Toothless in Brazil | Yuliya Komska | The Hypocrite Reader


Yuliya Komska

Toothless in Brazil


ISSUE 98 | TEETH | JUL 2021

Where do anteaters, members of the order formerly known as Edentata (Latin for “toothless”), come from?1 From the little Brazilian children remiss in using Eucalol toothpaste before bedtime. In the morning, these not-quite-innocents wake up, get dressed, shimmy past the sink, and scamper into the forest to play. And that is just when their transformation begins. Long hairs appear, then the outrageous nose and the obscene tongue, then the posture grows hunched, quadrupedal. Their teeth vanish, along with the prospect of warm home-cooked meals. Nothing but ants, ants, and more ants awaits the bewitched—until they recant, undone by the sun and overcome by loneliness, longing, and regret. Precisely at this moment, a roving tube of Eucalol appears and, with a wave of a brush, returns them to human form, toothy and button-nosed once more. Never again will they forget about dental hygiene.

On January 3, 1936, Hans Augusto Reyersbach finished the draft of this cautionary tale, titling it Historia do menino que verou tamanduá (A story of a boy who became an anteater). He smoothed the pages and jiggled them into an envelope addressed to Perfumaria Myrta S.A., the maker and distributor of Eucalol toothpaste, talcum, and soaps in Rio de Janeiro. He may have put the manuscript in the mail. Or trudged to drop it off in person, though it would have been a hike from rua São Pedro, near the sandy beaches of Copacabana, to rua Ribeiro Guimarães, in the city’s northwest. Summer was in full swing, and Reyersbach’s linen suit and his beret (meant to protect his hairline’s receding furrow from the sun’s slash-and-burn tactics) were catastrophically bad at whisking Brazilian heat off his northern bones. In any case, he felt relief. “Eucalol delivered,” he exhaled in his work notebook, not least because getting the commission off his desk brought him and his wife and collaborator Margret a step closer to voyaging back to Europe, ostensibly on a honeymoon but more importantly, to check on their Jewish family in Nazi Germany.

Despite the crash of 1929, the collapse of Brazilian coffee prices, and the dizzying succession of coups and revolutions that would open the door to Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorship, consumer capitalism marched on undaunted in Brazil of the 1930s, as European and North American companies doubled down on their efforts to exploit the country’s natural resources and to conquer its markets in the same breath. Having arrived in Rio in 1925 to work for his brother-in-law James Magnus, a fellow Jewish merchant’s son from Hamburg in Germany’s North, Reyersbach knew this first-hand. He had dabbled in commercial art since the early 1930s. In 1935, together with Margret—a professional photographer and a newcomer to the country—he opened a small advertising agency and began to take commissions both from the smaller national companies like Perfumaria Myrta S.A. and from such multinationals as Nestlé and Hoffmann-La Roche. It was in this capacity that he designed the free illustrated pamphlet for the Eucalol toothpaste, slender enough to be pressed into small sweaty hands at drug stores, dentist offices, and schools across the city.

* * *

Listed in Rio’s register of businesses and industries since 1904, James Magnus & Cia had exported hides, rubber, manganese ore, construction materials, cardboard, and modest amounts of coffee from South America. It also imported locomotives, farm equipment, motor bikes, and other vehicles manufactured by the engineering company Orenstein & Koppel in Berlin. A correlation existed: the more wheels, the easier the extraction of raw materials or profits. Wheels required roads, and it was no accident that Magnus’s firm got involved in highway and bridge construction or resorted to other means of moving commercial goods deep into the country’s interior: Reyersbach’s flashbacks to the time rarely fail to mention “selling bathtubs and kitchen sinks up and down the Amazon River.” The apparent oddity of the mission—Native riverbank dwellers had done just fine without bathtubs for millennia—spoke volumes about the distinctly colonial triangulation between hygiene, modernity, and whiteness.

Unlike most of his paternal male relatives, Reyersbach had no interest in commerce. Perhaps he consciously rejected the profession that Christian antisemitism had foisted onto his forebears. More likely, it bored and exhausted him. “Little time + energy left for the arts,” he complained in a later autobiographical sketch, wishing he could doodle on business correspondence. He took art—and his specialty, graphic art with commercial crossover appeal—to be the opposite of trade.

