Spears Of Twilightby Philippe Descola
"The Spears of Twilight is a masterpiece in the lineage of Tristes Tropiques, and yet most original in form. It allies ethnographic subtlety, literary talent, and profound theoretical insight... This is a superb book." -- Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago
Descola, working under the direction of the famed French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, came to Amazonia in the mid-1970s to study the Jivaro, infamous in both popular and scientific literature for their practice of head-huntingand, especially, head-shrinkingthus becoming "archetypes of exotic peculiarity . . . conveniently identifiable by one particular unusual custom or physical characteristic." The Jivaro, he writes, are uncommonly fierce people given over not only to intense warfare with neighboring tribes but also to murderous battles with one another. Men think nothing of beating their wives and children, of killing each other as if for sport, of responding to imagined insult with instant violence ("You have pissed on me, big-mouthed little brother," one Jivaro remarks, "and I am going to kill you and steal your wives"). Unsympathetic though they may seem, however, the Jivaro enjoy Descola's respect, even though he admits that "the sight of a woman being beaten is one that severely tests the obligation of neutrality that an ethnologist imposes on himself." Descola has the keen eye of the best ethnographers, offering notes on the Jivaros' kinship systems, language, religion, and mythology, as well as a detailed account of their daily lives (governed, he suggests, by a mortal terror of the violence around them). Yet the Jivaro are far more than curious objects of study; Descola writes that they are more like us than we civilized moderns may care to admit, "even if their present tribulations evoke nothing but indifference on the part of human beings too impatient to feel love for themselves in different guises."
Descola's fine ethnographic writing, along with his critical remarks on the anthropological enterprise, make this book of a piece with Lévi-Strauss's landmark Tristes Tropiques.
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Wajari returns from his bathe adjusting his old itip, a loincloth withvertical stripes of red, yellow, white and blue that reaches to mid-calf. Likemost of the men here, he usually wears a pair of shorts or trousers, keepinghis traditional costume for home use. The brown swirling water of theCapahuari flows past below the house, but a little inlet in the bank makessafe bathing possible. Here, the current is slowed down by a hugetree-trunk, barely submerged athwart the river bed and used by the childrenfor diving. A few steps made out of logs are set in the steep incline of thebank, making it possible to reach the river without slipping down the clayslope. Secured by a thick creeper to the roots of a kapok tree-stump, ahollowed-out wooden canoe is pulled halfway up the bank. Its horizontalprow sticking out over the river provides a convenient place for washingclothes or dishes or for filling large pear-shaped bottle gourds with water.Dozens of yellow butterflies flutter about inside this floating sink-hole andabove the river mud, competing with columns of tiny ants for the remains ofthe last meal. The people here use the name Kapawi for this stretch of waterthat the Ecuadorian maps and the Quichuas of Montalvo call Capahuari, adeformation of the Achuar word, itself an abbreviation of Kapawientza, `theriver of the kapawi', a species of flat fish.
It is late afternoon but still hot, the heat hardly tempered by the littlebreeze that circulates freely through the wall-less house. Inside, the dimnessis obliquely crossed by long shafts of light that stripe the beaten-earthfloor,occasionally catching a thin thread of smoke or the erratic flight of a fatbronze-tinged fly. Seen from inside the house, the vegetation of the gardenand the forest is dazzling beneath the dark line of the roof's overhang, anuninterrupted panel of shades ofnothing but brilliant green. This pointilliste background makes the dwellingdarker by contrast and melds into a dominant sepia the pinkish sand of thefloor, the blackened brown of the thatch, the dark hue of the bedsteads andthe bright ochre of the large jars in which manioc is fermenting.
Wajari has silently sat down on the small, carved, wooden seat that isreserved for him: a concave tree-trunk section set on top of apyramid-shaped base and ornamented by a jutting lozenge shaped like thehead of a reptile. He is a man of thirty or so with dark, almost curly hair, ahooked nose and eyes full of irony beneath his sooty brows. Hismovements are deft despite his slight stoutness. He has been away huntingwith his blowpipe since dawn and has only recently returned, shouldering aplump, white-lipped peccary. On his return the women and children fellsilent, each feigning indifference at the sight of this choice booty. Without aword, he dropped his burden at the feet of Senur, the eldest of his wives,then went off to bathe in the Kapawi, after carefully tidying away hisblowpipe in a vertical position on a little rack fixed to one of the postsholding up the house. Soon afterwards, Senur brought him the peccary,which he proceeded to skin and bone in a trice, using an old machete-bladeas sharp as a razor.
