The blossoming flowers of summer,
if only they could last through winter
we friends who have gathered together,
if only we could last through life (p. 109)
This verse of the Yolmo “songs of pain” echoes in my mind since reading Robert Desjarlais’ Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. It recognizes the inevitability in the changing of seasons and finite nature of life. It captures the feeling of never wanting the good things, like summer and friendship, to truly have an end. This evocation of the senses – the pain of longing, the comfort in companionship – lies at the heart of the intention of this book. In his analysis of soul loss and shamanic healing among the Yolmo Sherpa, a Tibetan Buddhist people residing in north central Nepal, Desjarlais writes an ethnography of and for the senses, allowing the reader to understand the tactile, visceral and unspoken sensibilities of everyday life in Helambu. As an apprentice to Meme, a local shaman, his main concern is the “aesthetic” nature of the common graces and embodied values that govern how villagers go about their lives, walk down a hillside, talk with neighbors, smoke a cigarette or drink a cup of tea (p. 14). With his emphasis on the sensory, Desjarlais goes beyond a symbolic analysis to understand how it feels for a Yolmo wa to grow old, to suffer grief and to lose and retrieve their souls. In questioning the feasibility to grasp the sensorial life of another, he strikes the trope of ethnography: How do we arrange words on a page in a way that passes a “true” understanding on to another?
Loss and Healing
The book is separated in two parts, “Loss” and “Healing,” each with five chapters. In Part I: Loss, Desjarlais presents the motifs that give form to Yolmo lives through the imagery of his experiences with shamanic trance, along with a historical and political account of the region. The tense duality between corporeal body and spiritual heartmind (sems); the need for social integration; the shaman as a mediator between life and death; the aesthetic sensibilities of Yolmo healing; and the cultural constraints on emotional expression and empathy give shape to the Yolmo way of being (p. 21). Desjarlais focuses on the cultural contradictory values of autonomy and interdependence that are of central concern in Yolmo bodies, and Yolmo way of life. The Yolmo body is dense with meaning, which is evident in the geographic representations that the body assumes; fingers are said to index the gods of the five directions: east, south, west, north, centre; veins or “rivers” beat smooth and rhythmically when healthy; “mirror of life” engraved with a person’s fate shines in the forehead (p. 39). The conflict between these contradictory values of corporate body and social groups influence the imageries of illness and are tied to Yolmo rationality of “brain versus heartmind (sems).” Here, the sems is emphasised as the heart of Yolmo understanding of thought and emotion. Distinct from the organic heart, it is the core of personality, centre of purposiveness, activity, continuity and emotionality (p. 55). He writes, “Personal desires can be at odds with collective needs; the notion of a bounded body fosters a climate of privacy and individuality. Two parallel tensions form the basis of Yolmo experience” (p. 57).
Desjarlais stresses how local aesthetic principles shape the notion of person, emotion and experience. For this reason, he calls for a “new ethnography” because the aesthetics of the everyday have been neglected in anthropological circles (p. 67). Returning to the realm of the sensory, the importance of ethnography lies in evoking the specific imageries in relation to concrete manifestations so that the reader can sense their force and significance. “The ways in which Migma walks down the road, cares for his grandchildren, or grows old reflect the “ultimate values” of Yolmo society” (p. 70). Therefore, to go about understanding the force of embodied aesthetics, it must be considered less a matter of “structural,” “interpretive” or “symbolic” logic, and more a matter of the aesthetic composition of everyday life, evaluated as one would a work of art (p. 88). In Part II: Healing, Desjarlais turns to several cases of illness and shamanic curing rituals that underline this anthropology of the senses. As the vital life forces of the soul are retrieved through chants, the shaman helps deities to return to their domains. Transforming the extremely visceral experiences of trance and shamanic imagery into written text solidifies the constraints of ethnography that he attempts to overcome.
Furthermore, he addresses the play between symptom and cause that are reflected in the relationship between bodily experience and knowledge, as shamanic cures alleviate physical pains by mending the spiritual underpinnings that cause them (p. 163). Because the forces acting on a person are hidden from the heartmind, knowledge can only be obtained through shamanic divination; “While the mirror lodged in the forehead bears a person’s fate and constitution, its owner can never obtain knowledge of what is stored there” (p. 164). The Yolmo wa is at loss when anxiety and pain cloud the body (and the heartmind) as they are cut off from certain realms of social and personal knowledge. The diviner heals by tapping into that knowledge, giving image to pain, while transcending the boundaries that are integral to Yolmo ways of being (p. 184).
Using poetry as a narrative strategy, Desjarlais explores the connections between bodily experience, emotional distress and ritual healing that “soul loss” provides. This style of writing, which is especially prevalent in chapter 4, entices the reader to experience the pain of separation (tsher ka) and the sentiments of sorrow, heartache and anger expressed in Yolmo “songs of pain” (tsher glu). He reveals how sensibilities shape the experience of illness for Yolmo wa, while recognizing the “prison house of language” in his translations of funeral songs (p. 100). However, Desjarlais never loses focus on the aesthetic aspect of everyday life in Helambu, as the reader is teleported to Helambu by vivid, captivating stories and images of his own fieldwork experiences.
