There need be no explanation for most occupations– but ethnographer? At least one of Argentina’s beloved poets would not have asked what I do if we’d met at a cocktail party, so I’d told him I was an ethnographer. It’s 1969, an assortment of olives and cheese crumbles between us, I swirl my dram glass nervously, to be conversing with the great Jorge Luis Borges, who seems to perceive the troubling nakedness under Ethnography’s cloak of neat dichotomies, authoritative conclusions, and its lone hero. Fifty years later, and “certain esoteric rites” never change.
The ethnographer (1969)
by Jorge Luis Borges
translated by Andrew Hurley
I was told about the case in Texas, but it had happened in another state. It has a single protagonist (though in every story there are thousands of protagonists, visible and invisible, alive and dead). The man’s name, I believe, was Fred Murdock. He was tall, as Americans are; his hair was neither blond nor dark, his features were sharp, and he spoke very little. There was nothing singular about him, not even that feigned singularity that young men affect. He was naturally respectful, and he distrusted neither books nor the men and women who write them. He was at that age when a man doesn’t yet know who he is, and so is ready to throw himself into whatever chance puts in his way — Persian mysticism or the unknown origins of Hungarian, the hazards of war or algebra, Puritanism or orgy. At the university, an adviser had interested him in Amerindian languages. Certain esoteric rites still survived in certain tribes out West; one of his professors, an older man, suggested that he go live on a reservation, observe the rites, and discover the secret revealed by the medicine men to the initiates. When he came back, he would have his dissertation, and the university authorities would see that it was published. Murdock leaped at the suggestion. One of his ancestors had died in the frontier wars; that bygone conflict of his race was now a link. He must have foreseen the difficulties that lay ahead for him; he would have to convince the red men to accept him as one of their own. He set out upon the long adventure. He lived for more than two years on the prairie, sometimes sheltered by adobe walls and sometimes in the open. He rose before dawn, went to bed at sundown, and came to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers. He conditioned his palate to harsh flavors, he covered himself with strange clothing, he forgot his friends and the city, he came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected. During the first few months of his new education he secretly took notes; later, he tore the notes up — perhaps to avoid drawing suspicion upon himself, perhaps because he no longer needed them. After a period of time (determined upon in advance by certain practices, both spiritual and physical), the priest instructed Murdock to start remembering his dreams, and to recount them to him at daybreak each morning. The young man found that on nights of the full moon he dreamed of buffalo. He reported these recurrent dreams to his teacher; the teacher at last revealed to him the tribe’s secret doctrine. One morning, without saying a word to anyone, Murdock left.
In the city, he was homesick for those first evenings on the prairie when, long ago, he had been homesick for the city. He made his way to his professor’s office and told him that he knew the secret, but had resolved not to reveal it.
“Are you bound by your oath?” the professor asked.
“That’s not the reason,” Murdock replied. “I learned something out there that I can’t express.”
“The English language may not be able to communicate it,” the professor suggested.
“That’s not it, sir. Now that I possess the secret, I could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.”
After a pause he added: “And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.”
The professor spoke coldly: “I will inform the committee of your decision. Are you planning to live among the Indians?”
“No,” Murdock answered. “I may not even go back to the prairie. What the men of the prairie taught me is good anywhere and for any circumstances.”
That was the essence of their conversation.
Fred married, divorced, and is now one of the librarians at Yale.
(Reprinted from http://wtf.tw/ref/borges.html)
Christina Lauren Quigley is review editor and web developer of Ethnography.com and vlogger at Laurelin the Other. Christina is a 2019-2020 Fulbright Scholar Alumna (Student Research Program). She began working and writing as an ethnographer–anthropologist in the mountains of northern California as an activist alongside Native American Mountain Maidu communities. Christina has also been known to work for minimum wage in America, selling booze to ordinary Americans at a neighborhood liquor store to further study cultural transmission of Americans’ methods of coping through alcohol and illegal drugs.
Once bewitched, Christina fell under the spell of Congolese rumba music, and lived at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa to research the ways that music culture diffuses across boundaries from eastern DR Congo to Tanzania and crosses secular–religious spaces. Christina is a Swahili speaker and holds an MA (Music) in the anthropology of music culture at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and a BA (Anthropology) focused on culture, society, and medical anthropology at California State University, Chico.