An Interview with Luc de Heusch
PIierre de Maret, Brussels, Belgium.
Introduction [PM]: Luc de Heusch is distinguished as a film maker, an art critic, and a social anthropologist. His career has been made at the heart of some of the most interesting intellectual movements in modern Europe. As a young man he was associated with the major European avant-garde movement Cobra; as a social anthropologist he was a student of Griaule and became a close associate of Lévi-Strauss. Born in 1927, he retired in 1992 from the chair of social anthropology at the University of Brussels. In the same year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Strasbourg and presented the inaugural address at the second meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists. He is the author of eight books (1958-87), three of which have been translated into English.
PM: In good ethnographic style, let us start with kinship. Who were your parents?
LH: My mother died when l was eleven. Her loss affected me deeply. l adored my father, but when l reached adolescence his reactionary philosophical views provoked an Oedipal crisis, which probably explains my penchant for the anarchist tradition. We argued and drifted apart, and l had to work in order to finish my studies. Then, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, l met Henri Storck, founder of the Belgian cinema, who took me on as his assistant. He patiently initiated me into his art, like a medieval guild-master with his apprentices. He became a substitute father.
PM: Though pursuing a scientific career, you later directed a number of films, mainly dealing with art-on Magritte, Alechinsky, Dotremont.
LH: l met Pierre Alechinsky when we were both 20, and hat encounter was decisive. He inducted me into an experimental artistic movement that brought together some young, unknown artists and writers. The poet Christian Dotremont took the fust letters of Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam and gave us the name Cobra. Cobra included Danish artists (such as [Asger] Jorn), Belgian artists (such as Alechinsky), and Dutch ones (such as [Karel] Appel). As for me, l was quite unable to draw a single sketch! But my fascination with the art of painting was later married with my taste for the cinema, and this led me to produce some films on artists. l was encouraged in that direction by Henri Storck, one of the creators of this genre.
PM: But you had already become engaged in an African adventure, in 1949, before joining the Cobra group.
LH: l had dabbled in ethnology at Brussels University, where I read Frazer and Malinowski. 1 took undergraduate courses in what were called the colonial sciences. These celebrated, in complete innocence, the merits of Belgian colonization (in which, of course, 1 did not believe . I was given a small travel award, and I decided to visit a small, unknown tribe in the eastern Belgian Congo. The upshot was completely unexpected. In the chiefs’ huts, I discovered an impressive collection of statues representing ancestors that are among the masterpieces of African sculpture. By pure chance I brought the Boyo (or Buye) to international artistic notice. The territorial administrator, under whose jurisdiction the Boyo fell, had replied to an inquiry from the Leopoldville authorities: “There is no art form in the territory of Kabambare.” He may be faulted for not knowing that the Boyo possessed these remarkable art collections, but he was wise to give a negative answer. I unwisely published my discovery (including the names of the villages) in the French review L’Ethnographie, and a few years later dealers went out and plundered them.
PM: Your studies were relatively eclectic but, when all is said and do ne, rather traditional: political science, history of art. How did you come to choose ethnography, in a period when it was not practised professionally in Belgium?
LH: Luck played an important part here too. I did not feel at home in the post-industrial civilisation, of which a particularly insipid version flourished after the war. I dreamt of leaving and of having a decisive experience far away. It so happened that Frans Olbrechts, the director of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, wanted to foster serious ethnology in the Congo. His plan was to have some young researchers trained and then to establish a large research institute that would be independent of the Ministry of Colonies. This splendid project took shape shortly after the war when the Institute for Scientific Research in Central Africa (IRSAC) was established. Dozens of young people of my age (or sometimes a little older) were able to devote themselves in complete freedom to fundamental research in subjects as diverse as zoology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and so on. Each of the four major Belgian universities was given a quota. My application to work as an ethnologist was sponsored by my supervisor, George Smets, a well-known medievalist, who had visited Burundi in 1933 in order to see whether a feudal system existed there. (He presented a well-documented course to which he gave the strange title “Institutions and Customs of Primitive People.”] I was offered the chance to study abroad for a year after my military service.
PM: You chose to study ethnology in Paris, while your colleagues (Maquet, Biebuyck, Vansina) opted for London. Why?
LH: Because Paris always attracted me-and because my English was awful! I discovered the exquisite English courtesy and the charms of London much later, thanks to Mary Douglas. But in contrast with the conformism of London, for me Paris represents intellectual daring. To me it was the city where surrealism was born. And so I went to Paris, and there I was introduced by [Marcel] Griaule, at the Sorbonne in 195 l -52, to the world created by the African imagination [l’imaginaire Africain].
