit “his” children are a source of revenue as they allow for his luxurious lifestyle. On the other hand, Touchwood is too fertile and has too many children which are draining his income and so he values them much less. Kix is unable to produce children, and has a lot of money and land which he needs an heir for to pass them down onto and thus children for him are worth more than any kind of physical wealth.
On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does not value flesh in terms of food or children, but in terms of death. The Glanton gang, which includes all of the main characters in the book, are hunting Native Americans and scalping them to earn their income. There was no difference in value between the scalp of a man, woman or child and so they did not allow for any sympathy for the defenceless women and children of the tribes. In fact, they were an “easy kill” and thus had a greater value to them because they took less time to kill. Indeed, as the book progresses there is a great deal of confusion between the Natives, the Mexicans and even towards the end, the blacks because not only does a dried scalp look the same regardless of race, but the gang kill both Natives and Mexicans without prejudice. Moreover, towards the end there is a great deal of emphasis placed upon the value of flesh in a sexual manner. The mention of “whores” becomes highly prevalent and surrounds the last few chapters of the book. Also, the kid/the man uses a whore for the first time, thus connecting women with value, as well as being raped himself. Once the judge has committed this atrocity to him he finally kills him as his flesh has no value anymore.
A third and different approach to flesh and value comes in the form of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. This records his father’s memories of the atrocities committed against human flesh in the Second World War in Poland and in particular in Auschwitz. Vladek, Art’s dad and the main character of the text, was a Jew living in Poland. He emphasises throughout his telling of the events which happened to him the fact that bribery was incredibly important in his survival of the war. He bribes members of the enemy to ensure his survival in Auschwitz, he bribes people to hide him before he is finally captured and he even bribes members of his family to help him. The last point is questioned by his son who can’t understand why one would not save the flesh of a member of his family without requiring payment, but Vladek states that his cousin needed the money to survive. Flesh and money were inextricably linked. Moreover, there is the obvious link between the members of the Nazi party who earned their wages by reducing living human flesh to nothing. This links to the devaluation of flesh in the Second World War as human beings who did not cohere with Hitler’s idea of an Aryan race were made to be worthless. They were treated as though they had no value and came to realise that this was how people thought of them.

When cross-examined, these three texts highlight how human beings are only valued as being worth something in a subjective way. There is no objective value for human flesh. People are worth however much money you lose or gain from their birth or death.

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