It wasn’t. The artists and literati who touted pharmaceuticals, sweets, and cosmetics across Brazil during this period de facto lent their talents to the consumer-capitalist extension of settler colonialism. The circumstances of their life and art had primed them to look the other way, to keep other priorities in focus. Many were modernists with white immigrant roots, and a large number were Jewish—in the Brazil of that era, neither Black nor white. The narrative of progress that underpinned advertising art spoke to them both aesthetically and politically. It edged out the abhorrent provincialism and conservatism from which they were trying to distance themselves, and it welcomed novelty and market globalism disguised as cosmopolitanism. Yet the goods they advertised were no neutral baubles to be wrapped and embellished. Rather, they played into nativist politicians’ obsession with hygiene as a “cure” against the dreaded mixing of races and erased traditional knowledges about beauty and healing, replacing them with imported formulas and rituals. Finally, the cultivation and extraction of the materials that these products required resulted in the dispossession of Native populations on a massive scale and a severe loss of biodiversity.

Eucalol did all three. The toothpaste’s key ingredient was eucalyptus, an Australian tree of the Myrtaceae family—the root of Myrta in the name of the perfumaria—known to be one of the most ubiquitous, versatile, and pernicious weapons of eco-imperialism across the globe. The toothpaste’s purpose, in turn, was dental hygiene—increasingly not a private choice but a civic obligation in the eugenicist fight against “degeneration.” Reyersbach’s booklet for Perfumaria Myrta S.A. became a capsule of complicity, active if not entirely conscious (as one historian put it). Its pages open to a new perspective on the relationship between Jews and colonialism, mediated not only by the usual suspects—commerce, intellectual endorsements, or settler immigration—but also by art, the art of picturing toothlessness in Brazil.

* * *

Historia do menino que verou tamanduá was more than an advertising pamphlet. It was, by all appearances, Reyersbach’s first animal story in picture-book form, the genre that would eventually make him and Margret famous, the genre of their bestselling series about the fictional “monkey” (or rather, the correctly drawn young chimpanzee) Curious George. It even looked like a proper book, with a real cover that depicted the white protagonist Zézinho (little José), soccer ball in arm, in a forest clearing bursting with rich flora—trees, cacti, ferns, flowers, grass. Red shirt and socks, blue shorts, yellow ball, green nature—the uncomplicated color scheme of the image made the printing process cheap and easy. Flanking the boy on both sides, like Baroque saints at a Golgotha scene, were two grey anteaters in exaggeratedly theatrical poses. Didn’t Eucalol, the great green hope, just save the boy from the ordeal of “going Native,” to which the anteaters as a recognizably Brazilian species were a reference? Didn’t the humble tube make Zézinho rethink the tormento of tooth-brushing as a kind of salvation from his hirsute and worm-tongued vida infernal? Didn’t it chase away the ever-haunting specter of “degeneracy,” so feared by Rio’s educators-in-chief, from Afrânio Peixoto to Anísio Teixeira, all passionate advocates of the white Christian ideals of “strength, health, and virtue”? Didn’t it put os dentes, the teeth, back into identity?

On the same cover, the author’s name, or rather, his original signature, lurks in the thick grass. A quirky ideogram of a heron (Reiher, in German, was a homonym of Hans’s teenage nickname, Reyer) over a single squiggle of water and the clipped “REY.” In a few years, the Reyersbachs would officially adopt this less Jewish-sounding pseudonym to become Margret and H. A. Rey. But for now, the countdown to their children’s author career was starting with Zézinho, encircled by the Edentata and at the mercy of Eucalol.

* * *

Reyersbach was certainly not the first children’s author to glorify hygiene with traumatizing enthusiasm. From Heinrich Hoffmann’s gory Struwwelpeter (1845) to Korney Chukovsky’s paternalistic Moydodyr (1923), cleanliness runs through the class-conscious industrial-age illustrated children’s book like soap scum along a family bathtub’s interior. Only the artist’s transposition of the theme to Brazil—complete with the tropical greenery, with a species steeped in Native lore, and with small details like the toy palm trees past which the boy’s miniature railroad raced—changed the meaning. Yes, the story was certainly tied to class: Zézinho’s mother is fashionably dressed and coiffed; his bejowled father cuts a dashing figure in a dark suit; the boy’s bedroom signals “bourgeois” with such semaphores as polka-dot curtains, window-sill geraniums, and clothes neatly laid out on a chair. But the book is also about race. The family’s Black domestic worker is shown only once, gesturing toward both the family’s status and the woman’s own insignificance in Brazilian society. Otherwise, race is mostly addressed by implication, as the plot exposes just how frighteningly fast an affluent white family can near the brink of “devolution” despite the mother’s best efforts. “Brush your teeth at the sink with the good Eucalol toothpaste,” she admonishes Zézinho at one point—for naught. The hard-earned tokens of civilization, according to Reyersbach, are shockingly easy to lose.

