Anxieties of Devouring in Antropofagia


Pure Devouring

Volume 7, Issue 02
October 10, 2021

Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Manifesto antropófago” (“Cannibal manifesto”) creates a new calendar for Brazil dated from the devouring of the first Portuguese Bishop — whose name was Sardine — by the Caetés in 1554. The manifesto’s slogan —“Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question” – poses the existential question of a modernist reencounter with indigeneity and primitivism. Oswald is proposing an indigenous New World Utopia: “Before the Portuguese discovered Brazil, Brazil had discovered happiness.” The manifesto is related to the painting Abaporu by Tarsila do Amaral, which depicts a plain nude figure with an enormous foot and small head sitting in a figurative tropical landscape.

The Manifesto separates the eaters (indigenous peoples in the 1500s and now contemporary artists identifying with them) from the eaten (tribal enemies and European colonizers) both as a declaration of autochthonous rights and a threat to any future transatlantic interlopers. Antropofagia proclaims devouring as a universal principle, yet there are consequences for the myth of the all-encompassing body, when the eaters bring the outside in, as Maggie Kilgour describes in From Communion to Cannibalism.

In antropofagia, who are the eaters and who are the eaten? Brazilian modernist writers, artists, musicians, and architects devour cannibal indigeneity, incorporating the example of the Tupinambás who devoured their enemies to ingest their strength and courage. Now in modern times, in the guise of Tupinambás, the Brazilian avant-garde threatens all new transatlantic arrivals by daring them to come ashore and be devoured. Those are the very Europeans who came to Brazil to be eaten – to be absorbed by exuberant nature, climate or tropical cuisine, to collect species or to illustrate. European artists and scientists sacrificed themselves to satisfy local hunger for culture and their own anxiety for discovery and depiction. Then in the 1920s, almost all the cannibal Brazilian modernists went to Paris to be eaten, offering their vital new sustenance to the European avant-gardes to be devoured. Jean Cocteau ate “le boeuf sur le toit” from a Northeastern Brazilian folksong and turned it into a Parisian night club. The Europeans were obliging the Brazilians’ anxiety to be eaten, and they offered a bite of themselves, too. Heitor Villa-Lobos styled himself as a “cannibal composer” for a massive concert in December, 1927.

Does devouring the colonizer liberate national culture? Is it pure devouring, or does it disguise a national self that is about to be altered as much by its continued attachment to Europe as by its local act of culinary rebellion? Do the modernists want to devour indigenous culture raw to rescue national identity from its long colonial history? Why is their urban food so unsatisfying? Do they promote a hollow representation of themselves by appropriating cannibalism, thereby sacrificing the heart of a yet inchoate national culture that longs for the idealized tribe, for folklore and indigenous mythology? Do the modernist “cannibals” stand to lose both identities, since they know very little about the “savage” peoples, while rejecting the European logos of their formation? In antropofagia, prime materials are raw and diet is everything. Loss of identity comes with the very act of incorporation; as Suely Rolnik says, “We are as diseuropean as disindians and disafros.” The modernist artist is the “other other”, occupying an alien space between the country’s indigenous interior and its formative European background. Antropofagia produces changeable identities, the symbiosis between center and periphery, metropole and colony, civilization and primitivism, popular and cosmopolitan.

Can antropofagia get beyond its dualisms? “Cannibalism unites us,” proclaims the manifesto. One of the errors of Marx, writes Oswald de Andrade, is that what interests man is not production but consumption. Could the eaten be slowly munching away on the insides of the eater? Does too much eating of a foreign substance make the eater dependent on the food supply, replacing a healthy diet of purely local flora and fauna? How can one resist the very mixed substances that one is made of?

Does eating the self through cannibalism suggest embracing mutual global assimilation, as one’s distinctive national identities merge in the art museums, concert halls, streets, and nouvelle cuisine restaurants?

Does antropofagia lead to what Affonso Romano de Santana suggestively calls “amorous cannibalism,” a form of universalism, the “politopical and polyphonic planetary civilization” of Haroldo de Campos, where the eaters coexist with what they oppose by bringing it in.

Does the avant-garde cannibal risk change into a copy or a simulacrum? Silviano Santiago thinks that “slow cooking” may work: “to speak against, to write against” leads to “cook against” as a decolonizing program. The other will be rendered tasty and tender, yet another ingredient in the feijoada.

Antropofagia from 1928 is a challenge to intellectuals between cultures, particularly between indigenous and colonial ones, to correct the West from within and with the same gesture defend autochthonous values, whether instinctual or vital: “The whole past that is alien to us deserves to be denied. It deserves to be eaten up, devoured,” says Oswald de Andrade. Yet all prime materials, as in he-who-must-not-be-named, have a way of returning.

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Volume 7, Issue 02
October 10, 2021