«1 Introduction Ivo Strecker & Markus Verne Wonder and astonishment lie at the heart of scholarship, as René Descartes noted in The Passions of the ...»
Chapter VI, The spell of riddles among the Witoto, by Jürg Gasché can be understood not only as an exploration of the spellbinding power of “fantastic” cultural inventions, but also as a kind of homage to the imaginative genius of the Witoto who live in a world full of natural diversity, and not yet completely transformed by literacy and industrialization. Their “otherness” still meets us in full force, and their ethnography generates a host of surprises.
The riddle songs and their translation and explanation, which are the subject of the essay, lead us to the mountains, valleys and waters of the northern tributaries of the upper Amazon River, abounding with flora and fauna. This natural reservoir has imprinted itself on the Witoto and provides material for their analogical modes of thinking and figurative forms of expression that fire their riddle songs.
The composition of the chapter is itself reminiscent of a riddle in that the reader is drawn into puzzling about questions, the answers to which are provided only at the end. The Witoto and their neighbors do not cultivate the asking and answering of riddles, as we do among family and friends, in order to entertain each other. Nor do they engage in it solely to feel the thrills of astonishment and evocation. Rather, the posing of riddles is meant to challenge the mental alertness of a festival owner and is used for momentary social prestige in a competitive and egalitarian society. It gives rise to “provocations, attacks, complaints, criticism and mockery, but also to tributes and praise, to joy, laughter and courtship.” Of particular interest is that the guest who poses his riddle to a festival owner also throws a spell over him. He sings a song that “conjures up bad luck, wishing that the heart or mind of the festival owner will not surmount the difficulties and will be left confused.” In other words, the posers of riddles try to block the paths that may lead to the right evocations.
They aim at creating stupor, the negative effect of astonishment that Descartes has stressed, and we mentioned at the beginning of this introduction. Part of the mix of pleasure and pain involved in posing and answering riddles among the Witoto is that the singer of a riddle will also provide keys to the kinds of association that nudge his host into finding the answer.
After an outline of the general context, four riddle songs are presented, translated and explained by referring to gradually widening contexts and ever more complex details. In fact, at times the chapter becomes such an intricate net of details that these features assume a metaphorical dimension. The attention to seemingly far-fetched relations as well as to the minutest details seems to mirror the art of formulating and answering riddles, for riddles constitute a game of disguise and revelation in which the most improbable relationship as well as the smallest detail may be decisive.
Gasché’s masterly ethnography shows how rhetorical figures such as metonymy, synecdoche and metaphor abound in Witoto riddle songs, which derive their mystery and drama to a large extent from a “humanizing” of the natural world or, seen the other way round, from a “naturalizing” of human thought.
Chapter VII, The sound of the past. Music, history, and astonishment, by Markus Verne traces situations in which musicians, historians, and anthropologists were astonished by the presence of an unexpected past that was evoked in them through aesthetic experience.
This past dates back to the times before Arab sailors became the masters of the Indian Ocean and tells the story of a considerable Indonesian influence not just all over the Indian Ocean, but also in large parts of Africa, up to its Westernmost regions. Neither part of official records, nor of local traditions, this past is however still experienced by some, lying dormant in language, material culture, ritual practice and—most of all—in music.
The chapter begins with Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo, lead singer and head of the Malagasy music group Tarika, telling a story about being touched by the discovery of her own cultural traditions in Indonesian food, appearance, language, and music. This experience made her explore her country’s Indonesian roots more deeply, and eventually led to the production of an album entitled “Soul Makassar,” in which she sonically re-establishes the musical bond between Africa and Indonesia.
The author then switches from artistic to scientific explorations and tells about scholars who, like Hanitra, were struck by the unthought-of presence of a past relating Africa to Indonesia. These scholars all witnessed musical performances in which they were able to “hear” this unknown history. As a result, they tried to make sense of their aesthetic experiences through historical research on instruments, scales, songs, tunings, and playing techniques. These studies continued throughout the Twentieth Century and led to quite similar reconstructions, even though the various approaches differed considerably from each other.
Independently, von Hornbostel, Jones, Lomax and others revealed a striking Indonesian influence on African music, as well as on aspects of material culture.
Why then, Verne asks by way of conclusion, has this historical relation, suggested time and again by some of the most renown scholars of ethnomusicology, not become part of our collective memory, if only as a possibility? Has this perhaps to do with the fact that the meanings of musical performance are to a large extent elusive? Has it to do with the nature of aesthetic experience?
Chapter VIII, Reflections on our entangled emotions and their disambiguation, by James Fernandez seems at first puzzling. Why does Fernandez not aim at elucidating questions of “interpretation” but of “disambiguation” in a volume concerned with the “spell of culture,” and why does he call disambiguation a very “Tylerian” problem while Tyler himself rejects the formalism typically associated with WSD (word sense disambiguation), a favorite child of computer linguistics and artificial intelligence?
The answer involves several twists: (1) Fernandez wants to move away from “interpretation” because the term evokes battling with the hermeneutical quandaries of written texts rather than live performance. Also, it puts, as he says, too much emphasis on the interpreter rather than the producer of meaning. (2) He proposes the use of disambiguation as a concept to address the “ever-present ambiguity of the human condition.” Mental and emotional uncertainty about the meanings of their ambiguous experiences may pose very real problems for people who therefore try to disambiguate them. (3) Fernandez also realizes that such disambiguation needs some “figuring out” and is largely done by means of tropes. Yet, rhetorical figures are themselves ambiguous and may lead to quite varied kinds of evocation.
