Showing posts with label Cannibalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cannibalism. Show all posts

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Anthrophagic Killer

Part 2 of The Squonk

The linking of homosexuality and cannibalism in literature and art has been noted by both gay and straight critics. Critics have found the linkage of homosexuality and cannibalism in the work of Freud, Herman Melville, Yukio Mishima, and, as we shall see, Tobias Schneebaum. Rupert Holmes, songwriter of the Buoys’ “Timothy” (1971) claims to have been inspired to write the song as a result of the serendipitous juxtaposition of working on an arrangement of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” (“...a coal man's made out of muscle and blood”) while watching a gourmet cooking show on TV, shortly after seeing the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959) on television. I should point out that Williams’ play also links homosexuality and cannibalism, a feature of the story which Holmes doesn't mention but which would have been hard for him to have missed. A remarkable serendipity, to be sure, although most certainly the lyrics to "Timothy" support his claim about the song's diegetic action:

Trapped in a mine that had caved in
And everyone knows the only ones left
Was Joe and me and Tim
When they broke through to pull us free
The only ones left to tell the tale
Was Joe and me

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

Hungry as hell no food to eat
And Joe said that he would sell his soul
For just a piece of meat
Water enough to drink for two
And Joe said to me, “I”ll take a swig
And then there’s some for you”

Timothy, Timothy, Joe was looking at you
Timothy, Timothy, God what did we do?

I must have blacked out just around then
Cause the very next thing that I could see
Was the light of the day again
My stomach was full as it could be
And nobody ever got around
To finding Timothy

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go
Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

If the act of cannibalism in the song is hard to miss, so, too, is the act of homosexuality, although both events are repressed by the traumatic blackout, hence the amnesia ("God why don't I know?"). A traumatic blackout, remember, also occurs in Ode to Billy Joe (1976), the film based on the song by Bobbie Gentry, in which a young man commits suicide after a homosexual encounter with an older man.

While Rupert Holmes, perhaps best known for the song “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” cites Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer as part of the inspiration for "Timothy," there was a more sensational event linking homosexuality and cannibalism that Holmes might well have known about by 1971: the publication in 1969, by Grove Press, of Tobias Schneebaum’s memoir, Keep the River on Your Right. The memoir by Schneebaum (1922-2005) has become something of a cult classic, an early exploration into the question of embracing otherness (although an anthropologist might say it is instance of someone arguing for the principle of cultural relativism). In it, Schneebaum told how he, a gay New York painter, wound up living for about seven months among the Arakmbut (also spelled Harakumbut), cannibalistic people living in the rainforest of Peru.

In 1955, Schneebaum was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Peru. Shortly after his arrival, he vanished into the Peruvian jungle and was presumed dead. Several months later, he emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He later said the experience had transformed him, although in a way he hardly could have imagined.

He wrote in Keep the River on Your Right:

...I knew that out there in the forest were other peoples more primitive, other jungles wilder, other worlds that existed that needed my eyes to look at them. A flash of real terror came over me.... My first thought was: I’m going; the second thought: I’ll stay there. No coming back ever. Death or life, it’s all the same. (Grove Press, 1994, p. 50)

The Arakmbut, however, welcomed him. Moreover, he discovered that homosexuality was not stigmatized there. Apparently Arakmbut men routinely had sex with women and with other men, a practice Schneebaum himself soon adopted. At any rate, perhaps the most profound experience for him was the day he accompanied the men on what he thought was a hunting trip, but which turned out to be a raid on a nearby village. The men of the nearby village were massacred by the Arakmbut (so much for the idea of "the noble savage"), and in the ensuing celebration, parts of the men were cooked and eaten. While not precisely offered a pound of flesh, Schneebaum was indeed offered a portion of a roasted human male, which he ate. Later during the celebration, he said, he ate part of a man’s heart (hence he was, for a time, an anthrophage, like the narrator of "Timothy"). Although some have found Schneebaum’s story very dubious, the author maintained the story was true to the end of his life. The documentary film, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale (2000), corroborates his claim that he indeed lived among the Arakmbut, although the issue of cannibalism remains unconfirmed.

Nonetheless, the important point is that the linkage of homosexuality and cannibalism is well established, allowing us to explore the meaning of a pop song such as "Timothy." While some may see my reading of the song as an aberrant decoding of the song, I'll point out that "Timothy" is not about cannibalism--that is the diegetic action we are encouraged to construct based on the clues the narrator gives us. To say what the narrative action consists of is not to say anything about what it means.