back toJacket2
Nathaniel Tarn, 1979.

This piece is about 27 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Shamoon Zamir and Jacket magazine 2009. See our [»»]  Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is
Photo: Nathaniel Tarn, 1979. Photo Janet Rodney.
Back to the Nathaniel Tarn feature Contents list

Readers should also see the Tarn feature in Jacket 6, 1999, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Selected Poems 1950–2000», reviewed by Brenda Hillman in Jacket 28, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Recollections of Being», reviewed by Martin Anderson in Jacket 36

Nathaniel Tarn Feature

Shamoon Zamir

Scandals in the House of Anthropology:

Notes towards a reading of Nathaniel Tarn

Anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish in order to be born again under a new guise.

— Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) [1] 

… the genre so long looked for which would assure a complete union of the poetic and anthropological enterprises (should such be desirable) lies not in the keeping of the anthropologist who cannot, for all his/her efforts, get beyond belles lettres, but with the poet who, in theory, can. This is a question of a language which, without turning away from scientific veracity, abdicates not one jot of its literary potential. Undoubtedly utopian, the search is at home in poetry, incurably utopian, and probably nowhere else.

 — Nathaniel Tarn (1991) [2] 

Photo: Indian prince with quetzal headdress mask, Dance of the Conquest, copyright © Nathaniel Tarn, 1979, 1999

Photo: Indian prince with quetzal headdress mask, Dance of the Conquest, copyright © Nathaniel Tarn, 1979, 2010


Since the publication of Writing Culture (1986), a collection of essays on “the poetics and politics of ethnography”, there has been a widespread debate among anthropologists and cultural critics about the relationship of anthropology and literature, of ethnographic writing and poetics. But for all this talk literature itself, and especially the work of poets, have been banished almost completely from the dialogue. [3]  It is in fact literary theory (mainly post-structuralist) and not literature which appears to fuel the efforts to reconsider and transform ethnography. Poetics is reduced almost always to what those working in cultural studies or new historicism refer to as ‘cultural poetics’ and poetry more often than not is associated with the personal (and such discussion as there is of poetry is often confined to the usually less than remarkable verse productions of anthropologists themselves).


In a notable exception to these tendencies James Clifford, in his introduction to Writing Culture, does at least stress that “to recognize the poetic dimensions of ethnography does not require that one give up the facts and accurate accounting for the supposed free play of poetry. ‘Poetry’ is not limited to romantic or modernist subjectivism: it can be historical, precise, objective.” [4]  But “historical, precise, objective” in the way that social science in its present or a future transformed state wants to be?


Two passing references to William Carlos Williams (on the inclusion of history into poetry) and to Charles Olson (citing his poetic rule “For use now!”) (3, 24) indicate that Clifford may have in mind the tradition of the American long poem (going back in this century to Pound) which has radically redefined the ambitions of poetry and made of it a unique form of cultural investigation through constant innovations of form and content. However, neither Clifford nor any of the other contributors to the ‘writing culture’ debates ever engages with the nature of this poetic project and its implications for a rethinking of ethnography and anthropological theory; they never consider adequately the ways in which the poets’ use of language and their notions of truth and history may be very different to the social scientists’. Poetry is never fully understood as a particular order of imagination, as what Tarn defines as “the activity typical of all writing which is totally committed not to the recording of fact but to its creative transformations” (Views 255).


The suggestion in Clifford’s introduction is that Williams and Olson can be incorporated comfortably into the company of social scientists with a post-structuralist bent. The poets are invoked only to be thoroughly silenced. [5]  “The essays will be accused of having gone too far” writes Clifford in his conclusion, “poetry will again be banned from the city.” The power to disrupt the calm of the republic of science is usurped by the critic-become-poet, and the sources of this power are marked out as “semiotics, post-structuralism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction” (25). Given these evasions and occlusions, it is difficult not to acknowledge the justness of Tarn’s assessment that “in his emphasis on ethnography as creative, his consequent stress on collective authorship of culture-as-texts, and his avoidance of distinctions between that kind of ‘creativity’ and the creativity of the poet or novelist (by avoiding these latter as such), [Clifford] conspires with much contemporary theory in disenfranchising the ‘creative writer’… . In short, it seems to be one more example of our academic culture’s present widespread empowerment of the critic at the expense of the poet” (Views 251) .


The failure to engage with poetry as such, and with whatever such an engagement may bring to a consideration of the dialogue between anthropology and literature, is most clearly evident in the brief citation of Tarn himself in Clifford’s introduction. In a discussion of the dominance of the “visual paradigm” in ethnography, he quotes Tarn, identified only “as a tricultural French/Englishman endlessly becoming an American”, on “the enthnographer or the anthropologist” as one who has “his ears wider open to what he considers the exotic as opposed to the familiar” (12). Tarn is not identified as someone who is both a poet and an anthropologist and since most of Clifford’s readers are unlikely to know Tarn’s work, they are likely to assume that Tarn is only an anthropologist. The quotation that Clifford uses is in fact taken from an interview in which Tarn discusses at some length his dual life in anthropology and poetry and the quoted comments occur at a moment in the interview when Tarn is specifically discussing the polyvocal nature of much of his own poetry. Tarn approaches the “sudden irruptions into the body of the work” of other voices partly through anthropological analogy (“almost like spirit-possession cults”) and goes on to suggest by juxtaposition that the techniques of the poet and the anthropologist are mutually informative in “discovering something new in the use of language”. [6] 


While it may be unfair to be too severe about Clifford’s use of the Tarn interview, his treatment of Tarn does point towards the much more significant and troubling exclusion from the ‘writing culture’ debates of the entire ethnopoetics movement. Centred on the signal contributions of poet-translator-anthology maker Jerome Rothenberg and anthropologist-translator-editor Denis Tedlock, the ethnopoetics movement has provided since the late 1960s a forum for exchange and collaboration between poets and anthropologists unique in the history of American culture. While ethnopoetics may have lost the intensity and drive that one associates with the term ‘movement’ by the second half of the 1980s, it is by no means a dead project. It is surprising then that those involved in the ‘writing culture’ debates, which came to prominence precisely in the mid-1980s, have ignored consistently the achievements of ethnopoetics. It may be that ethnopoetics is seen to offer little that is immediately relevant to considerations of ethnographic writing, but it is hard to understand how scholars interested in issues of textuality and the representations of fieldwork and of other cultures can continue to ignore a large body of work, built up over more than two decades now, in which notions of the primitive, the comparison of cross-cultural poetics, the problems of translation, the representation of performance, and the practice of collaborative textual work have been investigated by both poets and anthropologists.


Along with Rothenberg and Tedlock, Tarn is one of the foundational figures in ethnopoetics. Though not an instigator and organiser within the movement as Rothenberg and Tedlock were, Tarn has nevertheless produced a remarkable range of work as poet, ethnographer, anthropologist, translator, editor and theoretician of ethnopoetics that places his contribution to the movement second to none. In one sense he is unique within ethnopoetics and equally within the longer history of the dialogue between American poets and anthropology that stretches from Pound and Eliot, through to the likes of Olson, Duncan, Rukeyser, Snyder, Dorn and Jay Wright: [7]  he is the only one to have produced substantial and accomplished bodies of work as a poet and as an anthropologist and the only one to have written at length on the interactions of literature and anthropology.


The reservations expressed about the ‘writing culture’ debates above and the discussions that follow are not intended as a wholesale rejection of these debates (and certainly not of Clifford’s work), nor are they intended as an argument for the supremacy of the poet, nor are they meant to propose either a simple defence or critique of ‘traditional’ anthropology and ethnography. The case being made is that if the transformation of anthropology is sought and if the confluence of poetry and anthropology towards the creation of a new writing is seen to be desirable, then the work of poets, ‘creative writers’ and other artists must be engaged and that Tarn has a significant contribution to make in this dialogue. The notes or sketches that follow are offered as counter-information, a mapping (by no means complete) of a range of work which, unfortunately, is too little known both among anthropologists and those interested in ‘the poetry world’. The focus is on an account of Tarn’s career as poet and anthropologist, on the interaction between his work in poetics and anthropological theory, and on his latest book, Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán (1997). [8] 


Scandals is a synthesising of over forty years of fieldwork among, research on and thinking about the Tzutujil Maya living on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala (‘House of Birds’ is a translation of the indigenous name for the pre-Columbian Tzutujil capital, now in ruins at the foot of Volcano San Pedro [Scandals 383]). Narrated through multiple narratives and many voices, the book deals with a religious conflict between indigenous religion and Christianity. The theft of masks covering Maximón, a Mayan wooden statue venerated since pre-Columbian times, and the later return of one of the masks over twenty years later, is the core around which are spun accounts of Mayan mythology, ritual practices, religious festivals, individual life histories, local social conflicts and the horrors of Guatemala’s national politics.


