Toward the end of a long fall in New York, I received a note from a friend that mentioned Peter Gorman as my “kind of guy.” I had never heard of Gorman, and an initial Internet search turned up a man who, on the surface of things, seemed an improbable connection. Here was a person who was middle-aged with three kids and a small ranch in Texas; I was younger, single, living in a third-floor walk-up in Harlem. In a headshot, Gorman was holding a cigarette, smiling with his eyes closed, bearded, unkempt, even dubious-looking. But it was not the family or figure of Gorman that had sparked my friend’s interest so much as his particular line of work—“writer, explorer, naturalist”—and a curious thing that had happened to him in the Amazon.
In my years as a travel writer, I have come to empathize with anyone bold enough to step off the map in search of unusual frontiers. The “nature” Gorman explored, being both real and cerebral, fit this bill: there was the physical region around the Peruvian city of Iquitos, so deep in the jungle it can only be reached by air or river boat; and there was the mental terrain of lucid dreams, so deep in the unconscious it can only be accessed by ayahuasca, “vine of the little death,” an infamous narcotic that induces brilliant hallucinations. Gorman wandered both frontiers using local curanderos—shamans in contact with the spirit world—in much the same way that Dante Alighieri used Virgil as his guide through the underworld. Nevertheless, Gorman also struck me as the sort of figure skeptics shrug off as a charlatan, peddling alucino (jungle medicine) to hapless travelers in search of instant enlightenment. Studying his book, Ayahuasca in My Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming, I came across scenes that shoved credulity into tight corners: a Matses Indian burns Gorman’s arm with an ember, wipes away the skin, and smears toad excretion across the wound; Gorman collapses.
Then unexpectedly, I found myself growling and moving around on all fours. I felt as though animals were passing through me, trying to express themselves through my body. It was a fantastic feeling, but a fleeting one. When it passed, I could think of nothing but the rushing of my blood, a sensation so intense that I thought my heart would burst.
Reading further, I discovered that plants like ayahuasca “broaden the bands of our senses so that we see, hear, feel, touch, taste and sense things we can’t under ordinary circumstances.” Starting from the Amazon forest with a curandero spirit guide, Gorman had taken hallucinogens to defamiliarize the world, creating a dazzling newness that he parsed for meaning through visions that were sometimes beautiful and just as often terrifying. Put another way, Gorman was traveling deep into his own unconscious, plumbing its mysteries in search of some ultimate truth.
I am, by nature, prone to fixations and morbid flights of fancy, but the idea of Gorman being eaten shocked me, the intimacy of it, in my kind of guy.
In the note I received from my friend that fall, I learned that on one of Gorman’s expeditions into the Amazon, he took his project so far that he brought back three strains of flesh-eating staph. A photograph attached to the message showed his leg held high above a hospital gurney, as raw and suppurated as a third-degree burn. Bacteria had gnawed away several pounds of muscle. If the infection reached the bone it would spread throughout his entire body—something averted, ultimately, though nobody could know that at the time.
The specter of Gorman’s condition, mixed with stories of curanderos, jungle medicine, and the eerie outpost of Iquitos, wrenched something from the depths of my memory. It was a journey taken the previous year, the recollection of which bloomed into a breathless dread. I am, by nature, prone to fixations and morbid flights of fancy, but the idea of Gorman being eaten shocked me, the intimacy of it, in my kind of guy.
A few days later, I visited the American Museum of Natural History. I went to see the Matses Indians: Gorman claimed to have donated “a number of throw-away artifacts” collected in Rio Jivari. I have always found the institution unnerving. For me it has proved impossible to pass the open jaws of the American crocodile and not size up its appetite, impossible not to imagine myself into the gargantuan gullet of the suspended blue whale. Nor have I been able to meet the lifeless stare of the African lions and not hear the alarming words of Dr. Livingstone, caught by the shoulder and given a sharp, leonine shake that “caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror…. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife.”
I recognize that it is unfair to cast the museum as a temple to predation. But on this occasion Gorman’s ailment spread through the building like a noxious gas, clouding my vision of everything. To reach the Matses Indians in “Amazonia,” I would usually pass through the African Hall, which is filled with dioramas of dead elands and giant sables. Beyond that is a gallery of African people stuck in their own irradiated grottos—the Pokot bleeding a white cow, Mbuti pygmies scavenging in the jungle. Whenever I walk through that menagerie I am reminded of Ota Benga, the Mbuti pygmy who was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Most people think such a thing would never happen today, but isn’t it happening right here? Is the indignity of black bodies in a display case somehow ameliorated by the mood lighting and ambient strains of “Blind beggar and son sing at oasis market (Arab),” available on CD in the museum shop? Yet it is not the racism that unnerves me, but the idea of man being equated with the animals, pulled down and put on display in a cage.
