Academic journal article German Quarterly

Humboldt and the Monkeys: On the Friend-Food Distinction

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Humboldt and the Monkeys: On the Friend-Food Distinction

Article excerpt

In his most recent study of visual culture, Cloning Terror, W. J. T. Mitchell attends to the ideological structure functional in (over-determined) images of terror and terrorism, which he argues always operate as representations of the other-"we" are never terrorists; this term applies only to "them." Here, Mitchell invokes Carl Schmitt's "concept of the political," which is "arguably the most primitive form of social organization, the division into friends and enemies, us and them" (42). This friend-enemy distinction results in an aesthetic and political process by which the enemy is represented as other, producing a set of ideological images. In Alexander von Humboldt's narrative of his travels to the Americas, one encounters an essentially equivalent organizational binary manifested in a set of images that is tied perhaps even more deeply to the ideological structure of verbal and visual representation: the image of cannibalism. In one sense, this taboo ultimately centers on images and the double-prohibition of the production and consumption of the human image in Europe's history of entanglement with the problem of the visual. Humboldt's anxiety over the phenomenon of anthropophagy expresses itself in his repeated revisiting of this practice, for which he attempts to offer both etymological and cultural-historical definitions and explanations (see especially 5:420-30/ 2:500-5)4 In one crucial scene, Humboldt describes the natives' preparation of certain "anthropomorphous animals" for consumption: "On seeing the natives devour the arm or leg of a roasted monkey, it is difficult not to believe, that this habit of eating animals, that so much resemble man in their physical organization, has, in certain degree, contributed to diminish the horror of anthropophagy among savages."2 Humboldt goes on to note, "[rjoasted monkeys, particularly those that have a very round head, display a hideous resemblance to a child" (5:533)4 To this comment on the slippery slope to cannibalism Humboldt appends a footnote concerning a certain engraving published in Germany: "Soon after my return to Europe, an engraving was published at Weimar from a drawing composed with great spirii [sic] by M. Schick at Rome, representing one of our resting places on the banks of the Oroonoko. In the foreground some Indians are occupied roasting a monkey."4 The textual supplement that Humboldt offers to this image appears to be a benign reference. Nonetheless, Humboldt's persistent anxiety over the image of cannibalism finds its clearest expression in this footnote and the possibility of misapprehension on the part of the viewer: Humboldt does not want the viewer to misread the image and assume that these monkeys, a virtual image of human children in Humboldt's own perception, might actually be humans. Humboldt's anxiety over cannibalism is further articulated in his letters and journal entries. In a letter from February 1801 to Karl Ludwig Willdenow, written in Havana, Humboldt again voices this anxiety when he adds to his description of a four-month period of travel when there was very little to eat other than rice, ants, and, occasionally, monkeys: 'überall, überall, im freien Süd Amerika [...] fanden wir in den Hütten die entsetzlichen Spuren des Menschenfressens! !" (Briefe 126). He strikes a similar note in a letter to his brother Wilhelm, when he writes of his progress on the unprecedented path of exploration that he and Bonpland had undertaken, but which was now impeded by dangerous savages: "Noch weiter vorzudringen verhinderte uns die Wildheit der menschenfressenden Guicas. Auch nie ist ein Weißer weiter östlich in das unbekannte Land dieser unabhängigen Indianer gekommen" {Briefe 147). Humboldt's anxiety with regard to the phenomenon of cannibalism indicates both a sharp critique of the savagery of these people living in violation of natural law, and the clear danger these cannibals present to his own company in their journey of discovery and exploration. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.