This is the next chapter of my novel :
The Romance of the Village of Solución
Tales Collected by Henrietta Pouissiere
Click on the link in the masthead to find the first entry. Previous posts have prior chapters.
A reminder: this novel was written during 2001-2002. It is being rewritten, chapter by chapter, and serialized in this page. Comments welcome on my Facebook message or at email@example.com
September 11, 2013
The Anthropologist as Hero: Part I
I suppose you might want to know how I come to believe that I have the authority to write the story of Solución. I know some of you will think I don’t have any business to speak about a culture so alien to my own. You’ll think someone from the village should come forth and tell its history. I wish there were someone who could or would. It seems this task has fallen to me by default.
So I’ll tell you the short version of my story which is my justification. It is a justification for, perhaps, my whole life, I will lay out my credentials. I studied in London in the 1920s. I was fortunate enough to be enrolled at the London School of Economics and worked with Bronislaw Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Rivers and even met E.B. Tylor. Boas and his gang were at Columbia and though we were on very different paths, we shared notes and letters when we could. We were with the founders of our field, those of us who were students then. We knew we were privileged and drank deeply. Nobody even considered skipping a lecture or a seminar.
Malinowski had provided the model for process-oriented fieldwork. He’d been stuck in the Trobriands during the war and thus was born the notion that social anthropological fieldwork ought to require long-term immersion in a culture. Radcliffe-Brown and Rivers were no slouches. These fellows abandoned the niceties of their European homes and lives in order to understand more fully what it is to be human. I learned to think the way they did about my discipline. It was probably Malinowski who put it into my head that I should go to the South Pacific. I left London in 1928 ready for at least a two-year stay. It turned into more like ten years. I went back, reluctantly, to London and wrote a dissertation in order to complete my Ph.D. But my heart wasn’t in it. I did a few pieces that were publishable as short monographs. They were enough to get me some attention in the academy…and a job.
Before the job and Solución, I did some work at Columbia as a post doc student. I met and had coffee with Margaret Mead and her stable of women go-fers, including, of course, the lovely Ruth Benedict. I worked with Fredericka De Laguna one memorable summer in Alaska. I was a teaching assistant to Cora DuBois one semester. I gossiped with other anthropologists whose names you would find in the Who’s Who. You could find us any day tucked shoulder-to-shoulder and nose-to-nose in the library carrels or bent over our hefty Royal typewriters. We chatted our way through personal scandals, secret affairs, international wars, and professional trials of all kinds. We spent hours challenging the work of distant wrong-minded colleagues in long well researched letters to the journal, the American Anthropologist. We defended each other, of course, in equally detailed missives. This was our sport, our joy.
Before I went to the field, I was taught to take field notes very seriously. This was drilled into me in London and was a regular topic at post doc and faculty seminars at Columbia. This was, of course, long before computers we could take to the field like my current favorite, an Epson HX-20. No. Our practice then was to cut reams of paper into half sheets and staple three of these sheets into pen-ready sets. In these even pre-Xerox days, we placed carbon between each sheet in order to have an original and two copies.
We needed these three sets of notes. One set of notes was filed by topic. For example, if a page of notes mentioned “witchcraft,” that became the topic category. The term was underlined with a red pencil and the page was shuffled into our witchcraft folder. Of course, we always had a witchcraft folder. Witchcraft was something we always managed to find no matter where we worked because we were taught to look for it. We anthropologists believed in it even if no one else did.
Magic was another popular topic. We searched it out in all its manifestations. We learned about its function in what we called, wrong headedly, “primitive societies.”
