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When I was a child, I was frightened by pictures in books about the history of Brazil. I particularly remember a woodcut in True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil by Hans Staden (1525-1558). The woodcut is a depiction of a European captive in Indigenous hands. It illustrates Staden’s report of the Tupinambá people’s ritual cannibalistic absorption of enemies. To evoke fright was part of Staden’s work, a cynical justification for Christian predations upon the peoples of the Americas. In 1994, when I was studying in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the United States, I overheard two teachers between classes talking about a certain historical situation. A History professor was talking about the barbaric way in which the Spaniards had fought against the Aztecs and Incas. He spoke about the killing and the betrayals of honorable agreements such as the one perpetrated against Atahualpa (1500-1533), the Inca king, who was executed by Francisco Pizarro (1476-1541), even after he filled the room with gold, as high as Pizzaro’s head. The director of the school, who was born in Spain, upon hearing this criticism of her ancestors, replied, “But those people practiced human sacrifice!” I remember thinking to myself, while listening to the story, that it never occurred to her, a Spaniard by birth, that during the very same historical period her own people practiced human sacrifice in the name of religion: the Spanish Inquisition is very famous. Europeans continued to burn at the stake women accused of witchcraft until about 1750; they were all human sacrifices. As for Hans Staden's narrative, many anthropologists and historians today question the accuracy of his descriptions.

Hans Staden: Woodcut from "Hans Staden: Die wahre Geschichte seiner Gefangenschaft'[The True Story of His Captivity] Original accompanying text: tupinamba dargestellt in Kannibalistische fest beobachtet von Staden [tupinamba portrayed in cannibal celebration observed by Staden] (orig. 1557).

Instances of cannibalism among Christians in the Americas have been recorded, and such terrible instances have been widely publicized. In 1846, the Donner Party was isolated and prevented from continuing its migration to the California area around Lake Truckee, now known as Lake Donner because of the tragedy that took place there. Unable to cross a mountain, running out of supplies after their horses and donkeys died crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert or were shot down by indigenous people on guard against migrants invading their lands, and, having made unlucky decisions about paths and shortcuts, some of the families were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. One of the survivors, Lewis Keseberg (1814-1895), a German like Hans Staden, would later open a restaurant. This is one of many cases of morbid humor in our collective consciousness.

In October 1972, the pilot of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 made an error, and the plane, carrying 45 people, including 19 rugby players, crashed in the Andes after flying into a mountain peak. The name of the rugby team was another morbidly humorous detail: the Old Christians Club. Of the 45 people, only 16 survived after the search for them was abandoned. Two of them climbed over a peak and walked for 10 days until they found help. When the survivors were rescued, it didn't take long for their cannibalism in those awful days to reach the press, giving rise to debates about the possible limits and moral prohibitions of the practice, which, in the case of those young people, was far from being ritual. And yet, a religious ritual would be involved. All of them were Catholics; some feared condemnation to Hell if they practiced cannibalism. In a way of rationalizing the extreme need in which they found themselves, some compared, for themselves and others, the act of eating human flesh to the Eucharist: the host ingested, like the body of Christ.

In 2001, Armin Meiwes met with Bernd Brandes in order to eat him, not in the Brazilian usage of the Portuguese verb comer, which means both “eat” and “fuck”, but literally to eat him, ingest him. Meiwes, a fellow countryman of Staden, had posted a request for a volunteer on an online forum for people who fetishized cannibalism. There's no need to go into detail here, but Meiwes is currently serving a life sentence. More morbid humor: the cannibal was born in Essen, which word, uncapitalized, is the German verb meaning “to eat”.

What Armin Meiwes did is very different from what was done by the survivors of the Donner Party or the Uruguayan rugby players in the Andes. Meiwes killed to eat without a vital need. His life sentence was partly based on finding evidence of “sexual gratification” in his act. Here, it is interesting to think once again about the way in which Brazilians associate “eating” and “fucking”. “Eating someone,” in colloquial Brazilian Portuguese, means penetrating someone with the penis.

