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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Of Remarkable Customs

Below is the latest communication from Mr. Darlington. In it, he relates a tall tale that sounds suspiciously familiar to one found in James D. Wallace’s book Ethical Norms, Particular Cases (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 83. Wallace himself got it from another source, who got it from still another source… so it has certainly been making the rounds. In any case, Darlington’s embellished version draws very different implications. Without more ado, here it is.

* * *

January 19, 1756
To the Most Venerable Mr. Avenger,

I was about a Fortnight ago sitting by my Fire with a particular Friend of mine, whiling away a bitterly cold Winter’s Eve, when he related to me the following extraordinary Tale.

“There was once,” quoth my companion, “a certain Tribe or Troop of wild SCYTHIANS living in some distant Region on the Black Sea, a Place envelop’d in Cimmerian Darkness. It so happen’d one evening, that a Pig enter’d into one of their Dwelling-Houses. While the Beast was rooting about, the Building caught fire and burn’d to the Ground.

“Now,” continued he, “the following Day, when the People were picking their way through the still-smold’ring Ruins, they came upon the hot and steaming Carcass of the Pig. In the removing it, some of the People had their Fingers burnt, and in the effort to soothe the Pain, they lickt them. They thereby discover’d the succulent Relish afforded by roasted Pig, the Flesh of which Creature, until this Time, it was their Habit to eat raw.

“However, in their barbarous Minds, untutor’d as they were in any kind of Science, and not being dispos’d to connect particular Effects with more general Causes, they form’d the Resolution that whenever they were seized with a Craving for roasted Pig, a House shou’d be builded and burn’d for the Purpose.”

I express’d my Incredulity at this outlandish Story, thinking it much too absurd to be believ’d. “Have not all Men,” I asked my Friend, “enough common Sense to see that, however delicious roasted Pig might taste, it could not possibly be so good as to warrant such extravagant and prodigal Expenditure, especially amongst a People in so rudimentary a State of Oeconomy? To build and then to destroy a House simply to satisfy one’s fickle Palate was too onerous and expensive a Task to be worth the while, consuming as it wou’d the Labours of an entire Village, from the cutting down and transporting Trees, to the shaping and raising of Timbers. I cannot imagine any Circumstances under which such a Practice of roasting Pigs in burning Houses cou’d ever gain wide Acceptance, nor…”

“Ah! But there are Savages in the Woods of Canada,” interjected my Friend, “who wou’d happily throw all their worldly Possessions into the nearest Body of Water, thereby bankrupting and dooming their Village to Privation and Want for the entirety of the Year to follow, simply to satisfy the Demands of Honour when a neighbouring Tribe visits, for they will not suffer themselves to be outdone in having the Reputation of being the most lavish of Hosts.

“But if you do not care to believe such traveler’s Tales, and you still cannot, as you say, ‘imagine any Circumstances under which such a Practice cou’d gain wide Acceptance,’ simply imagine that a Priest has told them to do it, and has Fenced the Practice ‘round with every kind of solemn and ridiculous Rite, whilst convincing them that roasted Pig is a Gift from the very gods themselves, who will vent their Rage and Spleen upon the hapless People if they durst roast a Pig by some inferior and less costly Method.”

I confess he had confounded me here, for in very Truth there is no Depth a People will not plumb to smooth the ruffled Feathers of a Deity in high Dudgeon. The Fires of Religion have been stoked with many a burnt Offering, both Pig and Human. What I first received from my Friend as an amusing — though dubious — Anecdote, upon Reflection, gave me such a Chill as the blazing Fire beside us cou’d scarce banish.

I am, Sir, ever your Servant,

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

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