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Down There on a Visit

Toward the end of this memoir of homoerotic experience in the jungle of New Guinea, a Dutch missionary’s wife makes a brief appearance. When the author and two European male companions arrive by canoe at the minister’s house, the wife, standing on the banks of the river, tells them that her husband is “working on his sermon for Sunday and cannot be wasting time with visitors.” Schneebaum notices the woman’s “faded print dress, stockings, and shoes” and the “deep crevices of bitterness on her face.” One of his companions strides up to her and says unpleasantly, “We don’t ask anything of you. We don’t need you.” The missionary suddenly appears and takes the men into the house, over the wife’s protests, and the woman vanishes from the book, dispatched by a single pettish sentence: “In spite of her antagonism, she made tea and offered delicious-looking cookies that we left untouched.”

The incident jars one into a recognition of the author’s antipathy to women that one had hitherto only obscurely felt. Earlier in the book, Schneebaum has spoken of his sense of alienation from heterosexual men and women, who, he feels, cannot know

what it is like to be homosexual…. They do not know that particular form of deception and pain, what it is always to be on guard, always to be afraid of being laughed at, sneered at, hated, repelling people, angering people. It doesn’t matter that attitudes sometimes appear to be in change; what matters is that I raised myself to relate to that intolerance and have lived my life as an undesirable.

In fact, however, Schneebaum has vividly communicated “what it is like” to be obsessed by male sex; in each of his three books—Keep the River on Your Right (1969), Wild Man (1979), and the present book—he draws the reader into his universe of homosexual desire the way every strong writer draws the reader away from his own fantasies and into those of another for the duration of his act of reading. As Nabokov, in Lolita, draws the nonpedophilic reader into an imaginative sharing of Humbert Humbert’s lust for a twelve-year-old girl, so Schneebaum, with his rhapsodic accounts of sex with cannibals and headhunters, expands the heterosexual reader’s consciousness of erotic possibilities. Only occasionally, as in the incident of the missionary’s wife, is one recalled, with a sort of start, to who one is: in this case, another middle-aged woman who wears stockings and shoes, if not faded print dresses, and has a little trouble entering into the spirit of the gynophobia that Schneebaum has briefly allowed to surface.

He was born in 1922 in a tenement on the Lower East Side, the son of Polish–Jewish immigrants, His father was a pushcart peddler, eventually the owner of a small grocery store in Brooklyn, and his mother a janitor who, the day after giving birth to each of the two older of her three sons, was back in the cellar shovelling coal. The father was strict, rough, cruel; the mother was gentle, and died of uterine cancer at the age of thirty-eight. In Wild Man, Schneebaum records a memory of getting up in the middle of the night during the period when his mother was dying at home, and seeing, through the open door of his parents’ bedroom, his father “on top of her, being cruel to her, hurting her in some way, for each time he pressed down, she let out an agonizing groan.” Schneebaum went to City College, majoring in math and taking art courses; during the Second World War, he was a radar technician at an Army base in Indiana. After the war, he studied painting with the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and then went to live in Mexico. In the village of Ajijic, he fell in with a group of expatriate artists and bohemians, and remained there for four years, painting, and becoming the confidant but not the bedmate of two attractive young homosexuals named Lynn and Nicolas; finally, in a fit of despairing jealousy, he took the obligatory, gestural overdose of sleeping pills and endured the obligatory, humiliating aftermath.

Schneebaum had never been attracted to girls and was drawn to men from an early age (in boyhood, he had been seduced by an older male relative), but he believed himself to be ugly and puny (“some half-creature, thin and weak, not frail but vaguely feminine,” he writes of himself in Wild Man), and felt as much a sexual as a social outcast. It was only in his thirties, in a village in the jungle of Peru, where he had traveled on a Fulbright, that Schneebaum found a fulfilling sexual relationship with a group of Akarama tribesmen, who let him sleep with them at night in a tangled heap on the floor of a hut, and who fed him, on one festive occasion, the roasted flesh of neighboring tribesmen they had killed the day before.

