Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People Is Wrong

Eating People Is WrongMalcolm Bradbury began work on Eating People Is Wrong in 1950, when he was an undergraduate “at a redbrick university,” but it did not appear in print until the close of the decade, when it was well received as a “campus novel,” a satire on universities in the mold of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (or Jane Smiley’s Moo). The chief protagonists, after all, are Stuart Treece, head of the university English department; Emma Fielding, a graduate student and Professor Treece’s love interest; and Louis Bates, a precocious and eccentric first-year student from a working class background. But as events begin to unfold, it becomes clear that Bradbury’s satirical target is not the university but the kind of masochistic liberalism it has given rise to, embodied especially by Treece and Fielding.

The novel opens as Professor Treece is preparing to host an event for the international students on campus. In his liberal, tolerant way, Treece had been hoping the event would be an occasion for union, for the tearing down of prejudices and preconceptions, but “far from proving that foreigners were as normal as you or me, the occasion had been a subject of amusement and complaint ever since.” A Frenchman, drunk off of the wine on offer, ends the night by urinating on the front lawn of the campus, in full view of female students; a group of African students, seeking to cleanse a campus room for prayer, pour boiling water everywhere; and one of these, a Mr. Eborebelosa, son of a chieftain in his native country, becomes obsessed with making Emma Fielding his fifth wife. Here is the narrator’s summation of Treece’s predicament, as a good liberal:

Being a liberal, after all that, meant something special; one was a messenger from somewhere. One was, now, a humanist, neither Christian nor communist any more, but in some vague, unstable central place, a humanist, yes, but not one of those who suppose that man is good or progress attractive. One has no firm affiliations, political, religious or moral, but lies outside it all.

One sees new projects tried, new cases put, and reflects on them, distrusts them, is not surprised when they don’t work, and is doubtful if they seem to. A tired sophistication runs up and down one’s spine; one has seen everything tried and seen it fail. If one speaks one speaks in asides. One is at the end of the tradition of human experience, where everything has been tried and no one way shows itself as perceptibly better than another.

This stance is, of course, an affectation, not an objective conclusion about the world; to stand on the sidelines, to be committed to no creed or morality, is nonetheless to make a choice. And it is a choice that has petrified Treece, who is in his forties and utterly incapable of maturing, of taking on a wife or starting a family or even beginning a real relationship.

Emma Fielding, much younger than Treece, nonetheless shares this same affliction of conscience. When she is proposed to by a man who does not know her, with whom she has nothing in common, she cannot bring herself to reject him outright for fear that he might construe his race as having something to do with the decision. Instead, she lies to Eborebelosa, telling him she is promised to none other than Professor Treece, but even this cannot save her from self-recrimination:

Oh, she had never meant to lie; it wasn’t as if it was an ordinary lie, which would have been bad enough; she was lying to a member of a race which had been lied to too much already. If he ever found out, he would surely take it as an insult to his colour, though it had been meant to spare him. But, in any case, was it, for a liberal-minded person, fair even to spare him? Would one spare a white person like that?

This tendency among liberals to treat individual human being as avatars for their race (or gender, or sexuality) persists to this day, and to this day it leads to foolish deceit and masochism. Again and again, Bradbury finds humor in this snivelling stance. Here, for instance, is Emma, apologizing for the fact that men everywhere seem to fall in love with her at first sight: “This is the sort of thing that only happens to women. Men don’t see this dilemma. One is congenitally a woman, you know; one tries not to be, but it’s a condition of one’s humanity.” One of Treece’s colleagues, who also happens to be his one-time lover, sums him up well:

Whenever I look at you I think of Simone Weil’s definition of the religion man – ‘Morality will not let him breathe.’ But the trouble with your morality is that it won’t let other people breathe either! You’re fair in a way I can never be. You’re a very honest man; you weigh up and judge and speculate and criticize. You’re an insult to us all!

That last line, preceded by a series of compliments, is devastatingly funny; it speaks to Treece’s moral blindness, his crippling desire to subordinate his own needs and judgments to what he feels the moral world demands of him, that renders him utterly inept as a man. Auden, mocking a similar moral pretentiousness among social workers, once wrote: “We’re all on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, we don’t know.” if you can appreciate the humour in that remark, you can see a parallel smugness in Treece: “It is well I am a liberal and can love all men, thought Treece; for if I were not, I doubt if I could.” The lesson Emma Fielding gradually learns, that Treece does not, is that morality demands of us that we make judgments about people and behaviour – that to look upon evil and call it otherwise is to undermine good, just as to diminish our own needs as human beings cripples our ability to relate to others. More than fifty years have passed since Eating People Is Wrong, and yet its lessons are as relevant as ever.