"Throughout my life, I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings," writes Tobias Schneebaum. That search for human connection has led him–a New Yorker born on the Lower East Side to Orthodox Jews from Poland; a painter and a gay man–to live among people who couldn't have been more different from himself: cannibal and headhunting tribes in the jungles of South America and New Guinea.
Schneebaum is best known for his first book, Keep the River on Your Right (1969), an engrossing, often astonishing account of his experiences among a tribe living a Stone Age existence deep in the Madre de Dios rainforest of eastern Peru. In 1956, Schneebaum, a successful painter, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study art in Peru. But once he arrived there, he abandoned his studies to venture, alone and unarmed, into the jungle. A knapsack on his back, sneakers on his feet and the admonition to "keep the river on your right" to guide him as he walked, he was unprepared for what he might encounter yet open to whatever might come his way.
Seven months after Schneebaum went into the vast equatorial forest, the US State Department presumed that he was dead. Back in New York, newspapers reported the mysterious story of the prominent local artist who had vanished in the Amazon. But after a year Schneebaum emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He had found the settlement of the Amarakaire, a tribal people who ended up adopting him and initiating him into their culture, which, to his surprise and delight, sanctioned same-sex relations among men. Schneebaum spent many a happy night in the Amarakaire communal lodge, entwined with his comrades in the all-male sleeping piles.
For much of the book, the recounting of his experiences reads like a combination boy's adventure story (albeit a particularly strange one) and an amateur anthropologist's report. But the tale eventually takes a very dark turn. The Amarakaire were hunters, and on occasion their prey included other human beings, as Schneebaum found out to his horror when he unwittingly accompanied them on a raid of a nearby village. He witnessed young Amarakaire warriors, with whom he had enjoyed friendship and sex, efficiently and remorselessly slaughter the male villagers and butcher the bodies for a feast in which he partook, eating a piece of a heart.
This horrific episode constituted only a brief moment of his time among the Amarakaire, and it takes up only a little more than a page of the book. But it was surely the most shocking and sensationalistic of his experiences, and it has haunted him ever since. Indeed, it took him nearly fourteen years, from his return to New York till the publication of Keep the River on Your Right, to disclose what happened. (In a 1988 interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, he said that he wrote the book to "exorcize those demons.")
Traumatized though he was by his encounter with cannibalism, he never lost his appetite for traveling to and living in distant places, always preferring to take the isolated and unknown path, often discovering his destination along the way. His wanderlust has carried him through South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and he has related his experiences in several books. It's not a large oeuvre. Since River–a countercultural classic, also popular with gay readers, that has never gone out of print–he has published Wild Man (1979) and Where the Spirits Dwell (1988), and he is the author or co-author of several volumes about the art and culture of the Asmat people of Irian Jaya (West New Guinea). Now, nearly 80, Schneebaum has a new book, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, in which he reflects on his amazing life. He is also the subject of a first-rate new documentary, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. The film, by the siblings David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, has been winning awards at film festivals and has footage from Peru and Irian Java. (More on the doc, hereafter referred to as KRYR, later.)
In Secret Places, Schneebaum writes that he has lived two lives, one in New York City, the place where he was born and grew up and from which "I made forays into distant parts of the world," and New Guinea, "a place to which I have now been going for more than 25 years." His two lives "are completely separate from each other, each lived intensely and fully," he says. Yet, despite their distinctness, the two worlds, and his experiences in them, do illuminate each other. In a series of related essays, he examines several decades (from the early seventies to the late nineties) of his search for human connection, in the jungles and villages of Irian Jaya, among sexually polymorphous tribesmen, and in Manhattan, among his largely gay circle of writers and artists.
Schneebaum confides that his intense need for fellowship and acceptance has always coexisted with a contradictory impulse toward anonymity and independence. He traces this to his unhappiness as a child over the atmosphere of intense religiosity and discipline (including physical punishment) imposed by his immigrant father. "I was obsessed with drawing and with my need to lose myself, willing myself into another world where my father could not wallop me." The young Tobias had glimpsed a vision of another world during a family trip to Coney Island, where he saw a sideshow poster promoting the appearance of the "Wild Man of Borneo."