Schneebaum tells of his adventures among the Peruvian cannibals in Keep the River on Your Right, the most lyrical, Lawrencian, and cohesive of his works. After traveling for many days alone through the jungle below the Andes, he arrives at a desolate mission, where he finds a crazed old priest, a hunchback, and, incredibly, an alter ego—Manolo, a Spanish homosexual with vague literary leanings and a mysterious, romantic aura. But the mission is only a way station in Schneebaum’s quest for exotic erotic experience, which he finally finds deeper in the jungle, among the naked, painted Akaramas, who, inexplicably, do not kill and eat him but welcome him with hugs and shouts of laughter, as if they were at a California love-in:

All weapons had been left lying on stones and we were jumping up and down and my arms went around body after body and I felt myself getting hysterical, wildly ecstatic with love for all humanity, and I returned slaps on backs and bites on hard flesh, and small as they were, I twirled some round like children and wept away the world of my past.

A group of five young men become his special friends and lovers; he goes around naked, learns to shoot a bow and arrow, and lives as if in paradise. “I know finally that I am alive,” he exults in his journal. The idyll ends when one of the young men, Darinimbiak, becomes ill with dysentery. Schneebaum takes him back to the mission for medicine, and there finds that Manolo has disappeared; he had decided to follow Schneebaum’s example and go live among the cannibals, but evidently didn’t go over so big with them: his head is found impaled on a stake, and his body, of which no trace remains, is assumed to have been eaten. In a love letter left behind for Schneebaum, Manolo writes with bizarre prescience:

I’ve always wanted myself to be really useful in some way, and frankly I’d have liked it to be in a loving, sensual way, almost in the way that the body of Christ is used in communion…. I want, for a change, instead of someone else filling me with love, for me to fill someone completely, even if it literally means that my flesh and blood must enter into another body…. I’ve had dreams of my body being eaten by men and it thrilled me in such an indescribable way that I had an orgasm before I realized what was going on inside of me.

One begins to wonder whether anything in Keep the River is true—whether it isn’t all some sort of poetic/pathological day-dream (known as a novel)—and in Where the Spirits Dwell Schneebaum confirms one’s intuition. “The book I wrote on Peru had its exaggerations,” he confesses. “I wrote it as I felt it, changing time elements and adding to the number of those my friends had killed.” In the new book, he presumably writes it as it was, and has equipped the work with such emblems of authenticity as poor photographs of bare-breasted native women, ancestor poles, bamboo huts, etc.; a bibliography of anthropological texts; and a glossary of Asmat and Indonesian words, in which terms for (male) sexual practices receive the sort of rapt over-attention that the arcana of tipping and checking-in receive in vocabularies for tourists. (“Ndo tsjemen afai towai—I give my penis into the ass; to be the active partner in sodomy” or “Yipit a minau tamen emefafarimis—to peel back the foreskin of one’s penis; to masturbate.”)

As in Keep the River on Your Right (which also has photographs, but of a dark, murkily arty sort), the narrative begins at a mission—this one run by mod Catholic priests from the Midwest (when we first meet Father Frank Trenkenschuh, he is wearing shorts and a T-shirt that says “SHIT”)—and again, when Schneebaum ventures into the unexplored jungle, he achieves immediate rapport with the naked savages he encounters. In the early work he had pondered on this capacity:

What smell did I exude that allowed them to accept me? It was in Borneo that Mathurin Daim had said, “You are the only Westerner whose smell I have ever been able to bear.” There, I knew well that having lived for so long among his people, eating their foods, my body smells were like his own. But here, it is something else, something to do with the fact that I came as I did, that I came alone and in need. I knew that they recognized me, that we recognized each other.

Now, in the Asmat village of Otsjenep, having just watched two young tribesmen, who are bond friends, unselfconsciously bugger each other after a bathe in the river, he feels a similar affinity. There was “something about me that the men recognized, some overt gesture on my part, some restlessness seen in my eyes or filtering through my skin,” he writes. “In acting out their desires so spontaneously with me looking on, Amer and Kokorai demonstrated that they knew I was sympathetic, possibly a participator.”

