Tobias Schneebaum by Allan Gurganus

BOMB 75 Spring 2001
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Tobias Schneebaum. Photo by Magnus Anderson. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press.

That far downtown, the Hudson can smell leaf green and has an oceanic glint. Overlooking freshets and container ships, the retired Explorer occupies steep rooms in a building where Thomas Edison invented the rotary telephone. Tobias Schneebaum cohabits this simple space with huge carved shields, houseplants grown to a New Guinea jungle, and 20 human skulls.

The adventurer, nearly 80, is now at home and receiving. A rail-thin man, fiercely kind, he looks as beaky yet contained as an Iberian aristocrat. Head lifted, his profile itself seems an instrument of listening. Surviving hip-replacement surgery, this strider of the world now lists a bit. But his every step looks meditated, then undertaken, then somewhat jauntily enjoyed: “There, there, there.”

Not long ago, store-bought world globes featured patches marked “Unexplored.” Our last great land explorers were Edwardians, of course. And so, our image of the Adventurer stopped right there. He poses under his Raj pith helmet, hand on hips, bristlingly heterosexual with woolly Scottish legs showing under khaki shorts; his tunic’s countless pockets bulge with cartridges high-powered enough to stop a charging rhino at ten feet.

No explorer ever looked less like one than Tobias Schneebaum. Even young, burly he never was. Now, hardly fey but fully, simply, frontally gay, you feel here’s a man who never hurt anyone. First sight of him makes you feel protective then entranced.

For half a century, Schneebaum has made a practice of walking into the bushy precinct of some unknown head-hunting people who, instead of spearing him on sight, somehow blink, then stroke, then embrace, then lead him home. In silence.

His still being alive is something of a mystery. But few people seem more serene in their silence, more content with whatever’s in view. “I like to become a part of the landscape, part of the world,” this Hester Street shaman has written. Only someone fluent in the loving international nuance of silence could have endured such danger. It is a rite Schneebaum has perfected and refined. Such stubborn foolish trust can come to seem almost an act of genius. At the moment he might be killed but is instead spared, he becomes a member of the tribe, privy to secrets no chaste upper-caste note-taker can ever learn. His path to wisdom is utterly his own. And yet, how richly it demands new bifurcations in our lowlier domestic routes.

As an Abstract Expressionist painter, Schneebaum showed with Pollock. As a roving anthropologist, he shared many publishing decades with Margaret Mead and Lévi-Strauss. As a sexual partner to the very peoples he studied, Schneebaum broke one of the absolute taboos of the social sciences racket. A boyhood glimpse of the Wild Man of Borneo (at the Coney Island Midway, of course) set him on a circuitous and rocky course—one so movingly charted by a new film biography.

The miracle of strangers’ kindness constitutes the center of Schneebaum’s books, his mission, and the long-in-coming overnight interest in him as a seminal cultural figure. Wearing only tennis shoes, he first walked into the Peruvian wildlands in the 1950s. Newspapers, months later, reported his presumed death. But when he reemerged, the erotic explorer carried news of tribal life, of human sweetness set alongside the consumption of human flesh, of nightly male-male sex in the longhouse. He soon set down his improbable, lyrically frightening experience into a memoir: its Conradian title, Keep the River on Your Right. The adventurer went on to other tribes, finding perhaps his truest sexual and spirit home in Papua New Guinea. He chronicled further quests in other books. Now, on the eve of a major feature documentary about Schneebaum’s long, startling life, he has published Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea (University of Wisconsin Press).

In March, the loving, complicated film Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Talewill have its New York premiere after winning prizes at the Amsterdam and Toronto Film Festivals. Made by the brother-sister team, David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, the work asks Schneebaum to retrace his million steps toward the wild, past one form of civilization into another more to his liking. He would reencounter ghosts, rivers and lovers. The trips themselves proved life threatening for someone so apt to teeter. Since The Explorer now ambulates with difficulty, when confronting steep embankments he must sometimes be carried like an embarrassed pasha. But the sight of so old a man climbing vertical Incan ruins, one foothold at a time, becomes terrifying, then awe inspiring and richly instructive. Watching Schneebaum rewalk his reckless younger life lends this documentary the slow-building drama of allegory. In the end, the film proves as quietly mythic as this strange man’s quest itself.

Allan Gurganus Your apartment here is laden with “Ancestor Skulls,” skulls given to you by your loving adoptive families in New Guinea. You could do Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” in any corner of your house and with real human ivory! How does it feel, living with the bones of loved ones in plain view? You’ve told me that in the jungle these skulls are used as pillows for the living—hence the beautiful sheen that human contact, human oils, awards. Can you imagine living with the skulls of your late and actual father, mother and brother in the same way? Do you wish to have those here? How does the New Guineans’ sense of human remains as treasure compare with the Western aversion to the bodily, even when alive?