PM: When you came back, you married Henri Storck’s daughter and, working for the IRSAC, drove with her and Jacques Maquet to the Belgian Congo. That was quite an expedition.
LH: We equipped a Studebaker and drave across the Sahara.
PM: Then you lived for two years with the Tetela, in the heart of the Belgian Congo.
LH: Actually, I would have liked to carry on my work with the Boyo. I wanted to find out how these poor people, decimated by small pox and the slave trade at the end of the 19th century, had once produced this prodigious statuary art [which would now be in the Tervuren Museum, had they listened to me). But Olbrechts wanted me to accompany a linguist to Kasai, to the Tetela.
PM: Curiously enough, you did not write much about the Tetela.
LH: I worked conscientiously when 1 was with the Tetela, but I was bored. I drew up innumerable genealogical trees to understand their lineage system, and it dawned on me that Western political science (from Plato to Marx through Machiavelli] did not apply there. 1 became aware of the importance of competition for prestige [to which political science should pay attention, for, after all, what is it that inspires tyrants and democratie leaders alike, for better or for worse-usually for worse?). Carrying on with my enquiries farther north, I penetrated deep into the great forest. In the utopian hope of gaining esoteric knowledge, I had myself initiated into a secret society, “the masters of the forest.” But a11 the mysteries led to dead ends. The forest people, the Hamba, just like their cousins of the savannah, the Tetela, measure close to zero on the scale of symbolic temperatures of the African continent. But as a consolation I discovered that the essence of potlatch can permeate a whole African society. The lineage chiefs, who were always arguing about their respective genealogical positons, could hang onto their feeble authority only by means of constant displays of generosity. Forms of money that had no other economic significance were used to finance marriage alliances. The son-in-law is permanently in debt to bis father-in-law and brothers-in law. I unexpectedly found myself confronted by a Lévi Straussian problem.
PM: Lévi-Strauss was very important to you.
LH: Before leaving for the field I had read Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, though rather superficially. In I955, as soon as I was back in Brussels, I wrote a review of Tristes Tropiques which 1 called “Holidays for Science?” The master thanked me, and I visited him in his small office at UNESCO. It was the beginning of a long dialogue. I might have given up ethnology, having been disappointed by fieldwork, if, at this critical juneture, Lévi-Strauss had not revealed the possibility of a comparative study of “archaic” societies. As time went by, l came to view structuralism as a particularly efficient method of understanding kinship, myths, rituals, but 1 never regarded it as the universal key for anthropology and sociology (and neither did Lévi-Strauss). One ought to remember that class struggles, which Marx put at the centre of his own research, have little in common with semiology!
PM: Early on you were also sympathetic to psychoanalysis, although you later turned away from it, as you did from Marxism.
LH: Quite true. My fust book (based on my doctoral thesis), on royal incest in Africa [r958L was inspired by Freud. Today I don’t understand Lacan at all, and Freud-whose thought is always very clear-no longer seems as convincing as he did 30 years ago. Psychoanalysts often seem to be working with a vapid and arbitrary system of thought. 1 have no idea how successful the . therapy is. In any case, as we have learnt from the study of sorne religious practices, it is possible to cure certain mental problems despite the lad: of any scientific knowledge.
PM: Lévi-Strauss is not the only anthropologist who influenced your work. One could mention Dumézil, and perhaps Frazer. A trinity?
LH: Yes, they are my intellectual ancestors-Frazer fust. One could certainly question many errors of judgemment linked to his contempt for the “superstitions” of “savage” societies. His mind was imbued with Victorian prejudices. I must, however, confess that I acquired my taste for ethnology from reading Frazer on the magical origins of kingship. His successors in Great Britain, who abandoned him in favour of Malinowski, failed to recognise that Frazer’s general model of “divine kingship” deserved careful re-examination. Since 1958 I have tried to develop Frazer’s thesis that in many “primitive” societies the divine (1 prefer to say “sacred”] king has an essential ritual function, controlling the forces of nature. Notwithstanding its historical diversity, sacred kingship in Africa rests upon a single underlying symbolic structure that remains constant despite local variants (or, in Lévi-Straussian terms, “transformations”). I must admit that few of my colleagues followed me in this neoFrazerian orientation-except maybe Alfred Adler in France and Jean-Claude Muller in Canada.
PM: The three musketeers of the royal magician! You are fundamentally opposed to functionalist arguments that would reduce sacred kingship to the ideology of a complex society in which various factions are struggling for power.
LH: Yes! The ritual killing of the king, which Frazer illustrated perfectly, is not the symbolic representation of Shakespearean murder as Evans-Pritchard thought. Of course, I do not deny the importance of political conflicts in the history of these complex societies, but the phenomenon of sacred kingship transcends these local events.