So, the first set of notes was filed by a topic like “witchcraft.” Another set of notes was to be kept in chronological order. The third set of notes, the originals, we were to mail home for safekeeping. We did that because we feared that all of our notes might accidentally be destroyed. One heard such stories: young anthropologists woke in the night with cold sweats at the thought of a year or more of work going up in flames. Stories circulated of planes crashing, thatched field quarters incinerated by a careless cigarette, or long boats capsizing on Southeast Asian rivers. We never worried, when we heard these stories, about loss of life. Rather, we mourned for the loss of field notes: all of one’s doctoral materials gone forever—an entire culture’s legacy, perhaps, wiped out. Now with one language disappearing from the earth every 13 or so days, losses like these are no laughing matter. We wondered if such losses of years of work happen sometimes without being reported? Was the work of our colleagues often pure fiction, an entire culture recreated on paper from memory and dreams?
I never cheated like that. Certainly not! But you see that’s why I’ve had to be so closed mouth. People really would think I was making things up if, earlier in my career, I’d published any of the stories I’m writing now. My published works are not precisely lies. They simply do not contain much by the way of essential truths. My professors and colleagues would not have believed what I had really heard. My career would have been ruined. Anyway, anthropologists would not have been much interested in the stories I collected. Folklorists, maybe. But I was an anthropologist, not a folklorist.
So, while I didn’t lie, I edited and self censored.
Do no harm. That’s the mantra.
Still, I didn’t publish anything that would have shamed my informants or me. There is nothing wrong in making the choice to hold back. The consequences of shame are grim and to be avoided. I’ve been the object of someone’s secret shame-based grievance in the past: dead lizards with peculiar marks on their backs arrived at my doorstep every morning for three months during a particularly difficult period of drought in the region. Another time, in Moa Nui, an innocent seeming fish trap on my rented bedroom wall flew across the room and nearly impaled me on the doorframe as I got up in the night headed for the bathroom. I was never sure what boundary I had crossed, but I’d surely done something wrong. I was terrified.
Today there is no one to complain or be shamed or to do me harm. My career is long over. Times have changed dramatically. Everyone will, I am sure, be delighted to have it all out at last. Most of all me. Maybe Mildred too.
Yes, in the old days, I was more concerned about my reputation (and to some degree, the privacy of informants) than being strictly truthful. That was true about my professional life as well as my personal. Well, actually, I never was sure where the line between the two was. In the public arena of my professional life I have attempted to cloak my life in unassailable propriety, in decorum, in a professionally suitable language, and have left the truth til the last. I hope I have time to provide a corrective. Time is shrinking at about the same rate as my height.
Don’t get the idea I’m upset about losing height or even getting old. I’m thinking about more important things than my stature. For example, I wonder how electronic media has changed the way students are taught to keep field notes today? I am sitting this early morning in what is left of Solución’s outskirts using a local friend’s IBM pc. She’s still packing. Even though her house wasn’t destroyed, being almost a mile from the plaza, she doesn’t want to stay. No one does. So I can come over here for the next week or two and take a rest and do some writing as I roam the old village site and recall the past. I’m plugged in to her phone line and her printer. I’m making hard copies of my notes and saving files to myself at two e-mail addresses. I’m sending another set of notes to another friend’s e-mail just to be on the safe side. Then I burn a disk a disk on my Epson at Mildred’s, the one I brought down with me. As soon as we gets a phone line in and the power, I can download the disks I burn when I’m over here working. Then I can go back into these files, add and edit, and save them to a new disk and to a hard drive. I can word search, organize and even index without losing a moment’s sleep over what I may lose. And I can type a lot faster than I can write. How much thicker will be my thick description? How much more generous will be my reflection? Will my memory be enhanced? My observations meatier? Will more imaginative questions find their way into my narrative with the luxury I have to elaborate? Ha. I expect so. Surely richer manuscripts can be expected from the current crop of field workers with all these aides.
