And so, it was at Puerto Rico that I first made contact with the United States; for the first time I breathed in the smell of warm car paint and wintergreen … those two olfactory poles between which stretches the whole range of American comfort, from cars to lavatories, by way of radio sets, sweets and toothpaste … The accidents of travel often produce ambiguities such as these. Because I spent my first weeks on United States soil in Puerto Rico, I was in future to find America in Spain. Just as, several years later, through visiting my first English universtiy with a campus surrounded by Neo-Gothic buildings at Dacca in Western Bengal, I now look upon Oxford as a kind of India that has succeeded in controlling the mud, the mildew and the ever-encoroaching vegetation.

What strikes me more and more now as I am rereading this book is how many different ways it finds to reflect its facets on each other. I’m not sure where to find the point of origin of any of its themes. Or are they themes, like melodies in a piece of music, subject to repetition, variation, and inversion? – or are they more like the instruments, themselves invariant, producing the infinite variety of melody? Should I say that the way the scents of America are strung along a single line with conceptual endpoints is a feature of the author’s psychology? Or is it more suitable to say that the world and human nature are like that, which is why his mind reflects it? Or does it have something to do with the specific portrait the book is painting: of a world aranged in the rigid graphs of an order of concepts, where the concepts are made of fluid perceptions that merge and separate like a kaleidoscope with colored water-droplets for beads; the way his memories and experiences merge into and are shaped by his analysis and later understanding.

Those magic caskets

So we’ve got through the first section of the book. Chapter three, of course, just finishes the story begun in ch. 2 and, although there are some amusing anecdotes, he’s not really going anywhere except on a narrative jaunt. But chapter 4! The first section of the book is like one of those shortbread cookies with jam in the middle: the jam is always uninteresting and a bit of a disappointment compared to the actual cookie, but without the jam the cookie wouldn’t taste nearly so good. Chapters 1 & 4 are the cookie (i.e. the substance), and 2 & 3 are the jam (meagre travellog with all the annoying pips and sugary congealments of the genre). I was thinking of beginning with a quotation like I did last week and I just couldn’t choose: I wanted to quote the whole chapter. E.g.:

Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories (37f.).

And so on and so forth on the falsity of travel narratives – as though he weren’t implicated, though he is and realizes it:

I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt; I wished I had not trodden that ground as myself, but as Bernier, Tavernier or Manucci did … Once embarked upon, this guessing game can continue indefinitely. When was the best time to see India? At what period would the study of the Brazilian savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Léry and Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know the texts too well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing date and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment. And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape (….) In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lost on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should (43).

With that I’m going to sit back and see what the rest of the book brings.

I did want to ask (and this will display my ignorance) how that would fit in with the recent Bakhtin craze, if at all? The word ‘spectacle’ set off some little bells in my head and I’m wondering how far it’s legitimate or how much it’s just a false alarm brought on by silly pseudo-critical conditioning.

On board ship

[T]here was a general urge to complete the operation quickly and get out, for the unventilated huts were made of planks of unseasoned, resinous pine which, after being impregnated with dirty water, urine and sea air, began to ferment in the sun and give off a warmish, sweet and nauseous odour; this, added to other smells, very soon became intolerable, especially when there was a swell.

One of the things I like best about Tristes Tropiques is the pleasure it takes in getting the sensuous detail right. There’s a kind of knowledge muscle it likes to flex as well: “unseasoned, resinous pine” has the ring of expertise to it that pulls the trust from me needed to allow him to give me the whole picture of the cramped, unpleasant on-board showers. It’s the same kind of implication of explanatory power that helps me take in his picture of wartime Martinique, with its purposeless guard, confused as to which side they were on and who their enemy was, taking out their agression with bureaucracy on a helpless boatful of refugees.

The nature of the beast

Adventure has no place in the anthropologist’s profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is not available; periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose…

Having read the first two chapters of Tristes Tropiques, I can only say that I like how Levi-Strauss fleshes out his narrative. In the first chapter he firmly states his dislike of the travel genre, cutting himself off (or setting himself apart) from it and all its weaknesses. By the second chapter, though, he’s added a historical element, provided a context both personal and historical for the writing of the book. It’s the promise of flesh (observations on history and culture and his own personal development) for the skeleton he set out in the first chapter (anthropologist goes to Brazil). A good start for what looks like a complex and thoughtful book.