Now Wajari is staring at the ground, avoiding looking in my direction, hiselbows resting on his knees, apparently absorbed in profound meditation.His face looks darker than usual as his bathe did not altogether wash off therocou dye painted on before setting off on his hunting expedition. I amseated opposite him on the little wooden bench reserved for visitors,leaning against one of the posts supporting the roof's overhang at the outeredge of the house. I model my attitude on his and pretend to take no noticeof him, absorbed in a Jivaro lexicon put together for pastoral purposes byone of the Salesian missionaries.
Suddenly the master of the house loudly exclaims, `Nijiamanch! Wari,jiamanch, jiamanch, jiamanch!' It is time for the women to serve the maniocbeer, nijiamanch, the smooth, slightly alcoholic drink that constitutes theordinary, everyday beverage. My companions never drink pure water andthe manioc beer serves as much to slake their thirst as to fill their stomachsand lubricate conversation. A few extra days of fermentation turns it into astrong drink that isconsumed in repeated libations on festive occasions. As Senur is busydisembowelling the peccary at the river's edge, it is her sister Entza,the second wife, who hurries to her husband's side with a pininkia, alarge earthenware bowl coated in white and delicately decorated withred and black geometric patterns. With one hand plunged into thewhite liquid, she kneads the manioc paste to help it to dissolve in thewater, now and again discarding fibres that float to the surface. Goodbeer must be smooth, without lumps, creamy to the palate and not toowatery. But Wajari ignores the bowl proffered by his wife and,without looking at her, mutters what seems to be a reprimand:`Apach!', `The White!' Having handed me the pininkia, Entza fetchesa second one for Wajari, then positions herself a few paces behindhim with a large gourd full of beer that she mechanically continues tomix, ready to refill our bowls. With her forearm folded across heropulent bosom to protect it against the mosquitoes that plague us atthis hour of the day, and her rounded belly protruding like that of apregnant woman, she watches complacently over her husband.
Nijiamanch is drunk according to a precise code of seemlybehaviour, which I assimilated within a few days, since learningabout an unknown culture always begins with table manners. Itwould be unthinkable to refuse a bowl offered by a woman. To do sowould be interpreted as a grave indication of distrust of one's host,implying a suspicion that he had poisoned the brew. Apparently onlythe dying or overt enemies would reject nijiamanch offered to them,thereby through this very behaviour giving a clear sign of their truecondition. However, it is important not to receive the pininkia withtoo much eagerness: a great show of reserve is expected, and underno circumstances should a stranger to the household look at thewoman who serves him, under pain of being taken for a seducer.This evasive behaviour makes the matter of drinking all the morecomplicated since it is unseemly for a male to touch manioc beer: it isthe women who exercise full control over it right up to the momentwhen it is swallowed. So when, as frequently happens, an insectattracted by the milky liquid is struggling to avoid drowning in it, all aman can do is blow gently on the surface to help it to alight safely onthe rim. Touched by the drinker's efforts, his hostess will then comeover to rid him of the importunate fly and once again knead thefermented paste in his pininkia. The guest turns his headostentatiously awayfrom her as he holds out his bowl at arm's length for her to do so.
It is with a similar gesture, using the appropriate kinship term tocall her, that a man requests a refill. Having been served three times,courtesy and an exhibitionist sense of frugality dictate that each subsequentround of drinks be weakly declined, while at the same timethe laws of hospitality rule that the women take no notice of this showof politeness. Protestations become more forceful as one refill succeedsanother, but they are usually ineffectual. It is more or less taken forgranted that a man can never drink less than half a dozen bowlfulswithout deeply offending the hostess who is serving him. But whenseveral women are ministering to him simultaneously, it is acceptablefor him to return at least one of his pininkia before reaching thatfateful mark. Only great inventiveness in one's excuses and greatvehemence in their formulation will finally assuage the self-respect ofthe woman serving the beer and enable one to be relieved of one'sinexhaustible pininkia.