PM: The theme of sacred royalty is also central to your research on Bantu myths and rituaIs, which are the subject of two complementary books (Le roi ivre, ou L’origine de l’État [I972] and Rois nés d’un coeur de vache [I982]).
LH: I undertook a comparative study of African myths using structuralist methods. The Bantu peoples have few creation myths, and they have nothing equivalent to the rich oral literatures of the Amerindians. What 1 found was that mythic thought in Central Africa is embedded in narratives that have an apparently historical intention. These narratives articulate diverse symbolic discourses, and their appearance is one of the signs of state formation. This was a new field for me, though Lévi Strauss had anticipated that mythical material was susceptible to “re-employment for historical legitimization.”
PM: Proceeding with this research project by way of a study of Rwandan oral literature, you were drawn, beyond Lévi-Strauss, to Dumézil.
LH: It seemed to me that Rwandan royallegends distinguish between various ideological functions. It is true that I did not find the three-part scheme which, according to Dumézil, underlies all ancient Indo-European mythologies, but I found something comparable. Central African myths of sacred kingship construct a fundamental opposition between the magical function, represented by a culture hero, the founder of a new socio-political order (usually a hunter of foreign origin], and the function of war, embodied in the founder of the state (a son or a distant successor of the hunter). Three basic elements are involved in the sacralisation of power: the future sovereign transgresses the rules of kinship (often by committing incest) when he is enthroned, he is surrounded by a wall of taboos, and he is condemned to an unnatural death. Any of these characteristics may be more or less prominent in a particular case.
The sacralisation of power does not occur only where there is astate (which takes diverse historical forms in Africa]. Jean-Claude Muller clearly showed that these three elements define, albeit with sorne transformations, the chief’s power in Rukuban villages in Nigeria, despite the absence of any form of state organization. I conclude than, in many African societies, power must be understood in the first place in ritual terms. Accordingly, it is necessary to distinguish this symbolic order from the political forms that it takes in particular empirical circumstances. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the state is possible only where this ideological revolution has occurred-a revolution that consists in bestowing on a single man, detached from the symbolic order of family or lineage, extraordinary powers over nature. I suggest a complete reversal of Marxist or functionalist perspectives in which the symbolic (or the ideological) is merely a “superstructure.”
PM: But you brought down upon yourself the wrath of the historian Jan Vansina. You never replied to his vehement critique in History in Aitica [Vansina 1983].
LH: The scope of the response that was required was too broad, because beyond my own work he was really attacking Lévi-Strauss head on. But 1 hope to clarify things one day. Vansina was a good friend of mine for a long time. (We were in the Belgian Congo at the same time, and we spent a month together with the Kuba, where I wanted to make a film with him. Alas, the reel of film which we were expecting arrived only on the day of our departure] He was sympathetic towards my work at first-witness the flattering review he wrote of Le roi ivre in Africa in 1973-but in Roi nés d’un coeur de vache I had the audacity to venture into the two territories where he had perfected his method: the Kuba king dom in Zaire and ancient Rwanda. I was opening a dialogue with him-with courtesy, I believe. ‘1 managed to put him in a terrible rage. He conceded that I used the material with some “elegance” but went on to say (and this is the very title of the article you mentioned) that seductive methods are no proof. He also criticized my (very careful!) suggestion that some proto-Bantu people might have had a common conception of a universe vomited up by the primordial python that immediately set about the separation of Heaven and Earth-in other words, that there was an underlying dualist cosmic pattern that throws light on the meaning of many current myths.
PM: Your approach to this is different from that of Lévi-Strauss and closer to Dumézil’s, since you draw a historical hypothesis from the structural analysis.
LH: That’s what Vansina was so annoyed about! He accused me of encroaching on a province that properly belongs to “historians.” But 1 don’t see that African history can properly be separated from anthropology, although unfortunately that often happens. I know that Vansina is an excellent ethnographer, but since he has initiated this quarrel I may reproach him for denying all explanatory power to anthropology itself, which becomes no more than the servant of a certain type of history that claims a monopoly of truth: a history that relates a series of occurrences, of clashes of interest, of conflicts within a given ecological context, of interactions between neighbouring peoples, a history that aims, in the last instance, to “explain” a set of ephemeral situations or societal conditions that are not worth describing as systems, let alone as structures! The anthropologial approach brackets off history in order to achieve a synchronic analysis of social systems, on the premise that these constitute significant (albeit ephemeral) wholes. This is also, of course, the point of view of the linguists, adopted by Lévi-Strauss.
PM: But in his latest book, Paths in the Rainforest (I990], Vansina confronts various oral traditions in a critical way, deploying evidence from linguistics.