The startling image of this creature, human yet wild, undomesticated, captivated the timid and introverted boy. Many years later, after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, the adult Schneebaum traveled to Mexico, making the first of his forays into remote places. There, wandering in the depths of a forest, he encountered a tribe known as the Lacandón. At that moment, the repressed memory of the Wild Man returned:
The combination of my recollection of the Wild Man of Borneo and the Lacandón meant the beginning of a new life for me. The intensity of that experience marked the path I would follow for the next fifty years. I became obsessed with looking for a people who would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality.
It was in West New Guinea, Irian Jaya, among the Asmat people, that he found what he was looking for. He was determined to go from the moment in 1961 when he heard of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Asmat territory. Schneebaum was not fazed by the possibility, widely believed at the time, that Rockefeller had been captured, killed and eaten by the Asmat. (In the documentary KRYR, Norman Mailer, Schneebaum's East Village neighbor when they were young, speaks admiringly and with amazement of Schneebaum's fearlessness: "When he went on to have his extraordinary experiences, I thought, Toby has so much to him. What kind of a novelist am I that I didn't see it?") The artist had been awe-struck by the Asmat carvings that Rockefeller had collected and put on display in the Museum of Modern Art. "That exhibition alone would have been enough to incite me into going to Asmat," he recalls. "The power and ferocity of the carvings, in fact, invaded my dreams and kept me from sleeping for the next several days."
It took Schneebaum ten years to finally get to Irian Jaya and Asmat territory. When he arrived, in 1973, he was determined to find a way to stay. Catholic missionaries from the Crosier order had established the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in the provincial capital of Agats. The missionaries did not insist that the Asmat forsake their culture in order to adopt Christianity. They instead were intent on helping the Asmat preserve their traditions. (Up to a point, of course. Rather than kill and devour their enemies, the Asmat were convinced to partake in the symbolic flesh-eating of the Eucharist.) Schneebaum offered to catalogue the museum's extensive collection of Asmat carvings and other artifacts.
The Asmat had almost entirely given up headhunting and cannibalism by the time Schneebaum arrived. But they retained their animistic belief in the power of spirits, benign and malevolent, to affect human affairs. Schneebaum is particularly good on the spiritual aspect of Asmat art: "Every cut in wood with knife of bamboo, shell or steel used to produce a carving that embodies the spirit of an ancestor is one more step toward the appeasement of the dead, all of whom remain alert…. Until the carving is complete and is being used in ritual life, the spirit is doomed to wander the earth."
Schneebaum devotes one chapter of Secret Places to the 1991 visit by some Asmat to the American Museum of Natural History for a demonstration of their carving and traditional dances. Footage of the event appears in KRYR, but Schneebaum provides some additional, wonderful details. Before arriving in New York, where the Asmat were put up at a Hasidic-owned hotel, they enjoyed staying up all night to watch porn videos. "When they dressed at the hotel for performances," Schneebaum reports, "they painted themselves, put feathers in their hair, added necklaces and wrist- and leg bands, and then went out looking marvelously wild. New Yorkers appeared indifferent, barely giving them a cursory glance as they went by."
But before long the blasé New Yorkers were captivated, hanging around the hotel, where, in the lobby, "there was always a curious juxtaposition of the decorated Asmat rubbing shoulders with Hasidic men in black hats and long black coats, with ringlets dripping from their temples."
In Irian Jaya, four separate strands of Schneebaum's life came together–art, in the superb, magical carvings of the Asmat and his own drawings of their artifacts; the world of writing (the books Wild Man and Where the Spirits Dwell); anthropology (the ethnographic information captured in his journals); and "the world of sexual excitement." Of the Asmat men and their response to his overtures, he reports, "there was never any violent reaction to my touch, never any sense of shock. There was only acceptance and pleasure at my approach."
