11:42:51 pmCategories: On places on earth and food I like

Literature and I, hors sujet 1

- For those who are more interested in my research project than in my person, I hope you’ll excuse this post as it’s got very little to do with my fieldwork. It’s a too long (an delayed, as I’d forgotten to post it…) reply to a post on the anthropology blog Savage Minds.

The questions from Savage Minds go: What were he books that changed your life, and which books (or films) turned you on to anthropology? I find the questions intriguing as they set off a reflection on the intersections of literary and academic trajectories in my life; can I find any significant connections between what I’ve read and what I have become? Since it often feels better to not do (exactly) as you’re told – especially since it’s my old supervisor who’s asking the question – I’ll neither start with literature nor with film, but with a photo exhibition I visited, not in the formative years, but a couple of days ago.

Sebastiao Salgado mostly photographs people under way of doing some mundane chore in their natural and cultural environment. Many of his pictures are of human beings under hard conditions – of refugees fleeing drought and hunger or manual labourers in developing countries – however; his enormous artistic feat is to portray them with so much human dignity that the viewer never forgets that it’s a complete human being that is depicted in front of her. The way Salgado manages to show toil/everyday life and dignity is amazing. Perhaps it’s his aesthetisicism – the lights, the perspectives, the geometries – which makes us see the humans and their world in this way. I find this achievement very inspiring for my own work. – But how can words convey the same complexity, the same richness… that is a challenge for academic writing, which however, I think anthropology is far better equipped to do than for instance sociology ☺… So, yes, in my opinion aesthetics and form matter.

Coming to think of it, it is this kind of ethnographic realist – however very artistic/aesthetic – depiction of humans and their (everyday) life I appreciate in most art forms. It would have been interesting to reflect similarly on the films I like. Do they have the same realist though aesthetic bend? Perhaps in another post…

I’ve read some really good, inspiring and thought provoking books after even I’ve turned thirty, and both authors I have in mind right now have ethnographic qualities: That is certainly the case with Honoré de Balzac and his Comédie Humaine, but also Michel Houellebecq, in a peculiar manner (my lack of literary education is palpable when I try to express myself on literature in this manner). In my opinion, Houellebecq is describing and commenting upon society in a similar way to Balzac, how unlikely that perhaps sounds to those who are familiar with the two authors. – By a funny coincidence, after I started drafting this post, I read a suggestion that Pierre Bourdieu is today’s Balzac or Flaubert. The argument goes that realist literature – à la the great authors of 19th century France – has become redundant: the social sciences have taken their place as today’s society has become too complex to be rendered comprehensible in a novel (Kjetil Jakobsen,2002, in the foreword to the Norwegian translation of Bourdieu’s Distinctions).

The books that changed my life and the books that turned me towards anthropology? Perhaps a couple of easily read Norwegian books about growing up published when I was 13-4 have given a particular direction to my life, if nothing else, just by the sheer number of times I read them. Until I turned 18, I read White Niggers by Ingvar Ambjørnsen and Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen about 7 times each. (For the moment, I’d never dream of reading a book more than once. It’s got something to do with age, and my father, in his late 60s, has in fact started reading books over again).

A landmark in the intersection of my literary and academic (and thinking) trajectories came when I was made to write an essay for my baccalaureate on “outsiders in literature”. If it hadn’t been for it being a national exam I would have guessed that it was my favourite teacher who had come up with this title for me personally. The assignment made me reflect on the role of literature in creating acceptance for diversity in society. Through the means of empathy, literature can teach you understanding for people and ways of life which at first seemed strange and beyond your understanding. Anthropology can, I was later to discover, do the same thing; – sometimes through analysis and explanation, but often, I think, through emphatic writing. (The books I made use of in my exam essay was of course White Niggers, which I knew by heart, and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. As by providence I also mentioned the first Norwegian novel written by a second generation Norwegian Pakistani (Khalid Hussain) – Paki – and I still remember writing that we’ll probably see much more of this kind of literature in the future. (For the readers who don’t know my field, this “second generation” type literature is closely connected to what I do research on at the moment…) – So yes, I think the reflection sparked off by this baccalaureate essay has been a more important milestone in my life than any particular book I’ve read).

