(For colloquium "Terre Humaine, une aventure éditoriale et scientifique"
Bibliothèque national de France, 31 March-2 April 2005.)
The Only Other is The One with the Notebook
First, some words on the work of observation and documentation.
It is far easier to describe in detail the aspects of and feelings occasioned by the face of a stranger sitting across the aisle in the metro than the face you have seen every day of your adult life in your bathroom mirror. When we look at our own faces, the defects we have always ignored and the strengths that are interesting to others but merely ordinary are to us are equally invisible. It doesn't matter that you are a man who carefully trims his beard and moustache every day or a woman who carefully applies makeup to her face every day. You will not describe your own face the same way that you will describe mine, or the face of a stranger, or of your lover.
That is because, except by accident, we never encounter ourselves in a close mirror unprepared: by the time our eyes focus on our image, we have composed our face to be one we are willing to encounter. It is impossible to do otherwise. Remember the shock of recognition you felt when you briefly glimpsed a stranger's image in a taxi's rear-view mirror that turned out to be your own face not expecting and therefore not ready to be seen by you, or when you caught a view of your face from an unexpected angle when you passed between two mirrors not quite parallel to one another. Looking and seeing, at oneself or anything else, are always acts; they aren't passive, like getting rained on.
In the U.S. there is a proverbial expression about the very familiar: people say "I know it like I know the back of my own hand." In fact, most people know nothing of the backs or the fronts of their own hands and could do no better a job describing either of them than they could describe the soles of their feet. That is because, unless they have had a special reason for doing so, they've never looked at either the backs of their hands or the soles of their feet with the intensity and curiosity and commitment to memory even superficial description would require.
One reason we look at the hands of others is to learn things they may not have told us with their words. Hands may reveal the kind and amount of work a person does, and perhaps even the person's station in life. Hands may provide information about age concealed in the face by plastic surgery or makeup. We don't need to look at our own hands for such information; we already know everything they might have to tell.
Likewise with space. The perfect order or horrible clutter of our own kitchen or bedroom or workshop is transparent to us, a mere fact of life, while the order or clutter of the stranger's kitchen or bedroom or workshop we enter for the first time is immediately noted and remembered, and the owner or occupant is judged or evaluated on the basis of it. Are you a beggar or a king? Let me see your hands, your kitchen, your bedroom, your workshop.
Every ethnographer and police detective knows that it is far more difficult to describe the immediate and familiar than the strange and new. Most of us, if we visit in a foreign land a family that eats with knife, fork and spoon exactly as people eat with those implements in our own country, will not make detailed notes about how they eat, nor will we take photographs, or make drawings of them doing it. Why bother?
It is not just a matter of observing and documenting. There is also the matter of why observation and documentation are taking place. If you are looking at the glacier as part of a vacation trip to the Arctic you see and note and remember different things than if you are looking at it as geomorphologist or ethnographer.
Once we know that we are making something of this moment rather than simply being here now, we see with two sets of eyes, hear with two sets of ears, interpret in two distinct places of the imagination: our own in the moment, and those of the persons we hope to reach later with what we are learning now. For the writer, it is the readers; for the photographer, it is the lookers; for the talker, it is the listeners.
This is the key insight of all travelers who in the moment of experience, however difficult or painful that moment might be, are already partly in the future looking back at themselves telling their tale of this moment to an as-yet unencountered and perhaps as-yet unimagined audience. This is the lover who knows the affair will end, already looking back, though the moment of passion is still going on. This is Aeneas, after the killing of the three stags and shortly before he will arrive in Dido's Carthage, famously saying to his men on the coast of north Africa "forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit": Some day it will perhaps be good to look back on these things. And not just look back, for there is one characteristic courtly Virgil and wandering Aeneas share more than any other: they are both storytellers. Some day it will perhaps be good to look back on these things—and to tell the story of them.
We look far more than we see; we see far more than we understand; we understand far more than we know. It is the ethnographer's task to look, to see, to understand, and then to go one critical step further: to tell the story in a way that is meaningful and useful and honest. To tell it in a way that the readers know and feel something significant of a life they did not know and feel before, and could not have known and had feelings about otherwise.
Without those four discrete acts—looking, seeing, understanding, and telling—the experience is a moment lost in time. It may have been horrible or it may have been sublime, but in either case it is gone forever. That is, it is merely travel. Ethnographers travel, but travel is not what they do. What they do is tell.
