Wednesday, 3 December 2008

don't sleep there are snakes [w daniel everett]

There's a lot to be said about this book. Thankfully it's late as I write, and sleep-time beckons, otherwise I could easily while away a day or two musing on the various issues it raises.

The book itself is an account of the time the author has spent living with a remote Amazonian tribe, the Piraha. He has lived with them, on and off, for over thirty years. The book is split into three parts: firstly detailing how he first travelled there as a Christian missionary with his wife and young family; then discussing the language of the Piraha, a language no-one else (except his wife and kids?) speak beyond the tribe; and lastly, briefly documenting how the converter was converted, after the Piraha's reaction to his Christian teaching forced him to re-evaluate and eventually abandon his faith, losing his wife and family as a consequence.

Everett is now a professor of linguistics. The second part of the book, devoted to the Piraha language, explains how it has no recursion, which would mean that every sentence written here (and almost every sentence I've ever written) would be impossible in their language. Everett sees this as in some way connected to what he calls the Piraha's 'Immediacy of Experience' - which kind of means that you can only know what you experience yourself, and only say what you know. So for them, the notion of a man who died over two thousand years ago having any impact on their way of life of thinking is preposterous. Everett sees their world view as being a source of immense happiness to them; happiness defined as being something that people who are pleased with the lot they have been given experience. Features of their society he observes include the absence of hierarchy, depression and the ability to count. The latter might seem most surprising - Everett says that he and his family have attempted to teach the Piraha to count, but they just can't get their heads around it, something which perhaps helps to protect them against the practices of the wider world which has gradually been revealed to them over the course of recent decades. Apart from developing a taste for booze, which they are aware needs tempering, he claims that they have very little desire for artifacts of modernity. They believe their way of life to be an excellent one and not in need of any alteration.

The world that Everett describes is far from Utopic: people die young, there is great hardship, and constant threats from wild animals and settlers trying to appropriate their land. The tribe is diminishing and there's no knowing what the future holds for it. All the same, Everett seems to argue that their world view, which is to some extent contained within the structures of their language, is one which has a sophistication, in terms of its efficacy in ensuring the worth which they feel their time on the earth has to give them, which outweighs seemingly more complex social and linguistic structures in other parts of the world. And that's another sentence which could certainly not be translated into Piraha.

There is a whole other strand to the book which deals with the way Everett's work with the Piraha appears to subvert the now-orthodox Chomskyian view that linguistic structures are the product of a universal human genome (I think that's right) . However, you don't need to be a linguistics student to get a grasp of Everett's arguments about the way the Piraha's language interacts with the way in which they perceive the world, and the things which this might have to teach us about the way in which we see the world. (Us being anyone who isn't a Piraha, so that's far from some simple critique of Western culture.) 

It turns out that this past week has been the centenary of the birth of Levi-Strauss, whose name, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't even get a mention in Don't Sleep There Are Snakes. (Although for lovers of footnotes and acknowledgements such as myself, it is bemusing to see Cormac McCarthy's name referenced as someone who has helped the author in the writing of the book.) Levi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques is in some ways a similar book to Don't Sleep There are Snakes, detailing how time living amongst indigenous Brazilian tribes helped its author to shape not only a philosophic world view, but also fresh techniques for the practice of his chosen scientific discipline. Daniel Everett's book describes a similar journey into the heart of the unknown world (once upon a time called the uncivilised world, or heart of darkness) which reveals a culture which may not have produced many of the technologic advances associated with civilization, but instead has settled for mastering the technology of some kind of happiness, which is all its inhabitants feel they need.

1 comment:

Arukiyomi said...

Great review and I've linked to it on my own review