Borges’ ethnographer

Hong Kong, December 2012

Hong Kong, December 2012

Sometime in the near future I will try to (I must!) write coherently about what I have seen and heard on the field. I should be more punctual and diligent with the task of writing fieldnotes, I know. Lest you recoil in horror (70+ interviews and no fieldnotes?!), let me reassure you that yes, I did take the trouble of creating data… somewhat. I have reporter-style rants on my recorder, marginalia, bullet points, text messages to myself, even a fake PowerPoint presentation. The richest pieces of data are the scripts I have created in my head, without ever having put pen to paper (or finger…tip? to keyboard). These are the anecdotes I have told and retold others. These are the scraps of memory I have been turning over and over in my mind’s hands. They almost resist being handled by my real hands, refuse to be written and pinned down. They keep shifting in the telling. They are rather to be apprehended by being felt through, hands moving underwater.

What of precision and exactitude? Crispness and freshness? Another metaphor, then: Maybe the data I wish to cultivate are mushrooms, not salad leaves. There has to be a period of waiting in the dark. Nurtured but left undisturbed, they grow fat with substance. They grow gills and learn to breathe. (One telltale sign I am a fake academic: I like metaphors too much.) (And parenthetical statements.)

These are not new thoughts and feelings, of course. I came across this excellent blogpost today by way of a tweet from Pierre Bourdieu (yes, that Bourdieu).  I’m pleased to discover that Jorge Luis Borges has created a myth for my time. Like all good myths, it mystifies. This is the kind of explaining I want to do: I want to gesture, not to spell out. I wonder if academia is the right place for this kind of work? But I will hold that thought for another time. Pag tapos na akong magsulat ng thesis. Ha.

Anyway. Read below and enjoy:


The Ethnographer

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.

1 comment

  1. […] short story, “The Ethnographer”, and kindly agreed that we repost her reflections about fieldwork, notetaking, data collection and the creation of analysis out of your data. We at […]

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