The wives are total mistresses of this little game which, despite theAchuar's fondness for their drink, sometimes ends up by resemblingthe barrel torture. The initial sound of appreciative smacking lips issoon replaced by discreet burps, one's stomach swells up like a balloon,the slight acidity of the beverage produces an unpleasant taste in themouth, and one's irrepressible desire to empty one's overfull bladderhas to be controlled for the sake of good manners. When the womenare feeling malicious, the pleasures of conviviality thus eventually evaporate,as their false solicitude becomes an unrelenting weapon in theunequally balanced contest of strength between the sexes.
Today, fortunately, that is not the case. In fact, as Wajari is busyall day long, away from the house, the evening nijiamanch session isone of the rare moments when I can pursue my task, to get the personknown in French anthropology by the rather unpleasant name of`informateur' to talk to me. In truth, I find it very hard to considerWajari as informateur, as the term, conflating as it does the meaningsof informer and informant, cannot but evoke to my mind one of thoseshifty figures in crime or spy stories who peddle their information formoney secretively. No doubt we owe that inelegant terminologicallegacy to the tradition of the pre-war Africanist ethnologists who,surrounded by their boys, porters and interpreters, would, duringworking hours, dispense payment from their verandas to the nativewise men, just as if they were tipping a gardener. Admittedly, theethnographers of Amazonia are themselves no angels in this respectand also make handouts for all kinds of reasons, both bad and good:you cannot invade the privacy of total strangers without offeringsome repayment for their goodwill and ensuring, by presentingsome offerings immediately upon arrival, that they will not turnyou out.
That was what we had counted on when we made our way to theKapawi with no edible provisions but plenty of small trade goods, asindeed Wajari seemed to understand when he invited us to stay in hishouse, in the evening of our first meeting. After our two Quichuaguides' precipitous departure for Montalvo, the young Achuar whohad spoken with them in their language had invited us into Wajari'shouse in very basic Spanish. Tseremp had acquired his multilingualskills whilst working for a few months as an unskilled worker for acompany prospecting for petroleum on the Rio Curaray, to the northof the Achuar territory. I had explained to him that we would like tospend a few days there, learning the Jivaro language, and he hadassumed that we were American Protestant missionaries - a beliefthat, in altogether bad faith, I had neither corrected nor confirmed.Tseremp had then acted as our interpreter vis-a-vis the master of thehouse and, after a long discussion to which we had listened withanxious incomprehension, he had transmitted Wajari's invitation tous to stay in his home.
That very evening I had given Wajari a large machete and a lengthof material for each of his wives, which he had accepted in silence,seeming to attach no importance to the gifts. During the week thatwe had been sharing the life of the household he seemed to haveaccepted our presence almost as though it were natural, keeping afriendly distance but attentive to our needs in a manner both discreetand unservile. Once or twice we had given his wives and childrensmall presents and dispensed medicine to alleviate a crisis of malariaor a small baby's diarrhoea. But I did not feel that these gifts werecorrupting nor that they turned Wajari into an informateur dulyremunerated for disclosing the secrets of his culture in response tomy inquisition.
My host continues, in silence, to knock back the manioc beer thathis wife is liberally serving him. He takes a last swig, then suddenlyturns to me, looking me straight in the eye. According to etiquette,conversation is now permissible and the initiative falls to him, as alwayswith visitors.
`Is everything all right?'
`And your wife, is she all right?'
`Yes, she is fine.'
So far, nothing too difficult. The little Roneoed Shuar-Spanishdictionary of Father Luigi Bolla makes it possible, despite the differencesof vocabulary between the two dialects, for me to sustain thisscintillating dialogue. Emboldened by success, I try a slightly lessbanal line.
`And what is that?' I ask, pointing to his seat.
`It is a chimpui.'
I already knew this; the missionary's invaluable lexicon explains thata chimpui is a small, wooden, sculpted stool. But I am intriguedby its zoomorphic appearance, and what I am after is its symbolicsignificance.
`Yes, it is a chimpui, but what is it?'
`It's a complete chimpui, a true chimpui.'
I do not know many ways of asking a question but, as well as `whatis it?' I do know how to say `why?'
`Why the chimpui?'
