I teased a bit about this book earlier this week, so I’ll try to get right down into it, but there’s a lot to say here! This was fulfilling Challenge #14, “A book of social science.” On the assumption that anthropology counts as a social science. Because if it doesn’t, then something is broken.
This is a classic of cultural anthropology (though the author’s area of specialty is more ethnobotany) from the mid-1980s. It starts out in the early ’80s, when a more senior researcher calls the author, Wade Davis, into his office and tells him about the surprising case of Clairvius Narcisse, who was found wandering in a small town in Haiti nearly twenty years after his death.
Yup, the man sickened and died — in a hospital staffed with “Western”-trained doctors — and was buried in 1962. And yet there he was alive, and reporting that he could remember being buried, and then being dug up and made into a zombi slave for years. (Davis uses the spelling “zombi” instead of “zombie” and “vodoun” instead of “voodoo,” at least in part to avoid the goofy images associated with those more familiar spellings…though he doesn’t outright say that’s the reason.) All the necessary precautions had been taken to assure that the Narcisse of the 1980s was the same one who was declared dead in 1962 (I’m assuming, since it wasn’t mentioned, that they didn’t have any pre-burial fingerprints for the man). Although reports of such things had been floating about for decades, this time there was solid proof that someone had been declared dead and then turned up very much alive. There was also a woman for whom the same proof was available.
Long story short, Davis was given funding to go to Haiti and investigate these cases, because they had come to suspect that these zombis had been created by the use of a drug that made them seem dead (this is literally compared to the drug Juliet took to convince her family she had died) and an antidote that was then administered to revive them after they were dug up again. Such a drug would be invaluable for use in, for example, inducing suspended animation in astronauts about to begin an interplanetary (or interstellar!) flight, so Davis went to learn the secret of the drug.
This book is the story of what he learned about vodoun, Haiti, and the social forces binding the two. I won’t tell you the conclusions he came to, except to say that their initial suspicions were quite naive.
I dog-eared so many pages in this book that I can’t possibly share all of them with you…so I’m just going to try to find the ones that support what I want to say.
First, his depiction of what Haiti is — of what the Haiti he saw was — is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book; rather, Haiti was the main “character” of the book, not the narrator-author-anthropologist.
The Haiti described by Davis is vibrant, lively, and full of a spiritual warmth that has been lacking in the few other accounts I’ve read of visits there. (I think Roxanne Gay mentioned visiting Haiti, where her parents were born, but the description was largely focused on the jarring presence of opulence side by side with the most abject poverty. Something I’ve read recently did, anyway…) Some of that may be due to the fact that this book was written in the ’80s, and Haiti has been hard-hit in the last ten years or so by natural disasters. But I think some of it has a very different explanation.
In the chapter where Davis goes into distressing detail about Haitian history, starting back in the days of the French colony of Saint Domingue (which actually treated its slaves even worse than the American South did!) he moves on past nationhood into the scholarly study of Haiti and vodoun. And he talks about how in the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Haiti to produce an anthropological study of Haitian vodoun. (I hadn’t realized she was an anthropologist — and student of Franz Boas! — as well as being an author.) Before he tells us about what she learned in Haiti, he tells us about what the world’s (and especially America’s) perception of Haiti was at the time:
For some time American and European foreign correspondents had indulged their readers’ perverse infatuation with what was known as the Black Republic, serving it up garnished with every conceivable figment of their imaginations. For Americans, in particular, Haiti was like having a little bit of Africa next door, something dark and foreboding, sensual and terribly naughty. Popular books of the day, with such charming titles as Cannibal Cousins and Black Bagdad, cast the entire nation as a caricature, an impoverished land of throbbing drums ruled by pretentious buffoons and populated by swamp doctors, licentious women, and children bred for the cauldron. Most of these travelogues would have been soon forgotten had it not been for the peculiar and by no means accidental timing of their publication. Until the first of this genre appeared in 1880 — Spenser St. John’s The Black Republic, with its infamous account of a cannibalistic “Congo Bean Stew” — most books that dealt with vodoun had simply emphasized its role in the slave uprising. But these new and sensational books, packed with references to cult objects such as voodoo dolls that didn’t even exist, served a specific political purpose. It was no coincidence that many of them appeared during the years of the American occupation (1915-1934), and that every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to manage to land a publishing contract. There were many of these books, and each one conveyed an important message to the American public — any country where such abominations took place could find its salvation only through military occupation.
I think the image created by those books has still not fully been wiped away, especially if the words of certain excessively loud individuals in modern day are any indication.
