Humboldt and the monkeys: on the friend-food distinction.
This anxiety is also one of the prime tensions exploited in the recent Humboldt revival in popular culture, led by the global success of Daniel Kehlmann's recent novel, Die Vermessung der Welt. Despite the limits of Kehlmann's representation of Humboldt--who appears somewhat robotic and cold in the novel, as opposed to the spirited romantic that emerges in his own writing--this tension around the ideologically loaded image of cannibalism explodes in a scene where Humboldt proves willing to kill his reliable companion Bonpland over the claim that Humboldt himself may actually have consumed human flesh, having partaken of the roasted flesh of a monkey:
Humboldt schwieg einen Moment. Er bitte um Verzeihung. Sie seien alle schon arg mitgenommen. Er habe viel Verstandnis. Aber wenn noch einmal jemand die Unterstellung aussere, dass der Patensohn des Herzogs von Braunschweig Menschenfleisch gegessen habe, werde er zur Waffe greifen. (134)
Considering the millions of readers who have ingested this image of Humboldt, the fraught image of cannibalism has become a central feature of his contemporary reception, and it therefore appears crucial to examine how this image functions in Humboldt's texts. In this essay, I will read this ideological image of cannibalism as it presents itself in Humboldt's narrative and in the aforementioned engraving, "Al. v. Humboldts nachtliche Scene am Orinoco" (1807), to develop an argument for the sort of split perception of Humboldt presented by critics such as Sabine Wilke, who has recently contended for a view of Humboldt as both colonizer and post-colonial deconstructionist. The argument will proceed through three stages: first, I contextualize the cannibal as a stock image in Western thought, (5) which Humboldt inherits even before his journey to South America. Second, I examine this over-determined image, a veritable fixation in the European imaginary, against the claim advanced in recent Humboldt scholarship that he "took the novel step" of asking the cannibals to speak about their anthropophagous practices. Finally, I propose a reading of Humboldt's image of cannibalism as multistable, placing special emphasis on the political consequences of this image, which simultaneously counters and reproduces the ideologically structured representation of indigenous peoples. Humboldt repeatedly insists that his central goal in undertaking his journey to the Americas is to investigate the bifurcation of the Orinoco and the Casiquiare, but I argue that his image of cannibalism indexes another significant bifurcation, the friend-food distinction: a biopicture with ramifications at least as significant as the hydrographical data he set out to gather.
Considered one of the "key concepts" of post-colonial studies and a rhetorical figure for radical alterity, cannibalism is recognized as a cultural isogloss on which the "separation of the 'civilized' and the 'savage'" hinges (Ashcroft 29-31). Naturally, then, the discourse on "cannibalism" that emerges in Humboldt's anxious depiction of anthropophagous practices in South America is only one moment in a heterogeneous and discontinuous "series of colonizing discourses" (Spurr 1). But such representations of cannibalism are also inevitable colonizing gestures in what Jacques Derrida calls the "anthropological war," staging the "confrontation that opens between peoples and cultures" even when this confrontation occurs outside the space of direct military or political power relations (107), as in the case of Humboldt's self-financed and largely independent voyage. Anthropophagy belongs almost inevitably to that "set of signs in which the colonial situation can be read" (Spurr 6), yet this discursive field extends far beyond the temporal frame of European colonialism, from ancient representations of Scythian anthropophagy to the bizarre case of cannibalism that appeared in the German news in the fall of 2003. (6) Critical to Humboldt's representation of anthropophagy are the variations on this biopicture offered by Michel de Montaigne, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Forster--all important figures for Humboldt generally, but especially in his complex intercultural figuration of cannibalism. What Humboldt takes from Montaigne, Kant, and Forster is a fully developed image of anthropophagy: on the one hand, as a stock image from the laboratory of thought in the intellectual tradition of the West and, on the other hand, as an authentic picture of indigenous peoples designated as cannibals. As a stock image, the cannibal functions as a limit-image used to think about the limits of thought and the limits of the human, as a figure that figures the limits of figuration. But it is also one which is mobilized not just as a projection onto the New World, but as an act of critical self-reflection, a point that I will elaborate below. Whereas Hobbes's theorization of the "state of nature" works primarily as an affirmation of facticity and a declaration of support of the state (7)--in the interest of stability--Montaigne, Kant, and Forster offered Humboldt a variation on the quintessential image of savagery, showing it to be an ambivalent, multistable picture. Of course, in addition to these three predecessors, the influence of Columbus on Humboldt is beyond question, as Laura Dassow Walls shows with her persuasive argument for reading him as "the second Columbus." For he not only literally retraces Columbus's path in his voyage; he also presents a potentially redemptive re-envisioning of America that would lead to liberation (Walls, Passage 13). The point to be made is that this repeated bifurcation of the colonizer and the liberator expresses itself as Humboldt, in his depiction of cannibalism, both struggles against and reproduces an ideological structure in the forms of verbal and visual representation.
