Wednesday 26 December 2007

Observing, understanding and participating

Montague Summers obviously had a firm belief in witches and vampires, whereas modern scholars take on a more phenomenological approach, like e.g. David Keyworth who writes in the introduction to his Troublesome Corpses:

“And while it can be argued that perceived reality is no more than a shared consensus, a social construct that results from a collective belief in a particular world-view, authenticated and maintained by the participants involved and the world-view that was prevalent at the time, I do not personally believe that corpses can arise from their coffins to feed upon the blood of the living.” (p. 9)

Keyworth refers to Berger and Luckmann’s famous (or infamous, if you like) and highly influential The Social Construction of Reality (1966) which is e.g. known for its view that Haitian voodoo beliefs are as “real” as the Western belief in neuroses and “libidinal energy”. Unfortunately, I only own the book in a Danish translation, so I can’t quote the relevant part of the book.

Darren Oldridge, whom I have quoted and referred to before – on vampire beliefs and observations, and on the rationality of our ancestors in general - on the other hand finds that it is essential that we try to understand the rationality of the strange histories of the past.

A marriage between the phenomenological approach and the attempt to understand is in my view beautifully described by Michael E. Bell in the prologue to Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Describing a class he attended during his education, he writes of folklorist Wayland Hand:

“My epiphany came the day Wayland told us about the disappearance of giants from Europe. This was not a rapid, catastrophic event like the extinction of the dinosaurs. It was, rather, a more lengthy demise with the final death blow administered by the Industrial Revolution. As Wayland talked about the giants, I noticed that he stopped looking at us, and his eyes seemed to focus somewhere beyond the windowless walls of our Bunche Hall classroom. His voice, naturally soft, grew softer. He spoke about how Christians stigmatized the giants as devils, in league with Satan. He described how industry’s widening circle of smoke and clamor finally pushed the giants from their homes. His voice dropped to a near whisper, and I’m sure I saw tears well up, as he described how the giants shrank, deeper and deeper into the forests and caves. Demonized, and no longer able to find refuge, the giants vanished. When Wayland concluded, it dawned on me that he wasn’t talking only about giants no longer appearing in the folklore record. He was describing the extinction of a species. I thought, this is incredible: Wayland Hand, a meticulous, reasoning scholar – a professional folklorist – actually believes in giants.” (p. XI-XII)

Bell himself feels compelled to divide himself into two identities: The rational, observing scholar, and the guy who can suspend his disbelief to “participate wholeheartedly, without reservation”. (p. XIII)

Personally, I would be careful in stating my own approach to understanding the background of magia posthuma in such terms, but I suppose that a true understanding requires that you attempt to come as close as possible to viewing the investigated phenomena through the eyes of the observers, in casu peasants, Austrian military personnel, Catholic priests, medical scholars etc.

In fact, this is also what Keyworth attempts to do: “Indeed, I will follow what Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre (1984) called ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnographic’ history, and try to understand the situation from the participant’s point of view, not just cite the official version of events as evidenced by the historiographical sources, and take a non-judgmental, empathetic attitude towards the experiences and intentions of participants involved in the events described, given the cultural context of such traditions.” (p. 9)

No doubt, it can be hard and also very unpleasant to try to intellectually “participate” in events involving revenants, diseases, and the exhumation, examination and destruction of corpses, but as Oldridge has pointed out, “it is the very strangeness of these ideas – from a modern perspective – that makes them worth looking at.” (Strange Histories, p. ix)

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...