Brazil: Cannibalism in Brazil 1557, as described by Hans Staden. Engraving by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598), c. 1562.

Our cultural reaction to descriptions of cannibal acts is primarily one of disgust. Such disgust has its own characteristics: ethical, religious, and moral. At bottom, however, is physical disgust, which is mixed with spiritual disgust, a reaction to the imaginary ingestion of the forbidden, the prohibited. Certain religions make a great effort to ban foodstuffs. In some of these religions, even when a specific animal is allowed to be eaten, it must be ritually and correctly slaughtered; Kosher and Halal are examples.

In one of my favorite books, Vampyroteuthis infernalis: a treatise, Vilém Flusser associates disgust with anthropocentrism. For Flusser, we are disgusted by what is furthest from us on the evolutionary line. The entire book draws parallels between us, Homo sapiens, and the vampire squid from hell, Vampyroteuthis infernalis. Flusser compares the organization of our respective bodies and behaviors on land and in the water. However, we must not forget that we eat octopus and squid. Many peoples around the world eat insects. I myself have eaten ants in Mexico. In the Bible, the prophet Elijah survives in the desert by eating grasshoppers. Despite being so close to us, monkeys are regarded as a delicacy in some cultures, but forbidden and therefore disgusting in others. In Brazil itself, monkeys are frequently eaten by indigenous Brazilians, but not by Luso-Brazilians. Chimpanzees eat other primate species. Seagulls eat doves. Distance and proximity on the evolutionary scale do not seem to directly define the edible. Of course, Flusser speaks in the book of a disgust that we can almost call ontological. But to eat something, we have to overcome ontological disgust. It is impossible to imagine the Dasein of the squid, yet I'd be happy to eat one for my next lunch. Surely no one in their right mind would willingly eat the flesh of another human being, yet what if it were necessary for the sake of survival? No, let's not even think about it.

Let’s return to the 16th century Tupinambá people and their German captive. Indigenous Brazilians did not depend on human flesh to survive. The rainforest gave them what they needed. The ingestion of enemies was ritual, and took place in extremely festive ceremonies. Before being executed and eaten, the prisoner received a marriage proposal from a woman of the people who captured him. This was considered an honor. Only an admired enemy was eaten. After the feast was over, the shaman spoke on the captive’s behalf. The enemy became the devoured. Here there is an extremely complex game of ME and THE OTHER. No wonder the modernist Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), fascinated by the practice, chose the deglutition of Bishop Pero Fernandes Sardinha (1496-1556) as the founding date of the country.

Just as the practices of the Tupinambás in the 16th century come to us hidden under the narrative layers of European invaders, driven by their own interests and agendas, it is also necessary today to peel back layers that have accumulated on Oswald de Andrade's artistic movement, Antropofagia, inspired by a painting Abaporu (1928), by Tarsila do Amaral, and set out in Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), which has been recently translated into German by Oliver Precht. The layers added over Oswald de Andrade’s original Antropofagia are critical and artistic, and derive from readings and uses of it primarily by the Noigandres Group (or, to clarify for foreigners, the Concrete Poets) of São Paulo, especially Haroldo de Campos; and the Tropicália group of Bahians based in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, especially Caetano Veloso. I should also mention the theater director José Celso Martinez Correa, who staged Oswald de Andrade’s play O rei da vela (1933) for Teatro Oficina in 1967; the work of Hélio Oiticica; and the films of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade.

The famous cannibalism scene in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade's 'Macunaíma' (1969), based on Mário de Andrade's 1928 novel, recently translated into English by Katrina Dodson.