Such intrusions of social and medical hygiene into the domestic sphere, inspired by 19th-century European racial science, psychology, and criminology, were nothing new under colonialism. In the Brazil of the 1920s and ’30s, these preexisting concerns with the “health of the race” took a sharp turn from theory to practice with the political ascendancy of nativism and a distinctly Catholic form of white supremacy. So-called “positive” eugenics, which stressed “individual and collective hygiene, education, and public health” (as opposed to “negative” eugenics, which advocated euthanasia or sterilization), gained broad acceptance in a range of professions. Some tenets were even inscribed into the constitutions of 1934 and 1937, where eugenic language helped articulate the precepts of marriage and immigration. Although the efforts targeted primarily Black, Native, and mixed-race populations, whites were not exempt. As historian Jerry Dávila writes, “Something as simple and as intimate as eating, brushing one’s teeth, or washing one’s hands—activities repeated over and again in the private space of homes—became the subject of public policies developed to stem the nation’s racial degeneracy and save Brazil.”

To these eugenicists, the tooth contained a vast imagined threat to the nation—and as some outside Brazil argued, to the entire human species. That something hard and white could turn frail and black triggered racialized moral panics about living conditions, nutrition, and child-rearing practices. While there was no quick fix for those thorny issues, improved dental hygiene was at least within reach. Toothpastes soon captured the imaginations of Brazilian consumers; by the early 1920s, some 80 kinds were for sale in Rio alone. And so, predictably, it became the job of advertisements to help distinguish between them. Instead of differentiating, however, toothpaste promotions converged on the image of the female smile, silent and yet as irresistible, supposedly, as a siren’s call.

In October of 1933, the modernist arts and culture magazine base reproduced an image of a smile to extinguish all smiles in a special issue dedicated to the advertising work of the group Pro Arté, to which Reyersbach belonged. It was the work of another immigrant artist, Americo Rosenberg, a poster for the toothpaste brand Odol, world-famous thanks to savvy branding (in 1902, its original German manufacturer, Karl August Lingner, convinced Giacomo Puccini to compose an actual “ode for Odol”). In the poster, the Bauhaus-y universal-typeface lettering of “odol” forms a nose and a pair of eyes. Underneath, a red-stained mouth blooms into a pearlescent smile. Conspicuously absent, or perhaps metonymically sublated—no box, no tube, no smear—is the product itself. This sort of insidious international imagery would soon roil mass-culture critics. It embodied the cardinal sin of all advertising, Theodor W. Adorno grumbled, by reifying people—making them “resemble things even where their teeth do not represent toothpaste and their careworn wrinkles do not evoke cosmetics.”

In the war of toothpaste advertising, Eucalol had an edge against the imported tyranny of what Adorno called “billboard smile of a toothpaste beauty”—that is, against radiant Colgate women and dully misogynistic Kolynos men (one dissuaded the other from asking a girl out: “I don’t think you’d like it. She has stained teeth”). It claimed to fabricate “genuinely national” products with a home-grown ingredient, eucalyptus. By the 1930s, the company’s ads read and looked like pages from a school civics textbook: exceedingly patriotic, segmented into frames for short comic-strip attention spans, garnished with the country’s map, and notably sparing with smile displays. It is possible that the three Stern brothers, the Jewish immigrants who owned Parfumeria Myrta S.A., resorted to this nationalistic display to preemptively protect themselves and the company from allegations of disloyalty. Brazil, in contrast to some other South American countries, generally accommodated Jews once they were within its borders, but trumped-up fears of the imaginary Jewish outsiders hampered their entry and made few feel welcome.

Reyersbach’s booklet likewise eschews the clichéd smile imagery. On the cover, a solemn Zézinho stands arms akimbo—a fitting overture to the cautionary tale within, which thematizes not the blinding brilliance of teeth but its terrible opposite, toothlessness. The anteaters add some recognizably Brazilian flair in the same way as Myrta S.A.’s maps and slogans did. So does the varied greenery drawn to match the toothpaste’s disconcerting green hue.