More people should read this book to get an idea of the real Haiti. Well, the real Haiti of the 1980s. (I’d love to see a follow-up now, to find out what was the same and what was different.)
One of the most evocative images of Haiti actually came during one of Davis’s returns to America. He brought with him “a kaleidoscopic Haitian suitcase constructed from surplus soft drink cans.” On getting back to his office at Harvard, he had this to say about it:
It was amusing to look at that colorful case so symbolic of an entire nation. Haiti, it is said, is the place to discover how much can be done with little Tires are turned into shoes, tin cans into trombones, mud and thatch into lovely, elegant cottages. Material goods being so scarce, the Haitian adorns his world with imagination.
On a similar note, after returning to Haiti and going to a hounfour (a place where a houngan (vodoun practitioner) practices, in this case acting to heal some very desperately ill people). Unasked, the patients shared their food with Davis, despite that they likely realized that as a foreign blanc, he had far more money than they ever would:
It was not surprising to see such sickness in the hounfour, which is, after all, a center of healing. But to encounter such generosity and kindness in the midst of such scarcity was to realize the full measure of the Haitian peasant.
The role of vodoun in Haiti he summed up beautifully here:
Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this, like a psychic education, must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed. For in this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, it is religion that provides the essential bond. Vodoun is not an isolated cult; it is a complex mystical worldview, a system of beliefs concerning the relationship between man, nature, and the supernatural forces of the universe It fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible. Vodoun cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entier community.
Another passage that really set me thinking was this one:
Perhaps our biggest choice came four centuries ago when we began to breed scientists. This was not something our ancestors aimed for. It was a result of historical circumstances that produced a particular way of thinking that was not necessarily better than what had come before, only different. Every society, including our own, is moved by a fundamental quest for unity; a struggle to create order out of perceived disorder, integrity in the face of diversity, consistency in the face of anomaly. This vital urge to render coherent and intelligible models of the universe is at the root of all religion, philosophy, and, of course, science. What distinguishes scientific thinking from that of traditional and, as it often turns out, nonliterate cultures is the tendency of the latter to seek the shortest possible means to achieve total understanding of their world. The vodoun society, for example, spins a web of belief that is all-inclusive, that generates an illusion of total comprehension. No matter how an outsider might view it, for the individual member of that society the illusion holds, not because of coercive force, but simply because for him there is no other way. And what’s more, the belief system works; it gives meaning to the universe.
Scientific thinking is quite the opposite. We explicitly deny such comprehensive visions, and instead deliberately divide our world, our perceptions, and our confusion into however many particles are necessary to achieve understanding according to the rules of our logic. We set things apart from each other, and then what we cannot explain we dismiss with euphemisms. For example, we could ask why a tree fell over in a storm and killed a pedestrian. The scientist might suggest that the trunk was rotten and the velocity of the wind was higher than usual. But when pressed to explain why it happened at the instant when the individual passed, we would undoubtedly hear words such as chance, coincidence, and fate; terms which, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless but which conveniently leave the issue open. For the vodounist, each detail in that progression of events would have a total, immediate, and satisfactory explanation within the parameters of his belief system.
For us to doubt the conclusions of the vodounist is expected, but it is nevertheless presumptuous. For one, their system works, at least for them. What’s more, for most of us our basis for accepting the models and theories of our scientists is no more solid or objective than that of the vodounist who accepts the metaphysical theology of the houngan. Few laymen know or even care to know the principles that guide science; we accept the results on faith, and like the peasant we simply defer to the accredited experts of the tradition. Yet we scientists work under the constraints of our own illusions. We assume that somehow we shall be able to divide the universe into enough infinitesimally small pieces, that somehow even according to our own rules we shall be able to comprehend these, and critically we assume that these particles, though extracted from the whole, will render meaningful conclusions about the totality.
I feel like this tells me so much about what’s wrong with the world today: our culture has subdivided itself into mini-cultures with their own incompatible worldviews, and we’re all unable to look past them to find common ground.
Also I keep wondering about that example with the tree. What would a scientist say about why it happened to fall just when someone was passing by? Particularly someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who doesn’t like to fall back on words like “coincidence.”
To close out this disjointed quote-fest (there not being much here other than quotes), I should probably point out that since this was written in the 1980s, certain aspects of it are not very politically correct. (Like, for example, the references to “peasants.”) But it’s very clear throughout just how much Davis admired and respected the culture that he had spent so long researching and becoming a part of. It’s a fascinating read…though the chapter about pre-revolutionary Haiti does require a strong stomach in a couple of places.