- Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage by Jeanne Favret-Saada, translated by C. Cullen
Cambridge, 271 pp, £17.50, December 1980, ISBN 0 521 22317 2
Jeanne Favret-Saada’s book, Deadly Words, subtitled ‘Witchcraft in the Bocage’, deals with a subject of abiding fascination. While there are always people who readily admit to practising good or ‘white’ witchcraft for the benefit of their fellow mortals, witchcraft is usually defined negatively as the ability to cause others harm by the use of one’s psychic power. For historians and social anthropologists, most of whom do not themselves believe in the reality of witchcraft (good or bad), the problem is to decide how to interpret such beliefs when they occur in the cultures and civilisations we study. Until quite recently, the florid ‘witchcraft crazes’ of earlier centuries in Europe have generally perplexed and embarrassed historians, provoking extreme explanations for such ostensibly bizarre beliefs. For Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing in 1967, this involved an appeal to the atmospherics of the precarious Alpine settings in which some of our ancestors lived. Their curious witchcraft fantasies, he suggested, might be traced to the swirling mists and rarified air of stormy mountain peaks. Social anthropologists are by no means averse to the attractions of theories based on environmental determinism. But since the publication, over forty years ago, of Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, they have been in the fortunate position of possessing a key to the understanding of these beliefs which makes such reductionist theories redundant. Indeed, since this book was published, the problem has become not so much, ‘Why do some people believe in witchcraft?’ but rather: ‘Why doesn’t everybody?’
Vol. 3 No. 15 · 20 August 1981
SIR: I.M. Lewis misses the point about Mme Favret-Saada’s Witchcraft in the Bocage (LRB, 18 June). The book is not about ‘objective’ knowledge of what may be witchcraft. The stake is truth – against scientific objectivity. Mme Favret-Saada discards all the usual advantages of the ethnographer: the ‘savages’ are not her ‘objects’. She does not ‘observe’: she enters their world, not to spy as a stranger, but bona fide. There is no methodological barrier between her and them. She does not describe them: she recounts an adventure with other people, who are very strange but equal.
The methodological barrier is between her and her colleagues. Between her and I.M. Lewis. His reaction to the book proves it.
Vol. 3 No. 19 · 15 October 1981
SIR: Octave Mannoni (Letters, 20 August) appears to misunderstand my review of Jeanne Favret-Saada’s book. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. I had hoped I had made it clear that Mme Favret-Saada was indeed writing very much in the spirit of a sorcerer’s apprentice in the Bocage. Hence, of course, my comparison with Carlos Castaneda’s work. Unlike the latter, however, Mme Favret-Saada also makes frequent reference to the standard anthropological literature on witchcraft, and writes, so the blurb informs us, as a professional anthropologist teaching the subject at Nanterre. Much of my criticism was thus directed at the author’s unsatisfactory handling of this classic material, and at her apparent unfamiliarity with relevant research and concepts, which makes her Bocage data nothing like as ‘strange’ or exotic as she and Mannoni claim.
I am also a little puzzled by the claim to novelty made for an anthropological approach which treats the people whose culture the anthropologist studies as ‘strange but equal’. This seems old hat to me. The classic French ethnographic tradition, associated with the name of its great champion, Marcel Griaule, insisted on the anthropologist being ‘initiated’ (sometimes literally and physically) into the culture he or she was studying. Of course, the extent to which anthropologists of this or other schools actually succeed in ‘going native’ always remains an intriguing question. Mme Favret-Saada’s pretentious – and condescending – account of her experiences (for Mannoni an ‘adventure’) makes it fairly clear what she feels about the people of the Bocage. I would not wish to question the value of this as a sort of anthropologist’s personal testimony. But it would perhaps be of even greater interest to know what the people of the Bocage made of their anthropologist.
London School of Economics