Tobias Schneebaum The skulls in my apartment keep me in touch with my ancestors. Through them, I absorb the essence of their beliefs. Through them I gain their strength. The skulls were given to me by families that had adopted me. They were given to me over the course of many transactions, a skull for a steel axe, or, they were given to me with no apparent strings attached, nothing but friendship. The skulls now sit on shelves in one of my bookcases. They look out in all directions, viewing the Hudson River, trying to prepare themselves for whatever might be ahead. They exude an energy familiar to me. They somehow reach out and stretch their invisible muscles to touch my silence with their memories. When I open the door, I feel their breath. Their presence protects me, watches over me. I am more aware of dreaming when surrounded by my ancestors. More often than not, I remember simply that there were dreams.

One rainy day, I watched a child rolling one of the skulls on the rough flooring of the family house. It was as if he were in a bowling alley. The relationship between the boy and the ball was a warm and affectionate one. There was no fear of the dead, no horror, no disgust. Only comfort. When death comes in Asmat, the body is wrapped in a mat made of pandanus leaves and placed on a platform six feet above the ground. The body is then left there with young boys to protect it from the dogs, until the maggots have cleaned all the flesh from the skull. Normally, the skull would then be inherited by the oldest son or daughter.

I cannot imagine the skull of one of my blood relatives in New York sitting on a shelf. It is ludicrous. It would have no connection with anything else there. Perhaps if I kept such a skull around for years I would eventually become accustomed to its presence and even enjoy having it here, who knows?

AG In our culture, artists live as somewhat discredited citizens, playing organ during Sunday luncheons at the Holiday Inn, celebrities at best, clown-entertainers at worst. How are scribes and painters viewed in New Guinea society? What is it like to return from your role in one culture to that waiting in the other?

TS There is no word in the Asmat language for “artist,” even though all Asmat villages produce at least seven or eight good carvers every few years. There are, however, other words used to identify such a person: wow ipitsj for “design man,” and tsjestsju ipitsj for “clever man.” Most villages have several names to indicate a man who carves well. In fact, every village has its own phrase. Nonetheless, all these words indicate a man who makes beautiful things, someone who is a highly respected member of the village. He might even be pointed out as a man of great deeds. The respect given him is the same as the respect given a great headhunter. Now that head-hunting has disappeared, change is inevitable in Asmat. Carvers in Asmat do receive payment for their work, but payment can take different forms. In the past, if someone needed a carving for a feast that was to help avenge the death of a person who died, he approached a carver who might do the work. He would ask the carver to make a particular type of figure carving. The carver would then expect to be paid in shrimp or sago or sago worms, or in any of the other foods that delight the palate of the Asmat. Since the carver was busy with his carving, he could not go into the jungle and pound sago. It was too time-consuming.

More often than not I had serious difficulties when I returned to New York from a culture that was different in all aspects. My older brother, Moe, a physicist who worked for NASA, had invited me to stay with him and his family for two weeks on my way back to New York. It was not physically easy to adjust to the many changes that had taken place. Sitting on a chair, for instance, rather than sitting on the floor was my first big problem. Time itself seemed to change while I stood there, looking out a window. Everything conspired to make me feel that I was in some sort of time warp where the world had no control over its own destiny. I got up at sunrise and went to bed at sunset. This schedule did not leave much time for fitting in the schedules of the family. There was no way I could fit into the daily life of the family. Even insects bothered me less than did the electrical equipment in the kitchen. The most difficult thing for me was the garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. It seemed always to be making noises that irritated me. Then there were the bells that pinged and binged and indicated that the coffee was ready or that it was time to put the lamb chops in the oven.

AG The recent film about your life takes you back to your other homes. Did the film crew distract you or make you feel more yourself? What discoveries about yourself emerged at the first screening? You’ve always written of yourself as a homely person, much to the dismay of your many admirers and suitors. Did seeing yourself on screen alter your vision of yourself spiritually or physically? Did you feel well represented by that sleek, dear shaman on the screen?

TS The documentary of my life astonished me when I first saw it, and I realized that I am not as unattractive as I have always thought myself to be; although it isn’t easy to give up that ugly image of myself, after so many years of complaining about it. From the very first screening in Los Angeles I had to decide whether I would continue to despise my looks or change my attitude. So many people approached me after the screening, it astonished me. The first comment was, “You know, Tobias, you made one big mistake in your film. You have to remember that you are attractive.” This came up often after screenings. I still do not believe it, but many good things are happening. I keep thinking of a steep wall of red mud that we all had to negotiate. The men of the village, seeing me old and bent over, stumbled through the mud and carved steps right out of the muck. Even though it was the most difficult part of the journey, I managed to get to the top with the help of two young men who were extraordinarily gentle.