Wajari answers with a long sentence in which I think I can makeout that `our ancestors' and `my father' have from time immemorialconsidered it inconceivable to sit on anything but a chimpui. It is thetypical vicious circle of explanations in terms of tradition, from whichthe ethnographer can escape only by taking startling action or else byinventing some complicated yet plausible interpretation. I settle foraudacity rather than imagination and, in defiance of all convention, Iapproach Wajari's chimpui and touch the little lozenge shaped likethe head of a reptile, repeating my question. `And this, what is it?'
Another gloss follows. I can catch only the opening words, yantananuke, which, upon frantic consultation of the lexicon, turn out tomean `cayman's head'. Wajari enthusiastically proceeds with a commentarythat remains totally unintelligible to me. Anxious at least torespect appearances, I punctuate his speech with vigorously appreciativeinterjections such as `that's the truth, that's the truth,' and`well said!' as I have heard the Achuar do in their conversations. Butinside, I feel desperate. What Wajari is so obligingly telling me isprobably his people's myth of origins and, to crown it all, I haveforgotten to switch on my tape-recorder. The arrogant protocol ofethnographic investigation is taking a lamentable knock, my probingconversation is turning into a rout, my enquiry into the oral traditionis sinking into the sands of incomprehension.
My conceited scorn for interpreters and those who resort to themis beginning to crumble. Perhaps it would be better to put up withthe unverifiable interpretations of native specialists in cultural popularizationthan to suffer from the persistent ignorance engendered bythe language barrier. However, we have no choice. Tseremp's Spanishis much too rudimentary for us to turn him into a translator andnobody else here is bilingual. In fact, the main reason why I find ithard to regard Wajari as the informateur patented by the textbooksof ethnography is that I cannot understand a word of what he is tellingme. I feel that he is playing his role perfectly, without ever havinglearnt it, whilst I am failing in mine, despite having prepared for itfor years.
Silence once more falls between us and I console myself for myscientific doubts with the memory of a piece of advice that ClaudeLevi-Strauss gave me as I was leaving. When I had finished swampinghim with a detailed account of the enquiry techniques that I plannedto use and the subtle problems that they would enable me to resolve,he had brought our conversation to a close with the simple words,`Just let yourself go along with the lie of the land.' At this point, thereis nothing else I can do.
Senur has returned from the Kapawi having cut the peccary intoquarters and washed the innards. Before setting about preparing theanimal for cooking, she has first grilled the liver and kidneys on a littlespit, then offered them to her husband. When invited to share thissnack, we are all the more appreciative given that, in a cuisine dominatedby the blandness of boiled dishes, the giblets of hunted animalsare the only morsels that are eaten roasted. Entza and Mirunik havemeanwhile constructed a smoking grid of green wood over a hearth,where the game will be set to smoke. The smoking grid is used bythe entire household, but the meat has already been shared outbetween Senur and the other wives. As the senior wife, she has kepttwo haunches and a nice section of chine. The rest is divided betweenthe other two wives.
For supper, each wife chooses a choice piece from her share andsets it to simmer in a pot of manioc or taro. Each in turn comes todeposit at our feet a helping of the stew served on tachau, largeearthenware plates with a black glaze. Wajari has been similarly servedand summons his two adolescent sons, Chiwian and Paantam, to sharehis meal, while Senur, Entza and Mirunik gather their respectivechildren around them for a little family feast. Although the wivessometimes eat together, each usually prepares the food for herselfand her own children. Even within the family group such occasionalcommensality does not lead to shared dishes. The Achuar have clearlynever heard of primitive communism.
A gourd of water is passed round as a ewer, for the pre-mealablutions: a gulp to rinse one's mouth, then a gulp ejected in a thinstream, to wash one's hands. The master of the house then invitesme to begin with the stereotyped injunction, `Eat the manioc!' towhich one has to respond with embarrassed acquiescence and a showof surprise at suddenly discovering the steaming dishes at one's feet.Sweet manioc is the staple food of the Achuar, as synonymous withnourishment as bread is in France and, even when taken as an accompanimentto a dish of choice game, it is always this modest root thatone is deprecatingly invited to eat. It is good form for the guest tocontinue for a while to ignore this invitation, as if already well-satisfiedand incapable of swallowing a single mouthful. Only under the duressof the laws of politeness does one finally force oneself to peck at thedishes until then painstakingly ignored.