Nine years before the publication of the book, writing of the struggle between poetry and anthropology throughout his career as “the battle between the angel of creation and the angel of the record”, Tarn refers to the project as “the last possible (for me) throw to the record.” [9]  More recently, with the book in press, Tarn has referred to it as “a sort of experimental ethnography”. [10]  Certainly, if one comes to the book from the world of contemporary anthropology, the discussions about the writing of ethnographies provide the means for getting a good grasp on it. But Scandals is not only the work of “the angel of the record”; it is only “sort of an experimental ethnography”. It is, in fact, a book that resists generic categorisation. Placing it in the context of the full range of Tarn’s work significantly shifts the sense of the book and reveals it to be a part of a continuum of exploratory action that stretches far beyond the ‘poetics’ of ethnographic writing.


Born in Paris in 1928, Tarn spent some of his childhood in Belgium and then, at the age of eleven, was evacuated to England just before the start of the war. [11]  After completing an undergraduate degree in history and English at Cambridge, Tarn returned to Paris in the late 1940s and studied anthropology with the likes of Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen and Claude Lévi-Strauss while at the same time being involved in a literary scene that still included Breton and other Surrealists. Accounts of the intricate symbolic system of Dogon cosmology and ritual offered by Griaule, Dieterlen and others prepared the way for Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist analyses of primitive classification and myth. These studies, along with Paul Lévy’s courses on the relationship of folk and Buddhist traditions, were to have a lasting impact on Tarn’s thinking. [12]  They reinforced a childhood fascination with classification and system (a dream of order formed, at least in part, in the midst of geographical displacement and the chaos of war) and also provided a point of contact with Surrealism’s interests in initiation and esoteric traditions. [13] 


Tarn’s later experience as both poet and ethnographer would deepen the understanding of symbolic systems by opening it up to a sense of historical process and contradiction. Given the nature of Tarn’s training in French anthropology and his involvement in the Paris literary scene, it is not surprising that he can draw with confidence on both French literary experiments which have used and transmuted anthropological sources and experience (he has written on Michel Leiris and Artaud and translated Victor Segalen), [14]  and a social scientific tradition which (in the works of theorists like Durkheim, Mauss and Lévi-Strauss himself) has not severed its links with philosophy. [15] 


In 1951 Tarn was awarded a Smith-Mundt-Fulbright Scholarship and continued his anthropological training with graduate work at the University of Chicago, in the company of such notable American scholars as Robert Redfield, Milton Singer, Sol Tax and Fred Eggan (he also attended Melville Herskovits’s classes at Northwestern and met frequently with Paul Radin). Redfield, who was Tarn’s doctoral supervisor, was a pioneer in studies of world view and social change, particularly the modernisation of folk and primitive communities. Tarn’s Ph.D., which was based on fieldwork in a village on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, combined these concerns with his own interests in religious symbolism. Much of Tarn’s published Latin American ethnography is centred on the figure of Maximón, a figure in whom Christian and indigenous Mayan beliefs meet and whose hybrid iconography reveals a complex history of cultural contact and violence. [16]  This is the material that Scandals revisits more than forty years later.


With the doctorate still to be completed, Tarn returned to London in 1953 and continued work in anthropology as a postgraduate student and part time lecturer at the London School of Economics, working with Raymond Firth, Issac Schapera, S.F. Nadel and Maurice Freedman. Once the Ph.D. was out of the way (1957), Tarn undertook eighteen months of research on religion, politics and esoteric Buddhism in Burma. The published work on Burma deals with two main areas: the modern relationship of sangha (the Buddhist order of monks) and state politics, understood in the light of earlier periods, and the blending of Buddhist and folk elements in what Tarn refers to as “messianic” Buddhism. It is a long way from Guatemala and Mayan-Christian hybrids to Burmese Buddhism, but there are clear continuities. In the work on messianic Buddhism Tarn is again dealing with a complex symbolic order and its historical meanings, this time as an ambivalent vision of redemptive kingship and national independence which is a response to colonial and post-colonial conditions. In the study of sangha and state, the relationship of worldly affairs and a religion assumed to be detached from such concerns is given within a meticulous account of a more pragmatic and institutional political history. [17] 


When Tarn came back from Burma, he was appointed Lecturer in Southeast Asian Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and had the prospect of a productive career in anthropology before him. But in 1967 he resigned his post and turned his back on academic anthropology (though he would publish some work in anthropology in the years to come). Since his return from Burma Tarn had in fact led a double life as both anthropologist and poet, keeping the two separate. He had won the First Guinness Prize in 1963, published his first book of poems, Old Savage/ Young City (Jonathan Cape, 1964), and translated Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu (Jonathan Cape, 1966). Torn between “the recording angel” of anthropology and “the creative angel” of poetry, Tarn confirmed a life-long wish in 1967 to make poetry his primary work.


At this time he became General Editor of Cape Editions and a Founding Director of Cape Goliard Press. These two were to prove to be among the most innovative publishing ventures in Britain in the 1960s, the former a remarkable international series of short multi-disciplinary texts and the latter a bold attempt to combine the distributive power of a large commercial press like Jonathan Cape with the flexibility and imagination of a small press like Goliard. [18] 


The first twelve titles in the Cape Editions series indicate the extent to which as editor Tarn fostered the kind of innovative cross disciplinary which characterised his own subsequent work: The Scope of Anthropology by Lévi-Strauss (his inaugural lecture as professor at the Collège de France, viewing anthropology both as a philosophy and a method); Call Me Ishmael, Olson’s ground-breaking study of Melville; Writing Degree Zero and The Elements of Semiology by Barthes (offered as an introduction to structuralism, “a new critical movement which is rapidly gaining an international following”); I Wanted to Write a Poem by William Carlos Williams; The Memorandum, a play by Vaclav Havel; Selected Poems by Nazim Hikmet; Selected Letters and Aphorisms of Lichtenberg (a sampling from the Götingen professor admired by the likes of Goethe and Breton); Tango by the Polish dramatist Slawmir Mrozek; Ortega y Gasset’s On Love; Michel Leiris’s autobiographical Manhood, an introduction for the English public to the work of this then little-known writer; and Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses and Language by Karl von Frisch. In addition, between them Cape Editions and Cape Goliard published many American poets, including Zukofsky, Olson and Duncan, as well as many works of literature from other countries in translation.


Drawn to America since his childhood and more and more engaged in his own poetry with the innovations of the ‘New American poetry’, Tarn emigrated to the States in 1970. Since then he has held a Professorship in the Department of Comparative Literature at Rutgers University, has taught at many other institutions, has done further fieldwork (though not with the aim of producing traditional ethnographies), and has continued to write poetry and to explore issues in poetics arising out of the confluence of anthropology and poetry. In 1985 Tarn took early retirement and moved to New Mexico where he lives and writes today.


Since the first book of poems in 1963 there have been about twenty others. It is, therefore, impossible to generalise either about Tarn’s poetry or about its relationship to his work in anthropology. Tarn is at home in both the long, book-length poem where a complex range of cultural and intellectual materials are engaged with, and, in books such as October (Trigram 1969), The Microcosm (Membrane 1977) and At the Western Gates (Tooth of Time 1985), with simpler lyric modes. It is in the longer poems perhaps that the use of anthropological materials is most immediately visible. The Beautiful Contradictions (Cape Goliard 1969), the third book of poetry and the work which Tarn himself takes as the proper point of departure for an understanding of his poetry, [19]  is a long poetic sequence in fifteen sections which works from a sense of placelessness towards a desperate and ultimately impossible “attachment to the whole world”. [20]  The cultural, political and historical material drawn upon include 1960s politics and culture, Jewish and Central European history from mid century, Australian indigenous cultures, classical and Medieval lore about winds and animals, the Oedipus mythology, Wagner’s Ring cycle as well as Tarn’s own researches into Latin American and Burmese religions. The central process of the poem, the transformations of the poetic persona through many masks and identities is indebted to Tarn’s own contributions to anthropological theories of initiation.


