A Literary Essay Worthy of Tristes Tropiques

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Philippe Descola, The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle,  New Press, 1998.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam.

Originally published in French as: Philippe Descola, Les lances du crépuscule : Relations jivaros. Haute-Amazonie, Plon collection Terre Humaine, 1993.

The myth of the noble savage finds favor among philosophers and social scientists. Mankind in the state of nature is untainted by corrupting civilization; men and women belonging to primitive tribes live happily in peaceful hedonism; they have limited material needs and plenty of leisure; they are free to satisfy their drive for pleasure or for self-expression without submitting to society’s dictates. They are spontaneous as opposed to conceited; they are extrovert and free from our psychological barriers; they practice gift giving and reciprocity in an oral culture that values honor, pride and generosity. But think again. Who are the people that narratives about the noble savage are supposed to describe? How do we know for sure they fit into our descriptions? Are they not fictions invented by conquerors, explorers and writers with only limited access to the culture, language and living conditions of the people they briefly encountered? Would prolonged immersion into a real community of so-called savages reveal other aspects of their lives that were overlooked by amateur descriptions? These are precisely the questions that anthropology is set to answer, with its fieldwork methods and conceptual apparatus that make it qualify as science.

Fierce individualists

Philippe Descola’s description of the Jivaro turn all our assumptions on their head. They are ascetic in their desires and skeptics in their beliefs, taking little for granted except the rules and formalities they follow in all their endeavors. They are moral subjects fighting against all deadly sins: lust (each man claims exclusive property over his wives), gluttony (they follow a strict diet and often endure ritual fasting), wrath (they contain their anger and eat their revenge cold) and sloth (they are constantly on the move and busy fighting against each other). They are masters of protocol and attach paramount importance to decorum. They are social agents who are well aware of private property (each spouse in the household cooks her own meals, keeps her own pack of dogs and cultivates her own garden). They recite silent prayers (called anent) and deadly curses, but they keep their recitations to themselves and are not known to cultivate collective myths or legends about their past. In fact, they have little knowledge over their forebears, and are unable to recall ancestors beyond two generations. They face death in battle without flinching, but are unsure about what might happen after death.

Descola’s presentation of the Jivaro Achuar tribe flies in the face of generally accepted notions, and force us to reconsider our preconceived ideas. These stern Indians don’t enter into our ready-made categories. In a way, they are closer to our mentalities than their life conditions would let us suppose. Their individualism and contractualism make them at times appear as rational utilitarians. This is a far cry from the figure of the good savage, the primitive hedonist painted by romantic travelers in search of salvation. The Achuar are difficult to impress or to cajole: they are not interested by trinkets or by ornaments, and slightly despise the foreign observer who struggles to follow them on forest trails and who has only one wife as a partner. According to Descola, the Achuar are not noticeable for their exotic customs. He devotes only a few pages to the rite and techniques of tsantsa or head-shrinking, and these pages are dense with clinical details and structural interpretations. Otherwise the Achuar are like the big moron living next door who always spoils your fun and throws garbage around. You don’t really want to mess with them, and you would prefer to have as little contact with them as proximity would allow.

Peoples without history

For anthropologists, indigenous people and primitive tribes are peoples without history. The Achuar certainly fit that description. It is not that their history is beyond the reach of the passing ethnographer, or that it takes the form of the myth or ancestor’s wisdom as opposed to chronicles or narratives. These people really are without history. They don’t know the names of their great-grand-parents or ancestry. They cannot recollect events or remember deeds beyond the generation of their parents. They bury their dead on the sly and leave their tomb to oblivion, never to mention their names again. There is no oral history, no figure devoted to remind younger generations of the laws of the elders, no real tradition or custom beyond the mere repetition of everyday practice. Likewise, they don’t have a territory: they only name rivers, and don’t have names for the places and areas in which they dwell. They live in small communities or households scattered over vast expanses of land. Their living space is delineated by the forest tracks of individual hunters. They come from nowhere, and do not share a collective destiny. Even their myths stay silent on the creation of humanity and on the origin of their tribe. Their most sacred beliefs take the form of the anent, which are kinds of secret curses or mute prayers that are only recited in private and never disclosed to outsiders.

