Asleep in other people's dreams

The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle by Philippe Descola, HarperCollins, pounds 20
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Philippe Descola is a Parisian academic who in 1976-78 lived with the Jivaro Achuar tribe in the jungle on the Ecuador-Peru border, near the headwaters of the Amazon. After 16 years' lucubration he produced this account of his two years among the Indians. His book was apparently received with rapture when first published in France in 1993. But a British reader, familiar with the flood of material that has appeared recently on Amazonian tribes, may well wonder what all the fuss is about. The true cultural gap revealed by this volume is not that between civilisation and barbarism but between the Gallic/structural and the Anglo-Saxon/empirical.

Descola provides a wealth of information on the mores of the Achuar, their religion, cosmology, attitude to sex, hunting habits, and so on. But why should this interest a general audience? To become significant Descola's material needs a wider context. Unfortunately in this book the context is provided by two myths: the Noble Savage and the status of Claude Levi-Strauss as the Copernicus of anthropology.

Descola is po-faced and politically correct. Determined that his savages be noble, he explains away the intense Achuar prejudice against homosexuality as follows: "The reprobation prompted by such behaviour expresses not so much a moral judgement as repugnance in the face of any confusion between domains and categories whose absolute separation is deemed necessary for the world to run properly." The polygamous Achuar do not treat their women well, so Descola goes to the moon and back trying to show that they are not really "sexist." Cultural relativism reaches its apogee when Descola witnesses a man brutally beating his wife. He feels ill at ease, but comforts himself with the thought that a western ethnologist is "disinclined to foist upon other people a morality that is of no use to them." I think it is fair to say that, in those two quotations, Descola begs every relevant question.

A disciple of Levi-Strauss, Descola consistently shows the master's maddening inability to make his meaning crystal-clear. A ham-fisted attempt to "refute" Jungian dream interpretation via the dreams of the Achuar turns out to be simply part of Levi-Strauss's a priori quarrel with depth psychology. Descola uses his guru's methodological tool kit to "elucidate" Achuar dreams in blithe confidence that it is the correct way to proceed.

In common with many other ethnologists, Descola is fundamentally contemptuous of the primitive societies he purports to champion. After a short period with the Achuar he of course knows, better than they do, the true meaning of their society. It is this kind of arrogance that infuriates many Anglo- Saxon readers with the Levi-Straussians. Descola even produces the preposterous argument that to be sceptical that the methodologies of the Sorbonne can unlock the secrets of the Amazon is to be "racist".

The truth is that Descola and his ilk do not travel to exotic places in search of new knowledge. They go in search of new tribes whose culture can be processed through the Levi-Strauss hermeneutical machine. Given that this can be done just as easily in a Parisian study as in the Amazon jungle, my question to Descola would be: was your journey really necessary?