LH: I never denied the value of ethnohistory, but Vansina’s assumptions sometimes seem weak to me. How can it be definitely established that events which are “good to remember” are conveyed in the oral tradition? Is the ambition of Kuban or Rwandan keepers of tradition the same as that of Thucydides, of Livy, of Herodotus? The validity of oral traditions (a term which encompasses many heterogeneous symbolic and linguistic discourses in non-literate societies) ought to be questioned. Ethnohistorians need to define clearly the criteria that allow them to distinguish between the mythical elements in oral tradition-the features that are “good to think,” to use Lévi-Strauss’s famous expression-and those elements that reflect a need to remember the past (but why, and to what end?). Vansina indignantly asks how a foreign observer can be permitted to arrogate to himself the right to interpret myths whose meaning is unknown to the indigenous population. Yet there is a paradox that requires explanation: the historian claims the freedom to manipulate and combine traditions without the agreement of the people concerned, yet he refuses the same privilege to the (structuralist) anthropologist, who considers several mythical variants in order to make sense of the whole. Vansina evades this question and instead asserts that structuralist discourses (Lévi-Strauss’s as well as mine) are rooted in a metaphysical and therefore ahistorical conception of “the mythical mind.” According to him, structuralism fails to study empirical facts in a cultural context, Yet Lévi-Strauss is remarkable for the attention that he pays to the most minor details of ethnographie context when he analyzes symbolic thought, whether he is concerned with myths, rituals, or Amerindian social organization. He once told me that it was because of his ignorance of the cultural context that he never ventured into the field of African mythology. Clearly he does not believe that myths have no context.
PM: Nevertheless you part company with Lévi-Strauss in emphasising the historicity of some African symbolic systems.
LH: Yes, but my main aim is, with Lévi-Strauss, to find the connection between different symbolic systems, using the notion of “transformations.” In my view this concept, which is often misunderstood, has two complementary aspects. On the one hand, it may refer to a cross-cultural or trans-historical process. A good instance is provided by kinship systems; Lévi-Strauss has shown to my satisfaction that all kinship systems are onstrained by a number of universal principles that govern the ex change of women-that every empirical kinship system is a transformation of a very general structure. On the other hand, the notion can be applied to a historical process. (The Boasian project for the historical study of culture must be revived but using a new method.) Yet these two types of transformation are not mutually exclusive. For example, the various preferential marriage systems that occur in the western part of the matrilineal area in Zaire seem to me to have developed from a common cultural origin, but they can also all be treated as variants of a general type of marri age system characterised by restricted deferred exchange. A similar approach should be applied in the field of myth, where creativity is far less constrained than it is in the field of kinship. It seems clear to me that African myths can be traced back to a restricted historical set the inventory of which is an urgent task for ethnohistory. Ethnohistorians have shown little interest in this project, but unless the principles of structural anthropology are incorporated into ethnohistory it will go on producing more or less interesting monographs that record information but do not search out meanings. Of itself, history has no meaning: to believe otherwise is to accept a 19th century illusion-the illusion of Hegel and Marx. Anthropology alone may be able to discover meaning, providing that some slow rhythms in the flux of history are taken seriously and that the old notion of system (as an operational concept) remains the favoured instrument of comparative anthropology. This is my fundamental disagreement with Vansina.
PM: We must leave it to Vansina to answer. Another aspect of yOUI work also appears more Dumézilian than Lévi-Straussian. In your two books devoted to Bantu societies, you constantly bring together myths and rituals.
LH: On this matter I undoubtedly do depart from some of Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical positions. He was always especially concerned with the analysis of Amerindian myths and paid less attention, though without neglecting them altogether, to rituals. In the “Finale” to L’homme nu [1973:315], Lévi-Strauss concludes that rituals invert the mythological project, which he sees as a rational effort to understand the world. Rituals tend to bastardise classificatory thought. They make an ultimately doomed effort to represent the continuity of lived experience. The facts of African ethnography confronted me with a completely different situation. At any rate in the Bantu world-that is to say, in Central and Southern Africa-myths are singularly impoverished. Along with many other ethnographers, I was therefore obliged to consider the rich rituals practised by these peoples. These at first appear nonsensical, but they can be understood in one of two ways. In certain privileged cases, commentaries are provided by ritual specialists. In the absence of such indigenous exegesis, one must consider the organisation of the symbols in the ritual. From this it becomes apparent that rituals present us with “implicit mythologies” (to use a formula of Lévi Strauss that seems to me very powerful). Victor Turner pioneered this approach, though not without much hesitation.
