Bruce Jackson

Jean Malaurie and the Voices of Terre Humaine

(Published in French in Terre Humaine: Cinquante ans d'une collection. Entretien avec Jean Malaurie. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2005, 19-20.)

The unique achievement of Jean Malaurie’s Terre Humaine is this: in spite of the increasing hegemony of scientism in the academic social sciences—the notions that what can be measured and counted has primacy over what can represented or portrayed, and that the number or graph is more valid or useful than the human voice or written word—he has passionately and effectively insisted on the central legitimacy and significance of individual experience, perception, voice and writing.

Jean Malaurie is one of the world’s great talkers, writers, and ethnographers. Terre Humaine reflects all of those: it honors and provides a space for what people say and how they say it, what they do and how they do it.

“Cette collection a construit, livre après livre, sans a priori théorique, un anthropologie à part entière, au regard global, où toute réflexion ne s’élabore que sur un expérience vécue.” Malaurie wrote in 1995. “A l’écart d’idéologies aujourd’hui dépassées et des modes, Terre Humaine, oasis de liberté, est, dans un espirit de totale indépendance, un courant de renouveau de la recherche et de la pensée, dans la tradition si française de la littérature du réel.”

[“Terre Humaine: 40 Ans.” Unpaged, undated document describing each of the works in Terre Humaine, on Librairie Plon letterhead. My copy is signed by Malaurie and hand-dated 20.08.95.]

The traditional voice of science is passive and third-person: “It was observed that...” and “the results are...” There is no passivity in Terre Humaine and hardly any third person. Terre Humaine is a body of first-person non-fiction literature that would have been adored by America’s greatest 19th century poet, Walt Whitman, who proclaimed, “I am the man. I suffer’d. I was there.” It is a literature of responsible witness and specific voice.

Nothing like Terre Humaine exists anywhere else in the world. Publishers have booklists, but no publisher other than Plon has anything like Terre Humaine, and that is because no publisher other than Plon has Jean Malaurie.

Terre Humaine is a company of literary works about the human condition in all its subtlety, complexity, originality, and commonality. Terre Humaine knows no geographic or ethnic or temporal or class boundaries. Its central instrument is that of individual sensibility experiencing human culture and bearing witness to what was seen, experienced and understood.

The two books that to me best represent the substance and content of Terre Humaine are Malaurie’s own Les Derniers Rois de Thulé. Avec les Esquimaux Polaires, face à leur destin, published in 1955 as the first volume in the collection, and James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Louons maintenant les grands hommes. Trois familles de métayers en 1936 en Alabama, first published in the U.S. in 1941, translated as the 19th volume in Terre Humaine in 1972, the third edition of which Malaurie designated as Terre Humaine’s fiftieth anniversary publication.

Both books are polyphonic and visual, composed of multiple levels and kinds of text and complex images. Each consists of the writer’s voice and voices heard and overheard. Both Agee and Evans tell what they saw, then look at themselves looking, in an attempt to give readers a sense of the authors, the social complexities of the human encounters that undergird the writing, and the ethical questions raised by those encounters and by the writing itself. Each book raises or asks as many questions about the human condition and the task of documenting it as it answers, and that is part of their interest and pleasure.

Derniers Rois is representative of Terre Humaine in another important regard: it keeps growing in size and complexity—it has gone through five editions, growing each time: 328 pages in 1955, 508 pages in 1965, 592 pages in 1976, 656 pages in 1979, and 854 pages in 1989, with a concomitant increase in the number of illustrations and maps—yet each time the complexities and additions enrich the original design rather than substitute something else for it.

I think there are at least two parts to doing useful ethnographic work. The first is being open to experience and capable of recording that experience; the second is finding the right voice in which to tell the story. In creating Terre Humaine, Malaurie was driven by the idea that there is a way of looking at, describing, and coming to understand the human community that transcends individual works. The great vision of Terre Humaine is that understanding is always a collaborative venture between those who are seen and those who are seeing, between those who speak and those who write, between those who write and those who read.

Perhaps the best statement about the importance of Terre Humaine was written by Jean Malaurie himself in his introduction to another astonishing work in the series, Emile Zola’s Carnets d’enquêtes. Une ethnographie inédite de la France (edited by Henri Mitterand, 1986), “Par son souci de rigeur et d’authenticité, par sa volonté de faire émerger les sociétés les plus proches comme les plus lointains en donnant la parole aux plus humbles, comme aux plus qualifiés des spécialistes, par conviction de la relativité du regard qui ne peut être saisi que par le jeu d’une double vue, par son approche intermilieux, interécritures, cette collection a, sans doute, contribué à faire évolver souterrainement les sensibilités de nos contemporains et las vision du monde qui les entoure.”

And so it has.