The film crew did not distract me. There were complaints by everyone, including me. The crew did seem to be enjoying themselves, but someone was always complaining about something. While trekking through the thick, heavy mud, they found much to admire in the rivers and mountains, and among the people.

AG You have been an underground figure of veneration for 50 years. Now, late in life, international attention has turned your way. What are the surprises, disappointments and fondest hopes that come with such belated recognition?

TS It is very strange that I have suddenly been thrust into the spotlight of the film world at the age of 79. I have done nothing provocative, nothing particularly brave or brilliant. It came as a great surprise when the documentary was given the Critics’ Award of the Directors Guild in Los Angeles. It seems miraculous. All I did was participate in making an unusual film based on my own life. True, it is unique, out of the general run of films. And it is also rare in its honesty and in its approach, taking different sides to controversial matters. It deals directly with subjects such as being gay and what it is to be confronted with a society completely at variance with the social mores of our own culture. It also approaches the problem of getting old and infirm. I am hoping that the film does well, partly because it would be good for the Harakhambut in Peru and the Asmat of West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. I am hoping these peoples will gain some recognition and not lose their identity.

AG I dedicated my comic novel about AIDS, Plays Well with Others to you and the writer Joe Caldwell. I know of no two people who did more for more young people dying during the pandemic. That care became your life for years and years. Did your experience in New Guinea make it easier or harder for you to so actively nurse those boys? How has your own sense of time been altered by seeing so much un-chronological mortality?

TS My experience with traditional death rituals among the Asmat definitely prepared me for the onslaught of AIDS among my friends in New York. I did, however, need your sharp eyes and brains to point it out. Watching the way the Asmat treated their blood relatives when sick, dead or dying allowed me to cope with death without pain. It is traditional in Asmat that when someone dies, all members of the family have their heads shaved. When David Simni, an elderly friend of mine died in the village of Sjuru, tradition had it that the body was wrapped in a mat of pandanus leaves and placed on a platform in front of the house until the flesh had been eaten by maggots and other vermin. I woke up one night to the sounds of wailing in the distance. At daybreak I got out of bed and walked the mile or so over the dangerously dilapidated walkway, and went directly to Simni’s house. Inside, there was barely enough room to squeeze through the crowds of men and women who were clustered together in groups of ten or 12. Ndocemen, my adoptive father, waved, indicating that I should come up to the front of the house, where Simni was lying in the lap of his widow, Marta Asekum. A blanket I had given to Simni was tucked around him. There were several trumpet shells on top of the blanket. Marta made room for me and placed Simni’s upper body against my lap and chest. I stroked his forehead tenderly, a gesture that surely would have frightened me were all this to happen in New York. Ndocemen straddled Simni and danced there. He called out the names of men Simni had presumably killed. Sometimes there was drumming, sometimes not. The body was taken outside where a long line of women awaited his arrival. It was placed on a platform in front of the house. Several women stripped themselves of their single garment and moaned and wailed. Their heads had already been shaved with a bamboo knife. I felt a part of all this and moaned with a certain amount of pleasure because Simni was now on his way to Safan, Land of the Dead. He would soon have the pleasure of meeting some of his ancestors. There might be wailing in the village at night, but within a week all would be quiet again.

It would always be difficult to teach myself the ways of the Asmat, particularly when it came to time. The Asmat tell time by the tides and by the sun and the moon. At first, any deviance from Western attitudes seemed outrageous to me. My paddlers might be a whole day late or a whole day early. The Asmat rightly travel to their sago fields and fishing grounds when the tides are to their advantage. When the tide is coming in they paddle upstream, when the tide is going out they travel downstream. Not a very difficult concept, but it has taken the very few Westerners there many years to learn some of the ways of Asmat. The rhythm of life was stable then. Now many people have watches and can tell time. Many people have already learned to read and write. Some go to school on the north coast of West Papua. Some go on board one of the freighters that sail from Merauke and stop in Asmat. Sometimes, those dispersals remind me of New York’s losses to AIDS.

My relation to the living, the sick and especially the dead were all evolved and deepened—almost perfected—in New Guinea. A rehearsal.

AG It seems clear that your life’s work has a beautiful seamlessness, that all the books join to become a single scroll-like span. Was this your initial plan, or are your governing obsessions so persistent that they provided an overarching design, one book, or painting, at a time?

