Fine young cannibals

Amateur ethnographer and author Tobias Schneebaum has lived and loved among former headhunters -- and even sampled their cuisine.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published April 13, 2001 7:52PM (EDT)

Somewhere on the same shelf with André Gide's "Travels in the Congo," Gertrude Stein's "Everybody's Autobiography" and Irma Rombauer's "The Joy of Cooking," you may want to make room for Tobias Schneebaum's "Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea," a small, odd and sometimes incandescent book about life, death, love, sex, tribal culture, magic, art, aging, transcendence and cannibalism. It's a fey, curiously charming piece of work, and so is its author.

Schneebaum has had a life and a half and, given that he also has a brain and a half, this account of his fascinating transit makes for compelling reading -- as enchanting as it is peculiar. Now 80, Schneebaum seems to be everywhere these days, partly because of "Secret Places" and partly because he's the subject of a new documentary film, "Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale," that has been winning awards at festivals. The film, which opens across the U.S. this month, was the focus of a recent New York Times magazine feature on the author. Articles about Schneebaum, an expert on the art of New Guinea's Asmat tribe, former headhunters, have also appeared recently in the Advocate, the Christian Science Monitor, the Times of London and the Village Voice among others.

Schneebaum is gay, and his lovers current and past -- New York sophisticates and a New Guinea tribesman -- are key characters in "Secret Places." A subtext of the book is the devastation of two tribes close to the author's heart: his circle of mostly young, urban gays (by AIDS), and the Asmat and their way of life (by the press of civilization).

The troubling juxtaposition of his young New York friends' early deaths from AIDS and the likely-to-vanish New Guinea tribe's ambiguous outlook on the value of life has, not surprisingly, been a strong undercurrent in Schneebaum's life and writings in recent decades:

In Asmat, the concept of life and death is different from that of the West; at least, it was when I first arrived there in 1973. Head-hunting continued in the remoter regions then, and may still be practiced in parts of the foothills of the Jayawijaya Mountains ... The people had evolved a culture of revenge that kept them in constant contact with the spirit world; they had developed a mythology that explained and excused violence against others. All deaths were attributed to magic performed by enemies, therefore, the spirits of those recently killed demanded vengeance before they would set off for Safan, Land of the Dead.

Early in the book, as things heat up between Schneebaum and an Asmat man named Aipit, the writer wonders, "How does one make a pass at a headhunter, even if he no longer hunts heads?" Regardless of your sexual leaning, it's a question you've no doubt asked yourself many times. Finally, in "Secret Places," you find out. And that's just the beginning. Well, not quite.

Schneebaum grew up the son of a grocer in New York and became a painter; he trained for a while with renowned Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. But he was in his 30s when his story really began. It was then, in 1956, that he went to Peru to study art on a Fulbright fellowship, then disappeared into the Amazon jungle for seven months, causing the American Embassy to declare him dead and Peruvian papers to publish his obituary. Schneebaum hadn't died, however; he'd been adopted -- by cannibals, the "Akarama" people. He in turn adopted them and their customs, including sampling their cuisine.

One snack caused a tempest when years later he wrote about it in his first book, 1969's "Keep the River on Your Right":

We three were alone until Ilhuene, Baldore and Reindude were in front of us. Reindude, cupping in his hand the heart from the being we had carried from so far away, the heart of he who had lived in the hut we had entered to kill ... Michii looked up at the moon and showed it to the heart. He bit into it as if it were an apple, taking a large bite, almost half the heart, and chewed down several times, spit it into a hand, separated the meat into six sections and placed some into the mouths of each of us. We chewed and swallowed.

Setting aside the slightly touchy issue of cannibalism, you've got to admit that Reindude is a very cool name -- especially for a guy living in a remote corner of South America in 1956. Assuming, that is, that Reindude was his name -- Schneebaum made up the tribe's name, Akarama, to protect them, but he didn't make up the tribe. They were, and are, the Arakmbut or the Amarakaire or some such, depending on whom you listen to.