PM: It is in this frame of mind that you wrote a book about the logic of sacrificial rituals in Africa .
LH: I wanted to take up a challenge of Lévi-Strauss. In La pensée sauvage, he asserts that sacrifice is an absurd act, foreign to classificatory logic. I attempted to show that there are a number of sacrificial “mythologies” which, in fact, keep recurring in the strangest fashion.
PM: You are often considered to be one of the best exponents of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas, at least in African studies, and you have been at the centre of arguments concerning structuralism. What is happening to structuralism today?
LH: I believe that some misunderstandings remain. Many anthropologists still believe that structuralism consists of applying systems of binary opposition with out any reference to “context” when, on the contrary, the method can function properly only through the intensive analysis of empirical cultural data. A second misconception is that structuralism turns its back on history. It is obvious that all human societies are prone to change, but one must note that they do so with different degrees of intensity and that they all construct more or less ephemeral institutions [kinship, religion, politics) which display a tendency towards self-perpetuation lest chaos (that is to say, nonsense, death) take over. If ethnohistory fails to take account of periods of stability-of what Braudel called the long term-it will become peculiarly disabling. Western historians have been obliged to transform themselves into anthropologists in order to describe, for example, certain models (obviously ideal types, always subject to local variation) of Merovingian, Carolingian, and feudal societies. In so doing they describe systems of clientage that have parallels in Africa, despite the fact that the specific form of European feudalism is unique. It is thanks to these rhythms of evolution that history assumes particular forms. Despite amazing technological developments, North American society (in which I spent a year 10 years ago) seems to have remained at a profound level (1 mean in its fundamental values) very like the society de Tocqueville described at the beginning of the last century-except of course (and fortunately) for the situation of black people, whose history has nevertheless left deep scars.
PM: Perhaps, but one cannot ignore the reality of entropy or of the crises and catastrophes which contemporary scientific thought has identified in other domains.
LH: 1 don’t see how these legitimate preoccupations could invalidate structural anthropology. From a general epistemological point of view, the two approaches seem complementary to me, for there is no history (human or world history) without structures or without catastrophes! I remember a friendly discussion I had on this matter with Prigogine, who asserted that he was not a structuralist. Physics has certainly changed from Newton to Prigogine, and we have ceased to believe that the world is immutably regulated like a clock, but is the physics of Newton no longer valid within certain constraints?
The relatively recent human sciences seem to me to have gone in the opposite direction to the hard sciences: the historical perspective was prominent (arbitrarily or justifiably) in philology, anthropology, and sociology in the 19th century. In the 20th century the leading practitioners of these disciplines adopted synchronic approaches, whatever the differences between such figures as Saussure, Jakobson, Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes, and Lévi Strauss. Yet the conflict between a “dynamic” anthropology and a “static” structural anthropology rests on a profound misunderstanding, which may be dissipated in the 21St century. ‘
Naturally our physical world, as well as the societies which allow us to live in it (somehow or ether], is irremediably doomed to disappear with the sun, this ephemeral star. Everything will have been mere illusion, as Buddhists know perfectly well.
PM: Structuralism was also strongly attacked in France, even by Dan Sperber, who criticizes Lévi-Strauss for seducing his readers rather than providing them with scientific proofs.
LH: Dan Sperber knows structuralism from the inside and remains close to it himself. In his own way, he is following through a research programme outlined by Lévi-Strauss in Le totémisme aujourd’hui, the aim being to ground anthropology in intellectualist psychology. Sperber actually proposes a radical version of this programme. Inspired by Chomsky, he wishes to establish a
cognitive anthropology. In my opinion he is wrong to attack the validity of Lévi-Straussian kinship theory, but he rightly insists on the need to distinguish between social “networks” and symbolic “codes” in marriage systems. While admitting that Lévi-Strauss laid the foundations for symbolic analysis, Sperber wants to remove what he terms the “semiological burden” from
the Mythologiques without disputing the central idea that myths obey a logic of transformations.
Vansina, on the contrary, insinuates that this is an illusion-that in fact we are presented simply with a set of speakers telling different stories which apparently do not reveal a shared language or cognitive system. Lévi-Strauss takes various narratives into account and shows that the logic of a myth appears in the set of its variants. If this conception is rejected, one can only imagine that people live in a sort of chaos, moved by various currents.
PM: Perhaps the human sciences have made a fetish of pro of, have become obsessed with what can be quantified, measured, hierarchized.
LH: It is true that structuralism is primarily a qualitative approach, sensitive and rational at the same time. But I don’t believe in a subjective anthropology.
PM: You choose Lévi-Strauss against Leiris.
