Tuesday, September 15, 2009

204. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 4 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

Alex Liazos has written a remarkably thorough and painfully honest review of Colin Turnbull's classic, The Forest People, in the light of his careful examination of Turnbull's own field notes. His assessment of both Turnbull and the book can only be described as ambivalent -- or perhaps conflicted would be a better word:
Writing The 1950s Mbuti has been a hard experience for me, but also unavoidable and necessary. I hope that some people who read it are inspired to visit the Avery Research Center and read Turnbull’s field notes and other material themselves, and challenge, debate, and disagree or agree with my conclusions. Those of us who loved The Forest People owe it to ourselves, and to Turnbull, to have a long, spirited, and honest debate on the relationship between the book and the field notes.
In accepting this challenge, I want to state at the outset how much I appreciate and value what Liazos has accomplished. Unlike so many others, he has refrained from the usual revisionist rhetoric, replete with the jargon of academic postmodernism (e.g., stereotyped characterizations such as "essentialized," "reified," "situated," "reductive," etc.), though he is not, perhaps, totally immune to its influence. Nor has he succumbed to the usual revisionist rancor, but has, on the other hand, expressed sincere dismay and regret at what he has unearthed, along with a healthy measure of honest self-doubt. My intention here is not so much to contradict Liazos as make an attempt to honestly assess -- and digest -- the significance of his revelations. To be frank, a significant part of my concern at this point is not with his book per se, but the use to which Liazos' well intentioned probings will be put by those all too eager to bury, completely and forever, both Turnbull and his book, along with the notion, highly disturbing to some, that indigenous peoples like the Pygmies and Bushmen might, as Turnbull argues, represent more than what meets the eye.

The first and most basic thing that needs to be said in Turnbull's defense is: let he who is without guilt cast the first stone. Critical comparisons between polished, heavily edited, published documents and the raw field notes on which they are based are rare, to say the least. It's not really fair to judge Turnbull on this basis until we've had the opportunity to make similar comparisons regarding many another highly acclaimed "classic." And any anthropologist who might wish to use Liazos' book as a club to beat Turnbull over the head with should be expected to make his own field notes public first, if he dare.

The next, and second most basic thing to be said is that The Forest People is what is called in the industry a "trade publication," i.e., a book intended for the general public. Unlike Wayward Servants, the much more extensive and scholarly document published a few years later, based on Turnbull's doctoral dissertation, it is presented, for the most part, as a series of stories intended to hold the attention of the average reader. Why Turnbull chose to present his ideas in this format is an interesting question, but it would be a mistake to expect too close an adherence to the author's field notes in such a work. Not that this justifies outright deceit or the omission of essential information, but I do think we can allow for a certain amount of "poetic license" in a publication of this kind. It's also important to understand that in a book of this nature, the editor is king. The book was edited by Michael Korda, who went on to have a formidable career in publishing and was no doubt a formidable person to work with. We have no way of knowing what Korda's role was, how much rewriting he might have done, or how much of the original manuscript might have been cut by either the editor or the publisher. There is a standard rule of thumb that each publisher has for the length of a trade book, which must be neither too short nor too long, so it stands to reason that cuts would have been made that Turnbull might have had little or no control over. Liazos did in fact contact Korda in an attempt to get access to the original manuscript, but had no success. So this remains an open question.

I will now attempt to address specific discrepancies between the book and the notes that Liazos has found particularly questionable, starting with the most disturbing case, the persecution of the old "witch," Sau. Liazos quotes seven brief references to Sau in the book, which he then balances against a long list of incidents recorded in the field notes, ranging from relatively minor, to disturbing, to heartless and cruel. I'll have to refer you to Liazos's book for the details (see Chapter Four), but in sum, after a suspicious death, Sau, a rather strange and sometimes disruptive "character," is accused of witchcraft, not by her fellow Mbuti but their Bantu "masters," and, after subsequent illnesses and deaths that seem to confirm the verdict in the mind of her fellow pygmies, urged on by the Bantu, who believe she should be killed outright, is brutalized, both verbally and physically (though mostly verbally) and ultimately, after many painful episodes, banished from the group. Turnbull, who claims the Mbuti don't really believe in witchcraft, records each insult in some detail in his notes, but in his book seems disturbingly detached regarding the whole matter, the significance of which he tends, in Liazos's opinion, to minimize. For Liazos, Turnbull has deliberately softened the horror of Sau's ordeal since it contradicts his idealized image of the Mbuti as non-violent. While the story of Sau told in Turnbull's notes is highly disturbing, and I can certainly understand Liazos' indignation, I cannot agree with his assessment of Turnbull's motives.

First, it's important to understand that "the Negroes," i.e., the Bantu villagers (the Bira) were the ones who decided that Sau must be a witch, and urged the Pygmies from the start to do away with her. And while the Pygmies eventually appear to accept their accusation, Turnbull's opinion that witchcraft is not a part of their culture per se must at the very least be taken seriously, though he could of course be wrong.