As for the book that memorialized those seven months with the tribe, "Keep the River on Your Right" is what's now called "creative nonfiction." The New York Times article deems the work "heavily embroidered." Yet you could say that Schneebaum merely breathed deep the spirit of the '60s and produced a hybrid: an anthropological memoir crossbred with the then burgeoning New Journalism. As for that now-legendary nibble, Schneebaum says he regrets his bite of human flesh and is still haunted by it. He told the Times' Daniel Zalewski, "I'm terribly upset that I did it," adding, "They were already dead after all." Zalewski writes, "He prefers to be seen as a bold adventurer, not as Hannibal Lecter." Who wouldn't?

Schneebaum finally emerged from the Peruvian jungle, naked and covered in body paint, a Joseph Conrad wet dream, and returned to New York. Years later he transferred himself and his affections to New Guinea, home of the Asmat people, whom he reveres for their emphasis on living a life of balance, though he's disturbed by the way they once achieved that goal. In "Secret Places" Schneebaum writes, "The idea of balance is central to Asmat life, central in the same way that the taking of heads used to be necessary to a stable universe." By 1973, he was assistant curator at the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, a position he held for 10 years and that took him on regular collecting trips to tribal villages.

"At first I traded with steel axes, machetes, fishing hooks, nylon fishing lines and other tools," Schneebaum recalls, "but later, when the people began to understand money, I gave them hard cash." And as late as 1976, just 25 years ago, he was going far enough into the jungle to find people still living in a Stone Age culture who'd had little, if any, direct contact with outsiders: "A man, whose name turned out to be Sher, sat on the bottom of the aluminum boat. He bent over to smell the metal, a substance he had never seen before. He licked it with his tongue, knocked it with his knuckles."

Schneebaum forged close friendships with the Asmat, and the tribe members' psychological makeup, as well as his own, weaves through "Secret Places" in a way that traditional field studies can't approach. Here, he remembers his first Asmat friend, David Simni: "He was sad and old. He had never taken a head in battle, the prime requisite for leadership, a war chief or a chief of feasts. He was a gentle man, not in the least violent in the manner of my adoptive father Ndocemen. The tender expression on Simni's face was in stunning contrast to the ferocity and force seen on Ndocemen's face. His name, in fact, translates as 'I, penis.' He was the first in Asmat to adopt me."

It's hard -- make that impossible -- to ignore the most sensational aspects of "Secret Places," the cannibalism and headhunting, but the book is about more than those largely disappeared ritual practices. Schneebaum's knowledge of the Asmat's art and his passion for their carvings are almost as strong as his passion for passion. Sometimes he manages to weave it all together, throwing in a bit of creation legend while he's at it:

Many of the carvings literally thrilled me ... I can visualize the Asmat manner of working in wood: first hacking away with a steel ax into what would become an ancestor pole, and then refining and naming a spiritual piece when it was done. It was like an Asmat man with a pregnant wife finishing a fetus through the refinement of his sexual movements, his penis the tool that shapes the actual fetus's body. The man might roughly penetrate his wife, but in subsequent couplings would refine his activities by changing position during sexual encounters. He might move the direction of his tool from the right side to the left, from an upward motion to a downward one. The movements would become more and more subtle. This would assure both the man and the woman that the two halves of the fetus would be equally strong. They both would move again and again, further guaranteeing the child his or her complete health with balanced limbs; two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes. The Asmat love their children.

There are a number of passages in the book that, like this fetus-sculpting one, make it clear why some discredit Schneebaum. (His devotion to lay anthropology is another reason; professionals are opposed to handling the merchandise.) Once you've recovered from your fascination, titillation and wonder, you want to ask, "Now, were you told this by the Asmat, or is it just your fantasy, or what?" His prose style sometimes makes it difficult to tell. We can't be sure and finally we don't care because, as John Steinbeck pointed out, a thing isn't necessarily a lie even if it didn't necessarily happen. Or as another noted anthropologist, Lily Tomlin, observed: "Reality is a collective hunch."

Those are the kind of quintessential truths that the pros forget (not all of them, mind you). And that's perhaps the reason that those who take a less than conventional approach -- from Schneebaum to Jane Goodall to Carlos Castaneda -- are often the ones who make the breakthroughs. "Secret Places" moves back and forth between what we know is real and what the Asmat know is real; Schneebaum leaps from lily pad to lily pad. Whose reality is the realest is anybody's guess. What we learn time and again, however, in reading about cultures that exist in diametrically opposite relationship to our own is that our definition of reality is not necessarily the abiding one, or even the most astute.