LH: I deeply admire Leiris, who tried to situate his literary work at the crossroads between anthropology and aesthetics, or even poetry. But his was a unique success, His little book on the theoretical aspects of possession in Gondar is a masterpiece of ethnography, in my opinion, a wonderful description of everyday rituals. But one might equally attempt to construct a theory of possession cults by examining the recurrent forms taken by this singular experience, the trance. That is what Gilbert Rouget and I proposed.
PM: But poetry always attracted you-and if there is a common theme underlying your various interests, could it not be the passion to understand the creative process, whether this is represented by European artists or by members of exotic societies? This also connects at a certain point with your own special creativity.
LH: Doesn’t the critical understanding of individual artistic creations require the same inclination of mind and the same intellectual rigour as the interpretation of the products of the collective imagination? A certain playfulness, a delight in sheer invention, inspires all genuine research in the human sciences (and probably in the hard sciences too). Beware of sulky scholars!
PM: But Lévi-Strauss does take the natural sciences as a model.
LH: A very distant model, and that does not contradict the point I am making. Nature has an overflowing imagination, and it will go on ma king fun of our efforts to understand its structures. By the way, Lévi-Strauss borrowed his concept of a system of transformations from a naturalist, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.
PM: Let’s consider other criticisms of structuralism. In the United Kingdom, Needham and Leach first sup ported Lévi-Strauss but later changed their minds.
LH: The intellectual relations between England and France are not exactly easy! Let me first draw attention to the works of two great British scholars, Victor Turner and Mary Douglas. They remained faithful to the functionalist tradition and yet to some extent departed from it. They both paid attention to the symbolic dimension of rituals and taboos in Central Africa, and their work was a great help to me. I have had the privilege of knowing Mary Douglas for a long time. I met her in the Congo when 1 was a young researcher. She had just fini shed her study of the LeIe of the Kasai. On several occasions I commented on her work and proposed new angles from which to interpret her material, and in spite of our differences we remain good friends. In 1972, she arranged for me to be invited by the British Academy to give a series of lectures in Great Britain, where I had to explain myself in front of courteous, suspicious, and demanding colleagues, notably when I gave a lecture at Cambridge in the presence of Leach. Fortunately he was in a structuralist mood that day, so we agreed thoroughly with one another. He never responded to my critique of his analysis of the Kachin marri age system, which he reduced to a political strategy. Like most British social anthropologists, Leach was convinced that there are no general models of marriage-in short, that the whole of Lévi-Strauss’s enterprise was a “splendid failure.” I tried to reply to him, but the English version of Pourquoi l’épouser! (Why marry her) [198I] was ignored on their side of the Channel. Needham is a different matter! He was the faithful translator of Lévi-Strauss’s great work Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. But Lévi-Strauss realized that his theory had been misunderstood on two essential points. He disputed Needham’s foolhardy claim that his book limited itself to prescriptive systems [which strictly impose marri age with a certain cousin), while excluding preferential systems [which merely recommend one type of union). Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss quite rightly accused Needham of having merged two distinct oppositions, that between “elementary structures” and “complex structures” and that between “prescriptive marriage” and “preferential marnage.” I think that this came as a shock to Needham, but in any case he now rejects all structural interpretations of kinship. suddenly professing a sort of hyperempiricism, he recently told Françoise Héritier, who brilliantly analysed the structure of so-called Omaha kinship systems (which she calls “semicomplex”), that she was the victim of an illusion, the Omaha system being found only in Omaha Indian society. But the gulf berween Great Britain and France is a deep one. It goes back to a very old divergence between our philosophical traditions, in spite of the fact that British social anthropology still tends to invoke the authority of Durkheim, of whom Lévi-Strauss himself says he s an “inconsistent follower.” The Anglo-Saxon ernpirical tradition in anthropology seerns to rest, more or less abstrusely, on the belief that there exists a compact, obvious, social “reality”!
PM: A basic infrastructure …
LH: … upon which an ideology that did not form part of the original structure has been grafted.
PM: In this sense functionalism is rather close to Marx ism. And by the way, you were subsequently one of the few who tried to reconcile structuralism and Marxism!
LH: That is true. Lévi-Strauss himself did not completely reject the Marxist perspective. In a famous text (“La leçon inaugurale au Collège de France”) he contrasted two types of society, the first (those which can be submitted to structural analysis) being “cold” (or relatively static) and the second “warm” or cumulative, moved by a historical energy unknown in the first-an energy generated primarily by class struggles. This is a position that fits perfectly with the sociology of the
young Marx! Yet it is too radical a pOSItIOn, since we know now that most African societies are more or less “lukewarm. ”
PM: Have you given up the Marxist approach entirely?
