Posts Tagged ‘possession’

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

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