As ethnographers, we go elsewhere—whether halfway around the globe or to a street in our own city to which we have never before ventured, let alone let ourselves be immersed—to come to know the world and experience of the Other, that person who is Not Us. But there is a key fact or irony to this enterprise which all ethnographers at some point learn: the only "other" in that distant place or on that street in our own city never before visited is the ethnographer. Everyone else is at home; everyone else is natural; everyone else is doing what there is to be done. It is only the ethnographer who is the stranger, the outsider, the alien. If the ethnographer travels in order to understand the other, then at least one purpose of all ethnography is understanding oneself.
The task is differentiating and knowing the other-who-is-the-stranger and the other-who-is-oneself, and preserving enough of that difference to be able to write about it later. Lose the distance entirely and you never come home; bridge it inadequately and you've understood nothing and have no story to tell.
II. Science, after a fashion
Before the telling of the story there is the experiencing of the event and before that there is the choice of what event or place will be experienced, the decision about what is valuable to be experienced.
There is a fork in the road of studying human knowledge where those of us who write the kind of books that find their way into the company of Terre Humaine go one way and those who write "social sciences" books primarily composed of numbers and charts and language few, if anyone at all, in this room would take any pleasure in reading aloud go another. As soon as you decide that the most important thing or most reliable thing is what can counted, you thenceforth see as important only things that can be counted. Once you make that choice, things that cannot be counted do not count.
That is a necessary and essential choice in the experimental sciences. The experimental sciences need replicable procedures with specific results utilizing models that make enough apparent sense to be worth proving or disproving, worth applying or not applying. 'This is done; that does or does not happen; it is so big or weighs so much or happens in this many seconds. Next!'
In the human sciences, however, experimental modeling has the great danger, perhaps the great likelihood, of leading to a trivialization of the human experience, of leading to scientism—putting on the garments of experimental science without having earned the right to wear them.
In the early 1990s,when I was editor of Journal of American Folklore, I began receiving more and more articles that referred to the field of study as "folkloristics." "Folkloristics" was the term used for the field of study in the Nordic countries, but in the US and in Great Britain, the name of the field had long been "folklore." That word no more covered what all folklorists did than the term "English" covers what is done in the departments in American universities that have that title. Those words are just what those fields and departments are called; they are names, not behaviors. What is actually done in the fields and departments is determined by what people in them are doing at any time. So why was I seeing so many articles with "folkloristics" where only a short time earlier I had seen the word"folklore"? Because, I was told, "folkloristics" was far more "scientific" a word and the authors were certain they would be taken more seriously if they were regarded as being more scientific than they had been previously. I refused to publish articles with the word "folkloristics" where the word "folklore" would have served perfectly well. A few authors got very angry and withdrew their submissions; most accepted my suggestion that they use the word "folklore," as people had for years. Mine was a hollow victory, however: as soon as my successor took over, the pages of Journal of American Folklore were awash with "folkloristics-this" and "folkloristics-that." Did people in other fields thenceforth take them more seriously? Of course not. Nothing changed except the word.
I talked about this foolishness with editors in other disciplines. They were experiencing the same thing. Different words were at issue, but the same process was taking place. What we were seeing wasn't science. It was scientism, pretending to the certainty of the experimental sciences where it did not exist and never would exist.
There only place in the human sciences where the certainty of the experimental sciences exists is where the researchers have limited themselves to inquiries that look like experimental science. Sometimes that produces useful results; just as often, perhaps more often, it does not. It also produces truly abominable prose, like this passage from an award-winning essay which I discovered in the American Anthropological Association's ethnographic journal, Ethos:
Specifically, we are interested in the construction of deviance as a rhetorical device and in the dialogical possibilities that this construction opens for reaffirming or changing the boundaries of symbolic-moral universes (Ben-Yehuda ]990; Berger and Luckmann 1966). Our focus is thus on the transactional process between center and periphery through which deviance is confronted, appropriated, and remade by powers representing (or aspiring to represent) the society's core values....In the case under discussion the system of local knowledge that informs the cultural construction of deviance, and the moral-symbolic universe that is consequently reaffirmed, are not biomedical but mystico-religious.
