As students of mine soon discover (some admiringly, some with irritation), my favorite mode of thinking is free association. A few days ago a news item reminded me of one of the more fascinating individuals I met very early in my career, an individual who challenged the approach in the social sciences in which I had been trained, and then made me reflect again on the question of how one is to study religion.The item was an article about Haiti, in the current issue of Religion in the News, the very informative bulletin published out of Trinity College (in Hartford, Connecticut), under the editorship of Mark Silk (formerly a journalist with The New York Times). The article, by Leslie Desmangles, describes the effects on religion of the earthquake that had devastated the island. The survivors sought comfort in religious services performed in the midst of the rubble—Catholic, Protestant and Vodou—the latter (commonly rendered in English as “Voodoo”) an ingenious blend of Christianity and traditional African religion, a Haitian variant of a syncretism found throughout the African diaspora in the Western Hemisphere and in Africa itself. Vodou has played an important role throughout Haitian history—suppressed by the French colonial authorities, emerging out of the underground in the bloody struggle for independence in the early nineteenth century, elevated as an ingredient of national identity during the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” in the 1960s. The Haitian constitution of 1987 recognized Vodou as one of the country’s official religions.Vodou has existed in an uneasy relationship with Catholicism. Church authorities have looked on it with a mixture of disapproval and toleration. Protestantism, recently sweeping through Haiti especially in its Pentecostal version, has not been tolerant at all. It has strongly condemned the mixture of Christianity and African religion, and it has denounced Vodou as demon worship. The article describes a coming together of the three faiths in the wake of the earthquake. The author claims that this heralds a new era in the history of Haitian religion, “one that brought Vodou to the fore as a public actor in civil society”. If he is right, that is an interesting development in contemporary religion. There have been revivals of folk religion in other parts of the world (for example, in China), and the way in which these revivals relate to the state and the “official” worldview of modernity is an important topic for the sociology of contemporary religion. The topic relates to a broader, even more important, question—how strongly supernaturalistic religion can survive and even flourish in modern and modernizing societies. These topics cannot be taken up here.I know very little about Haiti. I have never been there. The only place where I witnessed a ritual distantly related to Vodou was in Brazil (where this syncretistic genre is called condomble). But the news item about Haiti vividly reminded me of my brief but impressive encounters with Maya Deren. This was in the late 1950s, when I was just beginning my academic career. As I recall, I visited Deren three times in her apartment in Greenwich Village, at least once with Brigitte (my about-to-become wife). I first contacted her after reading her book about Vodou, we hit it off with each other, and she invited me to one or two of the somewhat chaotic parties she hosted with Teiji Ito, her third husband.Deren was born in 1917 in Kiev (then part of Russia), died of a brain haemorrhage at a tragically young age in 1961. Her original name was Eleanora Derenkowski. Supposedly she was given her first name because her mother admired the famous dancer Eleanora Duse (a case of nomen est omen?). Her father (a psychologist, who brought the family to America in 1922) abbreviated the name to help Americans pronounce it. She herself invented her first name, alluding to the Indian concept of maya. The concept refers to the veil of illusion that hides the true reality of the world. Perhaps one can say that all though her short life Deren tried to dance through this veil. At an early age Deren became well known as a dancer, photographer and filmmaker. Some of her films are supposed to be breakthroughs—I cannot judge this. Apparently she has become something of a cult figure in circles seriously concerned with film as an art form.When I met her, Deren was an unconventionally attractive woman, sharply intelligent, and not exactly shy about expressing her opinions. She strolled barefoot through her apartment, very much the earth mother. I recall one conversation I had with her about bullfighting. I said something favorable about it, provoking a loud outburst from her. She said she despised the practice. When I demurred and said something about its being a ritual of courage in the face of death, she modified what she had said. Yes, she could admire the bullfighter for the reason I had just given. What she despised was the fat businessman who sat on a bench watching someone else facing death—let him come down into the ring and face the bull himself—then she might admire him too.The book of hers that I had read is Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953). Deren had gone to Haiti to make a film about indigenous dances. She became fascinated with Vodou as a religion. The book gives a detailed picture of the religion and an account of her experience with it. As she tells it, at the center of Vodou ritual is increasingly ecstatic dancing, leading up to possession by one or the other divinity in the Haitian pantheon. What impressed Deren was the transgender quality of possession (she does not use this term, which had not yet come into use): Male gods could take possession of either men or women, as could goddesses. An individual possessed (in local parlance, being ridden by a divine horseman) loses consciousness and, for the duration of the possession, acts out the role traditionally ascribed to the divinity in question.The highpoint of the book is the account of Deren’s own possession. She had made it a habit of dancing with the worshippers at Vodou ceremonies. For some time nothing unusual happened to her at these events. Then, one evening, she had a strange feeling as she was dancing, as if there was a strange presence in her mind. It was a terrifying feeling. She went out from the building in which the ceremony was being held. She smoked a cigarette. She was sorely tempted to just leave. But then she decided that, no, she was going to go through with this. She went in and resumed dancing. Suddenly she felt that one of her legs was fastened to the ground. She could not move it, and was hopping around it on the other leg. Everyone was looking at her. They knew what was happening.What occurred then was the most terrifying things she had ever experienced. It was the overwhelming feeling that an alien mind was entering and taking over her mind. For a few moments it seemed as if two persons shared the same mental space. Vodou adherents call this the “doubling” (dedoublement). Then she lost consciousness. She woke up a few hours later, with no memory of the events following the “doubling”. But she was told