From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Displays of Authenticity (7)—Sacred Objects

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Displays of Authenticity.
[a] Natural  RF
Yesterday, we considered the confusion and sublimated outrage Colin Turnbull expressed when he discovered that the BaMbuti Pygmies had raced through the forest to find the molimo—a sacred trumpet used in evening celebrations in the Ituri Forest—and came back with plastic road construction tubing. Let's continue Turnbull's narrative for a few paragraphs, and then discuss "authenticity" and its relation to our perceptions of the sacred. This is a very large topic, so we'll just get our feet wet and think about ways to extend our thinking to, say, the local church, meeting hall, or war memorial. Turnbull sought an "authentic" sacred experience, and was disappointed to find that the BaMbuti did not see the religiosity of it all the way he wanted them to.

Click here for yesterday's reading from The Forest People.

The Song of the Forest
Colin Turnbull
Evidently now that they had the trumpets in their possession there was no longer any need for silence, for they answered calmly and loudly with a counter-question, "What does it matter what the molimo is made of? This one makes a great sound, and besides, it does not rot like wood. It is too much trouble to make a wooden one, and then it rots away and you have to make another." Ausu, to prove how well it sounded, took the end of the longer pipe, which evidently belonged to Manyalibo, and all of a sudden the forest was filled with the sound of trumpeting elephants. The others clapped their hands with pleasure and said, "You see? Doesn't it sound well?"

My conservative feelings were still wounded however, and it gave me some pleasure to see the difficulty to see the difficulty the Pygmies had on the way back, carrying a fifteen-foot length of drainpipe through the forest. It was pitch dark now, though the moon was full, yet we still followed only the smallest animal trails, this being the quickest route...

When we came to the first stream we all stopped. The moonlight was just strong enough for me to see both trumpets laid carefully in the water, then lifted up so that the water ran through from end to end. "The molimo likes to drink," I was told. We washed our feet and continued, but at ever stream we came to the performance was repeated, both trumpets being immersed and allowed "to drink." Every now and again, whoever was at the rear end of a trumpet managed to find enough breath to blow a long blast that was sometimes musical but more often not. The younger Pygmies all seemed anxious to have a turn, but Ausu, who was the only one who really knew how to play, kept aloof. He ran ahead of us all, silently, into the night...

When we reached the top of the hill that descends, gently at first, then steeply, into the Lelo River, we all halted and stood in the glade. It was lit with silvery patches of light, shining here and there uncertainly, where the moonlight found its way down through the rustling trees. Even the darker shadows glowed every now and then, but with a strange natural luminosity that came from the mushroom-shaped nests of the termites. We could hear the Lelo swishing below, and on the far side of the river voices from the camp floated lazily across to us, as though we were gods adn they were mere mortals, infinitely far away.

We stood there for a moment. Then Ausu took the end of the long trumpet, with Madyadya holding the front on his shoulder, pointing it over the river toward the camp. Once again the night was shattered as though there were a whole herd of elephants trumpeting shrilly all around us. When the echoes died away, the camp across the river had fallen silent. Ausu blew into the trumpet again, and this time it was as if a leopard were growling angrily nearby. One of the youths clapped himself under the armpit, as Pygmies frequently do, and said to himself, "That is its voice, just exactly." He clapped himself with delight, and gave a little growl of his own...

What followed that evening was to follow every evening for the next two months. It was the focal point of the molimo festival, and the repetition every night was an essential part of it. The ceremony, if you can call it that, did not center around ritual objects...nor did it follow any prescribed ritualistic details beyond a general over-all pattern. It was plain that the molimo trumpets were not considered as highly sacred objects in themselves; what was important, for some reason, was the sound they produced...[1]
***  ***
How interesting. It's not the object, but the effect produced that is uppermost on the scales of sacrality for the Pygmies. Colin Turnbull is actually participating here in a time-honored tradition in ethnography of telling a story on himself, as it were. For generations, anthropologists have told of misunderstandings and travails that make them look, by turns, unimaginative and even petty. I find it to be one of the most engaging (not to mention analytically significant) aspects of ethnographic work. Those little stories, while entertaining, often show the difficulties we all have in coming to terms with the peoples and cultures we "study." Turnbull's disbelief at the "sacrilege" of it all turns to a little bit of glee as he watches them struggle with their big trumpet. He did not have to tell of his feelings; we would never know unless he told us. He could have repressed them in order to look more stately and intellectually ponderous. I am happy that he did write about those feelings, and his model (along with a whole passel of other ethnographers who have told stories about not "getting" it) has helped keep this important strand of truth-telling going over the decades.

This reminds me of a time during my first trip to Taiwan, when I visited a temple near the southern tip of the island.
I had studied Chinese culture for several years by then, so I was "sure" that I had a good sense of how temples worked. Imagine my surprise when my first image was of an orange, plastic oil funnel resting on the nose of one of the tigers carved into the edifice. I was astonished, and my North Dakota Lutheran sense of the building's sacrality was offended. I asked one of my companions about it, and he just shrugged, "It probably seemed like a good place to put it, that's all." It might as well have been an oil can in a nativity scene to me, and it was months—if not years—until I started to get a better "feel" for what is sacred and what is less so...and when.

Perceptions of the sacred variy according to time, situation, and the like. Think it over; d a few thought experiments, and imagine where an oil funnel might be highly offensive, just a little offensive, or not really problematic at all. Pushing the issue only a little, it is not hard to see that altars might not be a good place, but that church parking lots are surely less problematic. On the other hand, not all altars are "the same," either. The ones on Longevity Mountain, about which I have written on this blog, are fairly lively places of life, love, and commerce. A Catholic church architect probably views altar space a little differently.

Sacred spaces and holy places (lieux saints) are charged with a kind of energy about which many theorists have written, from Emile Durkheim to Mircea Eliade (and beyond). Holy objects get only slightly less ink in the theoretical world, and there is plenty of discussion out there of both sets of concepts. Although we need to wrap up this discussion for the day, let's finish by thinking through the relationship between objects, places, and sacrality. It brings us full circle to The Forest People, for whom the forest itself is sacred and ordinary (a place of normal living), depending on the time. The object and its sound (the elephant roar of the molimo) is key in distinguishing sacred space and time.

Even if it is just an old drain pipe.

[1] Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (New York: Touchstone Books, 1968), 76-80.

Turnbull, Colin. The Forest People. New York: Touchstone Books, 1968.

No comments:

Post a Comment