In the chapter "Marriage," Schneebaum compares two of his lovers, Douglas, a young New Yorker who is a gifted dancer, and Aipit, an Asmat with two wives. It's one of the best parts of the book, rich with lyricism and tenderness, as well as astute cross-cultural analysis of male same-sex relations. Douglas improvises a wedding ceremony between himself and Schneebaum while they are sitting on a park bench in the East Village; Aipit, in his remote village, tells his American friend of mbai, the Asmat tradition of ritual male partnership, a lifelong arrangement that coexists with the partners' marriages. Of his lovers Schneebaum writes, "I cherish them both. I am wedded to them both."
Schneebaum wrote the chapter before he returned to Irian Jaya in 1998 with the KRYR film crew. He had feared that Aipit was dead, but the grizzled old fellow turned out to be very much alive. The camera captures their mutual joy in being reunited after many years, providing one of the film's most poignant and delightful moments.
Personal needs, especially sexuality, clearly motivated Schneebaum's explorations. Does that make him guilty of a kind of sexual tourism? Has "going native" been a way for him to relieve himself of the white man's burden, in this case the strictures of Judeo-Christian sexual morality? Schneebaum's candor about his motivations and his willingness to show his own vulnerability "balances the inevitable privilege of his position," as David Bergman observes in his perceptive foreword. Traditional anthropologists profess objectivity but often bring their personal baggage to the study of so-called primitive peoples. Schneebaum, it should be noted, has never called himself an anthropologist. He did acquire a master's degree in the field some twenty years ago, believing that formal training would benefit his study and cataloguing of Asmat art. (His most systematic observations in Secret Places concern Asmat art and culture.) If not exactly anthropology, the book offers an original and idiosyncratic amalgam of travel writing, memoir, ethnography and art history.
There remains, however, the question of the unequal relationship between foreign observers and the observed, and how the very presence of outsiders inevitably produces change. Schneebaum acknowledges his own role in this regard:
As the years went by, however, it became more and more obvious that change not only was inevitable, but had long since begun and was rapidly accelerating. It was also obvious that I was part of the change, was even one of the main media through which it was taking place. I had brought change simply by my presence, by wearing clothes; by bringing tobacco, steel axes, and knives as trade goods; by the very fact of my skin color.
After he completed cataloguing Asmat art in 1983, his work for the Agats museum was completed. With no other way to continue visiting Irian Jaya, he accepted invitations to lecture on Asmat art and culture to tourists visiting the area on cruise ships. The Asmat, he reports, have tailored their culture to the tourist market. Their welcoming ceremonies are self-conscious performances ("Well, then? Is that enough?" an Asmat man asks Schneebaum after a lively session of drumming and dancing staged for cruise-ship passengers), and their carvings, now made for foreign markets, lack "the spirituality and intensity" of artifacts formerly created for traditional rituals.
But the worst transformations actually preceded Schneebaum's arrival. When Indonesia took control of Irian Jaya from the Dutch in 1963, it sealed the territory from the outside world and conducted a policy of mass killing that resulted in the deaths of thousands. The massacres were followed by a campaign to "civilize" the indigenous peoples, including the Asmat, by attempting to eradicate their traditional culture. Since then, logging has destroyed much of the forest that sustains the Asmat. Many Asmat are now logging on the traditional lands they have lost, receiving a pittance for each tree they fell. Neither the film KRYR nor Secret Places explores this history or the resistance of the inhabitants to Indonesian oppression, a serious omission.
The political turmoil has changed the face of tourism in Irian Jaya; the cruise ships have ceased going there, at least for the time being. For Tobias Schneebaum, elderly, frail and suffering from Parkinson's disease, there may never be another return to the land that "bewitched" him decades ago. But in his Greenwich Village apartment, filled with Asmat artifacts, he feels the spirits of the world in which he lived and loved. "When I open the door and enter, I am again in Asmat, leaving the outside world behind."
"Perhaps," he considers, "it is the spirits who write my stories."