To avoid that troubling route, I took a left at the entrance, climbed three flights of stairs, and stumbled upon a seven-meter skeleton of a reticulated python arranged beneath a pane of glass. Gorman, after hallucinating snakes trying to penetrate his head, was once told by a curandero, “If you had let it in it would have lived in you.” Standing in the museum gallery, which was otherwise empty, I tried to imagine the spirit of the snake coiled up inside a person. But as I peered down at the 321 vertebrae, the image reversed itself, and I began to reflect on an advertisement I had recently lifted from an Internet listing and placed in a clippings file marked “Fetish.”
Does anyone have a big snake that would love to eat me? I’m 95 pound juicy human and wants to become snake food. I don’t care where the snake starts consuming me but I prefer being eaten alive with out being coiled up and being eaten from the feet up (so I can have the full experience). It has always Been my dream to be eaten by a snake!!!…. If you want to you can even rub me with animal fur so I smell more good tasting to to the snake. I will even enter the snake unclothed so your snake can digest me better. I am totally serious about this!!!…. I would like to know how big the snake eater is and I would love to see a photo of it so I get more motivated. You can even fatten me up more!!! There is only one of me so be the first to make SNAKE FOOD!! I JUST CAN’T WAIT TO BE EATEN BY THE SNAKE!!!! I wonder what it would feel like to be digested. Also wonder what being in a snake feels like. [sic]
The thought of flesh-eating had been trailing me around Manhattan for days, and now it alighted on this glass case like a beautiful morpho butterfly, utterly transformed. I looked at the python skeleton and saw, with sudden clarity, that yes, there is something compelling about the idea of being consumed, something that skirts the divide between obscene and sublime. One can imagine what might animate the fetish known as vorarephilia, and the climax some people (like this man) evidently reach in voicing their desire to be swallowed. First, to be eaten consensually is to take control over one’s death, rejecting an arbitrary end in favor of reincarnation as an animal through flesh. Secondly, it is an abdication of free will, like ceding the reins to one’s own life and climbing back into the womb. “Also wonder what being in a snake feels like”: this is a person who imagines themselves consumed but conscious, looking out at the world like an immortal passenger. (“If you let it in it would have lived in you.”) And thirdly, what greater proof of the Freudian death drive than an act by which death and eroticism merge in exquisite self-destruction?
I stepped away from the case, shaken. I sat down on a bench near some Komodo dragons devouring a boar. I knew of a case in which vorarephilia had played out for real. In March 2001, Armin Meiwes welcomed Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes into his Rotenburg home. Meiwes and Brandes had found each other through an Internet forum called “The Cannibal Café.” Meiwes was the snake, posting a message for prey. “I am your meat,” Brandes replied, according to a book on criminology that detailed the more explicit turns of the case. In his Rotenburg home, Meiwes turned on a camera and, after finding his teeth ineffectual, used a knife to sever Brandes’s penis, which he cooked in a pan with wine and garlic. Some of it went to the dog. Some went to Brandes himself.
If this were a fiction, we would consume it with revulsion and delight; it would arouse the heartbeat like the final act of Titus Andronicus or a novel by Thomas Harris. Perhaps we would ask: What is the moral here? What light is being shone into the dark corners of human need, that labyrinthine and mysterious thing? But because this is not a fiction, I finished my visit to the American Museum of Natural History by recalling the words Meiwes had spoken after he was caught. “My friend enjoyed dying, death,” he said. “I only waited horrified for the end after doing the deed. It took so terribly long.”
The first time I read about that case in any detail, I was overcome by light-headedness, as though somebody had opened a valve in my body. After a while the nausea abated, but the swing had come so violently—curiosity to revulsion—that I could not help but wonder what it meant. It is an unsettling fact I have discovered through my travels that in places marked by death—a bullet-ravaged train station in Sri Lanka; a cave in Tsavo, Kenya, where two lions once devoured 135 men—the world is thrown into sharp relief. Colors are heightened. Textures are more tactile. Sounds separate into individual tracks. Do I seek out trauma because it makes me feel more alive—more attuned to meaning beyond the surface of things—even as it induces a kind of numb despair?
Say you are at sea. There has been an accident: a sunken yacht, all other passengers and everything lost except for a floating fragment of the mast. No land at any compass point. Your feet pointing down to darkness.
If you imagine yourself into this scenario, you are likely to feel a cold current of dread, because you are on the event horizon of your own death. There is no way back, no deus ex machina; you have looked around for salvation and seen only sky.
The truth is that the horror of being eaten outpaces the horror of death by any other means.
But what is the dread a response to? Partly, I suspect, it is caused by the space, an infinite-seeming ocean that renders you so small as to be virtually invisible. The expansiveness of the sea, its most attractive feature, transformed here into an abiding threat. And from that threat flows the fear of dying, because of course you are going to drown or succumb to hypothermia (is this the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic?). Still, those eventualities, distressing as they are, do not account for all the fear I feel when I run this role play in my mind. There is a deeper fear that is impossible to shake; it involves cold shapes surfacing from beneath the water and teeth wrenching my legs into the unknown. Even if I allow myself to drown in this daydream, it is the inevitable extra scene—my body ravished by a thousand mouths—that fills me with a horror so complete I cut the fantasy like a film reel ripped from the projector.
