NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le rire et les songes" , a novel by Elenore SMITH BOWEN
Paris: Arthaud, 1957. (288p.).
Traduit de l'anglais par Josette Hesse. Titre original: "Return to Laughter".
Ce compte rendu n'est disponible qu'en anglais
As she left for Africa on field work in the late 1940s, American anthropologist Laura Bohannan was confident in her ability to settle nicely among the Tiv people of Nigeria, to learn their language and to unravel the mystery of their customs and social interactions. Her self-assurance, however, had all but disappeared when she left Africa some months later. "The sea change in one's self that comes from immersion in another alien world" (p.5) had taught her as much about her hosts as it had about herself, her prejudices, principles and "convenient moral maxims" (p.250). The work she produced in the years that followed highlights this dual awakening.
As an anthropologist, Bohannan published The Tiv of Central Nigeria (1953) with husband Paul and built her career on her early field work . Her keen interest in Tiv society, as well as her proficiency in participant observation methodology and ethnographic data collection, helped her to untangle intricate family ties, rites, power structures and means of conflict resolution. Thus, like Elenore Smith Bowen, the narrator of Bohannan's novel Return to laughter, she could be proud of her professional achievements, claiming with good reason: "I ha[ve] served anthropology well. Notebook upon notebook, good stuff, and accurate, and I had the knowledge to work it soundly so that I may stand, with a craftsman's pride, before the finished work and say, 'this is mine'" (p.249).
In the manner of her mimesis Smith Bowen, Bohannan had left for Africa well prepared, sought logistic support from the colonial administration, and secured the good-will of the local Chief with the help of the local administrator. Leaving nothing to chance, she had begun her journey aboard a "three-ton truck loaded with wooden boxes packed as half-hundredweight head-loads, canvas parcels of bed, bath and tent, my three new servants whom I'd already learned to call "boy", she said, three kerosene tins destined to become a stove, and the fifteen carriers who were to take me from the road to the rest-house near Chief Kako's homestead" (p.7).
Bohannan arrived with her entourage, but did not speak a word of Tiv. Her presence had been imposed on the elders by the British colonial administration and the purpose of her visit had not been made clear to the local population beyond the fact that a sojourner was to come to learn their language and their way of life. Such a person could not blend with the local community in a non-intrusive manner: and she did not. Even less so, as the operational word of the venture was "observation" rather then participation, thus the narrator being often reluctant to engage fully in village activities on the terms set forth by her hosts. As one of the local women tells her: "You are a woman of importance, but you know nothing" (p.46).
The knowledge people are trying to impart to her is often not of the kind she wants to learn: instead of being instructed in the art of weeding fields under a blazing sun, greeting people properly and paying attention to a pervading gift exchange system that was, she says, "such a nuisance" (p.47), the anthropologist in her wants people to cut to the chase and divulge, without further ado, all the secrets of ceremonial activities, kinship, marriage and sorcery.
"I should have been content, and I was as long as I thought only in terms of enjoying myself and feeling at home", she says. "My dissatisfaction lay wholly in the part I was assigned. I was rapidly being absorbed into the life of the women and children. All the magic, all the law, all the politics over half the things professionally important to me were in the hands of men, and so far not one man had been willing to discuss such matters with me; not one man had taken me with him to the meetings of the elders which, I knew, often took place [...]. I had been identified with the women: unless I could break that association, I would leave the field with copious information on domestic details and without any knowledge of anything else" (p.73).
Breaking gender divides in the late 1940s would have been hard work anywhere, and transgressing gender impositions in Tiv society was no exception. Yet, the leverage of the narrator's powerful patron who did not lend much credence to African secret knowledge and local elders' fear of retribution if they did not comply with her demands were good enough reasons to let her encroach on "secrete men's business". Ethnographers' determination to get what they wanted in the name of science and ethnography's greater good, no matter what, was widespread at the time. Smith Bowen's quest, like that of many others, was thus tainted by colonial ideologies even if she did not come even close to the evil behaviour of people like Marcel Griaule and his team-mate Michel Leiris. As the latter wrote in his diary, they raided African sacred sites from Dakar to Djibouti in 1931, threatening village chiefs and elders to have them arrested by police if they did not agree to part with the coveted secret objets, or simply stealing art-work and sacred artefacts in the dead of night .
Both, at its best and its nastiest, mid 20th century ethnography did not escape the lure of both colonial rhetoric and scientific truth. What makes Smith Bowen's novel interesting however, is the fact that while the bulk of her novel is a rather ordinary ethnographic account of Tiv's social life, organisation, beliefs and family relationships, its main purpose indirectly acknowledged by the use of a pseudonym by the author is to expose the limits of ethnography and the dilemma facing a well meaning and well trained individual engaged in participant observation. It took some years for Leiris to realise the vacuity of his encounter with Africa as an "ethnographic detective" avid for exoticism, longing for life-changing encounters and stealing artefacts Thus his comment in the 1951 re-edition of L'Afrique fantôme: "Human Sciences remain a science, and detached observation cannot, on its own, establish contact. Perhaps by definition, it implies exactly the opposite, because the mental attitude suited to the observer should be an impartial objectivity alien to any effusion of sentiment" .