To reiterate, what is important about the image of anthropophagy that Humboldt encountered in Montaigne and Kant is the way that this image functions as a double figure, first, of the supposedly radical other and, second, as one that allows for a critical reappraisal of Europe, as when "der geistreiche Montaigne" (8) presents the perspective and voice of the cannibal in his essay, "Des Cannibales." After recounting the vague and unreliable speculative geography of Plato and Aristotle, featuring Atlantis among other dubious details of the ancient world-picture, which "cannot apply to these new lands," Montaigne issues a call for a "very trustworthy man or else a man so simple that he has nothing in him on which to build such false discoveries as to make them plausible, [...] [a man] wedded to no cause": "What we need is topographers who would make detailed accounts of the places to which they had actually been" (231). (9) Humboldt would eventually become the very embodiment of the ideal that Montaigne outlines here. (10) Montaigne continues by addressing the "horrible barbarity" of the savages of the New World, but this topic also turns out to afford him an opportunity for self-critique: "We can indeed call those folk barbarians by the rules of reason but not in comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarism" (236). Montaigne even quotes a song from a cannibal with a narrative very similar to one of the accounts of cannibalism that Humboldt recounts in his own report. Just as the practice of cannibalism is itself structured on a binary--the friend-food distinction--the representation of cannibalism in Humboldt's texts repeats this dualism, as he simultaneously constructs and deconstructs this limit-image of the human as fundamentally bivalent. In deploying the figure of cannibalism in his cosmo-political essay "Zum ewigen Frieden"--a text that had a strong influence on Humboldt's cosmo-political worldview--Kant performs a similarly self-critical gesture, as he proposes the limit-image of absolute evil (the cannibal) in order to move beyond it:
Der Unterschied der europaischen Wilden von den amerikanischen besteht hauptsachlich darin, dass, da manche Stamme der letzteren von ihren Feinden ganzlich gegessen worden, die ersteren ihre Uberwundene [sic] besser zu benutzen wissen, als sie zu verspeisen, und lieber die Zahl ihrer Unterthanen, mithin auch die Menge der Werkzeuge zu noch ausgebreitetern Kriegen durch sie zu vermehren wissen. (293/354) (11)
What Susan Shell calls the "grave wit" of Kant's essay, the irony that in some sense destabilizes the entire text, turns Kant's "notorious" and sustained mobilization of the figure of the cannibal into a self-directed, but invigorating, violence (Shell 150 f.). What is interesting about these two cases is the way that cannibalism functions as a limit term, but one that leads almost immediately to self-critique. Although Catalin Avramescu has recently argued that the primary function of cannibalism in Western thought is to erect a "symbolic limit," a thought-experimental test case on which to prove political and moral theory, both Montaigne and Kant reject the iconic status of the cannibal. Instead, the image-effect attached to cannibalism becomes reflected in their texts back onto Europe. I argue that Humboldt, in his representation of cannibalism in the Personal Narrative, shares this dynamic perspective, as his observations on the anthropophagous practices among the native Americans frequently involve critical self-reflection, particularly in view of the corruption wrought by European colonial powers, which Humboldt senses contributes significantly to the moral depravity of the cannibals.
Finally, Georg Forster offered Humboldt a kind of template for his representation of otherness in constructing the image of the cannibal. The episodes of cannibalism narrated in Forster's sensational Reise um die Welt (1777) would have undoubtedly made an impression on Humboldt, not least because of the personal relationship the two forged shortly before Humboldt undertook his own voyage. Yet it is not only the inclusion of details concerning cannibalism, but also the representation of this radical other that becomes most important to Humboldt's discussions of anthropophagy. Forster's account details repeated scenes of inquiry, where the cannibals are interrogated about their cannibalistic practices. Although Humboldt does not often provide much information about his interlocutors, it is clear that his voluminous record relies heavily on interviews with natives. Humboldt must have been constantly re-performing the same scenes of inquiry described in Forster's record.
Thus, while Walls argues that "Humboldt took the novel step" of asking the Indians themselves whether or not they practiced anthropophagy ("Of Atoms, Oaks, and Cannibals" 597), inviting the subaltern to speak, it is clear that this was another iteration in a long history of inquisition on the practice of cannibalism. (12) The crucial scene here is one in which Humboldt reports that the "Indians of the forest [...] hunt the Indians of a neighboring tribe, who live at war with their own, as we hunt game," while the Indians, at the same time, refrain from any expression of violence toward other (unknown) tribes whose language is comprehensible to them: "they are no doubt my relations, I understand them when they speak to me" (5:422). (13) Humboldt's invitation to the natives to participate in the production of the image of cannibalism that he sketches in his narrative certainly meant an improvement over some earlier reports, which relied upon rumor and texts such as Columbus's journal--a suspect textual transmission that Hulme describes as "the transcription of the manuscript of the abstract of the copy of the original" (18). However, Humboldt's inquisitive approach was by no means a novel way of pursuing this information. For Forster's account of cannibalism among the Maori repeatedly stages this same scene of inquiry, a fact that Gannath Obeyeskere emphasizes in presenting the claim that the obsessive questioning by the Europeans may have introduced the idea of cannibalism to the natives and even mimed the act for them due to limitations of mutual linguistic comprehension. (14) Avramescu recognizes that "the cannibal is the object of a veritable fixation" in Western thought going back to before the Age of Discovery. However, while he considers the question of the actual practice of anthropophagy "a fact of marginal importance" in tracing the path of this trope through the philosophical tradition in his Intellectual History of Cannibalism (10), the point with regard to Humboldt's image of cannibalism is that the long intellectual engagement with this figure has effects beyond the laboratory of thought and argument. The rhetorical deployment of the figure of the cannibal has real consequences in the world, particularly for someone like Humboldt, who takes the thought-experimental image into the field as a kind of biopolitical eye test. Just as Obeyeskere concludes that the Europeans brought this "dark fantasy" with them into the encounter with radical cultural otherness, (15) the accounts compiled by his predecessors regarding the savagery of cannibalism in the New World form one of Humboldt's constant preoccupations. Of course, it is evident from Humboldt's writings that he is obsessively meticulous, which is why he is able to carry out his enormous project of data collection throughout his travels. In this respect, his sustained attention to the problem of cannibalism throughout the multiple volumes of the Personal Narrative is no exception. But Humboldt is very critical of the early travel narratives whose authors project European fantasies onto the New World, and he usually exercises a sober skepticism concerning previous reports of cannibalism as motivated by prejudice and "a taste for the marvelous [le gout du merveilleux]" (5:314/2:485), (16) noting at one point a comparison with Jewish blood libel, or unjust imputations "of which Jewish families were the victims in the ages of intolerance and persecution" (5:424/2:502). I suggest that the form that this skepticism took was likely an obsessive inquiry, in order to establish the facts.
Asking the natives to talk about cannibalism, to speak for themselves, offers them a voice, but it also projects the inquirer's fantasy onto his subjects. Humboldt arrives three hundred years into the interaction between Europeans and natives, long after the (inquisitive) presence of colonizers had altered whatever anthropophagous practices may have been present among the native inhabitants. In the initial encounter between Europeans and Americans, this fantasy might have manifested itself in a number of different, complicated ways, which can hardly be explored in detail here. However, I point briefly to two crucial aspects of life in Europe that were reaching a critical point around the time of this initial encounter, and which are not altogether unrelated: spectacles of punishment and the conflicting discourses on the theology of the Roman Church. Both of these involve a mystical notion of the power available through the incorporation and consumption of human flesh. In the case of punishment, as Richard van Dulmen discusses in Theater des Schreckens, there grew up around the medieval and early modern spectacle of punishment "eine besondere Form des Reliquienkultes," where the belief was held that "das dargebotene Blutopfer" of the executed individual could be profitably imbibed, healing dire illness (163). But the European "cannibalism complex" extends also to Christian theology: other than iron nails, perhaps, institutionalized and ritualized (symbolic) cannibalism--in the religious practice of holy communion (17)--was Europe's most important export to the New World, with missionaries establishing the most stable colonial network. And the "conquest of souls" remained tied to cannibalism up until Humboldt's day, an economics of spoliation tolerated or even encouraged by the missionaries. If a segment of the native population was designated as cannibals, then this subhuman status allowed Europeans to justify the abduction of their women and children and the enslavement of their men. One figure that combines both these discourses--the spectacle of punishment and the crisis of the Roman Church--is Lope de Aguirre, to whom Humboldt makes reference when his itinerary leads him through Valencia: "Lopez de Aguirre, whose crimes and adventures form one of the most dramatic episodes of the history of the conquest" (4:192/2:96). Humboldt quotes at length from Aguirre's seditious letter to Philip II, which "paints the frightful truth of the manners of the soldiery of the sixteenth century." (18) Although Aguirre's brutality and violent religious zeal were directed primarily at Europeans, Humboldt's narrative suggests a relation between the violence associated with this conquistador and the great incursions by the "cannibal horde [horde anthrophage]" of the Caribbees against Valencia in 1578 and 1580 (4:193/2:97). Both revolutionary efforts were eventually subdued and contained, and Humboldt reports with satisfaction the way that both narratives had become re-incorporated into the local culture: first, in the natives' belief that the spirit of Aguirre still wanders the countryside, (19) and second, in the fact that the descendants of the defeated Caribbees "now live in the missions as peaceable husbandmen [comme de paisibles cultivateurs]" (4:193/2:97).
These sorts of events from the brief American historical record belong to those literary predecessors, whose accounts form an obstacle against which Humboldt consciously struggles, but which he effectively reproduces. This is one form of the split perception that marks Humboldt's depiction of the American peoples. On the one hand, he struggles against the ubiquitous image of the "savage"--including the fraught use of this term (3:211/1:460)--that was inherited from unreliable reports by authors he considers guilty of crushing the seeds of American civilization. On the other hand, he clearly operates within an intellectual tradition in which these people are viewed as profoundly primitive, quintessentially representative of the Hobbesian "state of nature." (20) Just as Humboldt elaborates a zone-based model of ecology to describe the physical world, where floral and faunal variety is dependent on its situatedness within a certain zone, so too does Humboldt view human society as composed of a set of zones, specifically: forests, pastures, and cultivated land. There is a clear progression, in Humboldt's account, from the primitivity of the forest to the more advanced stage of culture and civilization marked by plowed fields: "In this first zone are felt the preponderance of force, and the abuse of power, which is a necessary consequence. The natives carry on a civil war [une guerre cruelle], and sometimes devour one another" (3:424). (21) At the same time, Humboldt does not just project this primitivity onto the Indians. Rather, he also includes in this "melancholy picture [le triste tableau] of misery and privations" (3:424/1:567) the corruptions of European colonialism: the petty politics of the monks, as well as the jostling and maneuvering for power among military officials. Life in the first zone tends inherently toward lawless brutality because that is the defining quality of this environment. Within the forest landscape, though, the cannibal remains the most potent image of difference, albeit an unstable one. Part of the instability here derives from Humboldt's unique perspective on tropical nature as a "sublime place." However, "if tropical nature was, to Humboldt, a sublime paradise, the tropics as a site for human habitation were not. Thus it was in regard to human civilization in the tropics that Humboldt's climatic and geographic determinism was most strongly expressed" (Stepan 40). Elaborating on Humboldt's theory of cultural and historical determinism as the fundamental formative force behind native character and cultural practices, Robert Musil would, in "Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom," forge the link between Humboldt's anecdotes about cannibalism in the forests and his theory of zones. Humboldt--mistakenly referred to as Wilh. v. Humboldt--is evoked in the second section on "Das Theorem der menschlichen Gestaltlosigkeit," which concludes with a consideration of the decisiveness of cultural context: "Es zeigt sich, dass die Frage des europaischen Menschen: was bin ich? eigentlich heisst: wo bin ich? Es handelt sich nicht um die Phase eines gesetzlichen Prozesses und nicht um ein Schicksal, sondern einfach um eine Situation" (Musil 2:1375). This situational determinism follows directly from Humboldt's own views on zones of activity and development.