My taste for the bizarre (i.e. Houellebecq) – rather than the complete surreal – as was perhaps sparked off at 12, when I read a strange book my mother told me not to read. It was Homo Falsus or the story about the perfect murder, by Jan Kjærstad. It’s about a woman living out scenes from films by Greta Garbo as she travels to faraway places – it’s the kind of completely unintelligible book any 12 year old who wants to have their imagination shaken, should read.

After that, the classics followed as I went for the favourite authors of my pop culture idols (music has had a more noticeable effect on my life than literature, which perhaps has worked more subtly): The Stranger by Camus (Robert Smith, The Cure); The Process by Kafka (discovered through a Norwegian punk band named Kafka Process); The picture of Dorian Gray by Wilde (Morissey, The Smiths); Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (who was an anarchist, mentioned, I think by Ingvar Ambjørnsen). In Anna Karenina by the way, I remember a scene worthy of an attentive social scientist: a young girl is about to enter her very first ball. On the way down the stairs to the hall, she looks in the mirror and deliberately unstraightens on of the ribbons on her dress... Attention to significant details makes good literature, as well as good anthropology.

At the time my hang-up on growing up as an outsider-novels, as well as classics I was too young to understand, was waning, I turned to the author who became my favourite for a long time and who maybe, maybe is the reason why I’m in Paris at the moment. (I know for sure that the reason why I ended up doing fieldwork in London was music. Perhaps my interest in Paris is of a more “literate” bend?) Henry Miller writes about himself, apparently, (later I read a biography (Robert Ferguson’s) saying his books were mostly made up and that his intensely interesting life in New York and Paris in the 1930s for a large part took place in his own head), and in that sense his books can perhaps be classified as quite realist, or ethnographic, in the way that autobiography is. I haven’t read Miller for 10 years, but thinking back I’d guess that his description of people, places and everyday life is not at all bad ethnography. – If it wasn’t his own life, at least he was good at describing the life of others.

Though obviously, I’m not like the previous comments to this post; science fiction or fantasy have never been my cup of tea. Instead, thinking back, I seem to appreciate ethnographic-like realism.

In my early 20s, thus in the mid 1990s, I can’t remember I read much besides from my studies. (Well, I remember a few: one is American Psycho, by Brett Easton Ellis. A lot could be said about that one – I would say it’s poignant and horrid in the same manner as Houellebecq, but I won’t go into that now…). On a different note; I read of course the stars of the Indian wave; Vikram Seth’s A suitable young man, Rushdie’s Midnight Children and Satanic Verses and Arundhati Roy’s The god of small things. Did they turn me in direction of British South Asians? No, I don’t think so. Music did that. But I think perhaps the Seth and Roy taught me something about how to create a narrative. And really, isn’t A suitable young man a Comédie Humaine of 20th century India?

However, it was early in this epoch of my life that I decided on anthropology. It was one of the five different subjects I listed to my dad at the dinner table when I was still at school (the others were astrophysics (great cosmology), nuclear physics (working for Greenpeace), medicine (working for Médecins sans frontiers) or literary theory (probably something on Henry Miller)), but then anthropology slipped my mind for some years, until I had a conversation with a professor in chemistry. She told me that she had tended her various intellectual interests – in her case French literature and chemistry – until she became a researcher. After that she had little time for anything else than chemistry. At that very moment, I understood that I had to find a profession in which I could integrate my wide range of interests. Thus, no more natural science for me…

And of course the chauvinist answer is; anthropology. And anthropology really turned out to be the answer to my most pressing existential problem at the time: The “what do I want to do with my life” found its resolution at the moment I read the first chapters in my first textbook in anthropology (Small places, large issues by Eriksen, which, in Norwegian at least, is very well written!). Maybe it was all the ethnographic-like fiction I had read that immediately made me feel at home in anthropology. Or maybe it’s got nothing at all to do with the books I’ve read ☺

And finally, my favourite anthropological literature, listed partly by preference; “Putting hierarchy in its place” (article) by Arjun Appadurai, Europe and the people without history by Eric Wolf (a book I wished was written before I learned that it reallly existed!), Cosmologies in the making by Fredrik Barth, Soulside by Ulf Hannerz. Perhaps I’ll come back to why they’re important to me later (but its certainly not for their prose – when it comes to style of writing, I think my favourite is Evans Pritchard! It’s so realist, so full of detail…).

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