Tristes Tropiques

Blogs collect unfulfilled projects. (It’s a form of internet lint.) Why should this one be different? One more thing I plan to use this site for, another thing I get to avoid doing in avoiding coming here, I won’t notice it. So let’s announce it: We, Mfc and I, plan to read Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a couple chapters a week, for the next however long, and blog an exchange about it. It’s one of my favorite books, and I haven’t read it in five years. I’m really looking forward to revisiting it. You’re welcome to participate, comments are open.

The rough idea is: we’ll choose a short passage, one each each weekend, and write a short, off-the-cuff post about it. Dialogue, hopefully, to follow, threaded beneath. (No promises, though.)


Shortly before I moved across town at the beginning of December, I sent a letter to my new address, as a welcome home. But I didn’t include my apartment number (it had slipped my mind). I sent it a couple days too early, there was no one by that name at that address. So it was sent back. But by that time, I had changed my address at the post office: so it was forwarded on. But it had already been sent back from the new address once. So it was sent back again, and went into postal limbo, from whence it emerged only last week; but I had forgotten about it by then. So it was a little traveling time capsule.

The longer pace time walks with when you write letters: you write, you send, you wait. A month later, the conversation you had started continues, with the reply. You view it from a new place – much has happened. Do you still speak or think in the same way? But not much has changed in a month: are you different at all? An interchange of letters makes a good repeated theme: longer than a measure, shorter than a movement. And, unlike either, subject to variation, expansion, iteration; potentially never completed.

I used to be an excellent correspondant (up to about eleven years ago), I remember writing letters between classes, on the metro, during classes, at home in the morning and the evening. I would have hardly sent a letter off before beginning another, often to the same person (to be completed, and sent, after I got the reply back). The extended monologue directed to a single person is a model of thinking.

Recently I decided to start writing again. I made a list of everyone I could think of (I made a file of stamped and addressed envelopes), I wrote three letters a day. I scattered them, for about a month. And so now I’m receiving my bread back from the waters. A couple times a week, another letter comes in, or two, replies go out. Correspondances make a nice zigzag canopy to live under: they provide continuity and mutually reinforcing roof support, like a web of interlocking rafters, or better grape vines growing on a scaffolding above a path.


The three-week period I’m allowed to keep an interlibrary loan book out is usually just long enough that I can get interested again in whatever it was that induced me to order the book in the first place, three weeks before the book arrived; and then it’s time to check it back in, almost entirely unread. I’ve got a collection of papers in Russian on throat-singing [Melodii Khoomeya, edited by Zoya Kyrgys], a translation of the Central Asian chapters from a Soviet encyclopedia of ethnomusicology [Central Asian Music, by Viktor Beliaev], and some kind of anthology of short descriptions of archaeological discoveries of the remains of depcitions of ancient musical instruments and in some cases the instruments themselves [didn’t write down the title before I returned it]. They’re all due tomorrow [have now been returned], and I already spent money getting them here: I can’t keep them out for the next three weeks. This post is all the use I’m going to get out of them.

I think I had been browsing this article online just before I went ordering ILLs. I’d noticed (it only took me a year of listening) how common it was to hear the jew’s harp played along with Tuvan/Mongolian throat-singing.

An article in Melodii Khoomeya [by Kh. S. Ikhtisamov] speculates on the connection. He argues that overtone-singing (one sustained bass note with a melody produced in overtones) is part of a palette of similar-types of music-making; on the igil (an anorexic two-string cello), the melody is usually produced on the upper string, the lower string producing a steady drone (on this, a funny story by Valentina Süzükei from her book with Ted Levin: trying to tune a Soviet “people’s orchestra” [modeled on the famous Moscow “Balalaika Orchestra”, these ensembles would perform classical or Soviet orchestral hits on traditional instruments – they were formed all over the Soviet Union, traditional instrumentalists being conscripted to them in packs], unable to communicate to the igil player that she needed to tune the strings separately, he unable to understand how the instrument could be played one string at a time). Likewise, the Jew’s harp: the vibrating tongue produces a steady, single tone, and the melody is produced by changing the shape and size of the resonating chamber, the mouth, to produce different overtones. Tuvan throat-singing is just another variant on this musical-cultural theme: the breaking of a “single” musical note into its constituent ground and overtones, separating out tone colors the way a prism breaks white light into colors (this analogy, or something like it, from Süzükei’s paper in Melodii Khoomeya) , and the unifying of “separate” tones into a single tone-cluster.