LH: l have very much distanced myself from it, although ‘ I recognise Marx’s contribution to sociology (let us forget about his historical utopia). The strategies of marital exchange in archaic societies, however, have more in common with games and competitions than with class struggles.
PM: Within the Anglo-Saxon school of thoughr, Adam Kuper, who belongs to a younger generation than Leach and Needham, has insisted upon the importance of political tensions within kinship systems.
LH: For a long time Adam Kuper and I kept up a friendly controversy. His approach is original in that he expands the traditional limits of functionalism in order to construcr a large, regional cultural field, which he then submits to structural analysis. But his inspiration cornes from Leach not from Lévi-Strauss. However that may bel structural analysis at a regionallevel (whichever point of view one adopts) seems to me the best available procedure at the moment. It may even give anthropologists and ethnohistorians an opportunity to heal the breach between them, because within a regional cultural Context structural transformations may be related to diachronic transformations.
PM: Jean-Claude Muller employs the same method, using data from sorne Nigerian societies.
LH: Yes, but Muller is much closer to Lévi-Strauss. He is convinced that the same analytical method may be applied to the political ideologies of societies as different as the Rukuba, where each village is an independent unit, and the Iukun, who have a kingdom. Muller thinks, as I do, that political processes can be illuminated with the help of structural analysis. Marshall Sahlins’s work on Polynesian cultures is based on similar premises.
PM: Your first master, perhaps, was Marcel Griaule. His work has become controversial recently, a Dutch anthropologist, Walter van Beek, has criticised his great project in CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY [1991).
LH: I answered that criticism , which seemed deeply unfair. Whatever attacks can be made on his methodology, Griaule was the first to reveal to us the African cosmological vision!
PM: You directed a film about him. LH: To be precise, I dedicated a film to him, called Sur les traces du Renard pâle. I made it in Dogon country in 1983, with GermaineDieterlen and Jean Rouch. My purpose was to evoke the beginnings of French ethnology on the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali-a fabulous region. It is clear to me that the Dogon-and probably sorne other societies in the old Mande empire-had intellectuals capable of putting together a coherent view of the world, although they did not exhibit what Sperber terms a divided understanding (le savoir partagé). My own fieldwork was very disappointing in this respect.
PM: At one stage you switched your attention from Africa. Why did you suddenly jump from Zaire to Haiti from 1970 onwards?
LH: First, a decisive fact: I married a Haitian woman, Lilas Desquiron, who was my student. And then Alfred Métraux, in a now-classic book [I 9 5 8 L had established that the origins of the possession cult, introduced with the evil slave trade into Santo Domingo, were linked with Dahomey. I will always marvel at the extraordinary spirit of survival of the African gods who assisted these unfortunate people, chained in the bilge to start with and th en subjected to the horrifie regime of slavery on the sugar plantations. I soon discovered that the socalled petro rituals came from the Kongo of Zaire and not from Dahomey, which was the source of a complementary set of beliefs and practices related to rada ritual, In most sanctuaries, rituals linked to these distinct traditions are performed by the same priests or priestesses but at different times and in distinct places. I ended up putting forward a structuralist theory of syncretism. Christianity [imposed by the slave owners) operates on the surface; it is the mask of voodoo in front of ancient masters. During the ceremonies, Christian prayers prepare the way for the invocation of pagan gods, but trance, the central ritual, is incompatible with Christianity.
PM: Aside from this interlude in Haiti, you were not tempted to do fieldwork again?
LH: Fieldwork did not appeal to me any more. I was far more interested in confronting the ethnographic data that had accumulated in the libraries. I became, like Mauss and Frazer, an arrnchair anthropologist. Nevertheless, I did fieldwork in Haiti, and I returned to Zaire in I974 and I975· The last time it was to meet my Hamba and Tetela friends, who gave me a very gloomy account of 25 years of decolonization and warfare.
PM: Your career as a film mal<er developed quite separately from your career as an ethnographer. Why did you not make more ethnographic films?
LH: At first I thoughr I would be an ethnologist film maker like my senior, Jean Rouch, but our paths diverged, even though we remained close friends. We met in Paris in I955, when I came back from Africa, during an unforgettable gathering at the Musée de l’Homme. A handful of us showed Our silent, jerky images, filmed without synchronized sound, with amateurs’ cameras.
Rouch and I participated in the establishment of an international committee on ethnographic film, and with the help of Enrico Fulchignoni (of UNESCO) we organised ethnographic film festivals in Prague, Venice, Florence, and so on. At the request of UNESCO I wrote the fust historical and methodological essay on the ethnographie film [I962], and in addition to making two films in Africa I directed at least two “ethnological” documentaries in Belgium: Gestes du repas [I958] and Les amis du plaisir [196r]. But my passion for cinema did not exactly coincide with my passion for ethnography. My style was totally different to Rouch/s, since all my films (including those made in Africa] were carefully staged. My masters here were Flaherty and Henri Storck.