The Grupo Noigandres initially focused on Oswald de Andrade as a minimalist and constructivist author, based on his ingenious short-line verse technique and an inspired usage of cinematic montage in poetic composition. I do not wish to distort or diminish the importance of the critical work produced by Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari, who contributed greatly to Oswald de Andrade’s critical recuperation after years of neglect. The Noigandres Group was and continues to be fundamental in various ways, but my purpose here is to discuss how the reception of Oswald de Andrade seems to change with the aesthetic and political needs of each period in Brazilian history. A further sumptuous and influential coat of paint on Antropofagia was applied by Tropicália in the 1960s. The most widely held view of Antropofagia comes directly from the Tropicalistas: Brazilian culture devours foreign cultures like Indigenous, European, and African, among others, in order to create our own specifically Brazilian artistic culture.

Unraveling the Oswaldian in all this is an arduous task, especially since the Tropicalistas were active in a troubled historical moment, and were heavily influenced by North American culture. In this, they were very different from the Modernists in 1920s Brazil and Latin America, whose strongest dialogue took place with the French. One of the criticisms leveled at Tropicalismo is that, while the Tupinambás consumed and absorbed their strongest enemies, the pervasive influence of Pop Art and Rock Music on Tropicalismo introduced questionable ingredients into its cannibalist recipes. Caetano Veloso himself reports in his book Verdade tropical (1997), that, at the time, one of his great aesthetic experiences was visiting supermarkets and admiring industrial and advertising design. Much of this criticism would come from another group, the Movimento Armorial led by Ariano Suassuna, who believed that Brazilian culture had already reached an originary amalgamation, and did not need new (and, in their view, questionable) influences from the North Americans. Once again, I do not intend to distort or diminish the importance of Tropicália or of an obvious genius like Caetano Veloso, whose most recent album, Meu coco (2021), reestablishes his faith in many of the positive values of Brazilian Modernism, which currently is being investigated in the light of new postcolonial interpretations of the culture (or cultures, as many would prefer) of Brazil (or of the Brazils, as many would prefer).

For today's aesthetic and political discussions, what interests me most is the positioning and constant self-displacement of Oswald de Andrade between the endemic and the grafted, the native and the invader. This displacement puts Antropofagia at the center of a discussion of Post-Coloniality. The cultural cannibal consequently abandons the idealized purity of indigenous peoples, and throws him or herself into the impurity of mixtures. Could there be a subtle decolonizing impulse in Antropófagia, hidden in an apology for the childlike, and in a quasi-primitivism not without a nostalgic European character (consider, for example, Paul Gauguin)?

An essential contribution to this debate was recently made by Eduardo Sterzi, on the occasion of the centenary of the Modern Art Week of 1922, in his book Saudades do mundo: Notícias da Antropofagia (2022). In the essay “Antropofagia as war machine”, Sterzi discusses what I have called Oswald de Andrade's displacement between the endemic and the grafted. Sterzi writes that by “never reducing itself to one of the poles, and calling into question polarization itself,” in Antropofagia, “any stable identity is escaped”. It is this escape that allows Sterzi to connect Antropofagia and Amerindian Perspectivism, as described by Tânia Stolze and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In Amerindian  Perspectivism, binomials are set into displacement and inconstancy, especially the binomials Nature and Culture, but also the binomials Human and Animal. This returns us to the question of the near and the distant in Vilém Flusser’s ideas concerning disgust, and the very idea of eating the other or the same. If we are willing to run the risk of pan-indigenism and embrace Amerindian cosmogony, which postulates a kind of humanity in everything that lives, all animal ingestion becomes an act of cannibalism.

In our times of furious desire for constant and stable identities, Antropofagia continues as a meditation upon many necessary trains of thought.



©Paul Mecky

Ricardo Domeneck, born in 1977 in Bebedouro, São Paulo, lives and works as a writer and translator in Berlin. He has published nine volumes of poetry and two volumes of prose in Brazil to date and is the editor of the literary journal 'Peixe-boi'. Domeneck has been invited to festivals in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Brussels, Córdoba, Dubai, Ljublijana and Madrid. With a combination of reading and performance, he has also been a guest at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro, Museo El Eco in Mexico City, and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. His bilingual selection volume "Körper: ein Handbuch." was published in 2013 by Verlagshaus Berlin.

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