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Dubious Maxim 5: One man’s meat is another man’s poison.


This phrase comes from Lucretius, who in his poem De Rerum Natura, sums up all the scientific knowledge known in the first century before the present era. In Book IV – dealing with the human senses – Lucretius notes that, because there is such variety among the animals of the earth, it makes sense that what is palatable to one species might be anathema others. Quod ali cibus est aliis fuaat acre venenum: literally, “What is meat to one may be bitter poison to others.” He wasn’t saying that what is good food for one human may be poison to other humans. He was talking about the differences among species: “

Different creatures find
the same food sweet or sour, delicious, nasty.
I’ve heard about a curious kind of snake
that you can kill simply by spitting on it,
which makes it bite itself to suicide;
and quails and goats wax fat on hellebore,
to man a deadly poison.

Chocolate is poisonous to dogs. We can’t eat what vultures eat, not merely because we wouldn’t want to, but because it would kill us.

Unfortunately, the saying has been twisted to propose that what is food to one human being may be fatal if eaten by another human, which sounds like a throw-back to a time when it was believed that not all human beings belonged to the same species. The notion was popular in the 1850s, for example, when slave owners cast about for ways to justify slavery. Slaves could be fed anything, because they didn’t eat human food. Lobsters weren’t eaten by whites; known in colonial times as “cockroaches of the sea,” they were fed to prisoners and slaves, along with corn mush poured into troughs.

I cannot think of any food item that would satisfy the proverb. Certainly taste varies among humans – Lucretius goes on to say that, too – but “poison” goes beyond taste. The only way this maxim makes sense is if we employ it to warn about allergies: someone who is deathly allergic to seafood, for example, might well say that what is meat to someone else would be poison to them. But that isn’t how the maxim is used.

Vegetarians shouldn’t get too exercised by the use of the word “meat” here. In earlier times, “meat” simply meant food. English has retained that sense in the word “sweetmeat” and “mincemeat,” neither of which involve actual meat (the term mincemeat hasn’t meant chopped mutton or beef since the sixteenth century: now, to say, “I’ll make mincemeat of him,” is to say you’re going to chop him up into thin (Fr.: mince) pieces, render the suet out of him, add raisins, prunes and dates, some spiritous liquor, a bit of lemon peel, and put him in the back of the fridge until Christmas. The French have retained the original sense of “meat” in viande, which still means meat but comes from the Latin vivande, meaning anything that is necessary for sustaining life. Meat from animals, in French, was chair, or flesh, from the same root as carnal and carnivore, and even carnival and carnation.

Perhaps the association of meat and carnality, however atavistic, is why the expression “one man’s meat” is so often associated with sex. Lucretius moves from his dissertation on variety of sensory perceptions among species to a disquisition on sex, with a meaty diversion into the propensity of women to enjoy sex as much as men:

When a woman joins
Body to body in a tight embrace
Moist-kissing lip to lip, breathes deep, or sighs
That long-drawn sigh, this is no act of fraud,
No simulated passion; many times
She means it absolutely, from the depths,
Desires the satisfactions both can share,
Urging him to his utmost.

In English, the phrase “one man’s meat” first appeared in 1576, in the autobiography of the English composer Thomas Whythorne, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. “That which is one body’s meat is an other’s poison.” He then went on to say that “He that wooeth a widow must not carry quick eels in his codpiece,” and odd observation contained in a volume called A Book of Songs and Sonetts.

The expression was repeated by Thomas Middleton, in his play Plato’s Cap Cast, performed in 1604. Middleton also placed it in a sexual context: “A piece of unicorn’s horn can help any man but a cuckold,” he wrote, “whereby that ould moth-eaten Proverb is verified, which says, One mans meate is another mans poison. For if he should take it down, he would think it would breed more horns within him.” In Middleton’s day, a piece of unicorn horn (which sold in Florence for twenty-four British pounds per ounce), was thought to be an antidote to poisons, to prevent convulsions and epilepsy, and to “restore the strength,” which meant it was held to act as an aphrodisiac.

