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Robert Desjarlais's graceful ethnography explores the life histories of two Yolmo elders, focusing on how particular sensory orientations and modalities have contributed to the making and the telling of their lives. These two are a woman in her late eighties known as Kisang Omu and a Buddhist priest in his mid-eighties known as Ghang Lama, members of an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people whose ancestors have lived for three centuries or so along the upper ridges of the Yolmo Valley in north central Nepal.

It was clear through their many conversations that both individuals perceived themselves as nearing death, and both were quite willing to share their thoughts about death and dying. The difference between the two was remarkable, however, in that Ghang Lama's life had been dominated by motifs of vision, whereas Kisang Omu's accounts of her life largely involved a "theatre of voices." Desjarlais offers a fresh and readable inquiry into how people's ways of sensing the world contribute to how they live and how they recollect their lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Veena Das
One of the most powerful ethnographies in any field that I have read in recent years . . . a model of anthropological analysis that addresses questions on the cutting edge of the discipline.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520235885
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/6/2003
  • Series: Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Desjarlais is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is Shelter Blues (1997), for which he won the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing.

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Read an Excerpt

Sensory Biographies

Lives and Deaths among Nepal's Yolmo Buddhists
By Robert Desjarlais

University of California

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23588-6

Chapter One


"Many years before," Mheme Lama related, "when people would die, the body would vanish along with the soul, and people would cry and get very upset. It was like this a long time before. My father's grandfather and other people from before told about this. Before, before, at the time of dying, the body would vanish like 'phet'! Then the family of the dead man would cry and search for his body in the sky and in the ground. When it was lost, they would ask, 'Where is he?! Where has he gone?!'"

This eighty-five-year-old man was also known as Ghang Lama, or Hill Lama, by other members of his community, many of whom identify themselves as Yolmo wa, or "Yolmo people," an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people, now several thousand in number, who have lived for generations in hamlets and villages along the upper ridges of the Yolmo, or Helambu, Valley of north-central Nepal. Mheme (pronounced "mhem-mh") had lived in the village of Thodong, along the southwestern ridge of the Yolmo Valley, until 1975 or so, when, seeking a more comfortable life in the city, he moved with his second wife and youngest daughter into a home in Chabahil, a multiethnic neighborhood about a mile west of the Boudhanath area, in northeast Kathmandu. It was in that home that he spoke of the body's vanishing act, in one of the many lengthy conversations that I had with him in 1998 in an effort to elicit his jvan kath, or "life story." I was in Nepal then, trying to record and give thought to the life stories of several Yolmo elders.

"Many years before," he continued, after swallowing a sip of tea, "everything would disappear."

"Before, the body would disappear as well?" asked Nogapu Sherpa, a Yolmo friend who had accompanied me to Mheme's home that day to help me converse in the Yolmo language.

"Yes," Mheme said. "But then the deities said, 'This is no good,' and they decided that the people must be able to see the body. Now they make the body stay. Now the body remains, and the soul departs. When it leaves the body, the body decays. So the body needs to be cremated or buried. Ah, now they need to cremate the body, compose the ashes, perform the funeral rites. The body can't be kept here forever, so they call the lamas [Buddhist priests, to perform those rites]. And the family feels better, thinking, 'Yes, he has died.' Now the body remains, the body is cremated, the funeral rites are performed, and people can understand that the person is dead. 'It's death' [they say]."

Here vision was as much solace as knowledge. Mheme understood that it was important that a corpse not vanish too quickly or too suddenly. A corpse is an absent presence, the vestige of a person no longer alive. Still, its lingering visual presence provides evidence of the transition from life to death, and so helps people to understand the actuality of any death. If they could not view the corpse, family members would search in despair, bewildered by the person's absence, unsure whether he or she was still alive. Since a lifeless body inevitably decays, it cannot be kept forever. Yet rather than having it vanish "like 'phet,'" as it once did, the gods arranged it so that a corpse would remain as a visible, palpable reminder of a person's death, giving bereaved family members sufficient time and the tangible, ritual means to come to terms with the death.