TS One day I will write a book, I told myself, not to sell to a publisher, but simply to write a book. This was before settling into writing what I later called Keep the River on Your Right, which I wrote in Tuscany at a friend’s villa. There were great sweeping vistas of olive trees and grapevines producing oil and wine in the Chianti Valley. I wandered along the terraces, sat on stones and pondered the world around me. I tried to identify cloud formations. But another friend of mine said, “Stop looking at the landscape. It won’t do you much good. You can look wherever you like and come up with nothing. The only way to write a book is to sit down at a typewriter and write.” Of course, that is what I did. That friend was practical and independent. He was at his typewriter every morning at nine and allowed no visitors until four in the afternoon, tea time. Even houseguests were restricted to his limited schedule. And so I sat down and wrote Keep the River On Your Right. When the book was finished, I tried several publishers but there were no takers. No one will buy this book, I said to myself. Happily, I was wrong. Grove Press was interested and eventually bought it. It wasn’t until after I finished writing Keep the River on Your Right that I thought of writing a second book, a companion volume to the first. I decided during those months that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working as a writer, not as a painter. My second book, Wild Man, was an instantaneous flop and was remaindered only a few days after publication. I halted in my tracks then and came up with a third in a trilogy, Where the Spirits Dwell. But there was still some material to be gleaned from the remnants of my journals. The works came one after another. It is already a quartet.

AG You have known so many gifted artists and writers, especially those who came of age in New York during the ’50s. I’ve heard you reminisce about weekly soirées at Norman Mailer’s apartment, next door to yours. Are we contemporaries overly romantic about the talent and the larger sense of community in Manhattan during those glory years, when you could walk across Central Park at two AM?

TS Perhaps I exaggerate the numbers of talented, even brilliant people who attended Norman Mailer’s parties in the ’50s. I do not remember the year Norman and Adele got married, but it was after they moved uptown. They gave splendid parties, probably like those of the ’20s during Prohibition, with plenty of booze flowing and lively conversation. There was always a sheen of eroticism enveloping Norman’s guests. It is easy enough now to feel nostalgic about the cold-water flats we lived in, but at the time it was decidedly cold without heat or hot water. I had a small space heater that didn’t do much good and constantly smelled of kerosene. In order to flush the toilet I had to break the ice in the bowl. On most winter mornings, I would wake up to find that snow had been blown into my apartment through my leaky windows, which looked down on Marble Cemetery. My clothes stank from the kerosene, and most of my friends commented on the smell. There was no bath, no shower. But what else can you expect from an apartment with rent stabilized at eight dollars a month? For a decent shower, I walked to Allen Street Baths, below Houston Street. There was nothing romantic about it. Norman [Mailer] lived in the apartment next to mine at 41 First Avenue. I was living then at 39 in a contiguous apartment. On the other side of me, sharing the toilet, was Danny Wolf who later became editor-in-chief of the Village Voice. This was a wonderful period for meeting people who were invited to Norman’s parties. James Jones, or Jonesy, as his friends called him, was at one of those parties. He had been told by Adele that I was a good painter. “Can I see some of your work now?” he asked. I opened the window and we climbed out onto the fire escape, then into my apartment. He seemed to be enamored of a small painting of three figures in a landscape. “The price is too high,” he said, “at $200.” Then, he put his hand to his mouth, took out hs false teeth and placed them on the table. “There! Will you take that as a down payment?”

AG Do you imagine your books published in a uniform edition? I know I would like to see them illustrated with your own beautiful and precise drawings. How is it you wished to be remembered by your villages of friends and readers in New York, New Guinea and around the world? What, alongside the work, will be your legacy to us?

TS The combination of my first three books—Keep the River on Your RightWild Man, and Where the Spirits Dwell—makes for a trilogy. While working on that first book, I never thought of the possibility of writing a second. After all, the only reason I started on the first was to exorcise the demons that had entered me in Peru during my last weeks there.

Back in 1955, I was drawing. Now, here in New York, my hand is not yet “in” so to speak, and I don’t feel capable of drawing anything. Too much time has passed and my hands are out of practice. I would like to leave a legacy to those who treated me with an openness I had never experienced before. I had never expected wanting to go on writing, even though I thoroughly enjoyed it. Writing gave me greater freedom of expression. It might have been wiser for me to continue painting, but I was in a period of Expressionism to which I would have to adjust. I hope the Harakhambut and the Asmat will remember me as an amusing friend, one who could never learn to control a bow and arrow properly. How the Harakhambut laughed whenever I practiced with my bow and arrows. I was like my own sideshow and I loved to watch them laugh, putting their whole bodies into it.

I turned to writing because I could never express myself clearly on canvas. I never thought I would change careers midlife. Still, I continued to look at the world through a painter’s eye, conjuring up scenes of life as I watched the landscape move past like screens showing films of self-perpetuating pleasures. And after spending so much time with the Asmat, I see physical beauty everywhere in people and in their surroundings. And I see the need for a spiritual world, a realm that recreates and encompasses all the wonders the Asmat see, wonders that make us Westerners seem both deaf and blind.  

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Originally published in

BOMB 75, Spring 2001

Featuring interviews with Wendy Wasserstein, Wong Kar-Wai, Amos Gitai, Eduardo Galeano, Tobias Schneebaum, Micheal Goldberg, Samuel Mockbee, Andrea Zittel. 

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