It is also clear that Humboldt's inquiries into the realities of anthropophagy among the natives results, at least to a certain extent, in the same kind of anecdotal information used in other representations of cannibalism, as in the story of the "barbarous spectacle" Humboldt narrates, "one of those refinements of cruelty and cunning, which are common to the savage nations." There, at the culmination of a battle between the dominant tribes of the Cabres and the Caribbees, the Cabres set to devouring the prisoners of the defeated Carib tribe, while "sparing the life of one Caribbee, whom they forced to climb a tree to witness this barbarous spectacle, and carry back the tidings to the vanquished" (5:209). (22) Although Humboldt never explains how such a report was solicited or how this sort of sensational reportage fits with the rational objectivity to which he otherwise aspires, (23) he nevertheless reproduces this striking image in his own account. (24) Even where the source for (mis)information of this sort is mentioned, there is good reason to doubt the witnesses Humboldt cites. One such case is the report of Javita, "an Indian of great vigour of mind and body" (5:247/2:416), who had, however, been an agent of the Portuguese slave trade until he was captured and persuaded to serve the interests of the Spanish government. This old captain Javita "assures us that in his youth he had seen almost all the Indian tribes, that inhabit the vast regions between the Upper Oroonoko, the Rio Negro, the Inirida, and the Jupura, eat human flesh [manger de la chair humaine]" (5:247/2:417). (25) Javita is also Humboldt's witness for his account of the Glorieta de Cocuy (26):
This summer-house, for such is the signification of the word glorieta in Spanish, recalls [...] remembrances, that are not the most agreeable. It was there that Cocuy, the chief of the Manitivitanoes [...] had his harem of women, and where (to tell the whole), from a peculiar predilection, he devoured the finest and fattest. I have no doubt, that Cocuy was a bit of a cannibal [un peu anthrophage], (5:371-72) (27)
While Humboldt insists at other moments on a more skeptical view toward the likely exaggerations of those who clearly take pleasure in recounting marvelous things, he appends no disclaimer to these instances in his construction of the image of cannibalism, despite the dubious ethical status of someone responsible for the enslavement of his own people. Javita's claims are highly problematic because, in addition to the obstacles of geographical distance and limits on communication between members of different tribes in the region, Humboldt is well aware of the strong mutual suspicion of these tribes, which ordinarily precludes these groups from knowing much about each other. Indeed, Humboldt frequently notes that the most desired effects of his hydrographical studies of the Orinoco and the other major river systems would be to open up these communities, to bring them into more frequent contact and exchange, and to thereby have a far-reaching civilizing effect on the Indians. However, under the conditions of general geographical confusion that Humboldt attempts to correct there is so little contact between some of the tribes that neighboring groups appear mostly unaware of each other. Rather, their knowledge seemed restricted to local problems except in the case of a longstanding animosity toward a particular tribe. Humboldt's questions concerning other people and places in the larger region are often met with confusion, and Humboldt occasionally notes frustrated scenes of inquiry.
What we have, then, in the image of cannibalism that Humboldt presents is an ideologically charged construction, the site of a special power that must be either contained or exploited. (28) The emotional, cultural, and psychological investment in this image among Europeans makes it a powerful "biopicture"--a term that Mitchell derives from Foucault's "biopower" and "biopolitics" (Cloning Terror70). In this case, it means a picture of "life" expressive of radical political difference and hierarchical control, the kind of vision that Pratt attributes to Humboldt in Imperial Eyes. But it is also a kind of living picture of social relations, which animates and reproduces itself almost autonomously. Although Walls sees in Humboldt's discursive invitation to the cannibals a corrective to the politics of "denying speech to nonhumans," this is precisely the political consequence of Humboldt's own view of those whose alimentary preferences violate European normativity. He characterizes them explicitly as "omnivorous animals in the highest degree [ce sont au plus haut degre des animaux omnivores]" (5:640/2:609). Here, "political" indexes the specific restriction on language and the (im)possibility of mutual understanding as articulated on a potential disagreement concerning access to speech as the extreme situation of politics. (29) Humboldt's discursive encounter with the cannibals is premised upon the inequality of the interlocutors, which means that his understanding of their response to his questions is already conditioned by the assumption that these are not really humans in the full sense, but savage animals.
