Decades before the Internet or adult cable TV, about the only place a suburban boy could get a good look at breasts was in the pages of National Geographic. While the latest James Bond movie might momentarily whip up my little libido, it was only from the depths of equatorial Africa or New Guinea (via the magazines in my dentist’s office) that the female body lay open for my prolonged fantasy. Little did I know that, as I was waiting to get my teeth drilled, I was being inculcated into the eroticized power dynamic of Western global hegemony.
Which brings us to Tobias Schneebaum: explorer, artist, sexual daredevil a man who devoted his life to trekking to the remotest areas of the earth, from the Amazon to New Guinea, at great personal risk, with one overriding ambition: to live amongst and have sex with people whose way of life is as distant as could be from our own. The difference and it’s a crucial one is that these were men. The kind of men after whom, he claims, he has lusted ever since he was a gawky Jewish kid growing up during the depression in the Bronx. The New Yorkbased, seventy-eight-year-old Schneebaum has written four fascinating books about his adventures, and a documentary film about his singular life, Keep The River On Your Right, will be released this month.
I spoke with Schneebaum last summer in his small Greenwich Village apartment, crammed full of tribal art from the Asmat region of Irian Jaya (now part of Indonesia): shields, amulets, spirit figures and decorated skulls. Hanging amongst the artifacts are dozens of framed photographs: dark-skinned men, with sharp bones and bamboo plugs stuck through their noses and ears, smiling, standing in canoes or in front of the curtain of forest, all of them sleek and beautiful, naked and facing the camera.
“I can’t bear it,” Schneebaum told me when I asked him what compelled him to journey so far at such risk. “When I see the wild man, I get the shakes. I’m serious. There’s something so attractive, so erotic, that I can’t help but go look for it. Someone, what’s his name . . . ” He pauses, grimacing in frustration at his powers of recall slightly dulled by his late age. It’s a bit unnerving to sip coffee with a man whose thinning silver hair and nasal Bronx accent remind me of a spry, elderly relative, and hear him speak of the unbearable sexual yearning occasioned by the sight of an Asmat man’s naked ass as he stands up to pole a canoe. “Someone, he writes travel books, he wrote a review in which he says I’m not aware of the fact that I’m suicidal. That it’s the driving force behind my whole life. Maybe there’s something in that. I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
Over the years, Schneebaum’s truthfulness has been regularly called into question, and in fact there are exaggerations and distortions within his memoirs, as he himself acknowledges. Particularly controversial were his claims of having participated in an act of cannibalism. But lately the pendulum has swung, with recent anthropological discoveries confirming the existence of such practices, and the new documentary (directed by siblings Laurie Gwen Shapiro and David Shapiro) showing Schneebaum as he journeys back to the tribe where he once lived, greeting old lovers and friends. Over the years, Schneebaum has been called a narcissist, a charlatan, a great autobiographer in the manner of Rousseau and a lyrical commentator on modern man’s primal urges. But most of all, he’s been accused of being a sexual adventurer whose life and work naively reproduce the notion of the “noble savage.” To my mind, this analysis ignores the central fact of his life, his homosexuality or, to be more specific, Schneebaum’s preference for “rough trade,” a desire that has a long tradition among gay men. He wanted not conquest but simply sex with strangers, as foreign and dangerous-seeming as possible.
For centuries, since the first seafaring European explorers glimpsed dark, naked bodies on the palm fringed shoreline, the Western imagination has been repulsed and fascinated by “the sexual lives of savages” (the title of Malinowski’s famous 1929 ethnography of the Trobriand Islands). By the mid-nineteenth century, Christian missionaries’ condemnation of what was perceived as the original sins of tribal peoples orgies, incest, wife-swapping, that sort of thing was giving way to anthropological speculation about how and why tribal folks could let it hang all out, even in front of family members. And the more the secularized West obsessed over its own sexual neuroses, the more the “primitive” appeared to be a resource for liberation. The early decades of the last century produced a spate of cultural works that popularized the image of the supposedly freewheeling tribal erotic, from Josephine Baker’s faux-ritualistic nude dancing to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa to Freud’s bizarre Totem and Taboo, which pinpoints the origin of the civilizing impulse in the savage adolescent’s desire to have sex with his father’s harem.
The 1990s clamped down on all this nonsense. With some justification, historians made a case for how and why this centuries-old eroticization of the primitive made conquest seem sexy. We were chastised for projecting our pent-up desires on the bodies of powerless strangers. The turn-on of those taut, bead-waisted nude beauties a turn-on no doubt enhanced for me by the edgy apprehension of the dentist’s drill ought now to be a source of shame.
Schneebaum doesn’t appear to share this requisite sense of shame. His obsession is with hunter-gatherer men, preferably ones who traditionally have practiced cannibalism, men with whom he could only communicate in grunts and gestures. His odyssey began in the jungles of Peru in the mid-1950s. Until then, he had led the life of a quiet-natured, artistic, gay man in a homophobic world. Lacking the social chutzpah to cavort confidently with the bohemians he had met studying art, he had fallen, in his twenties, into a jealous sexual despair. Haunted by memories of his bullying immigrant father and terrorized by McCarthyism (he was interrogated by the FBI about the commie fags he associated with), he drifted in and out of the art world, traveled to Alaska, joined the Air Force and worked as a messman on ships until, in 1952, after a one-man exhibit of his paintings in New York, he won a Fulbright scholarship and traveled to Peru, entranced by photos of Machu Picchu.
Despite warnings that no white man could travel there alone, Schneebaum set off on foot for a remote Catholic mission deep in the jungle. For over a year, he was lost to the civilized world. The U.S. Embassy in Lima reported him missing and presumed dead. The mission, a rotting outpost of Christian morality, was run by a senile priest who admonished the tiny group of Indians clustered around him to give up their sinful nakedness and ignorant superstitions. A young Spanish exile, Manolo, also lived at the mission, and he admitted to having had sex with several of the Indian men. “I thought I could love them,” he tells Schneebaum sadly in his first and best known memoir, also titled Keep the River on Your Right and the inspiration for documentary, “but they were only looking for a quick roll in the jungle with the great big white man.”
For Schneebaum, such stories triggered an irresistible compulsion to go further. After hearing a story told by an Indian from a tribe that had had no prior contact with whites a story filled with cannibalistic violence Schneebaum was transfixed. A few days later, with nothing but a knapsack and the clothes on his back, he wandered into the bush. “I was cutting away all that I knew about myself, I was removing my own reflection. I did not look for the Indians now; I simply transferred myself toward them. There was no picture in my mind, no ideas of what their reactions might be,” he writes. Some days later, he glimpsed flecks of movement in a clearing along the riverbank. “I made out a group of men, their bodies painted in black and white. Some had match-like sticks through their lower lips, others had bone through their noses. They held bows, long arrows, stone axes. No one moved as I approached no gesture of hate or love, curiosity or fear. My feet moved, my arm went out automatically, I put a hand easily upon the nearest shoulder and I smiled.” Within seconds, he reports, the men were tearing off his clothes, pinching his ass and weighing his testicles in their hands, poking and laughing at the strange pale thing they had stumbled across. They decided to keep him.
For the next seven months, Schneebaum lived with a group of five men who painted his body, taught him words and how to hunt, fed him insects and monkey flesh and slept with him in a tangled “body pile,” the hard penis of the man next to him pressed against his back. “I went among them as if entering into luxury, the physical pleasure of their touch more gratifying than any pleasure known before.”