But if people collectively choose to change, how can we protect these cultures?
It’s not a question of protecting culture. No one’s trying to freeze people in time like some biological specimen. The only way – We’re not talking about a sentimental or romantic, patronising view towards indigenous people – like keep the T-shirts away from the indigenous people. The fundamental question of our era is how do we live in a multicultural world, and it seems to me that you can’t make a re-enforced park of the mind or sequester people like biological specimens, but you can endeavour to change the way the world looks at and values the contributions of different world views. The great revelation of Anthropology is the world into which you were born doesn’t exist in some absolute sense – it’s just one model at reality – and these other peoples aren’t failed attempts at being you – they’re unique experiments in the human imagination.
At the same time, there’s a dilemma, in so far as there are certain elements in every culture that humanity as a whole probably doesn’t want or need to protect– for example female circumcision?
That’s a very good point, but it’s a misconception. Anthropologists are sometimes accused of embracing an extreme relativism, whereby every cultural trait is legitimate, as if you could fail to condemn the Nazi’s because they had an ideology of religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anthropology never calls for the elimination of judgement, it calls for the suspension of judgement so the judgements we’re ethically obliged to make can be good ones, informed ones. So for example no anthropologist would hesitate to condemn the Nazis, and certain traits of human behaviour, such as female circumcision. – in its most brutal aspects. These are cultural traits, at least to my mind, that deserve to be in the dustbin of History.
The anthropological end is more usefully brought into focus when it’s turned towards those religious practices or cultural practices that have been unjustly condemned by those who know nothing about them. A good example of that would be Voodoo, or animal sacrifice in African religion, which people in Ireland for example might find very disturbing, but for the Voodooist blood is the sacred essence, and in a state when an individual might find themselves sick, part of the art is to return a gift of power to the Earth, to re-establish the balance between light and darkness, so that harmony can be established. Before we condemn that killing of a chicken in ritual, we should recall that in the Catholic church, in Ireland for example, when you take the holy communion, you are by definition engaged in an endo-cannabalistic act because the act of transubstantiation empowers the priest to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You’re not taking bread and wine, unless you’re a hypocrite and don’t believe the tenants of your own faith. So in that sense, who are we to condemn the Voodooist?
On the topic of Voodoo, how did you feel about the film version of The Serpent and the Rainbow, your book about Haiti and the very real process of zombification?
I hated it. I thought at first, when the deals were being done, “If you want to pay me 20,000 a year for the options..” and remember very few books that are optioned get made into movies. When they proposed the deal, they did promise me that they’d get Peter Weir to direct the film, and they offered Mel Gibson more money than he’d ever received, to play the lead. He turned it down, not surprisingly as he is as we now know a devout Christian . I never imagined that it would fall into the hands of someone like Wes Craven, who is a wonderful man, and who wanted to make a better film than they allowed him to make. The supreme irony is that my book was a pure celebration of African Faith, which exposed the manner in which pulp fiction and shitty RKO films of the 40’s had rationalised the Marine occupation of this country, and then to have my book turned into that…
While travelling in South America, you took the strong hallucinogenic plant Ayahuasca – were you frightened of its possible effects?
Well, no. I tried to make the point in the book –Ayahuasca is many things, but pleasant is not one of them. I knew from the literature. If you’re seeking a pleasant mild psycho-active experience, take a tab of mescaline, Ayahuasca is not for the faint hearted nor for the uninitiated. I’m quite fascinated that there’s this underground movement in the United States who use Ayahuasca – I’m amazed that it caught on, because in my experience it’s not remotely pleasant. I came out of the sixties generation, with an active interest in hallucinogenic preparations. I was fortunate in having a very disciplined sense of drugs. I never had any interest in cocaine for example, though I lived in Medelin, where briefcases of the stuff would come by in the early seventies, past the farm where I lived. Part of what we were doing was a sincere act of spiritual seeking, and because I was studying in Harvard, we were coming at it always from a very informed, excited position. I wasn’t always doing it solely in an academic context – there was also a spiritual seeking if you will, but one of the things that’s important is that we were all students of Richard Evans Schultes – who was part of this cadre of interesting characters – Aldous Huxley, Weston La Barre, the peyote expert, and Albert Hoffman, who first synthesised LSD. These were men who were curious, intellectually, pharmacologically, spiritually and socially in these plants and substances, at a time when there were no reference points. That somehow affected us, Tim Plowman, myself, Andrew Wilde – we were serious, and sincere seekers., plus we were experimenters. In retrospect it was almost like we ate our way through South America (laughs).