Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán's Turret in a Noose of Light (FitzGerald 45).
English majors like me were tacitly taught that Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám must be superior to a fragmentary, disorganized original which was the only quasi-poem a medieval Persian could have produced. For one thing, FitzGerald's inventions transform Omar's independent quatrains into a coherent poem. His invented images are famous. One is the stone flung into the cup, which opens the poem; another is the garden of stanza 18:
. . . every hyacinth the Garden wearsThese inventions were animated by "fidelity to the spirit of Omar . . . . The result might fairly be called an improvisation on Omar's quatrains, rather than a translation, and it is in that light that FitzGerald would have wanted it judged" (Martin 203). The opinion that FitzGerald's Omar was a superior piece was shared by many who had no competence in Persian: Swinburne, Browning, Burne-Jones, Morris, Meredith, and finally Ruskin. It takes a really good "cover" like FitzGerald's to neutralize the devolutionary premise in folklore (Dundes). Perhaps the idea of progress helps us assume that a translation is superior to its original. Late in the eighteenth century, Novalis asserted proudly, "I am convinced that the German Shakespeare today is better than the English" (Berman 105). Hungarian readers know the same is true of Sándor Petöfi's translations of Shakespeare. So much for authenticity and literalism: FitzGerald had "covered" Omar, as Elvis covered Willie Mae Thornton 1 and the Weavers covered Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" (Cantwell 179).
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head (FitzGerald 49).
If "cover" means crossing the boundaries between styles and resituating work in a different style, or for a different audience, then it is one perspective on what folklorists do, as much as for FitzGerald or Petöfi. They seek, says my colleague Regina Bendix, "to honor or comment on, to copy or reproduce an extant cultural creation by giving it a new body, a new life, and a new audience . . ." But according to Thompson's Motif-Index, a new body or new life is the work of a demiurge (motif A1310). Shouldn't he get the glory? The folklorist joins a modernist poet like William Carlos Williams, who identifies the common task: "The objective is not to copy nature and never was, but to imitate nature, which involved active invention, and active work of the imagination" (Autobiography 240-241). Giving the cultural creation a new body is both imitation and cover, because it circumscribes and sets into circulation something more concrete, but also more limited, than experience. Consequently, the new product has the ironic potential for pointing to the primacy (authenticity, presence) of experience whilst simultaneously concealing or taking the place of experience. The stunning assemblage of articles on Macpherson in a recent issue of the Journal of American Folklore (114:454) shows how much the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers had invested in authenticity and how enraged they became at the discovery of concealment.
In another perspective, which opens other problems, the "cover" is a translation. By aiming at the "Idea" of the work, said German Romantic critics, a translation could come closer to its "internal scope," closer to its truth. "Something of the original appears that does not appear in the source language" (Berman 7). A translator who precisely captured the poetic purpose of the creator, by this criterion, produces a superior poem (Berman 109-10). Whatever one says of this criterion, the Romantic translator isn't as invisible as his successors. The visibility problem is common to translators and folklorists (Venuti).
One contribution Roger Abrahams has made to his intellectual milieu is to reduce the folklorist's invisibility. "Lore is gathered," he writes, "under particular circumstances by collectors whose technique and disposition must be taken into account." He is not alone. After Barre Toelken reported extensively on his own fieldwork in an undergraduate textbook, present and past collaborations between the investigator and resource person came into visibility (Narayan; Silverstein). Charles Briggs has bent his efforts to a spotlighting of discursive practices that will make the folklorist more visible (Briggs). The temptation to it remains a danger in public presentations, if "we" imagine ourselves to be here just to recontextualize "them."2
In a third perspective, it is "second nature" for the folklorist to take up an attitude of search. Where the discipline hitherto known as folklore makes its special contribution is to move beyond skepticism about doctrines to a ground-level search for observable behaviors and expressions, some of which have become second nature. The trouble is that "second nature" is nothing but a catchall umbrella term for a set of choices that are to be denied the status of choices. We live with, or slide into, countless things that perhaps once were choices but which we have given up questioning. They are the substance of what we have learned: how to curve your fingers on the piano keyboard, how to set the dinner table "correctly," how to put toothpaste on a toothbrush (Alan Dundes's example), how to be silent or vocal when attending to a folktale performance.