After breakfast with Mildred yesterday, and before I came into the village to write, I took a walk. I started wondering what it means to me to be an anthropologist today. Mildred says I’m wasting time thinking about that. But this new work that I see as a kind of obligation to the people I knew is making me question all I’ve done and am doing in the profession. I haven’t been highly regarded (or even remembered, much less cited) by anyone in the academy since, maybe, 1969. The whole discipline these days is awash in studies of tourist culture, hip hop, urban cults, and highly politicized “ethnographies” of marginalized people caught up in wishful but doomed struggles with their oppressors. “Multinationalism” and “Economic Migration” are big topics. Dissertations are more likely to be exercises in polemics than any real contribution to our understanding of human culture. Many of them are full of just awful stuff. Really, I have no time for it. Structuralism, the new anthropology. The Europeans ditched diffusionism, thank the lord, and their study of quaint folkways, and now wonder about ethnicity and national identity. At least they have common goals and issues. Americans say, “If an anthropologist does it, it is anthropology.” Balderdash.
I have not made the transition into this world of shabby scholarship. Good lord. So many of these younger people seem to think that doing anthropology is a great excuse for taking exotic drugs and writing specials for the Discovery Channel, or, God forbid, embedding themselves with troops. Better they should be embedded with truth.
I will say a little about getting old. Being an anthropologist when you get up there in age is hard. To keep working means leaving home. It means leaving comforts and local landscapes and the rhythm, safety, and relative predictability of daily life. I’m serious. When you get old, you like to know where the stairs and the handholds are. You like to have a set path to the grocery store and the doctor’s office, one that allows you to avoid being run down by skateboarders or approached by panhandlers. And you like to have the food and drink that keep you “regular.” Fieldwork means having drip Folgers with amaretto Coffee Mate instead of lattes with soy milk. Field work means being obliged to eat whatever is offered by the host family.
And when you are old, sleep is precious. You like to be in bed when it’s dark and up at dawn. Fieldwork means staying up to watch if something is going on and sleeping in a strange bed on an inferior or lumpy mattress. All that is fine when one is young.
Fieldwork means being surrounded non-stop by someone else’s aesthetic, sense of order, and idea of tidiness. And to do your job well, you have to haul around notebooks and recording devices and cameras and lots of extra film and a typewriter or word processor. The equipment gets heavy and these old shoulders just can’t take the strain of it.
The inconvenience of it all has made fieldwork difficult for me the last few years. That’s really why I stopped coming down here to Solución. It was just plain inconvenient. In the early days when I was just getting started, I’d come in a borrowed van loaded with my own quilts and vases, a few framed pictures, and a rug or two. Upon arrival, I’d sweep a little rented room in Serena’s casa and make it mine. But still, it was hard. And I just couldn’t do it anymore. That’s what I told myself. But it was true that all the good people had passed on. These new people who didn’t care about their past were strangers to me. And I didn’t feel safe anymore. No one did.
Thank God I’m with Mildred now. Thank God we can afford our own espresso machine. I think I’m going to really like finally settling in. If I really settle in, the bed will no longer be strange and I’ll have a fine mattress.
Still, I’m conscious of the difference between Mildred’s sensibilities and mine. I see it in every piece of fabric, the arrangement of stuffed animals upon the bed, and that there are stuffed animals at all. I think I’ll need to add on a room that feels more like me. We can do that.
Strangely, though Mildred’s home is so different from the one I’ve left up North, I see a photograph of myself taken sometime in the late 1940s. It is in a frame I would not have picked. But there it is, greeting me each morning. Roberto, Mildred’s nephew, in his wedding tux next to his pale Anglo bride Susan, smiles from across the room. That day, one on which they seemed happy, is captured forever and held mercilessly in sculpted white metal frame flecked with gold. The frame is completely at home in a room that features cream and white lacy pillow cases, off-white embroidered curtains, and an appliquéd bedspread upon which graze stuffed woolly lambs. Roberto and Susan look at at home here, more than they would in my own understated apartment in the north
Aside from Mildred and a few friends at the university, Solución has been my life. Solución is the village where I have spent endless summers, breaks between semesters, and, once or twice, a full year. This is the village in which I’ve interviewed generations of dwellers and carefully copied down their often-unbelievable tales.