Unlike Leiris who was constantly on the move and had next to no meaningful encounters with the inhabitants of the regions he was crossing, Smith Bowen's relatively long stay among the Tiv, and her ability to understand people without an interpreter, soon discovered her inability to be, at the same time, an impartial observer of society and a genuine participant in everyday life, an objective judge and a compassionate friend, a good anthropologist, and a well integrated member in the community.
Breaking elders' reluctance and coercing them to let a woman poke her nose into their concerns did not bother her much, though. Nor playing the ego of the elders against one another in order to fill in her notebooks when "neither Kako nor Yabo was, by himself, willing to tell any European anything" (p.77). Both men agreed that a woman, and even more-so a foreigner, had no part in men's business, but, when Yabo eventually asked her to join him in a palaver in order to get the upper-hand over his rival Kako, the latter and the other elders had to follow suit and started to invite her to significant social gatherings. Thus, her saying: "Not for any merit of mine, but because of the relationship between Kako and Yabo, my work flourished like the green bay tree". (p.77).
As she understands better the language and the customs of her hosts, she also begins to make friendships among women informants, enjoying their company and discovering that human emotions are very similar everywhere (p.129). The agony and eventual demise of her close friend Amara in childbirth crushes her certainties; and the double whammy of professional duties and idiosyncratic personal values hits her hard. Like many of her compatriots, the narrator believes in Destiny: God's infinite power and Western medicine's ability to save life, while Amara's family believes in sorcery, retribution and the power of reconciliation to heal wounds. Her professional duty demands from her a non-intrusive and pernickety recording of Amara's passing, but how can one remain cool and dispassionate when the dying woman is a dear friend? She cannot think of Amara as a case history, nor can she "stand aloof, observing the course of events" (p.163).
To make matters even worse, Amara's family turns down her offer to seek help from a White doctor, thus leaving her devastated, bitter and powerless. The lack of empathy called for by methodological imperatives, the incapacitating belief of the elders in sorcery and her inability to act when it mattered most are too much for her to shoulder. Thus her retreat to a world of her own where she strives to keep emotional involvement at bay, and cling desperately to some kind of detached professionalism as a lifeline. Assuredly, this self-imposed discipline allows her to complete her "mission" but, at the same time, it destroys her confidence in who she is, and what she does. Thus her candid comment as she flees the village ahead of an outbreak of smallpox: "Many of my moral dilemmas had sprung from the very nature of my work, which had made me a trickster: one who seems to be what she is not and who professes faith in what she does not believe" (p.250).
The novel does not end on this stinging personal failure, though. Such a conclusion would have left a bitter taste on readers' lips: but the last few pages are far more uplifting. When the narrator returns to the village after the epidemic, she is a different person altogether, one ready to accept that she cannot be everything to everyone, that she has to make difficult choices and live with them, that some values inherited from her antecedents were not a matter of convenience, and she would never be able to shed them without feeling ashamed of herself. The anthropologist she was could understand both scientific wisdom and the function of a society's dos and don'ts, but in the final analysis, she had to act according to her conscience. That, and only that would provide the measure of her success, not only in the eyes of her hosts but also in her own eyes. "To live one must be of the world, not merely in it" (p.197), she says. One has to be a genuine participant rather then a dispassionate observer, someone who see others with their heart and seeks wisdom in the legendary Rablelaisian laugher that vanquishes one's fears and spurs everyone on to see the world anew.
Upon reading the last page of the Smith Bowen's novel: "I stood for a while, looking after them. They knew how to live at close quarters with tragedy, how to live with their own failure and yet laugh", readers cannot but think of Bakthine's famous piece on Rabelais in which he wrote: "Medieval laughter is not a subjective, individual and biological consciousness of the uninterrupted flow of time. It is the social consciousness of all the people. Man experiences this flow of time in the festive marketplace, in the carnival crowd, as he comes into contact with other bodies of varying age and social caste. He is aware of being a member of a continually growing and renewed people. This is why festive-folk-laughter presents an element of victory, not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts. Medieval laughter, when it triumphed over fear inspired by the mystery of the world and by power, boldly unveiled the truth about both. It resisted praise, flattery, hypocrisy" . Little change would be needed to make these lines relevant to Tiv society: replacing the carnival crowd on a festive market-place by people of all ages assembled to hear stories under the stars would be sufficient.
People have built their future on shifting sand from the dawn of time, and yet they managed to find the courage to build what they knew would fall. (p.255). If there is a lesson to be learned from Return to laughter, it is that mind has power over matter. This is well summarised in the narrator's last words: "They know how to live at close quarters with tragedy, how to live with their own failures and yet laugh. [...] Such laughter has little concern with what is funny [...] It is the laughter of people who value love and friendship and plenty, but who have lived with terror and death and hate" (p.255).
A novel very much worth reading.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities
Created: 26 May 2015