In time, Schneebaum acquires a bond friend of his own, Akatpitsjin, who gives him “a sense of myself that liberated me from the neuroses that had originally forced me into my search,” and introduces him to faper ameris (“reciprocal sodomy”), which Schneebaum finds electrifying. But nothing he tells us about the relationship quite accounts for its momentous impact on him, and he tells us nothing about Akatpitsjin that makes him in any way distinguishable from any of the other primitive men we have met in this and the other of Schneebaum’s books. They all melt and merge into one idealized construct.

As Montaigne, in “Of Cannibals,” enlisted primitive man into his polemic against cruelty, ironically comparing the savages of Brazil—who eat human beings after they are dead—with the civilized men of France, who horribly torture people while they are still alive, so Schneebaum uses the Akaramas and Asmats as foils in his polemic against homophobia. But where Montaigne saw primitive men (among whom he never lived) as embodiments of the highest potentialities of man, and bemoaned the fact that Plato and Lycurgus didn’t know about them, in Schneebaum’s version they seem scarcely men at all, but more like tamed wild animals—one thinks of the otters in Ring of Bright Water and the lions of Born Free. Schneebaum’s remarkable talent for getting primitive men to trust and like (no less to faper) him is like the talent of Gavin Maxwell or Joy Adams for forging trans-species relationships.

But Schneebaum lacks Maxwell’s and Adams’s talent for observation. His savages never come to life. He may sleep pressed up against them, but when it comes to rendering their portraits and conveying a sense of their everyday life, he is like someone taking pictures from too far away. In his three books, the only character who emerges in any depth and detail is Schneebaum himself. Impelled by his sense of alienation to leave Western culture and travel to primitive societies, he returns to write books about his own otherness. Schneebaum is one of the purest exponents of the autobiographical impulse to come along in a long time. The child’s delusion of being freakishly different from everybody else, a feeling most of us outgrow, is the feeling that an autobiographer must summon and fan back into life in order to do his work of creating a literary character out of the unpromising material of himself. Rousseau’s is the clearest expression of the mindset of specialness on which all depends in the autobiographical enterprise. “I am unlike anyone I have ever met,” he writes on the well-known first page of his Confessions. “I will even venture to say I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different. Whether nature did well or ill in breaking the mould in which she formed me, is a question which can only be resolved after the reading of my book.”

The Confessions amply bears out Rousseau’s estimate of his outlandishness, and so, in their way, do Schneebaum’s writings bear out his. If they are negligible as anthropology—Schneebaum can’t get outside of himself long enough to tell us the things we want to know about the places he has been to (anyone who attends a cannibal feast and brings back no gastronomical information whatever can hardly call himself a social scientist)—they are fascinating as autobiography (or maybe even as case history). They give us a portrait of a man who has spent his adult life trying to come to grips with crippling personal problems; but instead of doing it on a couch on East 96th Street he has done it on distant islands and in remote rain forests, endowing his relationships with primitive men with the same magic that the analysand endows his relationship with the analyst.

Schneebaum’s three books are like the three stages of an analysis. (I have said little about the second work, Wild Man, which gives an overview of several decades of travel to Mexico, India, Bali, Libya, Peru, and New Guinea, among other places, and, like the middle game of analysis, is the longest and slowest-moving of the three.) Through their different narrative strategies and atmospheres, and their contradictions, we may track the uneven progress of Schneebaum’s soul on its self-obsessed journey. From their relentless emphasis on sex, we may adduce, too, their status as inscriptions of the unconscious rather than transcriptions of what Schneebaum actually thinks about and does all day. No one—neither analysand nor analyst, including the first analyst—has written about the experience of analysis in a way that communicates its strangeness and uncanniness and remoteness from real life. The poet H.D. came close in her strange, uncanny little book Tribute to Freud, and so, curiously, does Tobias Schneebaum, in the three books of his autobiography.

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