Here we turn our attention to the engraving, "Al. v. Humboldts nachtliche Scene am Orinoco" (Fig. 1). This engraving accompanied a selection of letters from Humboldt to Friedrich Bertuch, the editor of the journal, Allgemeine Geographische Ephemeriden ("Vermischte Nachrichten" 107-12, 129). In the letters, Humboldt praises Schick's "Originalskizze," which was itself based on a combination of "kleine Skizzen" Humboldt had shown Schick, "welche ich selbst an Ort und Stelle mit wenigen Linien entworfen. Nach diesen und nach meiner Erzahlung entstand jene Zeichnung, welche in der That im Detail so genau ist, als man es von Darstellungen einer so grossen Natur verlangen kann" ("Vermischte Nachrichten" 109-10). The original work performed by Schick is a composite representation of the images Humboldt presented to the artist by means of verbal and visual representation. In addition to providing Schick with his field sketches, Humboldt also provided him with a detailed account of the journey--a complex image-text marked by its engagement with both the discursive and the pictorial. Humboldt effusively praises Schick's sketch: "Sie schildert sehr treu unsere nachtliche Existenz auf der Reise am Orinoko [...], die Skizze ist in der That sehr genialisch und Jemand, der mit uns gewesen ware, wurde es nicht treuer haben machen konnen" (109). Humboldt also describes the performative and transformative power of the image: "Wenn ich sie betrachte, glaube ich mich an den Alto Orinoko oder Cassiquiare versetzt" (110). Almost a magical, totemic image, this sketch seems to convey the viewer to the distant scenes of South America. This was "the first printed illustration of Humboldt's travels" (Nelken 66), and it must be observed that the image printed alongside Humboldt's laudatory words is not Schick's drawing, but a reproduction of that sketch by an anonymous artist. Of course, this is by no means unusual in the reproduction of graphic images in early nineteenth-century printing, nor was it extraordinary for Humboldt to commission the illustration by Schick. Hanno Beck indicates that this was Humboldt's preference: "Er liess viel zeichnen und aus 'seinen kleineren Skizzen Bilder machen,' wie es dem Zeitgeschmack entsprach, obgleich seine Zeichnungen charakteristischer gewesen waren als solche Bearbeitungen" (Beck 2:13). But by the time the second volume of the Personal Narrative was published twelve years later in 1819, this biopicture seems to have acquired a life of its own, moving from Humboldt's own field sketches to Schick's drawing to an anonymous engraving, and potentially beyond, as Humboldt's footnote on the picture indicates (5:533/2:556). I would also argue that this image must be read as a multistable picture, (30) an ambiguous image marked by the very tension built into verbal and visual representations of cannibalism. Humboldt's point in presenting the scene of the natives roasting monkeys is to articulate its essential ambiguity, as he speculates that the consumption of this anthropomorphous animal "contributes to diminishing the horror of anthropophagy among savages" (5:533/2:556). In Pratt's view of Humboldt's "reinvention of America," "Humboldt, with his positive, totalizing vision, put to rest anxieties on both sides of the Atlantic" (Pratt 140). But this particular image, the first depiction of Humboldt in America to circulate, has precisely the opposite effect, namely destabilization. It is a slippery, multistable image that invites the viewer to speculate on the multivalence of its object, and, perhaps, too, on the possibility that Humboldt may have participated in the consumption of human flesh himself.
In either case, one might argue that this is what the image, as well as the Personal Narrative, "wants" from the reader, to borrow Mitchell's language (What Do Pictures Want?). Beck argues that Humboldt had a very clear understanding of publicity, citing a letter to Ludwig Bollmann, a childhood friend whom Humboldt asked to publish certain comments in American newspapers: "Humboldt verstand es, in seinen Briefen seltsame Erscheinungen aus dem Raritatskabinett der Natur mit Behagen wie Jagerlatein auszumalen" (Beck 1:149). And cannibalism certainly qualifies as a rarity or "curiosity" that could captivate people's fantasy, (31) which Humboldt adeptly exploited: "Er liess sich keine Gelegenheit entgehen, die Phantasie der Menschen seiner Zeit zu beschaftigen, um sie fur sich zu gewinnen" (149). Just as Humboldt speculates that the initial reports of cannibalism and other exoticisms from the New World were likely materially motivated--noting, for example, a likely cause of exaggeration in the Spanish law of 1504, "by which Spaniards were permitted to make a slave of every individual" of a cannibal tribe (5:426/2:503)--so, too, is Humboldt's own rhetorical situation constructed according to his anticipation of what would interest readers. He serves up pictures of the natives, whom he peppers with questions concerning their anthropophagous practices. While his observations focus to a great extent on barometrical and astronomical data in order to furnish Europe with a reliable picture of America's vast resources, this objective record is framed in a vibrant picture of the multifarious forms of life on the new contintent. An essential part of this is the image of the natives, but here Humboldt's description tends to shift between genuine regard for their ingenuity and strength and a sense of their moral and cultural depravity.
