Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Voices from the Beginning of the World

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman
by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 622 pp., $39.95
Most of all, The Falling Sky is an elegy to oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. We take for granted the superior fidelity and durability of the printed word over speech in transmitting knowledge through time. In his singular voice Kopenawa, talking of xapiri spirits, turns this notion on its head:
I do not possess old books in which my ancestors’ words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me…. They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them…. They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will still be as new and strong as they are now.
The book was transcribed, translated, and edited from a hundred hours of taped interviews Albert conducted with Kopenawa in the Yanomami language from 1989 through 2001.
What I'm wondering is whether or not it makes sense to think that Kopenawa is, in some non-trivial way, undergoing time-travel when he talks of "renewing" the xapiri's words, the ones set "in the deepest part of me" (cf. the discussion of brain states Time and Again, the Curse of the Linearizing Amulets). His body, yes, it days in the present. but his mind, it does not. It goes outside of time.

But that's a philosophical matter that's beyond the scope of this brief notice. Here's another brief segment from the review:
The first section of the book describes Kopenawa’s initiation as a shaman in the early 1980s, when he was already disenchanted with the white people’s world. Yanomami shamans use a powerful hallucinogenic snuff, yãkoana, made from the resin of the nutmeg relative Virola elongata. By taking it, the shaman “dies” or “becomes other” and experiences the spirit world firsthand. Kopenawa renders these visions with images of haunting beauty:
The xapiri float down through the air from their mirrors to come protect us…. Their mirrors arrive from the sky’s chest, slowly preceding them. They suddenly stop in the air and remain suspended…. When they arrive, their songs name the distant lands they came from and traveled through. They evoke the places where they drank the waters of a sweet river, the disease-free forests where they ate unknown foods, the edges of the sky where, without night, one never sleeps.
The xapiri, enumerated encyclopedically as spirit beings who are identified with particular biological species, are as exuberant and diverse as the rainforest itself.
But are those spirits real? I don't think that's an easy question. I suppose one comes a little closer to an answer by asking: by whose standards do we mean real? But only a little closer.

This is a question I've grappled with in my working paper: Constructing Spirits: An Exercise in Pluralist Composition.

Toward the end of the review Shepard gets around to Napoleon Chagnon, as any discussion of the Yanomami will inevitably do:
Yet the overall picture Chagnon paints of Yanomami society during the 1960s in his notorious ethnography is not altogether different from that described by Kopenawa for the same period: “At that time, our elders did not hesitate to kill the enemies who had eaten [a Yanomami expression for ‘killing in warfare’, not actual cannibalism] their kin. They were very valiant.” Albert quibbles about the nuances of the Yanomami term waithiri, glossed by Chagnon as “fierce” but qualified by Albert as “ambivalently…both ‘aggressive’ and ‘valiant.’” There is little doubt from Kopenawa’s own words that the Yanomami value bravery, revenge, and the warrior ethos, though many other things besides. In his frank language, Kopenawa refers often to his kinsmen’s preoccupation with “eating vulvas”; the fact that the verb “to eat” is a euphemism for both intercourse and killing suggests that the Yanomami, like many people, see sex and violence as somehow related, if not in the casual sense suggested by Chagnon’s hypotheses.
That last equation, the relationship between violence and sex, is worth thinking about as well. We know that sexuality matures at adolescence. Is the same true for violence? That is to say, is there a thoroughly adult capacity for violence that is different from childhood anger and aggression? I suspect so, but can offer no citations on the matter. If you have a relevant citation, I'd like to know about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment