Taranta, poverty, and orientalism

Watching Ernesto De Martino’s 1959 footage of healing sessions for possessed women in south Italy, one may feel almost voyeuristic.

Below I cite Stephen Bennetts, Review of Ernesto De Martino, The Land of Remorse: a study of Southern Italian tarantism[1]

First published in 1961, The Land of Remorse is a classic of anthropological detective work. Was this bizarre phenomenon really caused by the bite of the tarantula, or was it instead a mere “superstitious relic”, or a localised form of psychosis prevalent among illiterate Southern Italian peasants? Almost sixty years ago, in 1959, a group of scholars arrived in the small town of Galatina to unravel the riddle. They comprised a historian of religion (De Martino), neuropsychiatrist, toxicologist, psychologist, anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, social worker and photographer.

It soon became clear that the research team was documenting the last vestiges of the cult, which by now had retreated to an isolated pocket of peasant society in Salento, the stiletto heel of Southern Italy. Tarantism still persisted in its classical form in the music and dance therapy sessions conducted in the home, whilst the partly Christianised form of the cult, amputated of its musical and dance component, continued in the grotesque and histrionic displays at the Chapel of St Paul, as possessed tarantati arrived for the feast day of Saint Paul to ask the saint for healing.

In De Martino’s analysis, the mythology of the taranta and the catharsis of the possession state provide a framework in which personal psychological tensions common throughout Southern Italian peasant society could be publicly dramatised. Private sufferings caused by unhappy love, bereavement, sexual frustration, or subaltern social status were transfigured into annually recurring possession states which were culturally determined, rather than being the result of a real spider bite. The ritualised healing through dance and music provided victims with psychological closure and reintegration back into the community, at least until the summer of the following year.

[According to one Salentine authority, the last episode of tarantism involving actual possession took place in 1993, but the last living practitioner died in 2000. Yet “tarantism” has recently taken on another curious form. The current Southern Italian folk revival and associated pizzica dance craze incorporate a grab bag of different impulses: re-emergent Southern regionalism, the reevaluation of a peasant past which is now distant enough for young Southern Italians to romanticise rather than feel ashamed of, and a rejection by the Italian anti-globalisation movement of the television-fixated “cultural homogenization” of Berlusconian Italy. De Martino’s book has now achieved cult status beyond the academy; go to many folk concerts in Southern Italy today and you will find it on sale alongside tambourines, castanets and other accoutrements of the recently exhumed Southern Italian past. In a process which has been aptly described as “proletarian exoticisation”, De Martino’s plain female peasant tarantate have given way in contemporary reworkings of the theme to video clips featuring dissociated but picturesque young beauties writhing to the latest tarantella folk hit. Within the current Salentine folk revival, De Martino functions as a kind of symbolic fetish, validating an isolated area of Southern Italy which almost nobody had heard of until the “rediscovery” of tarantism and tarantella ten years ago suddenly put Salento on the map.]

Along with more detached ethnographic observations, one easily discerns severe social problems here—not least poverty, and not just the role of the church. Urban Chinese observing rural Chinese ritual may be beset by similar, prescriptive, responses—which will be secondary for foreign fieldworkers, more entranced by the persistence, perhaps exoticism, of religious practice there. That’s partly why study of the practices of “primitive” ethnic minorities are so fashionable.

De Martino’s work, though focused on religion, makes a successor to Carlo Levi’s 1945 book Christ stopped at Eboli, and even James Agee’s 1941 Let us now praise famous men, with the photos by Walker Evans. Accounts like these are a world away from the idealizing of peasant communities often implied in Chinese cultural studies. But both types have their own agendas. Meanwhile, brave Chinese journalists have blazed a trail, with village surveys like those for Anhui, and a substantial body of work on the famines around 1960—on which more soon.

We may contrast the anthropology/ethnography of religion with pious insiders’ views of religion. Of course a participant or “believer’s” own account will be important material. But if in the description the ethnographer promotes her own “belief”, that is dangerous: more like propaganda. Empathy is to be desired, evangelism to be avoided. Good histories of Christianity or Islam are unlikely to come from the standpoint of proponents for such beliefs.

So what is, or should be, the anthropologist’s view on religion? While showing how it works in the society, one doesn’t have to promote it as entirely beneficial there, or to that of other societies. Of course our picture is blurred by the quest for ancient oriental wisdom, which may even follow on from hippy mysticism. It is remarkable how commonly this still plays a role in studies of Daoism.

Some scholars make a case for the superiority of Daoism as a world view, over other religions and other world views. Not only is this not the job of the ethnographer, but it may flaw the whole research enterprise. What we learn from such accounts is what a Western scholar, of a particular upbringing and taste, thinks about Daoism; not what Daoism in society is like.

To repeat, it is different to develop a certain empathy with one’s subjects than to come from a standpoint of evangelical zeal. In the course of an ethnographic relationship one will doubtless begin to explain their mindset, their backstory, and so on. But the study of Daoists is mainly to be done with the same kind of anthropological curiosity that one would bring to the study of any other group, such as Party cadres or sex workers (funny how those two random examples seem to make suitable bedfellows. I didn’t say that).

Participant observation brings many benefits. In the case of religion, to participate fully in the life of Daoists will certainly confer insights—but there is no single type of Daoist, and even participation is only one aspect of the duties of the scholar. One should observe not only how religious activities inspire local patrons, or bring social cohesion, but how people may ignore or oppose them. I’m not even arguing with evangelism, necessarily; just that it blurs proper scholarship.

Study of oriental religion risks exoticizing. Even if the scholar avoids the trap of “Just look at this rare ritual I’ve stumbled across/gained unique access to”, rituals may yet be portrayed as “special”, ancient, mystical, and so on—whether they are or not, and downplaying their routine nature. This kind of social behaviour is normal. The visitor may stumble (once) across something supposedly rare, but more likely it will be repeated again and again—always adapting over time.

Note also this documentary from 1952:

 

[1] Weekend Australian, Review section, 28–29 January 2006.

6 thoughts on “Taranta, poverty, and orientalism

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