If, however, folklorists are really crossing stylistic boundaries and reorienting materials towards a different audience, I am tempted to set up a typology, like Dorson's for finding folklore in written sources or Vilmos Voigt's pellucid separation of folklorism and folklorization. These both depend on a binary separation, as does the distinction between original and "cover." But I avoid setting one up, because typologies that partake of a commitment to presence or immanence tend to cover up power differences. By his Caribbean focus and his theoretical bent, Roger Abrahams has continually reminded me of these differences, for instance in "The Complex Relations of Simple Forms," where the distance between audience and performer is plainly a function of differential power (Abrahams 1976). What a happy contrast to those anthropologists who seek answers to the problems of globalization in the corridors of power (Shore). Ah, folklorists! what might we not achieve,
. . . could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire . . . (FitzGerald 84).
© Lee Haring 2002
1."Big Mama" Thornton, an African-American blues singer, initially popularized "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog" before Elvis Presley, a white imitator of black performance styles, took it over.[back]
2. I used to think it was also a danger to young folksingers who try to disappear into the intonations and personae of "the folk," until I saw Jack Elliott's art through the respectful research of his filmmaker daughter. Young singers still try, by reproducing traditional intonations, to gain spiritual or emotional power for themselves, whereas Woody Guthrie--Jack Elliott's original--gained an "ascribed" identity by speaking for a particular group.[back]
Antoine Berman, The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany, trans. S. Heyvaert (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 1984.
Charles L. Briggs, "Metadiscursive Practices and Scholarly Authority in Folkloristics," Journal of American Folklore 106.422 (Fall 1993): 387-434.
Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
Alan Dundes, "The Devolutionary Premise in Folklore Theory," Journal of the Folklore Institute 6 (1969): 5-19.
Edward FitzGerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, ed & introd by Dick Davis (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989).
Robert Bernard Martin, With Friends Possessed, a Life of Edward FitzGerald (New York: Atheneum, 1985).
Kirin Narayan, Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales, With Urmila Devi Sood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Cris Shore, "Nation and State in the European Union: Anthropological Perspectives," Times, Places, Passages. Ethnological Approaches in the New Millennium. Plenary Papers of the 7th SIEF Conference, eds Réka Kiss and Attila Paládi-Kovács (Budapest: Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2001) 25-53.
Michael Silverstein, "The Secret Life of Texts," Natural Histories of Discourse, Ed. Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 81-105.
Lawrence Venuti, The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation, Translation studies (London: Routledge, 1995).
Back to t h e SOUNDING BOARD
Lee Haring's piece resonated for me upon my return from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, one of many such trips I've conducted in my new post as Director of the Virginia Folklife Program (yes, it is fun, I'll come clean). Charlie, my "Eastern Shore Guy" (a surprisingly effective moniker which seems to conveniently sidestep more treacherous titles like "informant," and just seems to flow off my tongue in a more natural way than currently fashionable terms like "consultant"), lives year-round on Chincoteague Island. Chincoteague is one of those coastal communities living a dichotomous existence -- it's as sleepy in the winter as it is boisterous in the summer. It is also known, among other things, to be the "decoy capital" of the Eastern Shore. Charlie and I have probably spoken on the phone upwards of fifty times, and we've become quite close. As my Eastern Shore Guy, he has the dubious honor of fielding my more embarrassing inquiries (having grown up in the suburbs of New York's Westchester County to left-leaning Jewish parents, I haven't exactly spent a lot of time around rifles, and wasn't entirely sure what a duck decoy was used to hunt.)
- from Jon Lohman:
"What is a duck decoy used for?" he asks. "Geese!"
O.K. We're into one of those awkward silences again. While Charlie usually responds to my questions with sarcasm, he doesn't do it all the time, leaving me forever feeling like an idiot. Finally, he puts me out of my misery.
"DUCKS ASSHOLE! YOU USE A DUCK DECOY TO HUNT DUCKS!"