Wealthy white plant collectors first introduced eucalyptus to Brazil in the 1820s as a curiosity. Soon, however, the tree would be hailed as a rejuvenating and antiseptic wonder drug and an adaptable, fast-growing, endlessly renewable, relatively long-lived wonder wood—a cheap salve against the many plagues that colonialism had unleashed. The first obvious use was in cosmetics, the second, in reforesting the landscapes defoliated by gold and iron ore mining, the third, in fuel for industrializing the coal- and petroleum-poor country, and the fourth, in pulp for paper and fiberboard products that Brazil continues to export in vast quantities to this day. Eucalyptus was the economy’s bedrock and a link that kept Reyersbach and his trader brother-in-law connected even after their professional paths had diverged. At the same time, eucalyptus plantations dispossessed Tupiniqim, Guarani, and other Native peoples, whom corporations drove off ancestral lands. They contributed to the so-called “green deserts.Eucalyptus does not feed most animals, and it competes for moisture and nutrients with other plants; being alleopathic, it also secrets substances toxic to many plants. The verdant clearing on the cover of Reyersbach’s booklet, in other words, captured an ecosystem that eucalyptus was destroying rather than sustaining.

Nor, for that matter, did Reyersbach’s anteaters appear particularly Brazilian. The local lore paints them as formidable: some believe that they battle large snakes, jaguars, and maned wolves, others, that they can suffocate people with their snouts or generally cause bad luck. Yet the tale of Zézinho strips the animals of their supernatural powers to turn them into tame company mascots. Zézinho’s reversible transformation from human to animal, the crux of the story, conceals the anteaters’ irreversible transformation into links in the capitalist ecosystem.

* * *

Having escaped the sink and entered the forest, Zézinho runs into an anteater “friend” (original quotation marks) who greets him in Portuguese. “You shall be a little anteater (tamanduázinho); your torment is over now,” the anteater explains. “Like you, my friend, we don’t have clean teeth, and for a reason, I tell you: we are…toothless.” Not to waste the suspenseful ellipsis, a candle (i.e., a group) of anteaters silently advances toward the trembling Zézinho. On the next page, the boy slowly transforms into one of the animals—or perhaps, into all of them, since they vanish without a trace. What if they too had once been little white boys with perfectly coiffed mothers? What if none of them was a true anteater? What if Zézinho’s story is not simply one of “going Native” for lack of dental hygiene but a metaphor for settler colonialism, which arrives to replace one population with another? Animals with humans, Indigenous people with white Europeans? As if to prove the point, the last page lets an anteater reappear, but only to endorse various Eucalol products that would, presumably, let him recover his lost human form.

The mascot-like assimilation of the creatures then known as Edentata is not particular to Historia do menino que verou tamandua. It resurfaces in the depictions of armadillos that Reyersbach completed for Dr. Blem, an insecticide company in Rio, in late 1935. Except here, the armadillo, Tatú, is already an official company mascot, and all that Reyersbach must do is inscribe the character into an original series of comic strips. Teeth play into these stories only indirectly: the toothless Tatú’s anatomical properties and his insect diet are requisitioned for settler-colonial agriculture.

In all three extant series, the animal appears as the closest associate of Dr. Blem, the baby-faced pest control gentleman. In one, Tatú is a curious Amazon explorer who tumbles into the river while watching Native people fish with the toxic timbo plant. Tatú not only survives the incident but also emerges parasite-free. Overjoyed, he packs for a laboratory in Britain, where he can synthesize a miracle cure by transforming stolen Native knowledge into imperial chemistry’s monetizable intellectual property. In the second series, Tatú and Dr. Blem volunteer for combat against ants. They ambush the insects with tanks (in Reyersbach’s native German, Panzer means both tank and armor, a play on the armadillo’s shell), airplanes, and ungodly amounts of Cometa Tatú poison dropped down from the sky. The violent results look like a hair-raising flashback to what may have been Reyersbach’s personal memories of World War I. In the third series, Tatú multi-tasks as a butler, a peace accords broker, and a military commander who refuses to surrender the defenseless plant kingdom to the treacherous Formicidae and thus averts a second Sudetenland. Like eucalyptus, the insecticide is a decidedly mixed blessing. And Edentata, a decidedly mixed metaphor for the supposed essence of Brazil, so volatile that it can be manipulated to emit little but whiteness and westernness.