Friendship in South Asia
In Pain Clings to the Body, Desjarlais addresses coming to terms with loss, a moving chapter that deals with the power of funeral songs that transcend feelings of pain. Death causes feelings of loss and thus calls for ritual measures to attend to that pain. Invoking an atmosphere of community and celebration, Desjarlais suggests that singing the lyrics of these songs might help Yolmo wa come to terms with their losses in the passage from grief to comfort (p. 98). However, it is the communal experiences of “sorrow” and “heartache” that occupy the subsequent paragraphs below.
For Yolmo wa, the pain of separation (tsher ka) is one that afflicts the heart when the body cuts from the company of others; the absence of beloved; children mourn the death of parents; daughter leaves the family household for marriage (p. 103). Tsher ka describes the feeling of isolation, depressive melancholy, and unwelcome pensiveness when separated from those we love. Desjarlais writes,
“It is precisely because Yolmo experience is founded on a rich network of kindred ties that ruptures in these relationships are distressing. [...] Without the familiar social context of everyday life to guide them, villagers are at loss to say who they are” (p. 105).
Villagers often expressed to him how the “antidote” for tsher ka is company with friends and family, for the best way to escape it is to be with others, to laugh and to sing (p.109). Therefore friendship, or kinship, is highly valued on an emotional level. These relationships are intrinsic in sustaining personal identity because Yolmo identity is composed of social bonds. However, retrospection and heartache of everyday life is often avoided rather than confronted. This is the cultural paradox that defines Yolmo experience: a person needs to “cleanse” the heart free of troublesome thoughts, but is unable to do so because of the cultural constraints on communication (p. 117). It almost seems too familiar – expressing distress does not come easily.
In the following, I relate this notion of kinship, as felt by Yolmo wa, to other accounts of friendship in South Asia. Although the literature around social relations in the region is saturated with the formal institution of marriage, informal relationships are extremely relevant in everyday lives. In an economically liberalized India, where social relations are complex, a shift away from the institutions of kinship and caste might help us understand these “non-ideal” forms of relationships. First, I turn to Nisbett (2007), who asserts his attention to young people in Bangalore and the role that friendship plays for them in the negotiation of hierarchies in an increasingly commercial and technological environment. Second, I examine the reasons behind ritual friendship, as described by Desai (2010) in Markakasa. Third, Froerer (2010) looks at the aspect of proximity as a pivotal factor around which “ordinary” friendships are shaped and constrained among children in Chhattisgarh. Desjarlais suggests that for Yolmo wa, friendship (along with shamanic healing) can be a way out of the vicious circle of suffering that tsher ka brings. Because his ethnography is so unique, I chose to link this specific aspect of the book that captivated me most to the wider literature.
Nisbett (2007) looks at a friendship group that meets in a cybercafé, and the way in which they reject the hierarchies of caste and community. His article revolves around the transitory but important role friendship plays in creating a space for the practices that generate middle-class identity. This middle-class has emerged in the wake of economic liberalization that began in the 1990s, a reform that allowed a greater flow of images and ideas that may be incorporated into the cultivation of new identities (Staples 2014). In this context of labour hierarchy in Bangalore, this research shows how friendship provides a space for negotiation of these hierarchies through shared practices, for example the consumption of alcohol (Nisbett 2007:944).
Desai (2010) considers the process and benefits of ritual friendship, both structurally and functionally, to provide insight into different forms of sociality. He raises important questions about the ways in which ritual friendship contradicts the ideologies of caste and kinship, as the people in Markakasa describe prem (love, affection) as the basis of the friendship. The sentiment of love, as Illouz (2012) suggests, is the feeling that depends most on culture, it is the emotion we think about most – it is universal and unchanging. Love is the most important factor in a ritual friendship, Desai writes, along with the expectation to give with no expectation of return, a type of exchange that is in sharp contrast to the “give-and-take of daily life” that kinship relations tend to suffer from. Here, ritual friendship creates a safe landscape of relations where proximity, as well as material or moral benefit of those involved is not of highest significance. Rather, because ritual friendship is purely based on affection, cross-cutting the ideologies of caste and kinship, it affirms the significance of these classic elements of social relations in South Asia (Desai 2010:130).
Proximity however, is of central importance in Froerer’s (2010) examination of friendship among children in Chhattisgarh. Looking at the geographical division of the village into thirteen paras, or wards, and the ritual events that take place exclusively amongst individuals from the same para, she suggests that this pattern affects the formation of friendship. In this context, the everyday shared activities in which the children engage – doing chores, eating, playing, organizing picnics, hunting and fishing gatherings – become the primary focus in which friendships are created (Froerer 2010:142). While she acknowledges the salience of caste in kinship around which social relations revolve in South Asia, her ethnography shows that proximity-based friendship can in fact supersede those ties.