Schneebaum has spent enough time in another world that it has permanently altered his perceptions, the way he sees and the way he communicates. Still, he comes across as a guileless, unfailingly honest soul, so even when he's reporting the fantastic, we feel that we're in the presence of the truth -- as in this description of a group of Asmat men trying to determine who is responsible for the death during childbirth of one man's wife:

The arrows flashed and flew around in a whirlwind on top of the mat in which the body of Tete's wife was wrapped ... It was as though the world were suddenly coming to an end, as though the cosmos were turning itself on end and whirling like a great spirit of cloud. At first it seemed that the arrows were murmuring to one another. They suddenly stood on end. They flew into the air, fought with one another, and knocked one another off the platform. They made frightening noises, like crustaceans from under the sea crackling the bones of a huge fish, like the creaking, mountainous rumblings of an earthquake.

Like many who came both before and after him, Schneebaum felt alienated, and being a gay man in the 1940s and '50s only exacerbated the feeling. But he resolved his dilemma like no one who came before or after him, and in a way that enabled him to dwell in two worlds while indulging his love of art, indigenous culture and younger men. "I often mix my two friends together," he writes, "and am never sure whether it is Douglas [his New York lover] or Aipit who sleeps on the mat next to mine, whether or not the mosquito nets are in place. I do not understand how this has happened, how it is possible for me to live so comfortably, so fulfilled, in so remote a region of my sensibilities, my body, my brain."

Schneebaum's has been a long and winding trip, but he found what he was seeking in the middle of nowhere -- people who unconditionally accepted him. And he returned the favor. (The unconditional part may have been a bigger stretch for him than it was for the Asmat.)

"Secret Places" is an intimate journal of a vital, curious old man looking back over his exotic past while savoring his exotic present. After he and Douglas marry each other on a park bench at 1 a.m. in a ceremony attended only by the two of them (Douglas is high on ecstasy at the time), he remembers, "We held hands, we hugged. I didn't know if I was floating or sinking. Do you have any idea what that meant to me? Have you any idea what it is like to have a young person pay close attention to you when you are old?" And we do get some idea of what it means to him, as well as a sense of Schneebaum's strange and fearless character, and of just how far his openness and candor have taken him. He's not afraid, at least not of the things most of us are afraid of, and he has the guts and the nuts to reveal himself, and the grace to do so without embarrassing us too much, while making it look easier than it is.

Later, recalling Douglas, whom he's no longer involved with, Schneebaum writes, "Now, when I think of him, which is often, I juxtapose him with Aipit ... I am in a land of spirits and spirituality. I can look through Aipit, through to the other side, and see all the generations of his ancestors, each one a headhunter, each one a cannibal. Aipit, too, has been a cannibal. Douglas is also on the other side."

Today, Schneebaum lives in a New York apartment (he lists its inventory of artifacts and potted plants, item by item, in the final pages of "Secret Places") but still visits New Guinea. He has a young boyfriend, Rick, nearly 50 years his junior; he last saw Aipit in 1995. Seven human skulls sit in Schneebaum's bookcase. One has "a hole in the left temple, indicating that it was taken in battle and used in initiation ceremonies. The hole, made with a stone ax, allowed the cooked brains to be poured out." Another skull is that of Sembet, a famed Asmat warrior. Sembet's son, Ndocemen, became Schneebaum's volatile adoptive father, and gave the author the name Sembet in honor of his own father. He credits his small museumlike home with providing "continuity between New Guinea and New York ... feeding me vitality, serenity, intuition, inspiration for what I write."

As he told the Times' Zalewski, "I'm not an anthropologist ... I wanted to meet people and have a good time. I never thought about exploiting anybody. I was doing something that thrilled me, and that was the only thing on my mind."

Say what you will about Tobias Schneebaum -- his life and writing afford plenty of grist for second-guessing -- but, consciously or not, he has pushed the parameters of anthropology (and reality) about as far as they can be pushed, and lived to tell the tales.

He must be a lot of fun at a dinner party.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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