The truth is that the horror of being eaten outpaces the horror of death by any other means. Microbe, animal, another human: being consumed feels sharper, entirely visceral. But why?
In his strange book The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin wonders if the fear of darkness is something left over from a time when early man shared his caves with Dinofelis. Perhaps, Chatwin conjectures, man lived in the shallow mouth of these caves while the cat with “straight, dagger-like killing teeth” lived in the deeper recesses, occasionally slinking forward to snatch some prey. “Could it be, one is tempted to ask, that Dinofelis was Our Beast? A Beast set aside from all the other Avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went?” Could it also be that the fear of being eaten is a primal echo left over from an era when ancient man was yet another link in the giant food chain—and not even the strongest one?
We have evolved a worldview based on privilege and control. “So God created mankind in his own image”: we come last, the most august, to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Everything since has been an affirmation of this power. We arrange the past into a measurable timeline, creatures into vast taxonomies, the night sky into a navigation chart. But being eaten makes a mockery of our apex position. It is not just death, it is more debasing; it is a negation of human exceptionalism. Philosophy, religion, and self-awareness dissolve to nothing as our flesh is broken down into amino acids and assimilated by the anaconda or Staphylococcus aureus. We are no longer higher. We have no better handle on reality than the animals do—can, in fact, be made into animal. The idea of being consumed pulls us off our pedestal and puts us into the diorama. This is thrilling to contemplate obliquely, like standing at the edge of an abyss and peeking over; but facing it head on can induce despair, because it means embracing a meaningless existence. By denying the reassuring order we ascribe to the world, being eaten pushes us into the void, awake and alone.
Almost exactly a year before I learned about Peter Gorman, I flew to Iquitos to float up the Amazon in a glass boat.
It was one of those dubious tourism endeavors that promise “wilderness” without the risk of wild things, and “authentic” exotic fare—sachaculantro, shrimp moqueca—prepared by a world-renowned chef in a stainless-steel galley. Each day we were scheduled to float further into what Percy Fawcett, the legendary lost explorer, had once called the “Green Hell”; each night we would toast our fortitude with lychee martinis in a climate-controlled cocktail lounge. In my suite there was a floor-to-ceiling window in front of the bed: I had thrown open the curtains as soon as I’d arrived, exposing darkness marbled by condensation on the glass, like a painting by Anselm Kiefer. When the sun came up the following morning I found myself staring out at a selva, which loomed up as an insurmountable wall of trees, and down through the water in thick algae braids. Usually flora covers a landscape like a thin coverlet; here the flora was the landscape, breathing, perspiring, obscurely vigilant.
We all seemed to give in to a sudden urge then, casting our lines in unison to pull in piranha after piranha, until we had caught so many that we had to watch where we stood.
The trip was organized into a series of expeditions. We went paddling in canoes then scouting with binoculars for sloths in the tops of mimosa trees. In the small village of San Francisco, a curandero blew smoke through my hair, shaking a dried shacapa while he whispered to the spirit world. Other passengers scoffed at the unmarked Coca-Cola bottles filled with orange jungle medicine, but because I could not shake a growing sense of lassitude, I returned to the boat to shower immediately.
On the final afternoon, with heavy clouds massing in the east, we steered several smaller fishing boats up a tributary called El Dorado. Despite its name, the surface of the river was a sickly green, and trees on either shore were speckled with cormorant guano, which lent them the appearance of tangled bones. There were five of us in the boat. After a while, when we’d passed a sharp bend that hid the other groups from view, a man with a penchant for floral shirts and menthol cigarettes cast the first line. He had a snag in seconds—something strong. While his friend fumbled for her camera, he wrenched back, hoisting a tiny red fish from the water. It jerked wildly, and, once the line was cut, convulsed across the bottom of the boat. You could tell it had extraordinary teeth because its mouth took up most of its body—it seemed disembodied, a mouth and nothing more. The hook had gone through its cheek and now it flecked spots of blood across the floor, the seats, unclaimed life jackets. Is it bloodlust that drives even the humblest fisherman? Because we all seemed to give in to a sudden urge then, casting our lines in unison to pull in piranha after piranha, until we had caught so many that we had to watch where we stood so they didn’t spasm up and scrape the flesh off our legs.
After a while the urge subsided. I sat down quietly near the outboard motor. I felt fatigued, though my exhaustion was only partly physical. I had simply never been in a place that demanded such constant, rigorous vigilance. I stared into the green water, and though I couldn’t see beyond the algal bloom, I knew it was teeming with caimans, pacus, and anacondas. I knew, too, that off to the shore there were jaguars, and fire ants that spray formic acid, and vultures circling above the scene in widening gyres. “If you don’t have a machete you are lost, amigo,” a guide had told me in San Francisco. Well, I did not have a machete. I could still smell tobacco in my hair. And as the boat drifted past the murmuring selva, I knew that to face this dazzling place and parse it for meaning was to feel the shudder of desire, a yearning for the boat to capsize, sending us down, open-mouthed and gasping, to be annihilated in the dark.