As Desai and Killick (2010) accurately express in their introduction, the study of friendship is haunted by the problem of definition. I propose that this is precisely where Desjarlais’ ethnography fits into the discourse. Rather than dissecting the categories of social bonds, he turns to the poeticism that expresses the fixity and fluidity that characterizes the exciting social world that is friendship (Desai & Killick 2010). The analyses presented above show that relationships in South Asia are clearly not constrained by the formal institutions of caste, kinship and marriage. Whether it be in the context of constructing middle-class identities, on the basis of affection, in the exclusiveness of proximity or dealing with the pain of separation in song, non-institutionalised relationships, such as friendship, provide space for negotiation – of political and socio-economic aspects, as well as communal and personal identity.
Ethnography of Emotion
Desjarlais’ ethnography is certainly powerful and gives much insight into the lives of Yolmo wa, however there are several points that can be critiqued. For a start, he does not write much about his apprenticeship with Meme. As Cameron (1996) points out in her review, these relationships are long-term, arduous and require many trance experiences. Although the reader gets a fair understanding of Meme’s divination practices in Part II: Healing, Desjarlais neglects to include his relationship to the informant that his ethnography is based on. Furthermore, I find issue in the fact that although he admits to having difficulties in having direct conversations with Yolmo people (p. 25), as well as the ambiguous nature of most encounters in Helambu (p. 245), he does not seem so shy away from describing the way they think and feel. However, he concludes the book with a puzzling interaction, acknowledging that he was not able to quite make sense of the event (p. 245). In the final chapter, he admits that his understanding remains limited, in addition to the limits to knowledge prompted by the narrative stance that is bound to ethnography (p. 253). Finally, and perhaps inevitably, in stressing embodied aesthetics of the everyday, I found myself questioning the political and historical dimensions that are ineradicable in the felt experiences of the individual. As the author takes us through Meme’s healing attempts to cure a young woman’s soul loss (and failure to do so), he overlooks the politics of gender and economic circumstances that might have influenced the nature of her illness. This weakness becomes especially apparent in comparing his ethnography to those situated in the discourse around friendship in the South Asian context.
Nevertheless, this kind of reflexivity is just as much a strength of the book as it is a weakness. Just as retrospection is feared among the Yolmo wa, it is equally feared by the anthropologist. Beatty (2014) recognizes precisely these difficulties in capturing emotion in the format of ethnographic summary. Emotions are inextricable elements of thinking, speaking, and acting; failure to recognize them would be misrepresentative and a shame to the discipline. However, as he so accurately writes, in identifying the problem we are no nearer a solution (Beatty 2014:553). The criticisms I have voiced are all about what is missing, identifying questions that have no answer, which has nothing to do with what it means to actually read. Desjarlais writes a brilliant, refreshingly different ethnography that deserves a physical response – I must admit to flinging my arms around my dear friend in Portugal sobbing during chapter 4. Reading as one would a novel, he takes us closer to the real pains of deeply felt experiences of tsher ka that I think we can all relate to. It cuts at the very heart of all of us, as we so often yearn for the company of those we love but are separated from, unable to voice that pain because they are no longer with us. Desjarlais opens the reader’s mind to a new way of considering the aesthetics of illness and healing and in my opinion, achieves exactly what he set out to do – engage the reader’s body in the flow of Yolmo life as he has come to understand it, while emphasizing that one can never truly know what lies in another heart.
- Beatty, A. 2014. Anthropology and emotion. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 20(3), 545-563.
- Cameron, M. 1996. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 10(1), new series, 98-100.
- Desai, A. 2010. A Matter of Affection: Ritual Friendship in Central India. In The Ways of Friendship: Anthropological Perspectives (eds) A. Desai & E. Killick, 144-132. Oxford: Berghahn.
- Desai, A. & Killick, E. 2010. Introduction. In The Ways of Friendship: Anthropological Perspectives (eds) A. Desai & E. Killick, 1-19. Oxford: Berghahn.
- Desjarlais, R. 1992. Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Froerer, P. 2010. Close Friends: The Importance of Proximity in the Formation of Friendship in Chhattisgarh, India. In The Ways of Friendship: Anthropological Perspectives (eds) A. Desai & E. Killick, 133-153. Oxford: Berghahn.
- Illouz, E. 2012. Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Nisbett, N. 2007. Friendship, consumption, morality: practising identity, negotiating hierarchy in middle-class Bangalore. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13, 935–950.
- Staples, J. 2014. Civilising tastes: from caste to class in South Indian foodways. In Food Consumption in Global Perspective (eds) J. A. Klein & A. Murcott, 65-86. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.