Yet I’ve never published any of the work I’ve done here. I’ve written the definitive ethnography of the area. I’ve drafted countless monographs based upon this work. I’ve analyzed carefully collected kinship charts and family histories.[i] I’ve watched villagers give birth, die, and groan and moan for forty years! God help me. Their lives have filled mine. I don’t know about much else.
I don’t know about much else, and, I warn you, reader, I don’t know everything there is to know about Solución. For example, I am a woman. Most of my time in Solución was spent with women. That’s just how it goes. When you do the kind of work I do and you are female, you will find that you have access to the lives, the secrets, and the memory of women. Men don’t know quite what to do with you, so they usually stay out of the way. They certainly won’t gossip with you. In any case, Solución, like so many circum-Mediterranean derivative cultures, really contains two worlds: the world of women and the world of men. If a man were to have studied Solución as thoroughly as I did, he’d have a very different story to tell.
So let me sum up my situation: I’m an old woman. Most of my friends are long out of the university life and live scattered about the country in retirement homes, nursing homes, or with patient children. There were few who actually have children. The village where I’ve spent my life working has burned down. What I have is left is Mildred, and my sweet Mildred has retired from enchantment and entered a life dedicated to flower gardens, gambling and quilting. She is determined to pull me along kicking and screaming into that life with her. Really. She seems happy with it all.
With or without Mildred, I’ve got only a few years left. The stories I haven’t told have to be told while there is time.
By the way, you might want to know that I blame Crow for any problems with my work. Crow is a stickler for truth. If I don’t get something right, Crow will catch it. I met Crow in the canyon the very first time I met Mildred. Crow has become a friend and ally. I’ve known her for, let’s see, going on forty years. Amazing. She’s watched over everything I’ve ever written about Solución. And she keeps me honest. She has, however, come to accept mere oversights or omissions in my work. There were plenty of omissions over the years.
But there have been no out right lies. No, Crow would never allow outright lies. Not in my work. I wish she’d had more control over the rest of my life. I think I might have been a lot more daring and probably would have had more fun.
You’d like her if you could see her. Except, of course, when she is doing her coarse imitations of me. I only saw her as she really is once. That was a long time ago. Now she appears to me in the guise of a regular old crow, large, big black bill and feet, a plumage so blue black it sometimes glints metallic in the sun. Her wings show off that brilliant sheen. When they flap, they brandish a hint of violet. You can see those wings shine when the sun hits her full on and she is in flight. She has a big, fan shaped tail and carries a rattle with her that seems to be lodged somewhere deep in her throat.
That common crow uniform is a nifty cover for her. But in truth, she’s nothing even close to a common crow. For one thing, a regular bird wouldn’t live more than about four or five years out here in the wild. She’s a shape shifter. In her other being, a very human looking one, she has the feathers of other kinds of birds, including an albino crow, in both of her hands. They are arranged in the shape of fans so that she can dance with them and cool herself when she becomes overheated. She wears a winged mask that covers her face. Her leggings are knee high and her buckskin dress is trimmed in red and black porcupine quills and turquoise. Crow gets around. She isn’t exclusively mine or Mildred’s even though she seems to be here everyday. She is a universal kibitzer. She comments on the work of playground supervisors. She stands watch over the birth of future Dalai Lamas and critiques the selection process of popes. She menaces cats and dogs. She dive bombs presidential candidates.
When she is with me, she often gets in close and flutters around and over the keyboard. Crow is my editor, proofreader, and thesaurus. Sometimes she irritates the hell out of me. But, her golden tongue and wordy heart keep me going. She doesn’t allow me much rest these days because she wants the story out as much as I do.
I’ve got to take a little walk now. My legs are stiff and my hands are cramped. My eighty-year-old eyes and hands can no longer keep up with my mind. I’ll review this entry tonight.
 ..editor’s note: .and disks and “clouds” into which we could save our work….what would she make of this?
[i] It is papers and notes such as these which I cannot find. Perhaps they will turn up someday.