When the meal is over, the gourd of water is again passed aroundand then it is Mirunik's turn to serve the inevitable manioc beer.Wajari is talking quietly to his eldest son as he sips his nijiamanch,which relieves me of making another unhappy attempt at an oralenquiry. The sun has sunk behind the surrounding forest wall withthe suddenness that is inevitable in this latitude, leaving behind it amixture of cobalt blue and vermilion against which the tall, delicatestems of the chonta palms are silhouetted. Lost amid this extravaganzaof colours, a tiny cloud lingers in the west, like a glowing Venetianlantern set in the treetops. The absolute stillness of the air makes theclumps of vegetation merging into a single foreground seem evenmore static as they stand out against the backdrop of the heavens,like a flat piece of stage scenery.
Submerged in its green monotones, nature here is not of the kind toinspire a painter. Only at twilight does it deploy its bad taste, in linewith Baudelairean aesthetics, exceeding the artifice of the gaudiest ofcoloured images. The inhabitants of the forest become exceptionallyagitated during this brief debauchery of colour. The animals of thedaytime noisily prepare for sleep while the nocturnal species awakenfor the hunt, their carnivorous appetites whetted. Smells are alsomore definable now, for the heat of the long late afternoon has giventhem a consistency that the sun can no longer dissipate. Dulled duringthe daytime by the uniformity of nature's stimulants, the sensualorgans are suddenly assailed at dusk by a multiplicity of simultaneousperceptions that make it very difficult to discriminate between sight,sound and smell. Thanks to this brutal onslaught on the senses, thetransition between day and night in the forest acquires a dimension ofits own as if, for a brief moment just before the great void of sleeptakes over, the human body is no longer separate from itsenvironment.
This is the long-awaited time when we can at last drop our guard.Our attentive inspection of our hosts is clearly unrelentinglyreciprocated, but at nightfall a truce to this little game of mutualobservation is called. The children, in particular, stop spying on usand commenting on our every action in whispers smothered bylaughter. For the moment they are too busy hunting frogs, using littlebamboo tubes fitted with pistons that, under compression, projectsmall pellets of dried clay. We can hear their shrieks of joy in thebushes bordering the river whenever they score a hit on one of theirtargets. `Watch out for snakes!' Senur calls out to them, thengrumbles in the semi-darkness by the fire she is fanning, no doubtlamenting their carelessness in the face of the dangers of the forest.I talk quietly with Anne Christine about the events of the day, theslowness of our progress, and all that we have left behind us. Withoutthis interlude of intimacy offered us each evening, it would no doubtbe much harder for us to bear the constraints of our new life, and Imust confess that already I sometimes wonder how some of ourcolleagues found the strength of soul to remain alone for severalyears in similar conditions.
This evening Wajari, no doubt tired after his day of hunting, doesnot seem of a mind to stay up late. The signal for bedtime comes when hepoints to the visitors' bed and simply tells me, `Sleep!' Unlike many otherAmazonian tribes, the Jivaros use not hammocks but rectangular bedsteadscovered by flexible slats of palm wood or bamboo. You sleep in a strangeposition there, with your feet projecting into the void as they rest on a littlebar set over a smouldering hearth. This arrangement is inspired by an oldpiece of popular lore according to which you never get cold so long asyour feet are warm. Provided someone gets up at regular intervals to keepthe dying embers glowing, this is the way to ward off the damp cold of theearly hours just before dawn.
The beds in the house are enclosed on three sides by wooden slats. Inthis dwelling without walls these offer a small island of privacy, rather likethe enclosed bed of a Breton household, set up in the common living room.But our bed lacks this feature of refinement. Positioned alongside the outerroof supports, barely sheltered from the rain by the roof's overhang, it is soopen to the garden and the forest that you might think you were on a raftstill tenuously moored to the house but ready to drift out into the shadowsof the jungle as soon as your vigilance is overcome by slumber. Here onthis `apron stage', the sporadic sounds of the sleeping household aresupplanted by the nocturnal echoes of the wildlife: a strident chorusproduced by frogs and crickets and the throbbing bass of the toads arepunctuated by the melancholy cries of predators and the three descendingnotes of the nightjar's whistle. It seems almost incongruous when the sobsof a child or the whimpers of a dog remind you that a human world is closeat hand, so totally does the night here wipe out the patient works of man.
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