Anthropological Literature

Susanna Kaysen Far AfieldThe story begins with lost luggage, but in many ways is about baggage that can’t be lost.

A few weeks ago in a post on Savage Minds, the anthropology blog, Ryan listed the books he plans to take with him to his fieldwork site and asked for comments and suggestions.  There were a number of responses, and several people suggested some good novels to take along in addition to (or instead of) texts on methodology.  Among the novels was Susanna Kaysen’s Far Afield (Vintage Books, 1990).  It is the story of Jonathan Brand, a Harvard graduate student in anthropology and his fieldwork in the Faroe Islands.  Claire described it as “a brilliant novel that is the best account of anthropological fieldwork I’ve ever read, including ethnographies.”  Given that I’ve done no fieldwork, but have sat around many a table listening to anthropologist friends describe their experiences throughout communities in Australia (admittedly not quite the same environments as the Faroes), I thought I should give it a try.  I’m glad I did.

The novel opens in Reykjavík, where Jonathan’s carefully packed luggage has gone astray.  It never will be found, and thus Jonathan arrives in the Faroes with little more than the money the airline has paid him in compensation.  It turns out to be a tidy sum that allows him to outfit himself with Faroese sweaters and boots and pay a year’s rent on a small house on the island of Sandoy, where Jonathan spends his fieldwork year.

Cut adrift from everything that is familiar to him, Jonathan falls into a fugue state of sorts, spending his first weeks doing almost nothing.  Surprisingly, he finds himself enjoying his new, aimless life and can’t even muster a sense of guilt at not doing any anthropology.  He struggles with his incomplete mastery of the language, with the equally unfamiliar and often repulsive food (rotten lamb and salty fish heads), and with the locals’ behavior towards him, which varies from utter indifference to apparent hostility to unwanted matchmaking.

His funk persists, along with his acceptance of it, until the morning that his toilet won’t flush.  His one new friend, a shopkeeper named Sigurd, explains via drawings and dictionary consultations, that Jonathan’s septic tank is full.  He will need to borrow a shovel and a wheelbarrow, dig out the accumulated shit, and dump it off the island’s cliffs into the sea.  As if this weren’t bad enough, his neighbors crowd around to watch him–though not to help.  Things get tense.

“In America, you hire people to do this, hah,” said Jón Hendrik in perfect English.

“In America, we have a sewage system,” Jonathan spat out in perfect Faroese.  He’d been looking up words in his dictionaries (English-Danish, Danish-Faroese) the night before.

“Now you are here,” Jón Hendrik said.

Vælkomin til Føroyar,” Jonathan said, resuming his shoveling.

This remark, made in a bad temper, was a big hit.  Jón Hendrik laughed and stamped his foot on the ground in delight.  Jens Símun’s multicolored eyes watered with tears, Petur slapped his thigh, and the unknown man  had to lean on Petur for stability while he chortled.  Jonathan was so surprised that he stopped working and stared at them.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“You are beginning to understand our country,” said Jón Hendrik.

Jonathan spends two days shoveling shit, and by the end of his ordeal, he has made friends and been accepted into the community.  This starts a pattern that persists throughout the book.  Jonathan begins to spend his time wandering around the community with his notebook, observing, conversing, and making copious records of daily life.  The Faroese are delighted to find him at work at last, and accept his role as investigator and chronicler with good-natured openness.

But it is in the participation in the work of the island, be that herding sheep or slaughtering whales, or even dancing drunkenly through the long night following the beaching and butchering of the whales, that Jonathan loses himself and forgets the anxieties that have been bred into him by his professor-parents and his academic training.  When not engaged in active labor, Jonathan tends to revert to his neurotic and neurasthenic American ego.  But when he chases sheep across miles of meadows, his immersion in the country takes him to the sorts of altered states where he can easily believe that he is wrestling for possession of a lamb with a huldumađur–a “gray man,” one of a race of people who live in the rocks, all gray, with gray clothes and gray boats, and seen only out of the corner of one’s eye, if at all.

It’s not clear that Jonathan ever comes to a real comprehension of the Faroese, despite his integration into the island’s society.  In most novels, we expect the hero to learn, to change and grow, to come out the other end transformed.  Far Afield frustrates that impulse.  Jonathan remains, through a series of hilarious, somber, and touching picaresque episodes, both apart from and of the Faroese temper.  The Faroese, in turn, sometimes seem to be more anthropologists than the anthropologist.

The novel ends as Jonathan departs the Islands on his flight home, and as he soars above them, he experiences a moment that might be revelation, accomplishment, or understanding.

But poised in the moment before it was all reduced to an an illustration, a topography, only hinted at by light and shadow, he felt the hills, bays, and fjords, with their wave-embroidered outlines, the very rise and fall of the fields, in the rise and fall of his pulse.  And his footsteps on that country–though they went round and round in circles–were each precious, each tread known to him and, annealed by memory, visible at this and greater distances.

Like the loss of his luggage that opens the novel, this moment of illumination seals it off.  There is no before-and-after to this story, and that narrative structure seems most fitting.  For Jonathan, the moments on the island–shoveling shit, herding sheep, slaughtering whales, dancing drunkenly–when there is no before nor after, only the moment of experience, are the moments that have made his life in the islands visible.  I don’t think this is a stance of anti-intellectualism on Kaysen’s part; more, perhaps, it suggests that as Americans we are too prone to analysis and second-guessing that prevents us from seeing and engaging.  To know the other, she suggests, we must be released from ourselves.

That may be a fine bit of romantic balderdash in the end, but it strikes me as having a kernel of wisdom.  For when I look at Indigenous art, I find that I must be ever wary of the impulse to compare styles and techniques to the painters of contemporary America whose experiments with minimalism, abstraction, and fields of color gave me the critical and aesthetic pleasures that allowed me to be open to Aboriginal art in the first place.  I don’t come to this art unencumbered.  Of course not.  But I want my eye to absorb desert painting and Top End weaving on their own terms as much as possible.  Perhaps this desire to look at Indigenous art for its essence is just more Western thinking, more phenomenology.  But I hope I can do greater justice to the inspirations of a Pintupi or a Yolngu painter if I can keep the concerns of Western art at a remove.

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One Response to Anthropological Literature

  1. I am interested in your comments in the last paragraph where you speak of your need to compare Aboriginal art with that of contemporary American artists and that this work allowed you to be open to Aboriginal painting i.e. provided the foundations for acceptance maybe? This need is inevitable I guess, so it is difficult to be able to see and experience this art for what it is. These are things I think of often.
    Our ‘felt’ response, combined with knowledge of stories and country, is maybe the way to go, and we may need to let go of what we know, our western assumptions, but I suspect this is almost impossible. I suspect that only ‘being in’ the place for a length of time from where the art is derived, will allow us non-indigenous people some insights necessary to appreciate the complexities of Aboriginal painting. Is an informed phenomenology the way to go? As you know this would demand a lot more from the viewer than a visit to the gallery and a read of the catalogue.

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