The list of brief quotes that Liazos offers as evidence of Turnbull's relative indifference to Sau is a bit misleading, as some of the quotes are in fact excerpts from longer passages. The first reference to Sau begins on p. 35 of The Forest People. Here is a longer quote from this passage:
His skinny old mother, Sau, was not without a fame of her own. Old and infirm people, amongst the Pygmies, are regarded, not exactly with suspicion or mistrust, but with apprehension. In a vigorous community of this kind where mobility is essential, cripples and infirm people can be a great handicap and may even endanger the safety of the group. Hence there are numerous legends of old people's being left to die if they cannot keep up with the group as it moves from camp to camp.
Upon reading the above, a moment's reflection will make clear to any thoughtful person that such "legends" must indeed be based on harsh truth, since any group such as the Mbuti, who regularly and rapidly move on foot from place to place, are not in a position to deal with those too old and/or infirm to keep up. So right off the bat, even before he has much to say at all about Sau, he informs us of an even more disturbing fact about the people whose "carefree, happy life" he has been extolling in such extravagant terms. As I'll be pointing out shortly, there are other stories in the book that very clearly demonstrate disturbingly violent behavior on the part of the Mbuti. Though Liazos is correct in accusing Turnbull of neglecting the most disturbing aspects of Sau's story, it's hard to accept the avoidance of violence as his motive, since there is so much violence, either stated or implied, in so many other passages and even entire chapters, as I will discuss below. I think it much more likely that there was only so much room in a "trade publication" for incidents of this kind, and since the long story of Sau's abuse could easily have occupied an entire chapter of the original, it may well have been cut by the editor. What I will say at this point, at the risk of getting ahead of myself, is that The Forest People is in itself a highly ambivalent and self-contradictory document, as a careful reading of the entire text will reveal. As I see it, therefore, many of the contradictions Liazos finds between the book and the field notes can also be found in the book itself. Again, I am getting ahead of myself here, but the point needs to be made.

It's important to realize that a genuinely disturbing, if also somewhat "amusing" account of Sau's persecution does appear in the much fuller and more detailed Wayward Servants, Turnbull's "official" and more scholarly report. Sau's whole sad story is in fact summarized in this book, in a long passage taking up most of the section on "Witchcraft," pp. 234-237. Liazos refers to this passage in his book, but finds it inadequate, as though it were incumbent on Turnbull to recite the entire story more or less as it appears in the field notes. What especially disturbs Liazos is Turnbull's apparent lack of sympathy for Sau, which comes across more to me as ambivalence. He says, for example, that "Sau played her role with zest," and, later, that "she made all the usual protests, and performed the usual trick of stabbing herself with a knife, but holding it carefully so that it just nicked the skin sufficiently to draw impressive-looking streaks of blood." In the field notes, as quoted by Liazos, the "suicide" incident reads as something far more serious and genuinely pathetic, but in Wayward Servants Turnbull presents it in a very different light, which is admittedly disconcerting. Turnbull does in fact appear disturbingly callous with regard to Sau and her fate, concluding, surprisingly, that "She remained a scapegoat, but her right to stay with the band was never seriously challenged, nor were the respect and affection with which she was regarded ever diminished." Even her exile is presented in an "amusing" light: "Exile was suggested instead [of being beaten to death], and Sau was duly exiled, and departed for her own village in great spirits, laden down with foodstuffs." Such passages do seem in blatant contrast to the clear instances of unjust persecution and victimization we see in the field notes and one does have to wonder at Turnbull's need to turn such a disturbing story into a kind of amusing anecdote. On the other hand, he was the one who was actually there, he was the one who wrote the notes in the first place, and as far as I'm concerned, he was therefore entitled, after giving the events some thought, to form his own ultimate opinion of what happened, and why.

Another angle on this story is provided from an unexpected source I happened to encounter by coincidence recently, while doing some research on Bushmen violence (on which I intend to report when the opportunity arises), The Learning Environment for Aggression and Anti-Social Behavior among the !Kung, by Patricia Draper. The story in this case does not involve witchcraft, but the case of a !Kung Bushmen matchmaker who too eagerly arranged a wedding without the permission of the couple's parents:
Some took the parents’ side and agreed that Tsebe had been high-
handed. Others thought that the marriage itself was good, but that Tsebe should have waited for the couple’s parents to return. No matter which interpretation, Tsebe received much criticism. She took to her bed and refused to eat. Two days later she made a few superficial cuts in her thigh and rubbed arrow poison into the wounds. She became quite sick and confessed that she had, in effect, attempted suicide. [My emphasis.] That evening and the following evening the people held a trance dance for her. All the medicine owners, the men who are capable of trance and healing in their trance state, worked on her. Everyone attended and joined in the singing and dancing on Tsebe’s behalf. She recovered soon afterward, mainly because her suicide attempt had been essentially symbolic; only minuscule amounts of poison must have entered the wounds. [My emphasis.] In the days following a kind of reconciliation took place between the injured parties. More significantly, open talk against Tsebe and her behind-the-scenes manipulation had ceased.
In the light of the above, one might speculate that there could be aspects of Sau's story that may not have been obvious from the bare bones field notes, but that might have meant something more to a trained observer, such as Turnbull. I can understand, nevertheless, Liazos' indignation regarding Turnbull's treatment of Sau and must confess that his callous "amusement" at her fate does seem both inappropriate and cruel. The story also illustrates an intriguing parallel between Pygmy and Bushmen behavior that might or might not have some significance.

(to be continued . . . )

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