vrijdag 1 april 2011

Affable savages

It is hard to say what to make of Francis Huxley's 'Affable Savages' (1958), an account of his stay with the Ka'apor (also known as the derogative 'Urubu' that Huxley insists on). The prose style is elegant and modern, the arguments and analysis's (about taboo and myth and about the way the conditions of the jungle precondition native philosophy) are all crisp and well balanced. But Huxley didn't speak the language and relied on a trusted Indian guide and translator who was not a Ka'apor himself. The material was gathered during a second stay with the Ka'apor that lasted for only four months. It is with gusto that Huxley gives an impression of the daily life of two villages but you never feel that he managed to go beyond the surface and it often seems that when he starts explaining the things he is describing Huxley is using textbook anthropological material from elsewhere in the Amazon to extrapolate the story for 'his' tribe. I would not be able to substantiate this feeling with an actual example but there is something untrustworthy about Huxley. Here you can find a later interview with Huxley about his fieldwork that certainly lacks rigour.

The following quotes all deal with the jungle as a psychological agent that decides what peoples the mind. Compare with earlier quotes from Descola, Duguid and Bates, Conrad, Carpentier and Villas Boas.
One remembers the jungle for what's happened there. 


We came to a small natural clearing, where a tree had recently fallen and one could see the sky. I do not like the jungle as a rule, for it makes little appeal to my imagination, and it is so full of trivial detail that, by myself, I usually lose my way. All those trees, all those bushes! A small-minded place I would think to myself, where everything looks so much the same that nothing ever seems to happen. Anything that breaks the monotony of greenness is welcome, and the small clearing, with the fallen trees in its wreckage of branches, was at any rate a landmark for me. I had to admit, however, that the jungle through which Tero lead us afterwards was full of exciting things: the bird-of-paradise flower, with its orange spikes zigzagging up from a long green stem; little orchids attached to low boughs with faintly spotted butterfly-shaped petals; the flowers, magenta, white, red, yellow, that has fallen from a height through the undergrowth and lay in a dim maze of colour on the ground; the new pinky-brown leaves of plantains, and many bromelias, now shooting up in vermilion sprouts.  


I entered the jungle confidently enough, as though I were Bates, Wallace, and Speke all rolled into one; how pleasant, I thought, to be an explorer! I changed my mind as I began to trip over roots and low-hanging lianas, though the feeling came back when we camped that night by a small stream, slung our hammocks between trees and roasted some peccary meat over a fire: it was only later, however, that the jungle began to affect me as I had once imagined it would, with a feeling of things unknown and danger surrounding me. This was when we came across the tracks of nomad Indians called Guajajas, whom the Urubus hate and fear. The Guajajas have no machetes, so that to mark their trail trough the jungle they would catch hold of saplings every ten to twenty yards, give a sharp twist and break them in two, instead of slashing them as Urubus and Brazilians do. Whenever we came upon such signs, often freshly made, our Indians would call a halt, slip off their loads, tighten the strings on their bows and go silently to one side of the trail hoping either to kill a Guajaja man or capture one of their woman. After that the jungle did not seem as empty and inconsiderable as it had before, nor did the idea of receiving an arrow in the back appear far-fetched.

No Indian can be free from this feeling of suspicion when he goes hunting, even if he stays near his village; and the feeling becomes much greater, of course, if he decides to go on a long journey to hunt some rare bird for its feathers, or just for the love of adventure. The jungle isolates, cuts off, closes in; to an outsider like myself it induces a kind of wary short sightedness and a longing for larger views and open spaces. To the Indian whose world it is, the jungle can hardly evoke the same feeling, for he can read its signs and understand its noises; yet to him it has a definitive presence, and he peoples it with ghosts and spirits that embody his apprehension.

1 opmerking:

  1. You might want to hunt down Graham Greene's "Journey Without Maps," if you enjoyed "Green Hell." He was not fond of the jungle, but spent months wandering through it nonetheless.