PM: You also made many films about artists, manyof whom were your friends,
LH: I like the art of portraiture, because it combines the difficulties of anthropology and of cinema. One tries to capture an individual with all his fantasies within a particular frame, circling apparently casually, using as few words as possible, trying to find powerful images. What interests me in art is its secrecy.
PM: What is the future of anthropology in Belgium?
LH: The unhappy history of our relationship with Africa-and in particular with Zaire-in sorne ways constitutes an obstacle to the development of our anthropology, and yet precisely because of our special historical legacy we have great resources for the study of African cultures.
I rejoice in the renewal of European ethnology. Escaping from the narrow historical preoccupations of folklore, it is adopting the interests of social and cultural anthropology. Tremendous political interests are at stake in this research. Will the Europe that we are striving to build, putting behind us the miserable national conflicts that have shaped a thousand years of history, be a homogeneous cultural uni verse (in the image of the United States of America) or, on the contrary, will it become, in the 3d millennium, a confederation of different cultures participating in a shared cultural heritage? What I like about Europe-the reason I feel deeply European-is that I feel as much at home in Florence as I do in London, Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam, precisely by reason of this marvellous mixture of similarities and differences that constitutes the European identity. But what worries me most is that the political revival of regionalism may ignite reactionary forces and leave us prey to a new obscurantism fed by political opportunists (from both the left and the right].
Anthropology is above all an arena which allows different cultures to understand one another. There lies its proper political vocation. It cannot become a battleground without disgracing itself.
PM: But could anthropology not be blamed for adopting an aesthetic approach to the painful drama of human societies?
LH: Sooner or later all anthropologists ask themselves this dreadful question. My answer is very clear and free from guilt. Anthropology is a jeu de l’esprit, and if those in power ever solicited its contribution (which never happens) it might contribute to mu tual comprehension between human societies. But it is politicians, not anthropologists, who must take the blame for not apprecieting this.
PM: You did once take a political stand when you defended the memory of Patrice Lumumba.
LH: It was the end of the colonial adventure, of which 1 was one of the last witnesses. I was sickened by the deep incomprehension of African culture displayed by the white colonialists-who were, on the whole, honest people, mediocre petit-bourgeois, quite unable to understand what was at stake in their own situation. Curiously enough, the big capitalists were rather sympathetic to Africans. I remember a high-ranking employee of a Congolese industrial company, a former law professor, who used to say, “One must be nice to the native people.” Just imagine! And yet this man was quite sincere. I ought to add that after Lumumba was murdered in Katanga by African politicians whom Belgian businessmen had built up (and after 1 had published [in Synthèses] my “Plaidoyer à la mémoire de Patrice Lumumba”), Egisthe Devroye, the permanent secretary of the Academy of Colonial Sciences, asked me to write Lumumba’s biography for-La Biographie coloniale belge.
PM: Looking back on your intellectual career, what gives you satisfaction, and what are your regrets?
LH: I have a happy feeling that I was always able to say what I wanted to say. What unconsciously guided my life is an intense curiosity. The desire to understand society does not seem to me to exclude a fascination with art, which is one of its mysterious products.
PM: Is there a pattern in your life that links all the books, the films, the women, the friends?
LH: A new love often coincides with an intense period of creation. Then comes a time of intense despair.
PM: Are you still governed by the surrealist doctrine of objective chance [le hasard objectifl?
LH: An inner need can only find expression in exceptional circumstances, which the external world may ofer or deny without any cause. Creation is always a meeting. One cornes across a woman, a fantasy, a reality. The creative imagination is sirnply the crystallization in the unconscious of sense data. Sometimes 1 find the solution of a problem when I wake up. But this extraordinary structuring power of the unconscious cannot be described in a university lecture during a course on historical criticism! I do not deny the importance of this discipline which I struggle-usually in vain-to teach to my students. But criticism is only the negative moment in a creative process that is much less common, to speak for once like Hegel.
PM: You have been interested in a mass of bizarre things: incest, witchcraft, trance, art.
LH: I have always been attracted by the margins of the social system, by the unsaid-which says so much.
PM: In conclusion?
LH: The contemporary world surprises and terrifies me. Political anthropology needs rethinking, from Machiavelli onwards. The Prince is a cold monster, spawned by very ancient incestuous relations in the cursed domain of black magic. Benevolent sorcerers are increasingly rare. And the boundaries between their two domains are blurred.
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