In Mheme's words I heard themes that often surfaced in my talks with him. He spoke in ways that brought to mind ideas of materiality and immateriality, appearances and disappearances, contact and disconnection, longing and fulfillment, remembrance and forgetting, matter and the decay of matter, the changes that time effects, the fate of sentient bodies, the life and death of things. In most of these conversations vision was the dominant sensory orientation. As was the case with his chronicle of vanishing bodies, motifs of visuality played strongly into how Mheme made sense of the world, how he engaged with others, how he thought of his life, how he envisioned his death.

I first recognized the importance of vision in Mheme's life in the summer of 1997, when I began to work with him to record his life story. Acts and ideas of writing, inscription, visibility, visual engagements, and perceptual clarity often emerged in the matters of which we spoke. But in the winter of 1998 I began to elicit the life narratives of another Yolmo elder, Kisang Omu (pronounced "key-sang o-mu"), an eighty-eight-year-old woman who was living then with her youngest son and his wife in the heart of the Boudhanath area of Kathmandu, about a mile down the road from Mheme's residence. As tape recordings and written transcripts of the two sets of conversations accumulated and I started to compare what the two elders had to say about their lives, I realized that while Mheme's recounting of his life was dominated by motifs of vision and bodiliness, of knowing the world through visual means, and of acting and suffering through the medium of his visible body, Kisang Omu's accounts of her life largely entailed a theater of voices: when narrating significant events in her life, she often invoked, in vivid, morally connotative terms, the voicings of key actors in those events. She also commented frequently on the degree of skillfulness of her own speech and expressed concerns about how others might assess the aesthetic value of that speech.

One saw chiefly, while the other minded most the flow of words. In the pages that follow I want to present a pair of overlapping "sensory biographies" that consider the ways in which certain culturally honed and politically charged sensory modalities have contributed to the making and telling of the two lives. How, for instance, did Kisang's acoustic orientation toward the world tie into the workings of language and memory in her self-narrations? How did Ghang Lama's visualist, text-based orientation play into his take on the presence of death and suffering in his life? How did the sensory regard of both individuals shape their perceptions of my work with them, including the production of this text? How did gender roles and identities play into all of this? How, in short, do a person's ways of sensing the world contribute to how that person lives and recollects her life?

The inquiry builds on recent work in anthropology that investigates how cultural dynamics pattern the senses in different societies. Although a long neglected domain of inquiry, the anthropology of the senses, which can be defined as the interpretive study of the cultural construction and social dimensions of human perception and sensate experience in different societies, is proving to be an increasingly important and generative field within cultural anthropology. Ethnographic research along these lines ranges from accounts of the workings of gender, sensation, and memory in contemporary Greece to studies of sensuous knowledge among the Songhay of West Africa to analyses of the sensorial features of political surveillance and imprisonment in Northern Ireland. Most of this research aims to show how the dominant sensory orientations of the modern West are historically distinct, and it tends to focus on culturally pervasive themes and dynamics. My goal here is to understand how sensory modalities and dispositions play themselves out in individual lives, how members of a single society live out different sensory biographies.

Yet while a running analytic focus is the place of voice in Kisang's life and recollections and the role of vision in Mheme's, these are by no means the only themes or sensory modalities considered. Such considerations serve as guiding threads throughout the chapters that follow, but they are only two threads among many. For one thing, it was not the case that Mheme engaged with the world only through vision or that Kisang lived solely in a world of voices. Sound was an important sense in Mheme's life, as taste, smell, and touch were, and Kisang saw and was seen by others. The difference, then, is not one of complete opposites but rather one of different emphases, of different patterns, within two lives. At the same time, to focus on a single sensory modality or the senses alone within each life would neglect how the senses relate to other aspects of a life and so would misrepresent the complexity of the lives in general. It would also fail to show the ways in which sensory engagements articulate with broader social, personal, and political dynamics. In a recent assessment of anthropological research on the senses, Michael Herzfeld cautions that the senses "will remain marginal to ethnographic description unless, in some practical fashion, all of anthropology can be recognized as necessarily shot through with alertness to the entire gamut of sensory semiosis." A leading aim of the present inquiry, accordingly, is to help foster such a recognition by showing how diffuse arenas of life within a Himalayan society are shot through with diverse forms of "sensory semiosis."