As Eric Mottram noted of The Beautiful Contradictions and A Nowhere for Vallejo (Random House 1971), the “poems have a complex formal analysis of inventive structures, but their movement has the controlled urgency of a reasoned social analysis.” [21]  Lyrics for the Bride of God (New Directions 1975) is an extended meditation on the Shekinah, the bride of God in Jewish mysticism, in all her manifestations and so a mining of world mythologies in which poet and anthropologist inform each other. The House of Leaves (Black Sparrow 1976) is a book of arrival, an attempt to make the newly adopted country a home through an exploration of the Americas that draws on early ethnographic experience and the life in Europe as counterpoints — and that concern with the idea and experience of America continues in the more recent Seeing America First (Coffee House 1989). Alashka (Brillig Works 1979) is a collaborative work. Co-written with Janet Rodney (the authorship of individual poems is left unidentified) and based on various extended visits to Alaska, it tries to deal with the poets’ experience of Alaskan cultures by drawing on a variety of modes — ethnography, travelogue, cultural commentary, naturalist description, love poem. [22] 


In the essay “The Heraldic Vision: Some Cognitive Models for Comparative Aesthetics” (1976), delivered at the First Ethnopoetics Symposium, Tarn distinguishes his own interest in ethnopoetics from the interests of the movement’s main figure, Jerome Rothenberg:


A poet… could be interested in anthropology as the discipline dealing, amongst others, with societies which have a heavy investment in “techniques of the sacred” for the reasons outlined by Rothenberg. He proposes a confluence between their poets and ours on the basis of analogies involving: orality (preliterate/postliterate); imagism (prelogical/postlogical); formal minimalisation/participational maximalization; intermedia-ness; somaticism; shamanism, etc. What interests me most, however, is somewhat different and runs thus: 1) the extent to which both poetry and anthropology deal with the process of classification, 2) the extent to which the anthropological study of classification might lead to valuable understandings in poetics and aesthetics, and 3) the relevance of 1 and 2 to contemporary debates among poets on the origin, nature, and function of poetry. (Views 261)


Tarn is deeply fascinated by systems of classification, both primitive and scientific. Much of this interest is informed by a long tradition of French anthropology going back to Durkheim and Mauss but the most notable influence is clearly Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist interpretation of totemism and the workings of “the savage mind”. In “The Heraldic Vision” Tarn uses the structural and transformational aspects of totemic systems to undertake an anthropologically informed reading of the systematic categorisation and organisation in Blake’s personal mythology and of the movement between dismemberment and integration in his great prophecies. Put crudely, the totemic division of society into, say, Bear clan, Eagle clan, Seal clan and the multiple possible sub-divisions of such groups are compared with Albion in his wholeness and in his divided state (“the sons and daughters of Albion in their manifold complexity” etc., Views 273). And the movement of the “totemic operator” between extreme poles of generalisation and particularisation (between say bear and head of bear, claw of bear etc.), a process Tarn (following Victor Turner) calls totalisation and detotalisation, is then used towards an anthropological description of “the essential Romantic myth” (Views 272) of Albion’s movement from an image of ideal society (“ecclesia”), through dismemberment (“sparagmos”), to a new integration (“ecclesia nova”) (the terms are Tarn’s: see Views 272–74).


Stressing that the return to integration is never a return to origin, Tarn then moves from here to a review of contemporary debates about the relationship of structure and process from an anthropological and a poetic perspective. Trained in structuralism and widely read in hermetic traditions, Tarn is sympathetic to Lévi-Strauss’s critique of historicism’s limitations in the final chapter of The Savage Mind (1962) (Views 167). However, a sense of the poverty of historicism does not constitute a rejection of history. Tarn argues that structure and process must not be seen as opposites but as inseparable parts of a single dialectic. The impasse between structuralism and phenomenology is broken for the poetic imagination by hermeticism because hermeticism refuses to treat the opposition of space and time as an immobile dualism:


The truth is that there are two Hermeticisms, one in which, yes, human nature really is eternally the same, human problems likewise and there is nothing new under the sun; another in which some form of accommodation with History becomes possible by postulating an evolutionary factor in human consciousness and problematics… .it would seem possible for the poetic imagination to escape from the stark alternative of i) a point of view from which History is impossible and ii) another from which nothing but History is possible. (Views 281)


In a later essay on “Metaphors of Relative Elevation, Position and Ranking in Popol Vuh” (1981), co-written with Martin Prechtel, Tarn applies structuralist models of the totemic operator to the Quiché Mayan book of creation through the idea of “transforms” by which is meant “simply that any character, or event or set of such in relationship (such as a pair of twins) figuring in a textual episode and placed in the same structural situation as another character or event or set of such in another episode, will be considered as transforms of each other.” [23]  Connecting this idea of transformation to the structuralist sense of myth as the attempted and always unsuccessful mediations of contradictions, Tarn and Prechtel are brought to the conclusion that “If myth does proceed towards ever more adequate mediations between contradictions, we can perhaps read Popol Vuh’s generating of successive pairs of twins as an ever more successful education or initiation.” [24] 


This conjunction of the state of contradiction (accepted but never transcended in Tarn) and initiation as an open process of educative transformations lies at the very heart of Tarn’s poetic and anthropological thought (Tarn confesses to having wanted “to write the definitive work for our time on initiation” [Views 250]). Tarn conceives of initiation as itself a paradoxical process of withdrawal from the exasperations of worldly contradictions leading to a return to this very world in a state of attention, a state which Tarn takes to be a foundation for the political dimensions of poetry. In later essays the theorisation of initiation is extended to considerations of the poetic voice singing ideally and again paradoxically in a solitary chorus in a state of detachment from the world that is simultaneously a return to it.


In “Initiation and the Paradox of Power” (1965), published only a few years before The Beautiful Contradictions, Tarn rejects those interpretations of initiation which see it only in terms of the acquisition of a fixed body of knowledge or as a rite of passage which is part of an equally fixed socialising process. Instead, he argues that in its most complex forms initiation can be a continuous educative process, one in which the ceaseless drama of self-improvement and growth into self-reliance are as valued as “social recognition” and social conformity and integration (Views 132). In anthropological terms, initiation not only binds the initiate into a nexus of reciprocity but also takes him towards a state of non-reciprocity.


Tarn illustrates the point by drawing on his own ethnographic work on Burmese Buddhism, work in which he has “attempted to see the whole complex continuum of Burmese religion… .in the light of initiatic theory.” For Tarn meditation, “the primary instrument of Buddhist self-enhancement,” is “a process of looking at the world and concluding, after examining all its aspects, that it is not worth the having. One after another various forms of attachment are sloughed off together with the reciprocal action which they imply.” “In some Schools,” Tarn goes on to argue, the meditator may discover eventually “that all these attachments are the mere shadow-play of mind, thus drawing into ‘himself’ all the different aspects of the world and leaving only the task of putting an end to ‘himself.’ We thus have three stages: the first we may call self-other reciprocity; the second self-self reciprocity; the third wipes out reciprocity altogether, and can be termed non-reciprocity” (Views 136–37).


As early as the late 1960s (in his essay on André Breton, first published in 1967, and in The Beautiful Contradictions) Tarn begins to use this model of initiation as a basis for thinking about the nature of the poetic voice. It is, however, in the mid-1980s that this thinking takes a systematic turn. The key essay is “The Choral Voice: A Diptych Re Anthropology and Poetry”, first published in a special issue of Dialectical Anthropology on poetry and anthropology in the same year that saw the publication of Writing Culture (1986). Here Tarn moves out of an exasperation with anthropological interrogation, fictions of polyvocality and excessive subjectivism towards an unfashionable defence of the individual voice as potentially the guarantor of objective detachment and also the source of chorus. Fully appreciative of anthropology’s contribution to our knowledge of the world, Tarn is nevertheless vexed by the discipline’s ambivalent historical relationship with the powers that are “out to eliminate the simpler societies in our world” (Views 201). There is a muted sense in the essay that this process of elimination may be irreversible and Tarn admits that when he reaches this point in his thinking he “would like to do away with anthropology altogether” (Views 201).