Of course the Jew’s harp is known all over the world. Instances have been found from pre-Roman Britain to pre-modern Polynesia (there made of reeds instead of metal); from South Asia to Yakutia (want to buy a modern Yakut khomus? got $179 plus shipping?). There are cultures in which it is the only tuneful musical instrument known (says The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments). The musical archaeology book has examples from medieval Sweden, revolutionary America, and Greek Afghanistan [I think; I returned it already].

According to Beliaev in Central Asian Music (1962), the temir komuz (i.e. the iron komuz, komuz meaning a three-stringed lute, tuned to fourths or fifths) is Kyrgyz for Jew’s harp; it’s played mainly by women & children and is played while whistling. He says: “Melodies for the temir komuz are of special interest. On theis insturment the lower buzzing tone is a drone and a narrow ranging melody, consiting of overtones, is produced above.” He transcribes the melody for a traditional song called “The Grey Calf”, the bass part of which is played on the temir komuz and the melody is whistled. (I wish there was some kind of plugin or something so I could show you the transcriptions of overtone-singing from Melodii Khoomeya.) He writes: “It is impossible to overlook the production through whistling of two-voiced vocal music by one person on this simple idiophone*. This technique, called khoomei among the Tuvins and uzliau among the Bashkirs, belongs to one of the oldest and most original ways of producing harmonics with simultaneous sonding of an extended fundamental pitch. (The translator notes: “Beliav’s remark is in accordance with the general tendency among Soviet ethnomusicologists to ignore the flute repertories of Asian peoples.” I think this note refers to the following fact: the Kyrgyz choor, Mongol/Tuvan tsuur/zuur, is an “end-blown” flute which is placed against the lip or sometimes the teeth on one side of the mouth: the player blows the melody through the flute and simultaneously creates a steady drone accompaniement to the melody with his mouth.) Beliaev remarks about the Kazakh shan kobiz that it too is a domestic, primarily children’s instrument (and notes that this is generally the case throughout Central Asia).

One reason why the Jew’s harp is so widely used among nomadic peoples (and is generally a children’s instrument there) may be that it requires a full set of [front] teeth to play – nomadic peoples, living on meat and dairy, have healthier, stronger teeth than sedentary people, living on grains; adults are less likely to have a full set of teeth then children and adolescents. At least, that seemed clear and obvious to me this afternoon, when I was in the middle of something else and hadn’t had a chance to phrase it out. That’s enough.

* An idiophone is an instrument that itself vibrates, like a bell or a washboard; as opposed to an instrument which contains a vibrating part, like stringed instruments, or that causes a column of air to vibrate, like a flute. It’s the percussions section, minus the membranophones (the drums).

** I couldn’t work this in anywhere else above, but I would have to tie it in somehow like this: the melodies produced by overtone singers (or bells, or any other instrument which produces strong partial tones) sometimes sound a little “off” or a little sour to people used to the intervals in equal temperament, since the overtones produced are from pure, untempered intervals. I was reading yesterday about organs – as equal temperament became more popular, organs were altered by placing small valves in the pipes to alter the pitches produced, until finally organ pipes were standardly manufactured to produce equal-tempered pitches. The author of the book I was reading (it may have been The Story of the Organ; the title was something like that) told how once, when on a visit to New Zealand, he was playing a hymn in D-flat for a church choir, and it sounded terrible, and the choir was thrown off. The local organ-tuner was sent for, and on hearing the problem, refused to do anything to solve it. It turned out that this man, the only tuner in that part of New Zealand and a firm believer in just temperament, himself physically altered the pipes of any organ imported from England before installation so that they would play in just temperament.