Referring to the traces of monumental rock art as evidence of a lost cultural tradition with higher aesthetic and religious values, Humboldt deplores the current state of the natives, who have lost access to this tradition. After indicating the locations of some "sculptured rocks," monuments, and stone sketches, he writes: "I do not assert that these figures [...] denote a very advanced degree of culture; but even on the supposition that, instead of being symbolical, they are the fruits of the idleness of hunting nations, we must still admit an anterior race of men, very different from those who now inhabit the banks of the Oroonoko" (5:601). (32) His image of the cannibals thus is contingent on the political conditions of the intelligibility of art. Humboldt basically shares Friedrich Schiller's view of aesthetic play, as expressed in the famous assertion from the Briefe uber die Asthetische Erziehung des Menschen: "der Mensch spielt nur, wo er in voller Bedeutung des Worts Mensch ist, und er ist nur da ganz Mensch, wo er spielt" (618). In Humboldt's view, this limit on the productive conditions of figura! intelligibility is fundamentally linked to the moral-political status of being fully human. In pre-Columbian America, the people had access to images that derived from free or idle play, in addition to ritual ornamentation, but since Europe's violent entry onto the scene, something has changed, foreclosing access to images in any meaningful sense. What changed was the introduction of the "image of cannibalism": these people became the subjugated other to Europe, the "cannibal" in terms of the structural differentiation at the symbolic limit of civilization. However, following Obeyeskere, I also read this as the moment when they became cannibals in a straightforward sense, as Europe's discourse on cannibalism certainly altered whatever anthropophagous or human-sacrificial practices may have been present before Europeans began inquiring and observing.
In terms of both its verbal deployment in Humboldt's Personal Narrative and its visual appearance in the engraving, this image seems to work as the construction of a progressive model of human becoming, a picture of the sequential development of civilization. Indeed, a reading of the engraving from right to left might present something like Rudolph Zallinger's "March of Progress," commonly associated with Darwin's theory of evolution. We have at the far right those anthropomorphous monkeys, which Humboldt recognizes as dangerously similar to humans. Immediately to the left, a man assumes a posture of playfulness while seeming to feed the monkey on his shoulder, but his crouched and leaning position presents a visual echo of the monkeys surrounding him, suggesting a complex proximity. The next stage is occupied by the largest group of natives surrounding the fire, with two other figures at the margins of the image preparing perimeter fires to hold the jaguars at a distance. At the far left stand Humboldt and Bonpland, marked by their European accoutrements and fully erect stature as a sort of telos of the progressive developmental of civilization. But at the center of the image, silhouetted against the light of the fire: the anthropomorphous monkey is being roasted for consumption. It is on this central feature that the picture seems to pivot, also in terms of the sharp visual contrast effected by the strong concentration of light. Visually, this is the focal point of the picture, with evolutionary progress dependent on the correct interpretation of the image of the human as standing under a prohibition on consumption. (33) This picture seems to offer a glimpse into various stages of the march of progress. However, Humboldt also suggests that disfiguring the anthropomorphous image--literally, tearing apart the roasted meat into unrecognizable elements--helps Europeans overcome their immediate revulsion toward the resemblance of primates to humans (5:533/2:556-57). This effectively creates the illusion of greater evolutionary distance, making the image more palatable. Of course, it is anachronistic to read Humboldt's image as a depiction of human evolution along the lines of Zallinger's "March of Progress" (1965), but it is productive to read Humboldt into Darwin, given the fact that Darwin acknowledges his predecessor so emphatically. In fact, Darwin saw the world through the lens offered by Humboldt in a fundamental way. (34) But the more significant problem in reading Humboldt's image as an evolutionary progression is the suggestion of the natives' primitivity, which is so clearly ideological. The result of Humboldt's inquiry into the "scandalous accusations" of the American inhabitants' anthropophagous practices is a split, multistable image.
Another problem to be considered within the framework of the image of cannibalism is the fact that, in addition to reproducing this ambiguous biopicture, the engraving of "Al. v. Humboldts nachtliche Scene am Orinoco" reproduces Humboldt himself for consumption. Pratt claims that "Humboldt existed and exists not as a traveler or a travel writer, but as a Man and a Life, in a way that became possible only in the era of the Individual" (Pratt 115). Thus, one might ask: what happens when his image takes on a life of its own, as Nicolaas Rupke and Vera Kutzinski argue it has done, in the many visual and verbal representations of Humboldt, appropriations that continue to redefine and redraw him differently? What happens when it enters circulation as a bio-mechanical reproduction of the "Man" and the "Life" for mass consumption, with Kehlmann's novel and his redeployment of the image of cannibalism as a prime example? Humboldt's verbal and visual representation of cannibalism is complicated not only by the very ambiguity that he attempts to depict in producing the picture, but also by his ambiguous position within the picture, directly as a part of the image presenting the slippage between the ingestion of anthropomorphous animals and the consumption of man. Surely, part of the tension that characterizes Humboldt's image of cannibalism is his proximity to people who admit to the occasional slip into that "bad habit [mauvaise habitude]" (5:372/2:477), but this proximity is double, for it is not just a physical proximity to people who might mistake him for a meal. Rather, Humboldt, with his theory of the zones of human society as the determinants of behavior, appears vulnerable to his own slide off the precipice of the cannibalism complex: "Under the influence of an exotic nature, habits are generated that are adapted to new wants" (2:289). (35) Just as Humboldt serves up the image of the cannibal for European consumption, his self-representation is implicated within this same picture.
In closing, I quote Pratt's definition of "imperial eyes" according to the concept of "anti-conquest": "The main protagonist of the anti-conquest is a figure I sometimes call the 'seeing-man,' an admittedly unfriendly label for the European male subject of European landscape discourse--he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess" (7). It appears that Humboldt aspires to this passive objectivity in the construction of the Gaze, particularly in compiling his image of anthropophagy. But this is ultimately a fiction, for the presence of the observer changes everything, especially when that observer is constantly grilling his subjects--with questions about cannibalism.