Why would anyone want to write like that? Who can read language like that? For whom is language like that written? Who cares about language like that? Language like that calls to mind a wonderful passage in filmmaker Luis Buñuel's autobiography, My Last Sigh:
I must state my hatred of pedantry and jargon. Sometimes I weep with laughter when I read certain articles in Cahiers du Cinéma, for example. As the honorary president of Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica in Mexico City, I once went to visit the school and was introduced to several professors, including a young man in a suit and tie who blushed a good deal. When I asked him what he taught, he replied, “The Semiology of the Clonic Image.” I could have murdered him on the spot.
The authors of the psychological passage I quoted are probably no better or worse than anyone else doing similar work. I could have skimmed other issues of Ethos and found many similar passages, as I could have found them skimming the pages of American Anthropologist or Journal of American Folklore. You could find them skimming the pages of equivalent French journals in the same fields.
I don't usually read work like that because I don't like it. So far as I can tell, the sentiment is reciprocated: people who cherish process and prose like that rarely cherish the kind of process and prose found in Terre Humaine. They say we're not scientific enough, they say we're literary.
They are right, and a good thing it is. What else could we be? Of course we're literary. That doesn't mean that we're not doing good ethnography, good "social science." All it means is that good social science, good ethnography, unlike good experimental science, can be literary. There's nothing complicated about that concept. Words are as valid and precise a language as is scientific notation, if the author and reader know how to use them correctly. Neither language is inherently better than the other; neither is more privileged than the other. If something in either is bad, it's bad; if something in either is good, it's good.
They each have things they do better than the other. The language of scientific notation is the best language we've got for describing, say, the interaction of subatomic particles or the curve of airfoils or the architecture of a microprocessor. You just can't do those things well with words, no matter how good a writer you are.
If you want to describe the human condition, however, you've got to opt for the tools of literature. There's no way around it. That's what literature is for; that's what literature does. Literature is a machine for describing the human condition. Everybody who works in literature knows that. If the proponents of scientism cannot understand or accept that, too bad for them. We can't save them; we can only do our work and hope they sometime learn how to read it.
Jean Malaurie knew this perfectly well when, in 1955, he published as one of the two mottos of the first book in Terre Humaine, his own magnificent Les Derniers rois de Thulé, this quotation from Jean Giono's L'eau vive:
We cannot know a country merely through the science of geography....I do not believe that we can know anything merely through science; it is too precise, too rigid a tool. The world has a thousand tendernesses into which we must lean so that we may understand them before we learn what the sum of their parts represents....Only the sailor knows the archipelago.
(On ne peut pas connaître un pays par la simple science géographique... On ne peut, je crois, rien connaître par la simple science; c'est un instrument trop exact et trop dur. Le monde a mille tendresses dans lesquelles il faut se plier pour les comprendre avant de savoir ce que représente leur sommme... Seul le marin connaîtt l'archipel.)
4. This truth and that truth
But saying something is literature is at once saying too much and not enough; we must refine the term further if we are to know anything useful. Some literature is prose, some is poetry, though some prose is so good we honor it by calling it poetic. Some prose is called fiction, or made up; all the rest is called non-fiction, or not made up. Fiction and non-fiction use the same writing techniques. There is only one important difference in fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes it matters a great deal; sometimes, it matters not at all. It is an external, not an internal difference, a difference you might feel but cannot ever fully know by looking only at the work itself.
The difference in the two kinds of prose is this: non-fiction is always accountable to things outside itself, while the fictional work owes no allegiance to anything other than its own internal narrative integrity.
The novel by Jonathan Swift that recounts the several voyages of Lemuel Gulliver reads like a perfectly good, albeit highly fantastic, travel account, but none of it ever happened anywhere except in the brain of Jonathan Swift. Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa awakens one morning as an insect, feet in the air, carapace against the sheets. We never know him as anything other than an insect, so there is no reason for us to question it. Likewise, it matters not a bit whether or not Flaubert was, in Madame Bovary, faithful to his models—his father and mother, his friend Ernest Chevalier, his mistress Louise Colet, poor sad misguided Delphine Delamare, Flaubert himself. What matters in the realm of fiction is how real the author's characters and places seem to us, not how real they are or were in the world. You and I can talk about Emma Bovary as if we knew her, and perhaps we do, but that is the mark of Flaubert's narrative genius, not a reflection or evidence of the fact of her life.
Fiction that works, that makes us feel we are reading something real even though we know what we are reading is not real, is fiction that has what some critics called "authority." Exactly the same thing is at work in non-fiction. The best writers of non-fiction convince you that you can take what they say as true without your having to consult anyone or anything else.
