The Cocovore’s Fallacy. How a German Escapist’s Coconut Utopia Went to Hell in a Handbasket.

by Owen James Burke

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“Man, how noble in reason…” – Hamlet. Photo courtesy of Christian Kracht, author of Imperium.

Did you ever read the book The Beach? The story of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century German nudist and ideologist August Engelhardt reads like a heinously nightmarish, psilocybin-riddled version of Alex Garland’s novel.

In the late 19th century, in the wake of the popularly published works of Darwin and Thoreau, many German youths were looking to get back into nature, a movement known as Lebensreform (Life Reform).

Some actually did. Unfortunately, in 1902, Alex Garland’s prophecy was not yet at the disposal of the young Engelhardt, a nudist and proponent of Lebensreform left Europe for the South Pacific island of Kabakon (now Papua New Guinea) with a library of books and an even more simplified idealogical approach: He was going to live on nothing but coconuts.

Engelhardt’s theory was that coconuts–how god-like they sit atop their skyward perch, how infinite in faculty–were a magical substance of divine provenance bearing all the sustenance a man needs; and if apes live on raw fruit, why shouldn’t we?

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August Engelhardt stands underneath a palm tree with Berlin concert pianist Max Lützow at his feet. Lützow went to Kabakon to join Engelhardt’s sun-worshipping cocovore cult, The Order of the Sun. He died there, as did several other followers. Photo courtesy of Christian Kracht, author of Imperium.

“It’s easy to laugh at Engelhardt — and yet, his fixation on eating a dangerously narrow ‘pure’ and healthy diet has echoes in modern times,” writes NPR. Within a few years, his malnourished, malarial commune had largely abandoned him, and at 66 pounds, he was rheumatic, mentally ill, ulcerated, and, in summation, not doing too hot himself.

During World War I, he was imprisoned by Australian soldiers and later, after returning to Kabakon, found dead on the beach in 1919. Man, as it happens, cannot live on Cocos nucifera alone.

Read more on NPR, and to learn more about Engelhardt’s South Sea misadventure, read Christian Kracht’s 2012 fictionalized account of the story Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas, just recently translated into English.

Also, read a 1905 New York Times article on der kokovore, entitled “Failure of a Womanless Eden in the Pacific—A Strange Story from the South Seas.”

–OJB

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