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University of California, Irvine
(1) Here and throughout, I abbreviate references to Humboldt's Relation historique du Voyage aux Regions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent [Personal Narrative], citing Helen Maria Williams's translation by volume and page number, followed by the corresponding volume and page numbers from the Brockhaus edition of the original French text. Although one finds comments and observations on anthropophagy strewn throughout, this section of the fifth volume is Humboldt's most sustained and focused effort to come to terms with the phenomenon.
(2) In a journal entry on "Menschenfressen," Humboldt observes similarly: "Vom Affenessen ist bis zum Menschenessen [der] Ubergang leicht" (Reise durch Venezuela 348).
(3) "En voyant les naturels devorer le bras ou la jambe d'un singe roti, il est difficile de ne pas croire que cette habitude de manger des animaux, si rapproches de l'homme par leur organisation physique, n'ait contribue jusqu'a un certain point a diminuer l'horreur de l'anthropophagie parmi les sauvages. Les singes rotis, surtout ceux qui ont la tete tres-ronde, presentent une ressemblance hideuse avec un enfant" (2:556).
(4) "On a publie, en Allemagne, peu de temps apres mon retour en Europe, d'apres un dessin fait avec beaucoup d'esprit par M. Schick, a Rome, une gravure representant un de nos bivouacs sur les bords de l'Orenoque. Le premier plan offre des Indiens occupes a rotir un singe" (2:556).
(5) For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the "figure of the cannibal" and the "figure of cannibalism" as essentially interchangeable.
(6) This is the gruesome case of the "Kannibale von Rotenburg," Armin Meiwes, who advertised on the Internet that he sought a willing victim and found one in Bernd Brandes of Berlin. Meiwes was found guilty of murder and given a life sentence.
(7) Hobbes has America in mind in his theoretical picture of the "state of nature" when he writes in the Leviathan, "It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world. But there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America [...] have no government at all and live at this day in that brutish manner as I said before" (XIII.11/77).
(8) Humboldt, Ansichten der Natur 305.
(9) Translation modified slightly.
(10) For a rich discussion of Humboldt's position with regard to empiricism and its relation to thought, see Dettelbach.
(11) I cite here the local page number of Toman's edition, as well as the pagination of the 1902/10 Koniglich Preussische Akademische Ausgabe. Walls argues at length for Humboldt's consistent reliance on the Kantian doctrine represented in this essay (Passage 53), as does Ette ("Unterwegs zum Weltbewusstsein").
(12) See Pagden for a discussion of similar issues of cultural mobility, centering on the irreducible cultural isogloss of cannibalism, particularly the chapter on the "Principle of Attachment" (17-49). Pagden's focus on the interpreters of Jean de Lery's journey features the mutability of the anthropophagous act, which resembles Humboldt's description here, although Pagden reads the movement of Europeans toward "savage" practices as part of assimilating to the local situation. Pagden also specifically discusses Humboldt as participating in--and ending--this tradition of representation, through his "images of contrast" (25).
(13) "Ce sont sans doute de mes paren[t]s, je les entends lorsqu'ils me parlent" (2:501).
(14) See, for example, the scene of inquiry and re-enactment for Captain Cook, who had been absent upon the first performance of the exchange, in Forster 1: 278.
(15) Obeyeskere's argument centers on the complex of inter-relations between the British and the natives in terms of the ever-present discourse on cannibalism, which contributed to and may have even "produced, in very complicated ways, the Maori practice of cannibalism" (653). The constant inquiries on the part of the Europeans, as well as the their economic support of the market for "rarities" such as human skulls, certainly altered the practice of cannibalism, whatever its context and meaning may have been before the intrusion of the Europeans. In any case, the accounts of Cook's voyages bear the imprint of this line of inquiry, which may have made this dark fantasy of cannibalism a reality, but also certainly led to an escalation in tribal wars. These, in turn, were encouraged by the British desire for the acquisition of "rarities" and "curiosities," both in the sense of physical artifacts and in terms of narrative reportage.
(16) Humboldt's critique of Europe's "taste for the marvelous" fits well with Greenblatt's account of the status of the wondrous and marvelous in early travel writing, which was marked by an anxiety and fear "shaped by a powerful cultural fantasy operative in virtually all early encounters"--the fear of cannibalism (111). It is the same anxiety that discloses itself in Humboldt's own narrative, despite, or rather through, his concerted efforts at demythologization and enlightened inquiry.
(17) This dimension of Christian religious practice has frequently been described as a form of ritualized cannibalism, as when Obeyeskere includes it in his description of Europeans' "dark fantasy": the Christian doctrine of the Eucharist. This is also an idea that Zizek seizes upon in his discussion of the case of the German cannibal Meiwes, which, in his signature irreverent style, he calls "an act of Eucharistic love" (122). The work of conceptual containment operative in European representations of American ritual cannibalism is a key point in Greenblatt's analysis, as Greenblatt argues that it is only via a process of containment, i.e., "mimetic blockage or exclusion," that Europeans could fail to recognize the "homologies that link the invaders and those they come to enslave and destroy, and hence this is the place at which what I have called blockage must be most powerfully effective. That his own religion centered on expiatory sacrifice and upon the symbolic eating and drinking of his god's body and blood does not inhibit Bernal Diaz's horrified response to what his culture construed as the weirdly literal Aztec equivalents. The parallels are largely the product of his culture's own projections, ways of bearing witness to the indescribable through a description of what is already known, but insofar as they are registered at all, they only intensify his revulsion" (134).