Authority exists in fiction and in non-fiction, but not in the same way. Not only do you and I know Emma Bovary, but we both know exactly the same things about her. Indeed, we know everything there is to know about her, everything anyone knows about her. There may be things written about Flaubert's sources or Flaubert's words, there may be notes and letters from Flaubert explaining this or that, but the object is itself fixed: it is the novel that bears his name as author and her name as title. Emma does not exist outside that novel. Her affair with Rodolphe is inside that novel; her grave is inside that novel.
A work of fiction is referential only by coincidence or convenience. But a nonfiction work—whether one of experimental science or biography or ethnography—is referential of necessity. It does not exist without that referent, and the further it strays from that referent the less useful or meaningful it is to us, no matter how well written, how craftily it is designed or wrought.
Every work that claims to bear witness is an individual encounter with something far more resonant and complex than the individual doing the encountering. The several editions of Les Derniers rois de Thulé give physical testimony to that: each new edition of the book is 100 pages longer than the previous edition. The book is organic, responding to the external world it is about and to changes in the author himself. The Jean Malaurie who wrote Les Derniers rois de Thulé was not the Jean Malaurie who arrived in Greenland in 1950, knowing little about the place but confident that his earlier experience in the Sahara would see him through. And neither was the Jean Malaurie who did the fifth edition the Jean Malaurie who did the first edition in 1955. It could not be otherwise.
No one put difference between fiction and non-fiction better than James Agee in one the most important theoretical passages in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being. Because of his immeasurable weight in actual existence, and because of mine, every word I tell of him has inevitably a kind of immediacy, a kind of meaning, not at all necessarily 'superior' to that of imagination, but of a kind so different that a work of the imagination (however intensely it may draw on 'life') can at best only faintly imitate the least of it.
5. Why are some true stories novels while other true stories are not novels?
A few years ago, Jean Malaurie published in Terre Humaine something he'd previously said he would never publish in Terre Humaine: a novel, Claude Lucas's Suerte. Claude Lucas was sufficiently concerned by the question of genre to append a note to his book explaining why he chose to cast his life in terms of what he called a novel rather than a memoir. His book is interesting for many reasons, not the least being how it forces us to rethink our distinctions between "fiction" and "nonfiction" and the kinds of truth each can represent, the kind of accountability to which each is subject, and the kind of authority each has.
I thought of Suerte recently when I was reading one of the classic American proletarian novels of the 1930s, Jack Conroy's The Disinherited. The Disinherited is a first-person narrative about coal-miners, factory workers and other people suffering from the Great Depression. The book received a flutter of attention when it was first published in 1933, then disappeared until the early 1960s when it was rediscovered at exactly the same time and perhaps for exactly the same reasons James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was rediscovered.
The Disinherited is a novel the way Suerte is a novel, which is to say, in the thinnest possible sense of that generic word. Conroy began writing his book as a first-person autobiography then shifted to fiction. He was never comfortable with the category. He told an interviewer in 1963: "Novel or not, just so it tells the truth. I describe myself as a witness to the times, not as a novelist. And that's what I prefer to be known as." In another interview he said, "I wanted to be a witness to the times, to show how it feels to be without work and with no prospect of any, and with the imminent fear of starvation, to move people to think about these things, and, what was more important, to do something about it."
A witness to the times. That is perhaps the simplest definition I have ever read of the mission and accomplishment of the writers who form the companionship of Terre Humaine. Conroy's phrase has two components: the times, the human reality out there; and a witness, a specific person experiencing that human reality and finding a form and a language with which to tell the rest of us about it in a book that has not only specificity, but also meaning and passion.
One can only bear witness to the times in the first person. You cannot bear witness to the times in the passive voice of science, let alone the hollower and even more passive voice of scientism.
There is delight and vitality to the process of becoming less a stranger, less an outsider, whether as explorer and writer, or as reader. The great achievement of Terre Humaine, the reason it continues to grow in books and readers, the reason it has lasted half a century in a time of increasing velocity and obsolescence, is that it continues to allow strangers to tell us what they saw and learned, it continues to let them tell us not about our world's uniformity but rather its differences. We are not the same, nor would we want to be What we want is the ability to know and understand and love the differences that make us who and what we are.
I leave you with this blessing Jean Malaurie offered in a recent letter: "Terre Humaine doit rester une terre de tolérance, de liberté et de sérénité." Terre Humaine must remain a domain of tolerance, of liberty and of serenity.