In his previous publications, Fernandez has explained metaphor as a tool to overcome a ”gnawing sense of uncertainty” or “the inchoate.” Inchoateness is part of human experience, but “however inchoate our condition, we are bound to try and transcend it” (1986: xiii). Thus we use metaphor and other tropes to make the effable more concrete, more easily graspable.
Emotions are by their very nature in need of such figurative representation.
Simultaneously, they are molded by the figures that help to express them. All tropes have their own mood, feeling and emotional charge, which people use in their performances as means for inward and outward persuasion. Rituals, Fernandez has argued in his ethnographical and theoretical work, are a case in point, and their performance can be analyzed as “a series of organizing images or metaphors put into operation by a series of superordinate and subordinate ceremonial scenes.” (1986: 43).
Seen in this light, Fernandez’ chapter can be read as thoughts about “figuring out” what particular forms of emotion may mean, as well as their artful employment in performance. The shedding of tears can be partly explained ethologically as a “function of the extended infancy and childhood of humans.” Also, the woes of human existence are such that “even adults do not escape the power of tears.” However, in terms of performance, weeping is more interesting when it has a “pronounced social rather than personal need function.” Fernandez reflects on his earlier ethnography of religious movements among the Bwiti and examines weeping as part of their “imaginative arguments and ritual actions” intent on creating emotional movement.
Chapter IX, Stones, drumbeats, footprints and mysteries in the writing of the Other, by Dennis Tedlock provides an extreme case of ethnographic investigation introducing us to the ironies and agonies of cross-cultural interlocution and the ever-present possibility of misunderstanding. It begins with the puzzles of Mayan epigraphy. For some time now, epigraphers have realized that “phoneticism plays a major role in the Maya script” and have treated Maya texts “as if they were the products of a code that could be cracked by discovering the laws that governed it.” Important as this discovery may have been, it has also “silenced the strands of Maya poetics that produce metaphors and, on a subtler level, sound plays that are more than just keys to rebus readings.” Tedlock laments this “objectifying discourse” and says that in order to save the evocative dimensions of Maya epigraphs, one would have to shift one’s position “from that of a code-cracker to that of a hypothetical Maya reader,” a shift, which would require a dialogical mode of research that has sadly been missing in Mayan studies during the past. Or rather, it existed but in an alienated, even perverted form.
Maya ethnography goes back to the writings of Fray Francisco de Landa, a catholic missionary who arrived in Yucatán in 1549. Like many others, he excluded the dialogues with native interlocutors in his ethnography and wrote “in the voice of an omniscient observer … leaving native terms as the last traces of the voices of the others.” Tedlock relates horrifying details of how Landa, the missionary and ethnographer, brought the inquisition to the Maya and “submitted them to questioning under torture.” From here on, the chapter becomes a parable about the dark potential of ethnographic investigation: The relationship between ethnographer and informant may at times be like the “intimate relationship between torturer and victim,” which allows that the “interrogator asks leading questions that contain clues to his fantasies, while the witness tries to imagine answers that will fulfill and even exceed those fantasies.” Something similar may happen when more benign ethnographers pose questions that have no relevance for the cultural “Other.” Tedlock argues that “the supreme irony of Landa’s suppression of dialogue is that epigraphers were able to make sense of his account of Maya writing only by putting his examples of hieroglyphic spellings back into the context of an interview. They started from the answers he wrote down and then reconstructed the questions he must have asked in order to get them.” But how should we picture Landa framing his questions, and how did his Maya informant, Nachi Cocom, respond to them? As we are led to imagine in our mind’s eye (and ear) how Landa interrogated Cocom, and how the latter struggled to answer questions that in his mind were senseless, even idiotic, Tedlock’s account assumes a weird character reminiscent of some of Samuel Becket’s plays. In the end one wonders how it would be if the drama (tragedy or comedy?) of Landa and Cocom facing and misunderstanding each other, were to be re-enacted on stage, in film or radio.
Chapter X, The translation of the said and the unsaid in Sikkanese ritual texts, by Douglas Lewis continues the theme of “mysteries in the writings of the Other.” However, Lewis is not concerned with problems of misunderstanding but with perplexing states of nonunderstanding. Also, not the cultural “Other” gets tortured in his account, but the ethnographer who engages in some kind of self-torture trying and failing forever to achieve a satisfying translation of particular kinds of text.
Lewis begins by telling how his fieldwork in the Regency of Sikka of the island of Flores involved astonishing moments of which the most exciting was the discovery of a “large cache of old papers” that contained the writings of Dominicus Dionitius Pareira Kondi and Alexius Boer Pareira, who as lay historians had recorded the history and myths of their the people. The preservation, correction, interpretation and translation of these texts occupied Lewis for more than a dozen years and eventually led to the publishing of two books. Looking back on the work that he has completed, Lewis says: “Had I known when I began how difficult the translation … would be … I am not certain I would have persisted with what has become, to my mind, a task impossible to acquit fully.” Why was the translation so difficult? Because it involved not only the said, but also what Stephen Tyler has called the “aureola of the unsaid.” Making full use of Stephen Tyler’s The Said and the Unsaid and also George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Lewis weaves his own and other scholars’ thoughts together in order to explain why it is wrong to assume that all meaningful texts can be translated satisfactorily.
Translation must in many cases remain an unfulfilled promise, an opening-up, an invitation— an inducement to evocation. This holds particularly true for utterances, which are intentionally cryptic like those found in Sikka ritual language.