(18) "Lopez de Aguirre, dont les forfaits et les aventures forment un des episodes les plus dramatiques de l'histoire de la conquete [...]. C'est a Valencia qu'il composa cette fameuse lettre au roi d'Espagne qui peint avec une effrayante verite les moeurs de la soldatesque au seizieme siecle" (2:96).
(19) Humboldt makes multiple references to this phenomenon, which he describes as something like the will-o'-the-wisp (4:193/2:97, 2:212-13/1:309).
(20) This is the starting point of On the Citizen, whose the first chapter is titled "On the state of man without civil society." Thus, Hobbes overturns Aristotle's intuition that society is a natural phenomenon and that man outside of society is "either a beast or a god" (Politics 1253a). Instead, he argues that perpetual war is man's natural condition, again with explicit reference to the situation in the Americas (30).
(21) "Cette premiere zone est celle ou se fait sentir la preponderance de la force, et l'abus du pouvoir, qui en est une suite necessaire. Les indigenes se font une guerre cruelle, et se mange quelquefois les uns les autres" (1:567).
(22) "Les prisonniers furent devores, et, par un de ces raffmemen[t]s de ruse et de cruaute qui sont communs aux peuple sauvages des deux Ameriques, les Cabres laisserent la vie a un seul Caribe qu'ils firent monter sur un arbre pour assister a ce spectacle barbare, et pour en rapporter la nouvelle aux vaincus" (2:398).
(23) Indeed, the paragraph in question begins with Humboldt's assertion of authenticity: "I have faithfully recorded what I could on the state of these countries Q'ai expose fidelement ce que j'ai pu recueillir sur l'etat de ces contrees]" (5:209/2:398).
(24) This account of the "barbarous spectacle" appears multiple times in Humboldt's journal, once as part of an entry on "Menschenfressen" (Reise durch Venezuela 315, 346).
(25) In his journal, Humboldt writes, "Yavita versichert (und jedermann ruhmt ihn als sehr wahrhaftig), dass er in seiner Jugend im Walde viele Indianische] Nazionen Menschen habe essen sehen. Fast keine Indianische] Nazion habe Abscheu vor Menschenfressen, fast alle glauben, er esse Menschenfleisch, nur fehle (besonders jetzt, da [die] Nazionen alle gegen [die] Spanier aufmerksamer, friedlicher [unter sich seien]) Gelegenheit, da man nur Gefangene esse" (Reise durch Venezuela 292).
(26) It is clear that Javita is Humboldt's source for this anecdote, as it is recorded in the Tagebuch. "Yavita kannte den beruhmten Fursten Cocuy, dessen Glorieta ein Fels, wo er in [einer] Hohle Menschen mastete" (Rehe durch Venezuela 292).
(27) "Ce lieu de plaisance, car telle est la signification du mot Glorieta en castillan, rappelle des souvenirs peu agreables. C'est la que Cocuy, le chef des Manitivitanos, avoit son harem de femmes, et que (pour tout dire), par une predilection particuliere, il en mangea les plus belles et les plus grasses. Je ne doute pas que Cocuy ait ete un peu anthropophage" (2:477).
(28) With this formulation, I mean to capture both sides of the bifurcation alluded to at the beginning of this article and explored throughout. On the one hand, Humboldt acts as an enlightened observer, dispelling myth and establishing reports of superior validity, while at the same time perpetuating some of the same myths and assumptions in his own account. In this sense, the image of cannibalism that Humboldt presents is a composite of these two elements, an amalgamation of enlightened objectivity and that background understanding that he means to overcome. And it is specifically the image of cannibalism where this tension is most clearly articulated.
(29) On this question, see Ranciere's Disagreement, particularly the first chapter, where he argues, along the lines of Aristotle's definition of the human as the political animal empowered with speech, that unequal access to language is the essential condition of political difference, wherein those who have a dispute struggle to gain access to language in order to articulate their objection and seek reparation (1-19).
(30) See Mitchell's discussion of "metapictures," where he considers "dialectical images" which manifest the phenomenon of "multistability," such as Wittgenstein's famous Duck-Rabbit (Picture Theory 45-57).
(31) This is part of a larger strategy of colonial representation of the Other, where what Stephen Greenblatt calls "fantastically powerful assimilative mechanisms, mechanisms that work like enzymes to change the ideological composition of foreign bodies" are utilized (4). This is clearly an anthropophagous biopicture--cultural appropriation as digestion.
(32) "Je ne pretends pas que ces figures [...] annoncent une culture singulierement avancee; mais, en supposant meme que, loin d'etre symboliques, elles sont le produit d'une race d'hommes tres-differen[t]s de ceux qui habitent aujourd'hui les rives de l'Orenoque" (2:589).
(33) It is in this sense that the image functions as a kind of biopolitical eye test, as I have suggested above.
(34) Darwin notes in his Diary of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle, upon first sighting South America: "The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise. I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another sun illumines everything I behold" (37-8). Thus, Darwin's influential picture of evolutionary progress was informed by Humboldt's perspective, perhaps even by Humboldt's image of cannibalism.
(35) "Sous l'influence d'une nature exotique naissent des habitudes adaptees a de nouveaux besoins" (1:349).
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