Anthropophagy As a Worldview: Camus Meets Oswald de Andrade


L-R: Oswald de Andrade; Albert Camus

by João Cezar de Castro Rocha

In 1946 Albert Camus traveled to South America. During this journey, he took random notes published posthumously, in which he produced irregular (and sometimes brutal) remarks on both cities visited and on persons he met. In São Paulo he had dinner with Oswald de Andrade, already well known for his polemical thesis concerning the supposed civilizational driving force supporting anthropophagy, [1] that is, the ritual that made the Tupi-Guarani a household name in Europe in the seventeenth century thanks to the vivid description offered by a “survivor” of the Brazilian Indians. Indeed, Hans Staden’s book Die Wahrhaftige Geschichte und Beschreibung einer Landschaft der Wildennacktengrimmingen Menschenfresserin der Neuen Welt Amerika gelegen (…), [2] became a best-seller, and, with the help of the highly suggestive illustrations of anthropophagic rituals provided by Théodore De Bry, invented a hard to escape association between the New World and cannibalism. In the same sense, Jean de Lery’s Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil (1578), his account of a travel to the Bay of Rio de Janeiro in the years 1556-58, is one of the first texts written about Brazil as well as a text that would prove to be enormously influent on European representations of the country, always relating the New World and cannibalism.

What is then the possible connection between the French writer of despair and the Brazilian poet and cultural critic? Let us open Camus’ diary and read what he wrote down on 3 August 1949: “…Dinner with Oswald de Andrade, remarkable character (develop this). His point of view is that Brazil is populated with primitive people and that it’s for the best”.

Seemingly, nothing could be more adequate: Camus was seduced over a dinner by the creator of anthropophagy, seen as a powerful Weltanschauung. Indeed, Camus could have used the concept, as he took the following note on 4 August 1949:

Then Andrade tells me his theory: anthropophagy as a worldview. Confronted with the failure of Descartes and science, return to the primitive fertilization: matriarchy and anthropophagy. Since the first bishop to arrive in Brazil was eaten, Andrade dates his review from the year 317, the year of the ingestion of Bishop Sardine (he was named Sardine).

Camus naturally did not miss the pun: a Bishop named Sardine was indeed a linguistic ready-made avant la lettre, especially if he finds himself among an anthropophagic tribe… The French writer did not comment further upon Andrade’s theory, but understood it properly, for his terse definition – anthropophagy as a vision of the world – implies the perception of anthropophagy as a metaphorical definition of the appropriation of otherness. It will be another Frenchman who will take full advantage of Andrade’s insight.

In the last pages of Tristes tropiques, Lévi-Strauss seems to aim at rewriting Montaigne’s often-quoted essay “Of cannibals.” He does so through the distinction between the concepts of “anthropophagy” and “anthropemy” – from the Greek émein, to vomit. [3] If Western modern societies invented a specific way of dealing with otherness by simply isolating it, excluding it – “vomiting” it –, societies that practiced the ritual of cannibalism attempted to assimilate otherness through its symbolic ingestion. Thus, societies in which cannibalism was ritualized would certainly consider “anthropemic” societies as hopelessly barbaric, for the complete exclusion of the other would not be acceptable in their world-view.

It should be noted that most likely Lévi-Strauss was familiar with Oswald de Andrade’s ManifestoAntropófago, published in 1928, and influential in the 1930s, when the French anthropologist went to Brazil as a professor at the newly founded Universidade de São Paulo (1934). It was in Brazil that Lévi-Strauss undertook the change in his career, moving from his original background in philosophy towards anthropology. Moreover, Mário de Andrade, another famous Brazilian avant-garde writer, worked closely with Dina Lévi-Strauss, Claude’s wife at the time. [4] Thus, it would have been only natural that he heard of both Oswald de Andrade’sManifesto Antropófago and Mário de Andrade’s novel Macunaíma. However, and very differently from Camus, Lévi-Strauss paradoxically decided to be “anthropemic” regarding the acknowledgement of a possible dialogue with Oswald’s “anthropophagic” theory. Lévi-Strauss preferred to “vomit” instead of “assimilating” the other’s voice. It is, then, important to re-establish the genealogy of the concept, for Zygmunt Bauman has recently made Lévi-Strauss’ conceptual distinction operative again in his critique of globalization, in which he defined the strategy proposed by Andrade, although not being aware of the source of the distinction he nonetheless employs: “One was anthropophagic: annihilating the strangers by devouring them and then metabolically transforming into a tissue indistinguishable from one’s own”.

In order to conclude this post, let me only recall that Oswald envisaged anthropophagy as a technique of cultural contact grounded upon the systematic and creative incorporation of otherness into one’s own identity, which, by definition, becomes a continuous process of self-fashioning and self-confrontation through the endless incorporation of new shapes and the crossing of previous boundaries.

Piece originally posted at Arcade | Creative Commons License


[1] This hypothesis had already been polemically proposed by Carl Vogt: “Anthropophagie et sacrifices humaines,” was published in 1873 in the proceedings of the Congrès International dAnthropologie et dArchéologie PréhistoriquesCompte rendu de la cinquième session à Bologne 1871.

[2] The full title reads Die Wahrhaftige Geschichte und Beschreibung einer Landschaft der Wilden,nacktengrimmingen Menschenfresserin der Neuen Welt Amerika gelegenvor und nach Christi Geburt im Lande Hessen unbekanntbis auf die zwei letzvergangen Jahreda sie Hans Staden von Homberg aus Hessen selbst kennengelernt hat und jetz durch den Druck bekannt macht.

[3] Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tristes Tropiques. Translation by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Penguin, 1992, pp. 387-388.

[4] On the very productive and yet complex work relationship between Dina Lévi-Strauss and Mário de Andrade, see Ellen Spielman. Das Verschwinden Dina Lévi-Strauss’ und der Transvestismus Mário de Andrade: Genealogische Rätsel in der Geschichte der Sozial und Humanwissenschaften im modernen Brasilien / La desaparición de Dina Lévi-Strauss y el transvestismo de Mário de Andrade: enigmas genealógicos en la historia de las ciencias sociales y humanas del Brasil moderno. Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2003. This is a bilingual edition.