The Call of the Wild

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


A review of Catherine Clément, The Call of the Trance,  University of Chicago Press, 2014.

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

Originally published in French as: Catherine Clément, L’appel de la transe,  Stock, 2011.

In the seventies and the eighties, American anthropologists imagined they could become artists and transform their writings into works of literature. Their ambition was to deconstruct the conventions of traditional ethnography and to produce experimental texts that would abolish the distance between the ethnographer and the informant, the fieldwork location and the seminar room, the facts of science and the fictions of literature. The result of this linguistic turn was the opposite of art: long, introspective texts full of empty words and verbose sentences. The anthropologist as writer proved to be much less talented than his or her forebear, the classical anthropologist, who knew how to refrain the temptation to do « art » but who nonetheless produced beautiful texts of long-lasting literary value.

A different tradition prevails in France. There, anthropological texts have always been considered as works of literary value, and the ethnographer feels compelled to write for the general public as well as for academic peers. Anthropology appears as heir of a literary tradition that, from Montaigne to Rousseau and to Montesquieu, has always mixed philosophy, observations on alien mores and customs, records from travels in faraway places, self-reflection and meditation on human nature. And while there is a strict separation between social scientists and « littérateurs, » the figure of the learned amateur also retains some legitimacy and popularity. From Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille to Roland Barthes and Mircea Eliade, there has always been a place for the intellectual polymath, who cultivates an artistic proclivity while drawing inspiration and support from anthropological writings.

An intellectual polymath

Although she wrote essays about anthropology and about psychoanalysis, Catherine Clément is neither an anthropologist nor a psychoanalyst. At least not in the official sense of the word: a card-carrying individual who went through several ordeals and rites of passage (the talking cure for the analyst, fieldwork and a scholarly monograph for the ethnographer.) Catherine Clément’s credentials are of another order. In France, she is known as a bestseller novelist and as a public intellectual, with a popular chronicle on the French NPR. A former student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure–before co-ed was introduced–, she was exposed in her formative years to the best that French anthropology and psychoanalysis had to offer. She can claim both Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan as her intellectual masters, as she attended the seminars of both of them and wrote essays about their work in testimony of her faithful admiration. She can also claim more exposure to foreign cultures and travels in faraway places than most professional anthropologists: as the spouse of a senior French diplomat, she spent five years in India and then again three years in Senegal.

The Call of the Trance reflects this variegated experience. It is written with the talent of the novelist, with short, evocative sentences, and yet retains the scientific rigor and scholarly accuracy of academia. It rests on a large body of anthropological writings, with references to classical French contributors in the field such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Alfred Métraux, Jean Bazin, and Philippe Descola. Yet it also refers to Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, as it delves on the obscure side of the human psyche. Other disciplines such as history are also mobilized: Clément draws a lot from Carlo Ginzburg’s studies on sabbath, sorcery, and shamanism, and she also quotes two well-known texts that were published in Julliard’s collection « Archives, » The Loudun Possession and The Convulsionaries of Saint Médard. I feel very much in line with these references, and tend to share with the author the same intellectual horizon that dominated the zeitgeist when I studied the humanities in the eighties.

Eclipse from the self

Clément treats the trance as a key that opens the door of a wide array of human experiences: from the initiation rituals of shamans in Siberia to the flight of runaway adolescents, from the concerts of popular singers to Indian widows burned alive in sati sacrifices, from the mortifications of mystical nuns vying for sainthood in medieval convents to the techniques of anorexia shared on the Internet by girls who want to look like their favorite models. She begins her book with a testimony of a trance festival she witnessed in Dakar, Sénégal, where African women were suddenly possessed by animal spirits coming from the sea, drawing them into a frenzy of dancing, crawling, and speaking in tongues.

But trance, this « eclipse from the self, » this « vacation from life, » is more common that one imagines. The same magic occurs when two lovers are thunder-struck by love at first sight, as in the classical tales of the Knights of the Round Table where each hero is in thrall of an unreachable lady-queen. The reference to King Arthur’s legend points toward a wider cultural context. Myths and rituals are shared across space and civilizations, from the celtic legends of Ireland to the shamanistic ceremonies of Mongolia. Our modern myths and legends take the form of Hollywood movies featuring hybrid creatures mixing man and bat or spider, or of coming-of-age novels such as the Twilight series where vampires are chaste teenagers dreaming of rebuilding the ideal family.

The figure of the shaman

The legend still lives on. In Europe, we find musical trances as in Southern Italy, evoking a past going back to medieval times and even to antiquity, and modern rites such as a punk rock concert or school hazing in Paris. Similarly, as Clement discovers, « We had shamans and we didn’t know it. » The figure of the shaman is ubiquitous, as are the rites of passage that are supposed to bring a young person to adult age and make him or her complete. The only problem is that, in our modern societies, we badly need the figure of the broker or the ceremony attendant who would limit the excesses of the shaman or set rules for the initiation of young adults. Left to themselves, shamans become lunatics locked in asylums or wandering in the streets, and teenagers are sent to hospitals after binge drinking or substance abuse.

Clément talks from personal experience. She offers first-hand testimony of many traditional customs and encounters with the unfamiliar. She first came in contact with the trance in a small room at the hospital Saint-Anne in Paris, where she witnessed a patient going through the whole gamut of a hysteric crisis, head and toes touching the floor, the rest of the body curved in an arch, bending upwards. « Without that troubling vision, I wouldn’t write that book, » she confesses. She also had many visions and heard many tales while in India: conversations with Brahmins who would take a female identity while in a trance, stories of sati suicides or of cataleptic yogis being buried alive and rising up from the tomb, glimpses of Hijra prostitutes in a country where homosexuality is still penalized, or sounds of skulls cracking up when the body of a yogi is being cremated.

In France, Catherine Clément is mostly known as a novelist and as a vulgarisateur–a person who popularizes a domain of scientific enquiry, making it available to a wide public. She greatly contributed to the widespread reception of Jacques Lacan and of Claude Lévi-Strauss, using simple words to render complex ideas without betraying the thought of these thinkers. The record of the English translations of her books speaks of a different reception in the United States: only her theoretical essays were made available, and she has been published in university press collections geared toward an academic public. There she is discussed as a feminist author, or at least as a case of woman’s writing. Indeed, there is something that is definitely womanly in her prose. Most of the characters who experience the « eclipse of the self » are women, coming from all walks of life–from street women in Dakar to Empress Sissi of Austria–but sharing a certain attitude toward the world. Although I am not familiar with all the tenets of « l’écriture féminine, » I would characterize her writing style as unmistakably feminine.

In reviewing her essay on Jacques Lacan, first published in 1981, I wrote that « her book reads like the intelligent conversation of a beautiful woman. » The Call of the Trance, written thirty years later, sounds like the gentle words of an old lady who looks sympathetically to the young generation while sharing her experience and wisdom.

Catégories : Book reviews