Thursday, September 17, 2009

205. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 5 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

While Turnbull's treatment of Sau's persecution, in both The Forest People and Wayward Servants, seems both inadequate and surprisingly insensitive, we simply don't, in my opinion, have enough information to question his credentials as a reasonably unbiased reporter on this basis (see previous post). As for the behavior of the Mbuti, that is another matter. If the field notes are accurate, and we have no reason to believe they aren't, then the Mbuti do seem to have behaved both violently and unfairly toward a woman who seems clearly to have been unjustly accused. In their defense, however, I think we need to put this incident into perspective. While we in the "developed" world no longer take accusations of witchcraft seriously, this is only a recent development. Witches were burned, in America and Europe, well into the 18th Century, and accusations of satanism can still to this day have very serious consequences -- witness the McMartin daycare case. Just imagine how a typical American community would react if a child had been kidnapped and found murdered, and a neighbor who had long been suspected of pedophilia emerged as a prime suspect. While such a parallel cannot excuse the very disturbing hostility and violence directed at Sau by her fellow Mbuti, at least it can help us understand it as a natural human reaction to a tragic set of circumstances.

As for other instances, while it is undeniably true, as Liazos insists, that "there is more violence in their lives than the book indicates," it is also true that some very serious conflicts and violent incidents are in fact reported by Turnbull. Chapter Five of The Forest People, "The Crime of Cephu, the Bad Hunter," tells the story of how "old Cephu," who "committed one of the greatest sins possible in the forest," became the center of a very serious dispute which could have led to violence had he not finally apologized, after being thoroughly humiliated. In the meantime we learn, in the same chapter, of how cruelly the Mbuti behave toward animals, mimicking the death throes of dying prey with great hilarity, "singeing feathers off birds that were still alive," and kicking their hunting dogs mercilessly. He also informs us that "there is, as often as not, a great deal of squabbling over the division of game, but that is expected . . ."

In the next chapter, "The Giver of the Law," we learn of the "unexpectedly casual, almost carefree attitude" of the Mbuti, with "little specialization," "no chiefs or formal counsels." But the bulk of the chapter is devoted to the description of additional conflicts and how they are resolved -- and some of these incidents are definitely violent. Young Kelemoke is accused of incest (for having sex with what we would regard as a cousin). Knives are drawn, a hut is burned down, he is attacked with a burning log and eventually driven into the forest, though he returns in two days and all is ultimately forgiven. A "great fight" breaks out between two brothers over a wife's insult. Blows are exchanged and then spears are drawn, though no one is actually injured. When one of them insists that his brother should be thrashed, everyone laughs, because "only children and youths get thrashed, and Masalito was a father." So in addition to threats of assault with a deadly weapon, we learn that the Mbuti also practice child abuse. In another case, Pepei, a "lazy pygmy," is caught stealing ("from old Sau"), "so the men ran out of their huts angrily and held Pepei, while the youths broke off thorny branches and whipped him until he managed to break away." We learn of Ekianga, who makes love to his wife while she is nursing a child, a violation of a strong taboo that angers her brother, who hurls a spear at him, starting "one of the most dramatic fights I have seen in a Pygmy camp . . ." Ekianga then drags his wife out of their hut and smacks her in the face, after which she beats him over the back with a burning log. Then "the two wives begin fighting tooth and nail, quite literally." Others take sides, "and it looked as though fighting were going to break out all over the camp."

Turnbull's point in telling all these horrific stories is to illustrate how the Pygmies manage to resolve all these potentially devastating disputes through gentle ridicule and group cooperation rather than the active intervention of pre-designated authority figures. But they are disturbing examples of violence nonetheless, and they certainly contradict some of the earlier statements he has made regarding the carefree nature of Pygmy life. Almost in spite of himself, Turnbull reveals the underlying tensions of Pygmy life through anecdotes designed to illustrate admirable methods of conflict resolution. We learn in this way that a father or husband confronted with a recalcitrant daughter or wife, "will try to settle [the matter] himself, either by argument or by a good beating, but if this fails he brings everyone else into the dispute so that he is absolved of personal responsibility." Nice. In this way we learn that the Pygmies, in addition to being child abusers, are wife beaters as well.

All of the above, and more, appears in The Forest People, which, taken as a whole, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as an attempt to "romanticize" or "idealize" its subject. Much more of the same appears in its far more detailed sequel, Wayward Servants, which contains a chapter innocuously titled "Government: Internal," divided into sections titled "Disputes Concerning Food" (in which we learn that "it would be a rare Mbuti woman who did not conceal a portion of the catch in case she was forced to share with others . . ."), "Disputes Concerning Sex," "Disputes Concerning Territory," "Disputes Concerning Trivia," "Disputes Concerning Theft," and "Disputes Concerning the Village" (pp. 181 - 217). Turnbull dutifully catalogs them at the end, in a table on p. 216: 67 disputes over food, 37 over sex, 11 concerning the village, 5 concerning theft and 4 over territory. Taking both volumes into account, there is no way Turnbull can be accused of minimizing the conflicts and instances of violence in Mbuti life, including both wife and child beating.

That said, there is also no denying that certain statements in The Forest People give a very different impression, and this is, as I see it, the crux of the matter. It's not so much that Turnbull presents a distorted, idealized view of Pygmy life -- in my opinion he does not. It's that he is himself conflicted regarding the meaning of what he has observed. It may indeed be true (or not) that "the BaMbuti are the real people of the forest. Whereas the other tribes are relatively recent arrivals, the Pygmies have been in the forest for many thousands of years. It is their world, and in return for their affection and trust it supplies them with all their needs." It may also be true that "the BaMbuti roam the forest at will, in small isolated bands or hunting groups. They have no fear, because for them there is no danger. For them there is little hardship, so they have no need for belief in evil spirits. For them it is a good world." Perhaps it is. But when he concludes this first chapter by describing them as "a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care," then he is indeed shamelessly distorting, idealizing and romanticizing; and he is, by virtue of his own testimony, not only in his field notes, but later in the very same book, clearly wrong.

(to be continued . . . )

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