by others that she had been possessed by Erzulie, the Vodou goddess of love—an African Aphrodite, if you will (though with characteristics that her Greek cousin did not exhibit). Erzulie is very feminine, flirtatious, fond of luxury. For the time of the possession Deren behaved exactly as Erzulie is supposed to behave. She was Erzulie. And the others treated her as such.All of this is fascinating in itself. Let us leave aside here the question of whether the Vodou divinities have any reality beyond the consciousness of their worshippers, a reality “out there” in the universe. Deren’s account raises a very interesting question: Just how is one to study religion? Deren herself emphasized that she got close to the phenomenon of Vodou because she danced with the worshippers—much closer than if she had sat outside the circle of dancers with a notebook or a tape recorder. She did make a film of Vodou rituals, but that was not her closest access. She had little use for anthropology, derided its pretensions of scientific objectivity. African cultures, she wrote, “are predicated on the notion that truth can be apprehended only when every cell of brain and body—the totality of a human being is engaged in the pursuit.” I think it is fair to assume that Deren would have said the same about any other attempt to get at the “truth” of a culture or a religion.The question is not new. It is at the core of the issue of methodology in the human sciences. Controversy has whirled around this issue for many years, in an interesting way in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, continuing recently somewhat less interestingly (because it’s covering much the same ground in a less original way). Two key figures in the earlier debates were Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Max Weber (1864-1920). Dilthey, an influential philosopher, was greatly concerned with distinguishing the cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften—literally, “sciences of the spirit”) from the natural sciences. The latter are approached by way of abstract reason (Verstand), perfectly adequate when applied to phenomena that do not involve human subjectivity (“spirit”). The cultural sciences, Dilthey proposed, should be approached by a less abstract method, which he called Verstehen—literally “understanding,” but defined in a very distinctive way: approaching phenomena by employing all one’s capacities, including one’s emotions. I am not a Dilthey expert, but I think that what he meant is close to the common usage of the notion of “empathy”—literally, “feeling oneself into” the mindset of other people, an exercise that combines reason and emotion. This is not far from what Maya Deren proposed, though I doubt whether the two could have spent a pleasant weekend together (Deren reading German philosophy? Dilthey dancing at a Haitian ritual?).Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, used the term Verstehen in a different, actually opposite sense from the one intended by Dilthey. It has usually been rendered in English as “meaningful interpretation”—a good choice, as it suggests a careful attempt to get at the meanings which human beings themselves attach to their actions (as against the meanings brought into the situation by an outside observer). The term refers to a method different from that of the natural sciences—an imaginative entry into another’s mindset, but without the emotional quality of empathy. Weber succinctly formulated what this suggests: “One does not have to be Caesar in order to understand Caesar.” Weber creatively applied this method to his pioneering work in the sociology of religion. To take the best known example of this, in his study of the role of Protestantism in the birth of modern capitalism, Weber delved into the intricacies of Calvinist theology, and its psychological and economic consequences. But at no point of this exercise of Verstehen did he make himself feel like a Puritan businessman. I’m quite sure that he was not drawn emotionally to this type of human being. I know that Maya Deren did not agree with Weberian methodology in the study of religion.To illustrate the difference between natural and human sciences, take an example that does not deal directly with religion—the issue of race. A natural scientist—a biologist or a geneticist—can study this matter without interviewing a single person. The recent research into DNA has enormously contributed to our understanding of the origins and migrations of the human species. On the basis of such studies, a natural scientist will say that the notions about race of this or that racist ideology are empirically false and unworthy of further attention. True enough. A social scientist studying such a racist ideology and its consequences cannot stop there. He must begin where the biologist has left off. He must interview racists, read racist literature, try to get at the meaning system of these people—objectively, putting aside his own dislike—but with an objectivity quite different from that of the biologist. Genes, as far as we know, have no subjectivity. Human beings do. That subjectivity cannot be left aside in the scientific study of their behavior.As a sociologist, I am an orthodox Weberian (about my only orthodoxy at this stage of my life). In other words, I practice Verstehen in Weber’s rather than Dilthey’s sense. But this practice is limited to the act of objective interpretation of other people’s behavior. It does not require emotional involvement; indeed, in the act itself one should avoid such involvement. This does not imply, however, that understanding cannot be facilitated by personal experience. I accept Deren’s claim that her dancing got her closer to the meaning of Vodou than if she had just sat observing from the sidelines. By the same token, her book cannot really be read as a scientific work. To take an example from my own experience, at one stage of my career I became very interested in the much-debated question of whether Confucian values have been a factor in the economic success stories of East Asia. I had no emotional involvement whatever with this question. But the question became real to me after I first travelled in the region. Culture can be seen, heard, touched, even smelled. I could have tried to form an opinion about the “post-Confucian hypothesis” without ever having been immersed in the frenetic hustle of the Tokyo subway or a Hong Kong ferry. The recollection of what I have called “sociological tourism” helps when, back home, one coolly assesses this or that hypothesis.If I should ever want to do research on the place of Vodou in contemporary Haitian society, I would not try to dance at one of its ceremonies (my arthritic knees would not let me in any case). I definitely would not want to be possessed. But I would want to get close to what people are actually doing—to see, hear, smell. It would then put me in a better position to analyze, all emotions bracketed, whether the “Vodou ethic” is or is not conducive to modern economic development. My hunch is that it is not.
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Published on: September 10, 2010Dancing with the Gods