It comes to this. Either the object of study is destroyed. Or it/they have been strong enough to survive as subjects in their own right. They are informants in their own right and not only as answerers of questions. They speak first. Ultimately, in no walk of life, in no place on this planet or beyond, is there an “Informant” left, in the old sense of the word. De jure, if not de facto, anthropology no longer exists. (Views 201)


Of course, it doesn’t quite “come to this.” Histories of genocides can hardly be denied but the possibilities of action do not rest only with indigenous peoples whose own empowerment as imagined here appears all too un-mediated by the very globalised power of capitalism and colonialism that fuels a ‘vanishing race’ historical narrative. The issues of power in the anthropologist-informant, questioner-answerer relationship are more realistically invoked. The same issues of power and the same relationship are examined by several of the essays in Writing Culture where various kinds of dialogic and polyvocal possibilities are theorised for a future ethnography where anthropologist and informant will be able to speak as equals.


Some of the contributors to the ‘writing culture’ debates have also turned to personalised narratives as another alternative to positivism. Tarn also offers a model of polyvocality and individual voice as an alternative to interrogation but his is one which moves in a direction completely opposite to the one hoped for for a postmodern ethnography. He imagines the possibility of the individual poetic voice speaking “out of a stance from which no one asks or answers questions” towards a multiple voice rather than personalised address (Views 201). In the description that follows the terms of the Buddhist transcendence of reciprocity quoted earlier are re-worked so that the poetic self emerges as a poet-initiate moving towards self-reliance, “disinformed of both information and disinformation” (Views 201) and then beyond to a choral voice in which self and other meet:


Perhaps it is at this very point that the other will be met and that the poet will come into the possession of his/her own society. The original, unimpeded, and uninterrupted voice… is many, not one, for the more itself it is, the deeper it reaches into its own inner nature, the more – beautiful paradox – does it come upon the truth of all being and the more does it also become the not-itself. It is not by going to others and discovering other selves that the voice is reached; it is by going to one’s own deepest self and discovering how un-self-ish it can be. To become an informant, in the final sense, is to let a voice speak which is not the property of any one person or which is only such in the liberality of allowing all voice to speak within it. To be an anthropologist in the final sense is no longer a bringing of many voices, the surface of other voices, to the collective singing place and exhibiting these voices in an ordered and governed fashion. It is a letting be of voice, in the confidence that the deeper it can go and the more free it is to express itself, the more collective it will be heard to be. I am not now talking about the me-me-me generation but about the most profound direction of the poet’s life and craft. (Views 202)


Tarn is quick to follow this up with the recognition that “it is a far cry from where we are to such a chorus” (Views 203). But he is also right to point out that such a utopian vision marks out the outer limit or ultimate horizon for a writing attempting to bring together anthropology and literature because “the genre so long looked for which would assure a complete union of the poetic and the anthropological enterprises (should such be desirable) lies not in the keeping of the anthropologist who cannot, for all his/her efforts, get beyond belles lettres, but with the poet who, in theory, still can. This is the question of a language which, without turning away from scientific veracity, abdicates not one jot of its literary potential. Undoubtedly utopian, the search is at home in poetry, incurably utopian, and probably nowhere else” (Views 256).


The notion that the singularity of voice may be the necessary condition for the emergence of a collective is radically different as a response to the contemporary dilemmas of anthropology than the turn to the dialogic in postmodern anthropology. This is so at least in relation to those cases where a theatrical display of multiple voices ruffles the surface of the postmodern ethnography without extending to deeper re-assessments of the nature of writing, authority and scientific epistemology. At the same time, in order to adequately assess the nature of Tarn’s response to the contemporary condition of anthropology, the deeply Romantic nature of his theorisation of voice would have to be critically interrogated from the perspectives of contemporary social science and poetry alike. Such a critical examination must await another occasion.


The notions of individual and choral voice are systematised by Tarn into a tripartite model which mirrors the tripartite model of reciprocity and non-reciprocity in his theorisation of initiation. Tarn transforms the three stage process of initiation into “a model of poetic making with three operative levels: 1) the Vocal, being that of the single poetic voice as self or ego in competition and sometimes conflict with all others in a Babel of voices; 2) the Silence, most often thought of consensually as ‘underlying’ the Vocal, from which the single poetic voice appears to arise; and 3) again ‘below’ that, the Choral — being a co-operative, non-competitive ‘my-voice-in-all-and-all-in-my-voice’ level representing the ideal peace of non-self with all of creation which is situated diametrically opposed to the Vocal.” [25] 


If in Tarn’s “model of poetic making” the Choral is a necessary utopia, the Vocal is also unreal. Tarn takes “the VOCAL and the CHORAL as two ‘mythical’ or ‘illusory’ poles of a continuum giving depth to the roles of ‘self’/’non-self’ in poetic production, the only ‘real’ level being that of SILENCE out of which and into which such production periodically falls back” (Views 345). In so far as the Choral is utopian it is tied to expectation because “utopia is the exasperation of human expectation to its ultimate limits” (Voice 44). Following on from his studies in Buddhism and Jewish mysticism, Tarn links expectation to “desire as the motor of all unenlightened human existence,” noting that “what we fail to see is that the vast and inexhaustible circularity of desire mocks and renders expectation absurd” (Voice 44). If the Choral is tied to expectation (and one could argue the same for the Vocal, albeit in different terms, though Tarn does not extend his argument in this direction), then the Silence is defined by “attention.” Tarn’s distinguishing of attention from expectation brings out the character of Silence as visionary perception:


By expectation, I imply assurance in a state of awaiting the coming about of a favourable or unfavourable circumstance arising out of a moment or “now.” Attention, absolutely and completely open to the moment as it arises (i.e. defines itself) and to the quiddity of whatever then is, has no such assurance and does not desire it. In fact, it cannot know any desire or expectation. In these senses, it is what the great Tibetan scholar Tilopa defined as “Immanence without expectation” and what Blake, realizing that the absurd “eternity” of orthodoxies arose out of the inexhaustible circularity of desire attempting to englobe all time and all space, called the true Eternity found only in attention to the moment. It is Blake’s Eternity that all true poets discover for themselves as the very condition of their existence as poets. (Voice 44)


The “synchronous conjugation” of past and future in the present is what makes the silence “the locus of true, or shall we say ‘appropriate’ action which gives birth to the new poem” (Voice 46). That this notion of attention is for him at the centre of a properly political poetry is brought out by Tarn in his contrasting of the narrow anger and scope of “propagandist” poetry with one in which “the whole man is speaking with his whole attention turned on to as much of the world as he can possibly see at any moment, and, out of that, addresses himself to a particular topic.” [26] 


In turning to Scandals in the House of Birds the discussion now takes up two aspects of Tarn’s work which are a consistent concern throughout the career: the attempt to relativise the interrogative and interpretative authority of the ethnographer-anthropologist without jettisoning “veracity” altogether, and, perhaps more complexly, to move through the confluence of different cultural forms and traditions towards a process of mutual translation and displacement across cultural boundaries (the nexus of Western initiatic theory, Buddhist practice and Tarn’s own processes of making poetry may be one try at this). Challenges to the traditional authorial status of the ethnographer are now widespread in contemporary anthropology and its calls for polyvocality and “an eclecticism of narrational style”, [27]  though theory tends to outstrip practice here.


Both the theory and practice of cross-cultural translation are harder to define and pin down. Arnold Krupat refers to such critical translation as “ethnocriticism”. For him “the ethnocritical perspective manifests itself in the form of multiculturalism” which he takes “to refer to that particular organisation of cultural studies which engages otherness and difference in such a way as to provoke an interrogation of and a challenge to what we ordinarily take as familiar and our own.” [28]  “To practice ethnocriticism”, he argues, “will require real engagement with the epistemological and explanatory categories of Others, most particularly as these animate and impel Other narratives. The necessary sorts of movement, therefore, are not only those between dominant Western paradigms but also those between Western paradigms and the as-yet-to-be-named paradigms of the Rest” (113). Krupat acknowledges that in some “absolute sense” there cannot be a “nonviolent criticism of the discourses of Others, not even an ethnocriticism” but rightly refuses to take this as the total defeat of the critical enterprise: “The question is whether, short of this absolute horizon, it is worth pursuing certain projects of inquiry in the interest of a rather less violent knowledge” (6).


