Take up the ethnography as you might a conversation. Read a sentence. Read it again. Finish the paragraph, or the chapter, then go back to a phrase that snagged your attention. It will have changed. Take up that transformation. Know that you are reading with a community of others.
Consider the way the chapters are pulsed with gentle, recipe-like directives. Find yourself in the book, in the invitations to act, to notice what those acts are doing to you and those around you, and to feel what might be created in those actions. Notice that you are here. You always were.
Robert Desjarlais’ book, Subject to Death, about Hyolmo rituals of, for, and by the dying, is punctuated with sentences in the second-person. The tone is softly instructional. The verb tense is command. But the fact, underlying the directive, is that these sentences are for you.
So much ethnography is written as though first and third person are not only our only authorial options, but are the structure for all discussion of ethnographic creativity and its ethical limits. When we talk about ethnographic experimentation, we are often talking about the use of first-person. What do we learn from the presence of the “I”? Is the imaginary of an omniscient narrator preferable to the imposition of a personal narrative? The use of the second person in just the way it appears here reminds us how small, and tired, is a conversation about the politics of knowledge organized around the contrast between first and third persons.
In Subject to Death, second person commands contain the substance of ritual and the shape of its relationship to human agency. They are at once specific and vague, open-ended (we are all their subject) and a call into readerly intimacy. What Desjarlais calls the “epistemology of khoi?” – of “where?,” uncertainty, and openness – is enacted in these moments that are initially a surprise, later, a comfort (217). Through them, his writing demonstrates a willingness to move through uncertainty without getting stuck in it. That is, Subject to Death’s embrace of uncertainty does not signal a rejection of interpretation, but is a reminder of its momentary quality.
There is something to be said about what Hyolmo death rituals do. And there is also something to be said about the way they undo the permanence of that understanding. In many ways, this book is less an anthropology of impermanence than a statement of anthropology as impermanence, a Buddhist record of dissolution that returns, by way of the end of absolutes, to the pressing potential of the conventional and passing. The second-person pushes against the mistake of nihilism that might come from mishandling the Buddhist principle of no-self and, similarly, from post-modern invocations of selves as performance and the relative nature of truths.
Do this now, because it matters, here, for now.
Desjarlais’ first book, Body and Emotion (1992), an account of soul loss and the healing rituals of Hyolmo shamans, offers the reader an example of the visceral nature of transformation. Chants have shape, sound, and feel. Their sensory qualities are entwined with the symbolic potential of their words. One poem hinges on the repeated phrase, “You are HERE,” summoning the soul back into the presence of the afflicted person through the sensory force of voice and meaning.
I have read this chant aloud to my Medical Anthropology class since 2005, sometimes ending a lecture with it. I love this session, and look forward to it every time I teach the course. I have never heard a shaman speak these words, and I do not have any idea what they “should” sound like. I make my own play with sound and the pleasures of discomforting dislocation from context. My voice rises in volume and deepens as I move through the phrases. Your parents are HERE. I land more and more heavily on the words in all caps. You are HERE. I let go of the professorially protective veil of irony. Sometimes students squirm. Sometimes some of them laugh. Always, one or two or three look shocked, involved, confused, excited. Sometimes I let them leave in silence after the final syllable. Sometimes I get teacherly again and give myself, or one of them, the final word.
Notice, too, all that is being undone. Find the names you know, the ideas that are reassuring and familiar. Find – and feel relief at – the play of the general, the clarity of the way cultural praxis is something recognizable. Then, dismantle those conventions, that relief. Imagine an effigy of cultural knowledge, in which the undoing of cultural certainty with ideas like “performance” and “politics” is replaced with a different, more pleasingly paradoxical undoing: the undoing that comes with the certainty of dissolution. Notice that you are, also, not here. You never were.
Several years ago, when Bob was writing Subject to Death, I was in London. Something terrible had just happened, and I was alone, angry, and at a loss in the truest sense of the phrase. Part of the issue was that, for about two days I did not know where my daughter was. That is a longer story. She was safe and fine, and while I would not be told where she was, I knew that was true. But I was a mess, with nothing to do but wait. And walk. I walked, and walked, and walked, and walked. It was mid-summer and the days were long, sunny, and warm. I clutched a paper map, and looked at it every thirty seconds. For some reason, the Hyolmo chant came into my head. I got lost in confusing streets. I found my way. I got lost again. I found my way.
The first night, I went back to the flat where I was staying. I emailed my friend, Bob. I said that that chapter of Body and Emotion, that poem, would not leave my head. I said I felt like I was making myself into a human map of “khoi?” – “Where?” – “Evie khoi?” “Ama khoi?” I told him how much it hurt.
Bob wrote back a few hours later. He had rewritten the Hyolmo chant, replacing its key symbols with the landmarks of my life – my street, my home, my cat, my daughter – replacing the Hyolmo mapping of location in the face of soul-loss with my life’s own terrain. You are HERE. You are HERE.
Bob writes, in the opening pages of his new book, “I have come to perceive a world where people learn from an early age that life is characterized by a tense and ever-shifting play between presence and absence, fullness and emptiness” (3). The balance of the sentence – the relationship between ethnographic truth and truth truth – remains vague, as this point of distinction does – beautifully – in so much of Bob’s writing. Is the point of difference – what makes the ethnography ethnography – that people perceive from an early age something like a natural fact (one that people in other places may never learn)? Or is it that people perceive – as all people do – a specific, cultural truth from an early age?
But Bob often works in the space of sensation, in which it becomes clear that this a false dichotomy. What we encounter in Subject to Death, in the hand gesture of an uncle telling a young boy, gently, that his mother – Ama – is, like everything, “here, not here,” is something other than either the absolute truth of the absence that undergirds presence or the relative truth of a cultural form that says absence undergirds presence. What we find in instructions for how to act, feel, and understand rituals of dying – are “strands of sense” (6). The tentative, open-ended way the Hyolmo die is at once a cultural repertoire and a metonym for knowing more generally, for asking and for telling in the way of the ethnographer. This is a technical matter as much as anything; the dying can take up, in the company of others and with their help, the technique of ceasing to be a self, the minute and momentous techné of dissolution.
Invite a reader into a moment of engagement that undoes itself. Practice a technique of creating and undoing the security of knowing an other; show the possibility for care at that juncture of presence and absence, absolute and relative truth.
Bob Desjarlais asks (to slightly paraphrase) if “anthropologizing might help one learn how to die” (19). In Subject to Death, there is more to ethnography than the telling of an idea or the deep narration of a way of living. There is in the intimacy of its invitation to you a conviction about the ability of our imperfect technologies of knowing and writing to embody, engender, establish – not just an idea about something – but a form of being/doing knowledge, of being/doing together.
There is dissolution; there is absence and the inevitable fire of immolation. There is the at once relative and absolute truth of “Here, now gone.” There is also, as part of that contract, the healing power of momentary presence. There is not here, but there is also here. There is this gift we give each other.
Sarah Pinto is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University, and author of Where There Is No Midwife: Birth and Loss in Rural India (Berghahn Books, 2008), and Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).