“No Man’s Meat,” a short story by Morley Callaghan, was privately printed in Paris in 1931 because its subject matter – extramarital sex, open marriage, lesbianism – was considered too risqué by commercial houses (it wasn’t published by a major publisher until 1978). It is still one of Callaghan’s lesser-known stories, primarily, I think, because of its title. In the story, Beddoes and his wife Teresa entertain a visitor to their cottage north of Toronto. They are a youngish but staid couple (Callaghan always thought of Toronto as the home of youngish, staid couples), while their visitor, Jean, is young, colourful, and divorced. The Beddoes, both husband and wife, look forward to Jean injecting a little derring-do into their life. The first night, Beddoes and Jean play at dice; Beddoes wins all Jean’s money, then half-playfully offers to bet it all “against your virtue.” Teresa Beddoes nods approvingly; Beddoes rolls the dice and wins. Jean agrees to sleep with him that night. Both Beddoes and Jean seem sorry and embarrassed to have made such a bargain, but Teresa urges them to go through with it, and they feel obliged. Beddoes says the whole thing is ridiculous, to which Jean replies: “It’s no more ridiculous than any submission to a point of honor. It’s the submission that hurts.” They do go through with it, to the satisfaction of neither; only Teresa takes the whole thing calmly. In the morning, Jean asks to be driven to the train station, and Teresa offers to take her. Beddoes walks on the beach for a couple of hours, mulling things over, until a townsman comes back with a note from Teresa: she has realized she’s in love with Jean, and “could not come back for a long time.”

It’s a good story, one of Callaghan’s best; it isn’t about forbidden sex so much as about the consequences of doing something hurtful out of a sense of obligation to a principle. But its title is offensive. When I edited the Penguin Book of Modern Canadian Short Stories in 1986, I wanted to include “No Man’s Meat,” even though I disliked the title. When I called Callaghan to ask his permission to include the story, he wouldn’t let me have it. I asked him why not, and he was vague, said something about the trouble it had stirred up when it first came out, and that it had stirred up trouble again when it was reissued in 1978. Things had changed since the 1930s, I argued. The story’s subject matter was no longer shocking. Perhaps with a different title? I was about to suggest.

“Things haven’t changed that much,” Morley said, cutting me off. “You’d be surprised.”

“All the more reason to let me have it, then,” I said, but he was adamant.

“You can have ‘A Cap for Joey,’” he said. “Take it or leave it.”

I took it, and in a way was relieved. Callaghan was able to get away with referring to women as meat in 1931, he might still have been able to in 1978, but in 1986 he – and I – would have been rightly condemned for it.

One of Montaigne’s essays, written between 1572 and 1580, is titled by a version of the meat maxim. It’s called (in Donald Frame’s translation), “One man’s profit is another man’s harm.” It concerns an Athenian merchant who was condemned for demanding too much profit when selling things necessary for burials. “This judgment,” writes Montaigne, “seems to be badly taken, inasmuch as no profit is made except at the expense of others, and by this reckoning you would have to condemn every sort of gain.”

This sounds like a defense of capitalism, a system in which one man’s profit is another man’s loss. But the Athenian wasn’t condemned for making a profit; he was condemned for profiteering.

The word “profiteer” entered the language after the First World War, although the practice of it, as Montaigne’s example shows, goes back to ancient times. Profiteering is taking advantage of an unusual situation – say a shortage of supply – to increase the price of something. In 1920, the Legal Aid Review noted the high price of certain goods during the Great War, and asked if “it is simply hysteria which produces what today is termed ‘the profiteer,’ the same person whom we formerly called ‘the grafter,’ the ‘extortioner,’ the ‘robber,’ the ‘gouger’?” Capitalism makes profiteering possible, but human nature makes it inevitable. Montaigne argued that “let each man sound himself within, and he will find that our private wishes are for the most part born and nourished at the expense of others.” He saw the same notion of profit in nature, “for students of natural law hold that the birth, nourishment, and growth of each thing is the alteration and corruption of another.”

Speaking of corruption, I am reminded of the novel Les Empocheurs, by Quebec writer Yves Beauchemin. In French, the verb empocher means “to stuff one’s pockets,” and a fair translation of Les Empocheurs would have been The Profiteers (my translation of the novel was titled The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien). In the novel, Jerome exposes the corrupt practices of Quebec construction companies, who regularly gouged the provincial government when building public works, such as bridges and highway overpasses. They bribed officials to accept inflated tenders, charged for expensive materials while using cut-rate goods, and billed for work that was not done. That’s profiteering. As a result of Jerome’s campaign, the minor players who couldn’t afford huge bribes were arrested, a few politicians retired early to their vast estates in the Caribbean, and life at home went on much as before. When the novel first appeared, there was some ironic talk among the guilty of having Beauchemin charged with profiting from their crimes, but nothing came of that, either. No one was able to prove that any Canadian novelist actually made a profit from writing.

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