Tarn’s sense that the poet’s pursuit of the confluence of a literary imagination and anthropology is a project worth undertaking, no matter how utopian, chimes with Krupat’s injunction to sustain critical practice this side of an “absolute horizon.” In this regard it is telling that Krupat singles out Rothenberg’s work as translator of Native American materials as “the nearest approximation” to an ethnocritical practice (196). The reason given for the choice is that Rothenberg “importantly mediates idealist and materialist concerns, paying at least some measure of attention to ‘syntactic, semantic, lexical, prosodic’ elements of the original, while feeling quite unconstrained to cut loose from those elements in search of the essentially… ‘poetic’ dimensions of the original” (195–6). Here certainly it would be possible to place Tarn’s simultaneous pursuit of veracity and the imaginative transmutation of fact as a closely kindred project.


One aspect of ethnopoetics which is important for an ethnocritical practice and for any considerations of contemporary cross-cultural dialogue is what David Murray identifies as “the breaking away from the closed nature of the literary text” through a focus on performance rather than the lyric voice. Murray’s commentary is worth quoting at some length because not only does it summarise the issues of textuality with great clarity, but also because its focus on fragmentation and on Tarn himself usefully introduces issues central to a reading of Scandals:


In questioning the closure of the literary text, [ethnopoetics] opens up formal possibilities of engagement with a huge mass of material formerly excluded from ‘literature’, and takes up the fundamental challenge offered to our society by potential contact with an unprecedented range of cultures. This new approach can then undermine the power of our own culture to use other cultures only to reaffirm our exclusionary sense of our superiority. Nathaniel Tarn, as both poet and anthropologist, has recognised the issues very clearly. In talking about the sense of discontinuity experienced in modern cultures, he argues that ‘much of our major poetry has tried to deal with this in a conservative sense, the sense of these fragments I have shored against my ruin. It is perhaps for this reason that it seems to be form that mimes the cultural sparagmos [flying apart], whereas the content continues to proclaim a desire for the whole.’ Rather than lament cultural discontinuity, then, we can see it offering reopenings through which we can become aware of the diversity that had been closed to us, and by rooting ourselves firmly in our historical and cultural situation can begin to recognise the specificity of other cultural moments not as totalities but as fragments, since it is from fragments that we have learned since modernism aesthetically to operate. [29] 


Scandals is, at first sight, the work of the recording angel, but this angel has been for so long locked in a struggle with his twin, the angel of creation, that it is not easy to hold to such clear distinctions. Having abandoned a career in anthropology some thirty years earlier, Tarn now returns to the place where he first did fieldwork and to the subject of his earliest contributions to ethnography. We are again in Santiago on the shores of Lake Atitlán among the living Tzutujil Maya. The central player in the drama is again Maximón, the ancient figure of polymorphic identifications which include the Mam and Martín, pre-Columbian Mayan deities of immense power, Christ, Judas and a host of other indigenous and non-indigenous figures drawn from religious and secular histories.


The narrative begins in 1950 when a Catholic priest attempts to destroy the Maximón statue and steals two of the masks that cover the head of the statue. This assault sets off religious and political conflicts or “scandals” involving practitioners of folk religion, Catholics and Protestants that last into the present and eventually pull into their vortex the national government and the international community. Having mapped the origins and nature of the conflicts in the 1950s, the book narrates the successful efforts in the 1970s to return one of the masks to Santiago (largely through Tarn’s interventions) from an un-named European museum (where Tarn was forced to have the mask placed when he had discovered it many years earlier). The return of the mask leads not to a period of renewal and re-integration but to the eruption of new local conflicts. The later sections of the book outline major changes in Atitlán between 1950 and 1990 and the book concludes with a chilling account of the violence of “the terror” visited upon the Maya by Guatemala’s government and its army since the 1970s. The last few pages are “a memorial to the dead”, a long list of those killed from the Atitlán region, including many who have appeared in the book.


As the narrative of the scandals moves from the 1950s towards the present, there is a counter-movement towards the past. In the first half of the book the chapters dealing with the various stages of the scandals are interspersed with chapters telling “stories of the early earth”. Here, several ‘informants’ recorded by Tarn take the reader back to a pre-Columbian world, indeed to the very origins of the Mayan world. When the order of the ancient world of the ancestors is disrupted by the spread of sexual promiscuity, the Mam or Maximón is created by the ancestors to restore order. Though Mam does this successfully, the growth of his own individual powers rapidly exceeds the original intentions of the ancestors and becomes in turn the source of new disorder. The ancestors are forced at this point to dismantle Maximón, allowing him to be re-assembled only when his services are needed.


The inter-cutting of the narratives of the contemporary religious conflicts with the stories of the early earth creates a kind of mirror effect. The movement from chaos to order to a new disorder in the latter is matched by a similar movement from conflict through the religious renewal promised by the return of the mask to the new conflicts in the former. Where the narrative of the scandals ends in the horrors of “the terror”, the stories of the early earth culminate in a dark account of “the Black Monster Wars” in which the Mam puts an end to the continued sacrifice of human victims by defeating the Monster. But to speak of mirroring here is to invite a separation of the two sets of narratives as ‘history’ and ‘myth’ and to imply that Tarn may be guilty of a reductive mythicisation of the specificities of the historical record. In fact, the structuring and narrative strategies of Scandals suggest that Tarn refuses the separation of myth and history as a false dichotomy.


As his own direct commentary on the iconography of Maximón makes clear, the ‘myths’ that surround this figure are a tangled record of a complex religious and cultural conflict dating back to at least the period of conquest; the stories are oral palimpsests, indigenous forms for sustaining and shaping memories of historical experience. From this perspective the unfolding of the contemporary religious scandals becomes not a mirror image of a ‘mythic’ past but part of a continuing and living narrative of the ancient Mam. The “memorial to the dead” which closes the book rightly concludes with the assertion that “Maximón, as Lord of the Dead and pacific mediator both, continues to have his work cut out for him in Santiago Atitlán” (Scandals 363).


This intermingling of the two narratives strands is not an instance of Tarn taking liberties with the materials but a narrative strategy which is a self-conscious adaptation of the use of anachronistic detail by the indigenous storytellers. In one of the narratives of the Black Monster Wars, the teller (one ‘Weep Wizard’ — all the tellers are identified by their nicknames), explains that after the death of the Monster many of his prisoners were found transformed into horses: “It turns out they have been lost for years; they were disappeared; they are all crying and weeping; they don’t know where they are” (Scandals 130, emphasis added). It is impossible to read of ‘the disappeared’ of the early earth here without thinking of the connotations of this phrase in contemporary Latin American political history. The choice of words here may reflect the intentions of Tarn as translator as much as those of the teller himself, but similar anachronisms occur throughout the accounts of the ancestors: references to “the government”, to “ladinos” and to Christian materials all appear in tales of the pre-conquest world (egs. Scandals 7, 12). Other ways in which Tarn brings his writing into dialogue with indigenous narrative writing and so opens up his work to indigenous ways of knowing the world can be seen in his use of narrative fragmentation and a style that steers away from ‘poetic’ language towards a ‘dry’ and more ‘matter of fact’ address.


The summaries of the scandals and of the stories of the early earth presented above are extremely simplified, linear versions of what in the book appear as jagged, heterogeneous, overlapping, digressive and sometimes mutually contradictory narratives told through a collage of many voices and documentary sources. The narratives are derived form interviews recorded by Tarn in the 1950s and 1970s, with each segment dated and each speaker identified. Tarn himself is one among these voices, appearing throughout in the third person. He is in fact three voices because Tarn from the 1950s and Tarn from the 1970s are distinguished and to these two must be added the Tarn from the 1990s who is writing Scandals.


The narrative structure of the book is further complicated by the emergence of other narrative and discursive strands as the book progresses. The first of these is a series of three chapters which are “Episodes from the Life of Nicholás Chiviliu Tacaxoy, Portrait of an Aj’kun [shaman]”. Chiviliu was teacher to both Tarn and Martín Prechtel, Tarn’s collaborator on the book, and his own account of his life introduces autobiography and life-history to the generic proliferations of the book. Two chapters focused on Prechtel himself in his role of Primer Mayor (the official responsible for the rituals of Holy Week), continue with aspects of life history but are primarily accounts of the complex rituals of Holy Week. The density of detail in the ritual accounts makes them almost ungraspable and borders on surrealist estrangement. Two chapters of anthropological theorisation in which Tarn himself is the main voice come up against this density and the intricacies of the histories of Maximón in their attempt to order and schematise the materials towards social scientific understanding. Finally, there are two chapters in which historical accounts of social and cultural change and of “the terror” are derived in large part from textual sources.


