In the Gardens of Eden

Haiti as a Challenge to Thought

I first met Christian Cravo in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in August 2008, when I was doing research in that country for my doctorate in Social Anthropology at the Museu Nacional of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. We went together to Lakou de Nan Soukri, near the city of Gonaives. He was driven by his quest for images of rituals – in fact, a specific image. I was looking for data for my research on the relationship between Haitian Vodou and the social world in a general. We were both driven by a strong feeling. And even if each of us intuited that in a totally different way, guided by very different perspectives, we both had a passion for confronting otherness.

I was flying to Haiti for the first time in November 2006 when I read "The Kingdom of this World", one of the most brilliant works of fantastic realism by Alejo Carpentier, whose narrative unfolds during the period of Haitian independence. In the preface, Carpentier relates how he visited Haiti in 1943, and during that visit, had the opportunity to experience what he called "real maravilloso" (wonderful reality), which was not just a specific trait of that Caribbean island but of all Latin America, with its fabulous tales about Manoa, the City of Gold, and the Fountain of Eternal Youth.

When referring to this wonderful reality, Carpentier lets us glimpse a world where fantastic images of spirits that possess people and converse with as many others, men who turn into animals, people who can fly at night and die when they return to their graves are just as natural as the daily price of survival or the simple act of shopping on market days. This is not to speak of "folk superstitions" but to reject this idea of "superstition" and delve into a world where the "real" and "wonderful" live together, if not harmoniously, in a relationship of complementarity.

All this could make it seem that Haiti is a sort of exotic empire, making us forget that its people live in a country occupied by UN troops, suffering from terrible economic woes and political instability. And this may be the guiding principle for any narrative on Haiti, understanding that, in this social world, the ordinary and what from our point of view may seem extraordinary (or "odd") live side by side in harmony. In fact, I dare say that the boundary between the "ordinary" and "wonderful" may be too tenuous for us to take it as an absolute divide between the two terms.

Incidentally, this is precisely the point – understanding how these signs, which can sometimes be stigmas, reverberate in everyday life and many foreigners' interpretations, as well as those of Haitians about themselves and their country. Vodou is itself the subject of profound debate involving jurists and sociologists, ordinary men and writers, and is present in films and songs, but at the same time, as Malinowski suggests, we cannot say that there is a belief or concept about the facts of life, but that personal beliefs and concepts exist; we can see that there is a common foundation, a set of representations that are shared by all those who live in the social world.

And this may be the point: the almost surreal images invoked about Vodou seem to be the "wonderful" complement to a real world populated with hardship and want, overcome from day to day, forging a kind of challenge to sociological understanding and imagination, as the Brazilian anthropologist Lygia Sigaud suggests. However, the "wonderful" is not at all unreal. It is experienced with the same intensity as the commonplace routine of an ordinary day. In fact, most of the time, it may not even be mentioned, but it is there, like a shadow that accompanies and watches over us.

It was our pursuit of that shadow, that strange object that seems to emulate completely all social practices in Haiti, that made our perspectives converge – mine and Christian's: the attempt to capture the beauty and richness of Haiti's religious universe through very different lenses, mine, that of social and cultural anthropology, and his, that of the artist, the aesthete. Actually, it was precisely the desire to cast light on the shadows that hang over that long-suffering Caribbean nation which allowed us to see the beauty of the things portrayed here.


José Renato Baptista

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