* * *

The anteater, the armadillo: did Hans spot them in the wild on his trips into the country’s interior? Did he sketch them as they were rather than as he fantasized them to be, as he seems to have done with other Brazilian animals—agouti, paca, or cayenne spiny rat? No evidence of that survives. Perhaps there was not enough time. Or not enough will. It was January 1936, anyhow, the year of the Berlin Olympics. Like Tatú, the Portuguese-speaking armadillo, Hans and Margret were readying for their voyage, first to Britain, then Germany, then, after ten months in Hamburg under the Nazis, to France. The illustrated animal-story advertisements may have been their version of the wonder drug with which to synthesize their future career.

The question of where animals come from would stay with them on that trip, although its function would change considerably. In one of Reyersbach’s first internationally published stories (probably designed with some input from Margret, although the extent of her participation remains unclear), the wordless comic strip Zebrology (1937), zebras descend from the frolics of white and black horses. In another, How the Flying Fishes Came into Being (1938), flying fish spring up from the non-flying fish’s dalliances with birds. Equal parts child’s play, adult sex, and genetics, the origin of species is pliable clay in the artist’s hands. The topic was no less racialized than it had been in Brazil. But the Nazi context made Reyersbach and his near and dear into targets of racialization, jolting him into an awareness that he had lacked or, perhaps, suppressed while trying to live up to the Brazilian ideal of whiteness in Rio.

In Germany, the hybrid delights of Reyersbach’s drawings also touched a political nerve: crossbreeding had long rankled racial purity zealots. Not even Carl Hagenbeck, Jr., the notorious colonial animal trade magnate and mastermind of the world’s first modern zoo, had escaped their censure when he had attempted to crossbreed the domestic cows with the foreign zebus for the benefit of the ostensibly milk-starved colonists in Togo, Cameroon, and German East Africa. That was in the 1910s. Picture the Jewish Reyersbach’s zebras and flying fishes in Nazi Germany of the late 1930s—scandalous! impossible! And yet, the impossible happened when two “Aryanized” periodicals reproduced both comic strips in 1938, then again in 1939, praising the artist’s “ingenuity and skill,” his command of the modish animated cartoon style, his Brazilian flair. Reyersbach was indeed Brazilian, according to his passport. But he drew the comics in Paris, where he and Margret had moved in early 1937 after ten months of watching their Hamburg relatives wither under the racist Nuremberg Laws, which banned intermarriage and any sexual relations between Jews and Germans. Reyersbach’s Aesopian endorsements of miscegenation were a cry of dissent that he had failed to summon in Brazil.

The popular version of Margret and H. A. Rey’s life story leaves little room for grasping the significance of this early work. Here is the gist of their cinematic biography as we know it: it is mid-June 1940, and the Nazis are closing in on Paris, with barely a day and a half left until the city falls. The Reys, two Jews from Hamburg, must flee. This was not their plan: three years earlier, they had arrived from Rio on a honeymoon and were hoping to stay indefinitely. Now, in the nick of time, he must scour the shops for bicycles, a reliable (and scarce) means of transportation. At home—in a hotel near Montmartre—she must hurriedly stuff the still-unpublished manuscript of what would become Curious George into a suitcase, along with a few other possessions. At dawn, they will join the crowds on a massive exodus southward. If lucky, they will press on to Spain, to Portugal, then overseas—back to Brazil. A vivid yet poignantly familiar refugee story, like many others, told and untold.

Though the Reys were indeed refugees of sorts, the refugee label—despite or possibly because of its status as a powerful shorthand for a complex human experience—has flattened their step-migration into a neat line from A to B. It has absolved them or, alternatively, deprived them of their more remote burdens, memories, responsibilities, doubts, joys. It has come to dominate how their life story gets told, obscuring much of their prehistory. But Hans Augusto Reyersbach, the unwitting agent of colonial empire, and H. A. Rey, the artist escapee from Nazi imperialism, were the same person. As were many other Jewish artists, especially commercial artists, who fled antisemitism and Nazism to see and picture new lands through settler eyes. The complexity of their creative legacies belongs in our retellings of their life stories because it makes these stories more credible, less riddled with taboos, more fully human in all the messiness that being human can entail.

1 Many Edentata have since been reclassified Xenarthra based not on their feeding structures but on the shared characteristics of their joints.