The reader of Scandals experiences then something akin to what Lisette Josephides calls “ethnographic excess” in a description of her own work among the Kewa people of Highland New Guinea: “I describe the Kewa, and allow them to describe themselves, in long and untidy narratives that bring together different kinds of materials: solicited self-accounts, my observations of the eliciting strategies in people’s daily interactions, their fights, disputes and so on. These excessive accounts break up a continuous narrative, making untenable any single or generalising picture of ‘Kewa culture’.” [30]  Scandals matches Josephides’s strategies of excess but pushes things further by withholding a great deal of contextual and descriptive information in places where these might be expected. (This is what was meant by the reference to the sometimes ‘dry’ or ‘matter of fact’ style of Scandals above).


There is nothing in Scandals resembling the kind of sustained geographical, social or cultural survey which an ethnographer or travel writer might use to locate his or her subject. There is no local colour description. There is little or no description of the physical appearance of the principal characters, of the way they talk or gesture in their performance of the stories of Maximón or the scandals. This distinguishes the presentations of Scandals from the work of a translator like Dennis Tedlock who is a pioneer in the textual representation of performance but aligns them to the modes of representation used within the tales of the Mayan narrators themselves (as these are set down by Tarn himself). [31]  There is no account of the reasons and motivations behind Tarn’s own ethnographic researches or of methodological issues. And there is certainly little in the way of a personalised or autobiographical narrative involving Tarn himself. The reader is denied, in other words, the security either of clear authorial guidance within unequivocal explanatory frameworks or of thick description working within generically recognisable narratives of social science or travelogue. He or she is disoriented and is forced to play both ethnographer and detective, piecing together information as it emerges in fragments.


The first chapter of Scandals can serve as an illustration of some of these techniques. It opens with the following paragraph:


We are on Lake Atitlán in the Department of Sololá, Guatemala, Central America. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, ringed with hills and three majestic volcanoes, home to several Tzutujil and Cakchikel Maya Indian villages. The Maya here speak two of the languages in the Quichean group. Many of the dialects within the languages differ noticeably. (1) [32] .


This provides a toehold but little more and before the bare bones of this description can be fleshed out Tarn rapidly shifts direction in the next paragraph, moving to a long quotation from his own work from the early 1950s which gives a clear and unadorned description of the physical appearance and location of the Maximón statue. The description offers no explanation of the nature of Maximón, of his religious associations or of his function in the religious culture of Santiago. Instead of such an explanation the reader is given another lengthy quotation, this time from the Latin American Edition of Time Magazine for April 2nd, 1951. The extract, from an article titled “Devilish Deity”, introduces the religious culture of Santiago and gives a brief account of the attack on the Maximón statue:


The raw-boned Tzutujil Indians of mountain-bound Santiago Atitlán (pop. 10, 000) have a religion of their own, a mixture of undigested bits of Roman Catholicism and queer survivals of paganism. Their favourite deity is a raffish, four foot idol named Maximón, who smokes cigars, wears four hats and a leer. Smoking is the least of Maximón’s vices. With gleeful perversity, the Indians assign to him an uninhibited libido and a rollicking disregard for the Ten Commandments. (2)


The extract then goes on to describe the displaying of the statue during Holy Week, the tensions between the Catholic priest, Padre Recinos, and Chiviliu and the followers of Maximón, the firing of three shots at the statue by Recinos, the return of Recinos six weeks later and his attack on the statue. When later Recinos returns offering to say Good Friday Mass, he is met with cold silence: “Turning to go, the padre shook his fist at the leering Maximón. ‘That,’ he cried, ‘is the work of the devil.’ ‘Padre,’ said brujo Nicolás, ‘we are sons of the devil’” (3). The whole founding moment of the scandals which Tarn will trace with great care and sensitivity are treated by Time as a pathetic comedy of “drunken dances, a caricature of a Passion Play” and slapstick farce.


The ethnocentrism of the value judgements and pop-anthropology in the extract is extreme and makes the commentary on Maximón and on the conflict unreliable. On the other hand, such as it is this is the only ethnographic and documentary information provided on these matters so far. Tarn makes no comment on the account provided by Time. But as the book unfolds it becomes clear that the extract from Time presents a reduced image in negative of the main concerns of the whole book. What appears in Time as a sad mix of “undigested bits of Roman Catholicism and queer survivals of paganism” will slowly emerge as a profound and complex cultural syncretism mediating religious and political conflicts over many centuries. The leering and lascivious Maximón will come forth as a figure at the centre of rituals of fertility and cyclical renewal in which the Christian concept of sin is out of place. What is presented as petty squabbling will become the entrance to a long and intricate religious and historical drama. Comedy and violence, used as dismissive strategies by Time, will be seen to be at the core of the folk mythology of the Maya and of the strange epic Scandals will reveal itself to be. And Nicolás Chiviliu, treated here as a “brujo (witch doctor)” will be seen to be an aj’kun or shaman of great authority.


Tarn in fact concludes the chapter with an account of Chiviliu’s response to the article after Tarn had read it to him in the early 1950s:


“Well, I never said the we were sons of the devil! Can you imagine me saying that? But he did have a pistol, that’s true. Only thing is: the cofrades [religious officials] rushed him before he could fire. One bullet fell on the ground and we now have it at the bottom of Mam’s clothes box!” Nicolás does not use the name “Maximón.” He would accept “the Mam” or “Don Pedro” or “the Old Guy.” But not “Maximón.” (3)


Chiviliu, Mayan shaman, begins to set the record straight and the inclusion of the bullet in the statue’s clothes box begins to suggest something of Maximón’s powers of cultural incorporation and survival. But Nicolás’s refusal to use the name ‘Maximón’ moves the reader towards other unexplained issues: Why is Nicolás so adamant about not using ‘Maximón’ and why does Tarn continue to use it? What is at stake in the choice of names? These questions are left unanswered as the next chapter shifts to the telling of stories about the coming of chaos to the world of the Power Men and Power Women “in the very old days” (4).


Tarn’s uses of discontinuity and collage are clearly indebted to modernist literary techniques but they also draw upon the structures and techniques of Mayan stories and storytelling. In Chapter 2 the spread of adultery and the beginnings of chaos in the ancient world are told by five different narrators, each with a slightly different version of the same events. In one version there are six Power People, in another twelve and in another twenty-four. In one version there are many Power Men and only one woman and in another there are twelve men and twelve women. The narrators often acknowledge that there are different versions or that they themselves are not sure of the details. The language lacks metaphoric richness and the presentation is usually as direct and unadorned as it is in Tarn’s own commentaries. And the narratives can change direction as abruptly as Tarn does in the first chapter. In the midst of the narrative of adultery there can be sudden digressions about the uses of “lime talc or white rock” and about the weapons of the ancients (7).


This is not to suggest that the writing or the telling of the stories is boring or flat. Their beauty lies precisely in their reliance on narrative parataxis, the clarity and minimalism of their telling, their use of the language of the everyday for what are sacred dramas, and their rapid mood shifts. Here is “Red Banana” telling the story of the ancient “merchants” chopping down the soft coral tree within which the Maximón is contained:


So the merchants go home and they get something to eat. ‘He doesn’t look so good, he doesn’t cut much of a figure,’ they decide, ‘but he’s our boy.’ They all get their files the next day, to sharpen their machetes. But the Ultimo [the youngest] has had a dream. ‘This tree doesn’t want sharp machetes: rub them on rocks to make them dull,’ he tells them. It’s true: if you put a sharp machete into coral wood, it will stick just like cork. So First Merchant comes up to the tree and asks if he is ready for his pain. The tree says he is. ‘Remember everything we told you yesterday because we are your makers and we will take you apart if you disobey us,’ First Merchant says.

