maandag 6 december 2010

Sobering view on Amazonian mythology

Alan Tormaid Campbell's 'Getting to Know Waiwai' (1995), about fieldwork with the numerically small Wayapi, is a wonderful account of an Amazonian tribe and the ordeal of living with them from a Western, no Scottish, point of view. It is refreshingly free of any attempt to generalize, sympathetic to the Indians as they are (and in no way in need of improvement), humanistic in its intellectual approach (many quotes from poetry), almost, sometimes,with anarcho-primitivist undertones. In the end the book runs out of steam with too much general stuff on the position of the Indian in Brazilian society where I would have preferred to read more actual ethnography. But there are lots of novel thoughts and observations here. When speaking on Amazonian narratives and mythology Tormaid Campbell answers a lot of questions:   
There was once an influential dogma in anthropology that stated that myths had their counterpart in rituals and rituals had their counterpart in myth. The images in this case would be taken as an example of that thesis. But putting it in that way makes it all far too systematic, as if in some way if we were all to dance the Jupará we’d be thinking about butterflies and propitiating the forces of nature in order that the sky didn't fall again. It’s just not like that. The connections aren’t systematic, in the sense of a logical rationale of connections presented as a kind of theology. They don’t form architectonic structures. The fragments are fragmentary, aleatory, gloriously random.
But that doesn't mean that they are fragile. The exuberance of the connections makes for an endless tangle of associations. Again, calling it a ‘network’ of associations would give it an inappropriate tinge of order. The details tumble around one another. The myth and ritual associations in this example is just one strand, one liana, in the convolvulus tangles.   
The narratives *are* confusing. They do seem like a jumble of bits and pieces. Fragments appear in one myth and crop up in another. One person would tell the myth in one way; another person in the same settlement would have a different story line. But, like imagism, or surrealism, or any of the isms that have been part of the century I live in, getting used to the idiom is the simplest remedy to our initial confusion. Just be open to it, relax into it, become familiar with the idiom and so many of the problems disappear. When you come to hear your fiftieth myth the frown of puzzlement has vanished from your brow.
The narratives may be fragmented and straggly, twisting around in forms unfamiliar to us, but the redeeming quality that allows us to connect up is the oldest trick in the narrative book: what happened next? Once we get used to the narrative lines, the bizarre becomes the expected; or rather, nothing is too bizarre. Anything can happen. Hearing the gasps of delight from the listeners confirms that the more bizarre the turn of plot the more it is enjoyed. These are their winter’s tales, which are not supposed to be credible, consistent or concise.
While getting to the stage where you can enjoy the bizarre narrative lines, you’ll have learned one important lesson on the way: that the initial bafflement is not due to the particular version you've confronted being corrupted or partial version of a more perfect, complete, rational, logically coherent narrative that lurks somewhere in a missionaries travelogue of two centuries ago. That’s the last hope of the baffled mythographer. There’s no easy salvation somewhere back there when Amerindians were more logical, rational, and architectonic in the way they constructed their storylines. You’ve got to accept the narratives as they are, in all their crazy, fragmented incoherence. It was ever thus.
There certainly are common themes that come up again and again all over Amazonia, although it is perhaps more appropriate to catalogue them as fragments rather than themes; fragments that are shuffled around into different patterns like a kaleidoscope. ‘Getting fire from the Jaguar’, for example, is a common story, but sometimes, even, fire is taken from another creature.
However extensive our catalogue, I think it is unlikely that we’d ever exhaust the possible variations constructed from those variations constructed from those fragments. The variations and transformations just go on and on. Those with a purist itch will keep looking for some kind of complete, definitive version, but that search is a blatant result of literacy, where the most complete text is the version that has the greatest authority. In the woods, there are no texts, just people’s memory.
The second difficulty is the most obvious one and is the one most often overlooked: not the inner difficulty but the outer difficulty of content. It’s simply that since the myths are a reckless cornucopia of images taken from those particular natural surroundings, how can we hope to slip into a shared familiarity with those who have lived their entire lives in the forest and whose intimacy with it is so complete? They can let their imaginations run along with the details. When the story mentions a particular bird of a specific liana they knows exactly what’s being referred to: how the bird behaves, how the liana hangs, what tree it hangs from, and what they used it for last time. We can’t share the immediacy of the plants and animals, the shapes and the sounds, the clues about what’s dangerous, what’s noisy, what’s stealthy, about what’s likely to happen in a specific situation; or rather, to approach such an immediacy requires an enormous effort on our part. Hence, besides being baffled by the bizarre story line, we are hindered by our patchy and superficial knowledge of the great woods.

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