The absence of history manifests itself from the start of the anthropologist’s journey. In an introductory chapter filled with details and dark irony, Descola describes the Amazonian frontier towns on the border of the forest, some of them dating back to the time of the Spanish conquest, as “urban grafts plagued with amnesia.” The most ancient towns have lost the memory of their origins; and the newly founded ones have no memory to share. The frontiersmen know nothing of the forest, and circulate wild legends about the wandering tribes that they have never met. The only persons to come in contact with the Jivaro do so for religious reasons: they want to convert them to Christianity and to bring them to the reach of civilization. American Evangelicals and the Catholic order of the Salesians compete for the Indians’ soul. In true French fashion, Descola holds only scorn for the Evangelical Protestants: they are young men and women coming straight from Texas and imbued with prejudices and certitudes. They, too, are debilitated by amnesia, and live in an eschatological time in which conversion of the last lost souls will precipitate the Second Coming. The real keepers of time are the Salesians: in particular, they have chronicled in great detail the custom of the tsantsa, which has made the Jivaro enter popular culture as head-shrinkers.

Head-shrinking on the Amazon

In this bleak present, the anthropologist patiently collects nuggets from the past. He reviews the old stories and legends that the West has peddled about the Achuar since the first chronicles of the Conquista, and which are kept alive as zombie narratives in pulp literature that can be found on the book stalls of frontier towns. But remains of the past can also be found among the Achuar. One still finds in some households rifles that were in use in Europe during the First World War and that have found their way to Indian campments to perpetuate their ancient custom of war-making. Some old Spanish words have also entered Achuar vocabulary and now pass as native words. Mythological figures such as Jurijri, the protector of peccary pigs, is portrayed as a helmeted soldier with leather boots and a sword—a clear representation of the Spanish conquistador dating back from first contacts between the old world and the new. Many cultural traits and material artifacts that characterize Achuar daily life are recent additions that took place after the time of the conquest and until modern times. The dog, the only domestic animal known to the Achuar, is not a native from the Amazon but still features in every household. Modern medicines are used to fight foreign diseases and they are preferred to traditional remedies.

To live in peace, but also because their quest for food requires dispersion, the Achuar live far away from each other. Households are usually separated by a half-day’s walk or more. By limiting contacts with their kin and relatives, they decrease the risk of conflict, which generally turns badly when it arises even between close relatives. Similarly, war-making and fights are made at a distance. The shotgun has replaced the blowgun, but never would an Achuar engage in hand-to-hand fight or exchange blows in a melee. Keeping their distance is also something Achuar achieve in their ritual exchanges and inter-group conversations. A strict protocol both contains and manifests violence by having men shout heavily scripted tirades as a substitute to actual fight. Even alone, when taking a lonely bath in the river, the Jivaro warrior boasts of his strength and manliness to keep the spirits away. Distance allows enemies to defer their vengeance or prepare for eventual aggression. Vendetta or tumash is affected by both geographical distance and by the time elapsed since the original crime was committed. Warring parties can thus check the accuracy of facts, distinguish them from false rumors, and gather support to their cause by concluding alliances or rallying family relatives. This way the Achuar prevent total war and extermination, which would otherwise be the logical solution of the war of all against all.

The “second book” of the ethnographer

Given the suspicious nature of the Achuar, it is no wonder that relations between the sexes are also characterized by distance, mistrust and jealousy. A good husband has to add many spouses to his household, but he must also satisfy them sexually and make sure they don’t elope with other men. A guest brought to the house of his host must never cross the invisible threshold that separates the space devoted to women. He is supposed not to look at the women who regale him with big bowls of manioc beer until he cannot see clear. Adultery is punishable by death, which doesn’t prevent some women to succumb to the charms of other men. Complex rites and beliefs surround the gardens cultivated only by women. The same applies to the tools and weapons used by men for hunting. As an example, charms and amulets taken from fish are used to catch birds and mammals; and magical tools taken from animals from the forest are used for fishing. In this logic of magical thinking, an artifact always stands for something else, but not for anything. Air and water, sky and earth, the visible and the invisible, the mobile and the inert are the parameters of a system of dual oppositions that give order and meaning to the world. Of course, this system of structural relations is only accessible to the anthropologist as a result of a patient reconstruction. The Indians themselves do not have access to the logic of their own thinking.

Philippe Descola is the proud heir of Claude Lévi-Strauss, his thesis supervisor, and he succeeded him as chair of anthropology at the Collège de France. He is also the author of an oeuvre that has become a standard reference in the field of environmental social sciences. His focus on the environment and on the relation between humans and non-humans transcends the traditional dualism between nature and society and offers new ways to think about mankind’s place in the world. The Spears of Twilight is not a scholarly essay or an intellectual treatise: it is the author’s version of Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, published in the same collection and with similar literary ambitions. It is a fine example of the “second book” of the ethnographer: in the French tradition, the anthropologist’s first report from the field comes in the form of a scholarly monograph, the second as a literary essay. By elevating anthropology to the status of a literary genre, French intellectuals like Lévi-Strauss and Descola give special status to the discipline and enlarge its readership well beyond the circle of professional social scientists. Readers will be richly rewarded by their passing acquaintance with the Achuar.

Catégories : Book reviews