So they give him a first stroke on his feet, plaaaam. With each chop, they give him an order. They get to his head and the head is going up and down, nodding, like this. Plaam. ‘You feel that?’ they ask. At every stroke they hear the tree going ‘A! E! O! Oh! Ay! Ou! A! E!’ while they are making and shaping him. When they have finally carved him out, he is about this big. ‘Well, can you stand up now?’ they ask. ‘He looks pretty good this man made of pain,’ they say to themselves in congratulation. (51)


The representation here of the emerging Maximón as both a cartoon-like character suffering cartoon pain and simultaneously (and beautifully) a “man made of pain” illustrates the shifts and range of moods in these tales and also the chimerical and contradictory nature of Maximón himself.


Tarn’s own narrations of the day to day manifestations of the religious and social conflicts surrounding the Maximón statue often share much of the style and tone of the Mayan narratives.  [33]  The context for the following extract is the state of tension and paranoia following the theft of the masks. Chiviliu, Tarn and Salvador Popsoy (“Sacristán and escribano of cofradía Santa Cruz” [367]) go drinking. Suddenly, Popsoy denounces Tarn as a filthy foreigner and a spy.


Tarn stomps off in a calculated rhetorical gesture and, as he turns around, finds an energetic scuffle going on between Salvador and Nicolás for the possession of what turns out to be a common or garden Missal. Nicolás had mentioned this volume before as containing prayers to all the saints, including the Mam, and had told Tarn that he might want it back. Popsoy won’t let go, but kicks, punches and shout in and out of the bar while cofrades try to help the Chiv: it is the nearest thing to a fight that Tarn has ever witnessed in these parts.


Finally, Popsoy gives the book a resounding kiss, then slams it down furiously onto a window ledge. Exit Nicolás wild-eyed and dishevelled from the bar, half-disbelieving that he has the book back. [… .]


On and off during the day the memory of his bout came back to [Nicolás] and he wove it into his costumbre [religious ritual], weeping a ritual dirge: ‘Ay, Don Pedro, Lord San Simon… (sob)… it hurts… (sob)… it hurts bitterly,’ enumerating Popsoy’s evil dispositions in his prayers and altogether managing to sound most lamentable to any saint within earshot. All of this interspersed, as usual, with fits of good humour in which he was as boisterous and amusing as ever. (42–3)


The comparison between the Mayan narratives and Tarn’s is meant to suggest a common ground but this should not obscure the fact that there is significant variation of tone, style and intention in the discourses of both the indigenous speakers and the anthropologist. Tarn in particular moves from a mix of storytelling and documentary narrative to historical survey and, most importantly, anthropological interpretation and theorisation in the two chapters near the close of the book. These chapters appear at first to be attempts to synthesise a coherent schematisation of the fragmentary and heterogeneous material relating to Maximón but the two chapters offer two quite different, and to some extent contradictory, interpretations of the same materials. The first of the theoretical chapters, “Understanding the Mam and the Martín in the Nineteen-Fifties”, is based largely on the conclusions of Tarn’s doctoral work; the second, “Understanding the Mam and the Martín in 1979” revises the conclusions drawn in the 1950s.


Writing up the first field work in 1952–53, it made sense to divide people into the “Men of Martín,” the “Men of Jesucristo,” and the “Men of Maximón” – with Maximón as an impure, ambivalent figure, less “native” than Martín, less “Catholic” than Jesucristo. Maximón might then be seen as a vortex of conflict conceivably extending back in time through Atiteco history and representing everything which, in Maya-Christian syncretism, had never properly functioned, fused or formed itself into a unified whole.


Later understandings, in 1979 and beyond, were to dispel this tidy scheme in most of its details… (67)


The 1979 interpretations are very close to Tarn and Prechtel’s 1981 commentary on the role of the transformer in the movement between dualism and process and in initiatic structures in Popol Vuh (discussed above). The Maximón now appears in a fluid and processual relationship with the Martín and Jesucristo, working as transformer within the conflicting pulls of linear and cyclical patterns in the Atiteco calendrical year, and now associated with various female and bisexual elements.


The 1979 interpretation clearly supersedes the 1950s one so why include the earlier one? The juxtaposition of the two can certainly be taken to indicate a progressive growth in the sophistication and complexity of understanding, but it also makes clear that such theorisations cannot be in any absolute sense definitive. Tarn stands back from any claims of unequivocal interpretative authority. There is no revisionary theorisation from the 1990s; there is only Scandals itself in which the theorisations themselves appear in relativised dialogue with other descriptions of the same reality. This is not say that Tarn is proposing the defeat of the critical endeavour by the claim that there are ‘only stories.’ It is more accurate to say that his strategies of juxtaposition are a caution against the potential violence of critical translation noted by Krupat and a move towards ethnocritical practice.


If in the 1990s, in place of a new, even more sophisticated interpretation all we have is the marvellous architecture of Scandals, what are we to make of this exercise in parataxis? From one perspective the whole thing adds up to “a sort of experimental ethnography”. From another perspective one could argue that Scandals is an epic for our time. In a parenthesis near the start of the chapter in which we first encounter the “stories of the early earth”, Tarn says he is “trying to put together a great sequence of stories by entering it at one point or another” (4). This suggests a lost original, an ancient folk epic of sorts of which only fragments survive in the present.


Paul Radin, working with the Trickster tales of the Winebago, took a similar set of assumed ‘fragments’ and attempted to force them into a coherent, chronological sequence. Robert Graves tried to tie together Greek myths from different times and sources into single narratives. Tarn does not make this kind of mistake. He does not try to create a ‘Homeric’ synthesis out of the multiple narratives of local conflicts and squabbles. He accepts collage as an appropriate form for what is in effect an epic for the age of economic and cultural globalisation. From the obscure religious conflicts in a small village in Guatemala in the 1950s Scandals takes us back to the very beginnings of the world and forwards to our own time in which “the Indian village is being pulled into the expanding economy of Guatemala and beyond that the late-Capitalist economy, while the ‘huge ecological and structural problems’ of Santiago are being ignored by those who do the pulling” (319). As Tarn himself notes in the fifteenth section of his The Beautiful Contradictions:


The destruction of history by not setting down the history you know
by refusing to be a witness to your times is a crime against the earth


If Scandals is indeed “a last throw” by the angel of the record, it is a record made by an imagination in a state of attention towards the meanings of memory, survival and transformation in a shrinking world.

for Arnold: in memoriam Beth Gelert

 [1]  Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Anthropology: Its Achievements and Its Future”, Current Anthropology 7, No. 2 (1966), p.126, used as epigraph in Dell Hymes, “The Use of Anthropology: Critical, Political, Personal” in Hymes, ed., Reinventing Anthropology (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p.3.

;[2]  Nathaniel Tarn, “Michel Leiris, Timor Mortis, and the Peopled Self: A Reading of L’Afrique Fantôme as Auto-Anthropology” (1991) in Tarn, Views from the Weaving Mountain: Selected Essays in Poetics and Anthropology (Albuquerque: An American Poetry Book/University of New Mexico Press, 1991), p.256. Hereafter cited as Views.

;[3]  James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). The ‘writing culture’ debates now stretch across a large body of texts and I make no claims to total knowledge but in addition to Writing Culture the following provide some key points of reference: George E. Marcus and Dick Cushman, “Ethnographies as Texts,” Annual Review of Anthropology 11 (1982), 25–69; Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); Marc Manganaro, ed., Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Ivan Brady, ed., Anthropological Poetics (Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991); Paul Benson, ed., Anthropology and Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon, eds., Women Writing Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Allison James, Jenny Hockey and Andrew Dawson, eds., After Writing Culture: Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1997).

;[4]  James Clifford, “Introduction: Partial Truths”, in Clifford and Marcus, eds., Writing Culture, p.25–6.

;[5]  In “The Pure Product Go Crazy”, the introduction to his The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), Clifford offers an anthropological or cultural reading of Williams’s poem “To Elsie” but the nature of the commentary there does not affect the points made here.

;[6]  Jed Rasula and Mike Irwin, “An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn,” Boundary 2, 4, No.1 (1975), 9.

;[7]  I am thinking here of Pound’s readings in the work of Leo Frobenius and Chinese culture, Eliot’s reading of Frazer and other contemporary anthropologists, the use of Native American and comparative mythological materials in Olson, Snyder and Dorn and Duncan’s use of Australian indigenous cultures in the early sections of The H.D. Book. Eliot and Snyder both had some academic training in anthropology. In Muriel Rukeyser’s case I am thinking in particular of her study of Franz Boas left unfinished at the time of her death. Jay Wright, an African-American poet whose work is not as widely known as it should be, has made accomplished use of anthropological researches into African cultures.

