Crossing Back: A Classic Journey

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Preface A study of headhunters in the Philippines includes a haunting story that I have never been able to forget. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo was doing research among the Ilongot, a group among whom he and his wife had lived on and off for years. In October of 1981, during what had seemed like a routine hike, Michelle slipped and fell 65 feet down a mountain, to her death. After making the descent, Rosaldo discovered her body, lifeless, as he had feared. Thrust into a state of mourning that deepened all the way to despair, Rosaldo was for a time unable to work. Fifteen months passed. Then, when he finally felt able to re-open the notes he had taken among the headhunters, something astonishing happened. Material he had previously interpreted in a scholarly way revealed to him suddenly “the emotional force of a death…an intimate relation’s permanent rupture.” He wrote a small essay that made a profound claim that has stayed with me. “It took some 14 years for me to grasp what Ilongots had told me about grief, rage, and headhunting. During all those years I was not yet in a position to comprehend the force of anger possible in bereavement, and now I was,” he said. I was struck by the length of time needed to unfold meaning – in this case, fourteen years – and by the suddenness of insight, when it came. On this fatal trip, he and his wife had been interviewing the Ilongot to determine why they headhunt, while other tribes in the remote Philippines did not. They were also interested in how prohibitions newly enforced by the Philippine government had affected the group. The work was part of an ongoing inquiry into a different, more family- and place-related, sense of history among the Ilongot revealed in its narratives and story-telling. What, the anthropologists wondered, do the Ilongot think of headhunting? What feelings did it create? What motivated it and its elaborate rules? And why did joyous, carnivalesque celebration often follow? How had life changed after it ended? Previously, Rosaldo’s data had made sense to him only in an intellectual way. For when asked about head hunting, his informants routinely and unblinkingly gave long, dry genealogical lists of their ancestry, kin, and places they had gardened. They stressed changes during the Japanese invasion in World War II, which had removed them from their usual land – repetitive stories that Rosaldo confessed bored him. The Ilongot seemed to resist, or at least not to understand, self-reflection. Miscommunication, secrecy, fear of governmental prohibitions, different mental wiring, perhaps even some kind of ironic or communal joke might have been at work. Then, under the impress of his own recent emotions, Rosaldo suddenly understood that the Ilongot had not at all been holding back. Their genealogies and place lists gave the answers to his questions, and gave them quite concisely. The Illongot headhunt to affirm kinship lines that mark their space in the universe. Headhunter identity roots so deeply in ancestral bodies that bones have a place within the household, with the head of the household often sleeping on his father’s skull. Most of all, the Ilongot headhunt to create a feeling of buoyancy and energy in the face of mourning, so that its absence left them without customary feelings of release. In the past, when they had attacked a village and collected enemy heads, they were not just enacting violence or inflicting revenge or, more sensationally still, pursuing cannibalism – the motives usually attributed to head hunting. They were achieving a much-desired sense of elevated or heightened consciousness, of “lightening.” What does this story have to do with rereading the classics? In a surprising number of cases, including mine, everything. For the last five years, after several decades of working on modern literature with forays into fields like Anthropology, I’ve been rereading the classics with attention although not, like many advocates of the classics, following any specific, pre-determined guide or list. I re-read Homer and Dante, Vergil and Milton – Europe’s universally acknowledged masters – a kind of intellectual crossing back to books I had studied in school or taught years ago in a class on epics. I also re-read recent fiction I sensed might already be or might become contemporary classics over time. I did not worry too much about the parameters of establishing a canon of contemporary fiction, although my readings laid the basis for doing so. Nabokov’s Lolita, Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Roy’s The God of Small Things, Sebald’s Austerlitz, Mc Ewan’s Atonement: these would be some of my leading candidates for contemporary classics – and they were all books I had taught or written about in the past. Not coincidentally, most had to do with mortality, with reconstructing the past, with war – or, and in a surprising number of cases, all three. My original motivation was my mother’s death – a event common to most lives but still profoundly unsettling, and one that requires crossing back into family memory in an acute way. When my mother died, I continued to function quite normally and even at a high level, but I felt out of balance and it showed up in numerous ways. I had difficulty in carrying through writing tasks, stopping and staring more often than usual. I noticed far more quarrels than usual at home. I felt restless and not quite at ease. Perhaps the most telling sign was physiological. The day after I cleaned out her apartment, dividing up her many tablecloths and pieces of costume jewelry with my two daughters, I woke up dizzy, with a first-time-ever case of vertigo. Later diagnosed as an inner ear imbalance – which it certainly may have been – it seemed to me nonetheless symbolic, and reminded me of Rosaldo’s story. For the Ilongot, genealogical stories or lists of places touch base with the stability of the past, assert continuity with tradition, and thrust into the future. They represent something core, something remembered firmly amidst flux and the inexorability of loss and change – “an intimate relationship” always being subject to “permanent rupture.” As someone who believes in literature, I turned to the classics to connect with some shared sense of being human at a time of rawness, grief, and confusion. My predilection was for pre-modern or contemporary classics that dealt with war, love, mortality, and loss – reflecting my interests, I thought at first, as author of Gone Primitive and, more recently, The War Complex. But I came to realize that all classics, early and late, deal with these four themes, as well as with the power or the impotence of words to do them justice. They also, surprisingly often, render identity through networks of genealogical connections – a pre-modern view that survives more strongly than we realize into the present. To borrow a title I have always loved of a famous book – we have never been modern – and, in some ways, and we all sense this. Our genealogy is what endures and what we preserve in memory.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Torgovnick, M

Published Date

  • 2010

Book Title

  • Crossing Back: A Classic Journey