More Barn Than House

“When a house is completed it is such a disappointment. No rafters. No mysterious hollowed-out shadow spaces above them. And nothing to hang the hammock onto and swing–which is why we like barns and sheds and find unforgettable that house raised twelve feet in the jungle with a palm-thatch roof and only two walls, open to the forest, complete in its incompleteness. (Maybe that’s what makes a great book, being more barn than house?)”

I just finished I Swear I Saw this–Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own by Michael Taussig, in an effort to wrangle some inspiration from someone I deeply admire (and whom I have already written about) for my own fieldwork, which is fast approaching. However, I was unable to completely separate my mental categories for ‘fieldnotes’ and ‘fiction novel’, because about as much effort goes into each one. With a little mental twisting, though, Taussig’s ideas for fieldnotes absolutely apply to the creative process of plotting and writing a novel.

It’s a wonderful little book about those moments when drawing supersedes writing in your fieldnotes–moments of such high intensity beneath which an iceberg of depth lies, a world of meaning in which only a drawing–visceral, corporeal, immediate–can evoke, etching the artist into the moment as writing cannot. Taussig takes a turn towards evaluating the entire fieldwork notebook, weaving together bizarrely disparate examples and people in an enactment of the very subject of his writing–fieldnotes as the halfway products, the undersides, of chance and fate.

“Maybe that’s what makes a great book, being more barn than house?” As I read this wondering in chapter four, I underlined it, then added a star, and then a heart for good measure. Little markers to myself that I had found something truthful on page thirty-three. A novel that is too complete is boring. I have always loved best those with room for interpretation, and been struck by how, if no room is given, I (or others) will make room for interpretation–the growth of fandoms is certainly testament to that.

Completed houses are white painted walls, working plumbing, fresh tile or carpet, and price tags. Barns are lofts, hay bales, little streams running beside them, the smell of animals, a horseshoe nailed above the door. Novels begin by the exchange of a house for a barn–mundanity for adventure.

So I will keep in mind that a good novel has cracks in it. It has squeaky hinges and rickety ladders and places for ambiguity. Places to hang a hammock.

Mimesis and Magic: Michael Taussig

In a small room full of professors and students, the lights are dimmed, and an image of a woman transforming into a palm tree is projected onto the screen. At the head of the table, cast in dramatic shadow, is a man who resembles a very tall turtle. He peers over his glasses at a sheaf of pages in his hands. In an Australian accent, he reads aloud to us, the room hushed except for his voice and the hurried scribbles of pens attempting to take down as much information as possible but not lose track of the story. He is describing nighttime, and a donkey. In a moment that startles the affect of the room, he lets out a harsh bray that stutters everyone else into surprised laughter. 

If you’ve never read Michael Taussig, I can’t say I’m surprised, unless you’re an anthropologist. But I can safely say you’ll never read anything like him. He writes about magic and mimesis (to condense the uncondensable), and does the kind of writing that evokes what it is it’s about: writing about mimesis that is, in a very absolute way, mimesis. (Mimesis is, essentially, copying–reflecting and becoming other.) Taussig’s writing is breathtaking, befuddling, and unrevealing.

I had the privilege to not only spend a semester reading Taussig under the guidance of two of his former graduate students (now my professors), but actually hearing him speak in a public lecture and a private workshop over the last week. It’s going to take me a long, long while to digest it all.

I won’t go on too long, but I want to think briefly about Taussig’s theory of ethnographic writing, which I believe is applicable to all writing. To paraphrase Taussig, writing by engaging what the writing is about, ie. writing magically about magic, is the writing looking inward at itself, evoking a process of mimesis. It draws an emphatic connection between the writer, the reader, the text, and the subject of the text, blurring the lines between them, the reader or writer becoming other, becoming the subject written about.

If you haven’t read Taussig, I suggest you do so at least once (but prepare to be baffled). If not to understand the theory, then do so to learn something about a powerful way of writing.