;[8]  Nathaniel Tarn with Martín Prechtel, Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán (New York: Marsilio, 1997). As Tarn points out in his acknowledgements, all the writing has been done by Tarn himself. Prechtel, who was born and raised in New Mexico but who moved to Guatemala in the 1970s and went on to rise high in the indigenous religious hierarchy, is acknowledged as co-author in recognition of a long working collaboration and friendship (ix). (Hereafter cited as Scandals in the text).

;[9]  Nathaniel Tarn, “A Letter to Michael Heller”, Talisman No. 11 (1993), 87. The letter is dated 1989.

;[10]  Shamoon Zamir, “On Anthropology and Poetry: An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn,” Boxkite No. 2 (1998), 177.

;[11]  All biographical information presented in this introduction is drawn from several sources: a long recorded dialogue with Tarn, a large part of which has been published as Zamir, “On Poetry and Anthropology: An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn”; several essays in Views; the Chronology in Lee Bartlett, Nathaniel Tarn: A Descriptive Bibliography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987), pp.1–4; and Tarn’s own autobiographical essay in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 26, pp.271–89. This section and the next of the present essay draw upon, revise and expand the introduction to Zamir, “On Anthropology and Poetry, An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn,” pp.152–60.

;[12]  See Tarn, “The Choral Voice: A Diptych re Anthropology and Poetry” (1986) and “Reflections on the Work of Claude Lévi-Strauss” (1967), both in Views, pp.195–97, 161–68; and E. Michael Mendelson, “The Uninvited Guest: Ancilla to Lévi-Strauss on Totemism and Primitive Thought,” in Edmund Leach, ed., The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism (London: Tavistock Publications, 1967), pp.119–39. [N.B.: most of Tarn’s work as anthropologist has been published under the heteronym of E. Michael Mendelson].

;[13]  See Tarn, “André Breton, Anthropology, and the Limits of Culture” (1967), in Views, pp.207–12. For more on Tarn’s involvement with the Surrealists, see Zamir, “On Anthropology and Poetry: An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn”, pp.164–5.

;[14]  See Tarn, “Michel Leiris, Timor Mortis, and the Peopled Self”, in Views, pp.243–56; “L’Ethnopoetique chez Artaud, ou: Artaud, est-il en fait allé chez les Tarahumaras?”, in Simon Harel, ed., Antonin Artaud: Figures et Portraits Vertigineux (Montreal: XYZ Press, 1995), pp.251–60; and Victor Segalen, Stelae, trans. Nathaniel Tarn (Santa Barbara, CA: Unicorn, 1969).

;[15]  For Tarn’s own comments on the philosophical aspects of this social scientific tradition, see E. Michael Mendelson, “Some Present Trends of Social Anthropology in France,” The British Journal of Sociology, 9:3 (1958), pp.251–70.

;[16]  Tarn’s fieldwork at Santiago Atitlán resulted in a six-hundred page text, Religion and World-View in a Guatemalan Village (1957). This was never published but was preserved as Microfilm No. 52 of the Microfilm Collection of Manuscripts on Middle American Cultural Anthropology at the University of Chicago Libraries. The Ph.D. was a drastically shortened version of this text and was later revised and published in Spanish (Mendelson, Los Escandalos de Maximón: Un estudio sobre la religión y la visón del mundo en Santiago Atitlán [Guatemala: Tipographia Nacional, 1965]). See also Tarn, “The King, the Traitor and the Cross: An Interpretation of a Highland Maya Religious Conflict” (1958), in Views, pp.191–101; and Mendelson, “A Guatemalan Sacred Bundle,” Man 57 (1958), pp. 121–26, and “Maximón: An Iconographical Introduction,” Man 59 (1959), pp.56–60. For comments on Redfield, see Tarn, “The Literate and the Literary: The Anthropological Discourse of Robert Redfield” (1981), in Views, pp.169–94; and Mendelson, “World View,” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David Sills, (New York: Macmillan & Free Press, 1968), vol. 16, pp.567–79, and the introduction to Los Escandalos.

;[17]  For the work on Burma and Buddhism, see Tarn, “The Sage of Weaving Mountain” and “Buddhism and the Burmese Establishment” in Views, pp.102–115, 116–131; and Mendelson, “Buddhism and Politics in Burma,” New Society No. 38 (20 June, 1963), pp.8–10, “A Messianic Buddhist Association in Upper Burma,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 24 (1961), pp.560–80, “Religion and Authority in Modern Burma,” The World Today 16:3 (1960), pp.110–18, “The Uses of Religious Scepticism in Modern Burma,” Diogenes 41 (1963), pp.94–116, Sangha and State in Burma: A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership, ed. John P. Ferguson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), and, with John Ferguson, “Masters of the Buddhist Occult: The Burmese Weikzas”, Contributions to Asian Studies 16 (1981), pp.62–88.

;[18]  For more on Tarn’s work for Cape Editions and Cape Goliard, see Shamoon Zamir, “Bringing the World to Little England. Cape Editions, Cape Goliard and Poetry in the Sixties. An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn. With an Afterword by Tom Raworth,” in E.S. Shaffer, ed., Comparative Criticism Vol. 19: Literary Devolution: Writing in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 263–286, and Bartlett, Nathaniel Tarn, pp.103–105.

;[19]  See Rasula and Irwin, “An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn”, p.9.

;[20]  Tarn in Rasula and Irwin, “An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn”, p.6.

;[21]  Eric Mottram, “The British Poetry Revival, 1960–75”, in Robert Hampson and Peter Barry, eds., New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p.36.

;[22]  Other important books include: Where Babylon Ends (London: Cape Goliard, 1968), The Persephones (Santa Barbara, CA: Christopher’s Books, 1974), and The Desert Mothers (Grenada, Mississippi: Salt-Works Press, 1984).

;[23]  Nathaniel Tarn and Martín Prechtel, “Metaphors of Relative Elevation, Position and Ranking in Popol Vuh”, Estudios de Cultura Maya XIII (1981), 107.

;[24]  Tarn and Prechtel, “Metaphors of Relative Elevation”, pp.109–10.

;[25]  Nathaniel Tarn, “Voice Politic/Body Politic,” Talus 10 (1997), 43–47. All further quotations from this text are simply identified as ‘Voice’.

;[26]  Rasula and Irwin, “An Interview with Nathaniel Tarn”, 21–22.

;[27]  Nigel Rappaport, “Edifying Anthropology: Culture as Conversation; Representation as Conversation”, in James et al, eds., After Writing Culture, p.181. Compare also James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority” (in Clifford and Marcus, eds., Writing Culture) on “the staging and valuing of multiple allegorical registers, or ‘voices’” (p.103).

;[28]  Arnold Krupat, Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p.3. All further references are given in the text.

;[29]  David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p.94. The Tarn quote is from Tarn, “The Heraldic Vision,” p.31.

;[30]  Lisette Josephides, “Representing the Anthropologist’s Predicament”, in James et al. eds., After Writing Culture, pp. 24–5.

;[31]  I am not qualified to assess the representative nature of Tarn’s presentations of Mayan narration. For the purposes of the discussion here I am simply taking on trust the faithfulness or justness of his translations.

;[32]  For an exoticist, cliché-ridden contrast to this, compare the opening of Secrets of the Talking Jaguar: Unmasking the Mysterious World of the Living Maya (New York: Joseph P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998), Martín Prechtel’s own account of his apprenticeship under Nicholás Chiviliu and his life among the Tzutujil Maya. Prechtel’s book is, to say the least, disappointing. (See note 8 above on Prechtel’s collaboration with Tarn on Scandals). There is, unfortunately, no time to discuss it here though a comparison with Tarn’s text would be useful. Another text which may provide a productive point of comparison is Dennis Tedlock’s very accomplished Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya (San Francisco: Harper, 1993)

;[33]  On some level of course it could be said that the Mayan narratives share the style and tone of Tarn’s narratives since Tarn is in fact the translator of the former. But here too, allowing for stylistic variations among translators, I am assuming that what Tarn presents in everyday language and as comedy is also given in the original in more or less equivalent form.

First published in Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics no.5 (1999), 99–122

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.