Ducks are very gregarious animals, I find out. You set a couple decoys out, and some duck is going to come and join them. I shudder to think of these animals' final moments, realizing just before their end that their new friends are not real friends at all, but (literally) a bunch of phonies. Along with their gregariousness, ducks also don't appear to be particularly discerning, or at the least they seem to lack good long-distance vision. A simply carved decoy, with the proper coloration, adequately gets the job done. Yet, a casual survey of decoy styles from their post-Civil War rise to prominence to the present, reveals that their carvers have employed increasingly sophisticated carving methods in their constructions. The feathers are intricately tapered. Beaks are rendered somehow to appear wet. Various species are carved to the closest detail, satisfying the most schooled ornithologist. Carvers became so gifted that one could not tell the decoy from the duck.
Clearly, these masterfully carved decoys are, in the truest sense of the word, overkill. So, why do these carvers invest so much time, effort, and emotional energy into these decoys? The same question really could be asked of so much of the materials we are interested in as folklorists -- i.e. why construct such an elaborately stitched quilt when a simple blanket will keep you warm? Of course, like so many other forms of folk expression I have witnessed in these whirlwind first months as the Virginia state folklorist, decoy carving provides a critical location for aesthetic communication, a site to respond to that impulse inside all of us to create beauty out of ordinary things, and to repeatedly express to each other "who we are."
In the case of the decoys, it appears also that the goal of the carver somewhere shifted from fooling nature to fooling man. While I've only scratched the very surface of understanding what has taken place with this tradition (and there are several Penn folklore graduates and former students of Roger's who have developed substantial expertise on this topic), I'd be willing to bet that carvers first worked to impress and perhaps even fool each other, rather than "outsiders." According to Charlie, things really started to change in the late fifties and sixties, with the emergence of a collector's market for decoys, which raised many of the area's most respected carvers (and even some of those who weren't quite so respected) to "folk artist" status. In fact, decoys from some of the more renowned carvers -- the Ira Hudsons, the Miles Hancocks, the "Umbrella" Watsons, the Grayson Chesters -- can bring in thousands of dollars a piece in the folk art market.
Charlie's got a Grayson Chester sitting atop his refrigerator. Or at least that's what he first told me. He takes it down, brushes away some of its dust, and puts it in my hands. It feels remarkably heavy for something that can float, but I won't waste one of my stupid questions on that. Instead I ask him how old it is and he answers, "Oh, it's real old." Things again get quiet and I return to my familiar place in liminal social pergatory.
"Naw, it's a fake. A Chester knockoff," Charlie tells me. "You actually think I'd keep something worth that much money on top of my friggin' fridge?" Charlie then proceeds to tell me about the rash of "imitation decoys." Seems that countless carvers throughout the Eastern Shore have moved beyond creating picture perfect imitations of nature to creating picture-perfect imitations of other carvers' picture-perfect imitations of nature. The mimetic tradition has turned on itself. He describes incredibly elaborate methods of foolery, such as actually baking decoys so that the paint appears naturally aged, and so forth. He prefaces all of this, however, with what has become a familiar dismissal that "as a folklorist, you wouldn't be interested in this."
Yes, for those of you who don't do a lot of work in the public sector, the old "A word" as Regina and Roger have called it, is alive and well. Roger, Regina, Lee Haring, and others have done much to deconstruct much of the rhetorics of authenticity. Yet, in the public sector folklore world, it remains one of the central forms of currency that we must contend with. This is where I think Roger's stamp is most present in my daily work. Whether this is Roger's fault or not, I constantly find myself drawn to places that most feel a folklorist has no business hanging out in. Here in Virginia, for example, I'm fascinated by places like Colonial Williamsburg, not for the reasons that everyone else assumes I should (i.e. the relative faithfulness and historical accuracy of their presentations) but because I wonder what it's like to wake up each morning, dress up in 18th Century garb, get in your s.u.v. and stop for an Egg McMuffin on the way to work. Or are there locker rooms? If so, what kinds of jokes are they telling one another? Where do they hang out after work? Do the blacksmiths date the chamber-maids?
Driving home over the Bay Bridge Tunnel, I'm weighing the possible outcomes of suggesting to my new boss that I conduct a documentary project on the newly emerging faux decoy carving tradition. I relive a daydream which has become much more common than I ever would have expected. I imagine that Roger is sitting in the passenger seat, shaking his head, with his eyebrows raised. "You better watch it kiddo," he tells me with that mischievous grin.