Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Alfred Métraux - Voodoo In Haiti (pt. 3)


A diary entry written by Michel Leiris 50 years after the publication in Documents (October 5th 1979, "Journal 1922-1989") explains the reasons for Leiris' review of Seabrook's book in that journal. Leiris was interested in Seabrook's book because Voodoo is a possession cult. Possession, understood by Leiris as "... losing one's head in a trance ...", points towards the concept of the "acephalous" (headless). In this concept several strands of Bataillean thought are brought together. For Bataille, the head’s function is utilitarian, and opposed to collective effervescence. Losing one's head means an ecstatic subversion of egotistic calculation. Possession was presented a method to lose oneself in Dionysian ecstasy, like expenditure, sacrifice, transgression, laughter and tears, ecstasy and madness, vice and revolt, eroticism and death.

Bataille used photographs of Voodoo rituals madde by Pierre Verger, a friend to Métraux, for his books "L'Érotisme" (1957) and "Les Larmes d'Éros" (1961). In the texts accompanying these photographs, Bataille also stressed the Dionysian nature of the Voodoo cult: "What the Voodoo-sacrifier experienced was a kind of ecstasy. An ecstasy which was in a sense comparable to a drunkenness. An ecstasy which was caused by killing birds."

On the contrary, in "Le Vaudou Haitien" (published in 1958, before "Les Larmes d'Éros"), Métraux would debunk the presentation of Voodoo as a Dionysian cult:

"Too often people imagine that a crowd exalted by mystic enthusiasm is the usual setting for Voodoo possession. In fact those who attend ceremonies as spectators only cast an occasional absent-minded glance at the goings-on. They gossip on the edges of the peristyle, smoke cigarettes, or nibble at tablettes (pralines). At no time is the crowd subject to a collective delirium, or even to a degree of excitement propitious to ecstasy. The traditional dances of Voodoo - yanvalou, doba, Dahomey, petro - all carried out with great seriousness, a subtle sense of rhythm and admirable suppleness - are far from being Dionysian. Only at certain ceremonial moments does the degree of excitement reach enthusiasm."

"Le Vaudou Haitien" is replete with such paragraphs, texts which aim to "normalize" Voodoo, that is to present Voodoo as un-heterogeneous as possible.

In his introduction to the English translation of the book, ethnologist Sidney W. Mintz (Wikipedia: "the doyen of Caribbean anthropology") calls the scant attention given in "Le Vaudou Haitien" to theoretical perspectives on Voodoo the major weakness of the book.

On the basis of the back story presented in this series of posts, I think Mintz is missing out on a covert debate between Métraux on the one hand and Bataille and Leiris on the other. In this debate Bataille and Leiris stress the ecstatic, Dionysian aspect of Voodoo, while Métraux stresses the normal, the useful and the productive in Voodoo. I think that there is more at stake than a reaction against sensationalist representations of Voodoo in Western popular culture. This debate points towards the wider question of the usefulness of the Nietzschean distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian as a tool for ethnographic analysis.


That Métraux stresses the normal, useful and productive aspect of Voodoo, in no way diminishes the beauty of "Voodoo in Haiti". Michel Leiris calls Métraux's concern for describing the world of Voodoo a poetic concern: "...not to be content with describing things but, having grasped them in all their singular reality, to make them come alive in the eyes of the person reading what he had written".

"It's by smell and taste alone," Proust writes, that we can recover "the vast structure of recollection." For Métraux, the taste and smell of Voodoo evoked childhood memories that carried him beyond the normal, the useful and the productive into the magical, exuberant world of fairy tales and myth.

"[The loa] are no longer the gods of an African tribe, but deities which think and act in the industrialized world of today. This is why the are as familiar and as close to us as the Gods of ancient Greece were to the people who worshiped them. The westernization of an African religion has brought to light all the features which it shares with the religions of the ancient world, so that anyone acquainted with the classical universe can easily enter the mysterious world of Voodoo. He feels as through he were among gods who speak his language and behave in a way he can understand.

Voodoo is a paganism of the West. We discover it with joy or horror, according to our temperament or our background. Many of us go to Haiti in search of our classical heritage, and find in Voodoo the charm of fairy tales. Without compelling us to give up our habits and our ties with the present, it takes us into a magic realm"

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