The book is keyed in particular to questions of selfhood and subjectivity. It inquires into the interrelated sensorial, cultural, and political underpinnings of two lives in an effort to help us sharpen our understanding of the relation between culture and human subjectivities-how, that is, diverse cultural forces contribute to the makings of subjective experience. It adopts, to use an anthropologist's term, a "person-centered" approach to cultural phenomena. A recurring idea here is that, by attending carefully to how a person or two within a specific social setting live out and make sense of their lives, anthropologists can effectively address the ways personal and interpersonal concerns of individuals relate to social and cultural processes and so develop more precise and more integrative understandings of what it means to be a person, to live a life, to relate to others, to have a body, to be conscious in time. With a few others, I take it that anthropologists should not limit themselves to the study of social or political formations alone; that culture and history are grounded in the lives of individuals; that the drift of narratives often proves to be more illuminating than sweeping statements; and that one can sometimes learn more by tending to particulars within the folds of the general. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai says as much in "Tourists," one of his Poems of Jerusalem.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!" I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

One could likewise imagine a situation in which Italian or Japanese tourists visiting the sacred chhorten, or stpa, in Boudhanath are told, "You see the four pairs of eyes painted on the upper facades of the stpa? Those are quite important. But don't forget that in a house a few streets away, to the right and down a bit, there lives a woman ..."

... who, in the still days when frail legs limited her to sitting alone in her room much of the time, reciting mantras with a set of prayer beads in her hands, happened to be visited now and then by a man from another country, one wealthier and more powerful than her own, who asked her to relate to him her life story, including her recollections of deeds and events of times past, through the voicing of words that, he said, he was going to take and put into a book, one that would be shown to other people, even though she herself could not read such words, while all along the man, much younger than she was, younger than her sons even, was trying, for better or worse, to make sense of her life, its axes of time and effort and selfhood, by attending, among other things, to the forms of speech and action that composed it.

In contrast with many person-centered approaches in anthropology, which have given priority to psychodynamic perspectives, this study foregrounds a phenomenological approach. By "phenomenology" I mean an analytic approach, more a method of inquiry, really, than a theory, that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousness of certain peoples. The phenomena most in question here include the workings of time, form, perception, selfhood, bodies, suffering, personal agency, morality, memory, vision, and language as they have taken form, now and then, in several Yolmo lives. As with other phenomenological approaches in philosophy and the human sciences, of particular interest are the ways in which such forces contribute to how humans make sense of and live out significant aspects of their lives, from the ways in which they converse with others to how they recall past events. And as befits an anthropological inquiry, the cultural grounds of such phenomena are always kept in mind.

This is difficult work. You cannot readily tap into the "lived experience" of cultural subjects, be they in Boston or Calcutta. You can only talk with and live among them. So words, really, are the stuff of meaning and evidence here, along with other manifest actions-a look here, a gesture there. In accord with what Yolmo wa themselves hold, that no one can truly know what lies within another's sem, or "heartmind," it is important to keep in mind that we are, at best, attending to traces of meaning left in the wake of human action, like echoes resounding in a ravine. All told, the analytic process, this "semology," is interpretive, inferential. As I see it, the phenomenal and the discursive, life as lived and life as talked about, are like the intertwining strands of a braided rope, each complexly involved in the other, in time. The work, accordingly, conjoins a person-centered approach to Yolmo subjectivities with a "discourse-centered" one in detailing how communicative practices, ways of speaking and listening, contribute to how people understand and portray their lives and the lives of others. It attends both to the specifics of the lives in question-she did this, he felt that-and to the flux of cultural, personal, and interpersonal forces that weighed heavily into the dialogic "telling" of those lives.

This is also a book about death and dying. Of the many topics that Kisang and Mheme mulled in my presence, from the best foods to eat to the winter snows that once blanketed the Yolmo region, death and dying were among the more common ones. Both elders understood that, with their life spans coming to an end, they would probably be dying soon. Kisang in particular found herself within the "condition of dying," while Mheme took it that he was on the "verge" of dying.


Excerpted from Sensory Biographies by Robert Desjarlais Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Transliteration

Hardship, Comfort
Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision
Startled into Alertness
A Theater of Voices
"I’ve Gotten Old"
Essays on Dying
"Dying Is This"
The Painful Between
The Time of Dying
Death Envisioned
To Phungboche, by Force
Staying Still
Mirror of Deeds
"So: Ragged Woman"
Echoes of a Life
A Son’s Death
The End of the Body
Last Words

Glossary of Terms


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