The weeks that followed were obsessed by Voodoo. It seemed impossible to talk or think or read about anything else, and, as night fell, we would listen for the first faint roll of drums with the anxiety of dipsomaniacs waiting for opening time.
—Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Travellers' Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands (1950)
When we encounter such lines penned by an erudite James Bond-like renegade who consorted with countesses and traveled to peripheries rarely penetrated by Western Europeans at the time, we are quick to label the author an exoticist. But what exactly do we mean by that term, and need it be considered the indictment that it has become?
In our day, exoticism has been reduced to an insult implying Orientalism, imperialism, and even racism. Yet, now more than ever, there is an unexpected case to be made for exoticism’s capacity to combat the very attitudes with which it is unduly associated. Surprisingly, such a case can be made through the example of a writer sometimes associated with a literary tradition that is the very apotheosis of imperialism and Orientalism.
The “English Gentleman Traveler” archetype has animated a tradition of writing running from Victorian individualists like Richard Burton to campy misadventurers like Eric Newby and Redmond O'Hanlon and dandiacal aesthetes like Bruce Chatwin. Patrick Leigh Fermor tends to be squarely placed among these men, and there are clear reasons why. He shares with his putative peers many of the cardinal traits associated with the “English Gentlemen Traveler” archetype: bibliophilia, humor, the privilege of mobility, ease in representing cultural Others, and exoticism.
This last feature turns out to be very significant. Fermor’s mode of exoticism is intimate while theirs is distant, and this makes all the difference, as we shall see. In its emphasis on immersion, Fermor’s mode of exoticism actually undermines Orientalism and imperialism. Perhaps it seems obvious to say that immersive interest in the Other is salutary. But nowadays that intimacy has become difficult to achieve largely because of the bien-pensant strictures that have led to self-consciousness about exoticist attraction. So chastened are we by political correctness that we have become awkward in our encounter with cultural others. Fermor travels through the Caribbean archipelago at a time (1947) when such an itinerary was uncommon for the British. His unembarrassed curiosity and impressive capacity to investigate and enter into a wide range of Caribbean sub-cultures inform a version of exoticism in which the empathic imagination is the driving force. Fermor typically approaches those subcultures (the Voodoo culture of Haiti, the Maroons of Jamaica, and dozens of others) most alien to his own background with an attitude of deep fascination coupled with a dedication to learn whatever he possibly can about them.
The animus for this undertaking in learning is always the unfamiliarity of the exotic. Everywhere, Fermor is alert to the strangeness of his new environment. Take, for example, his very first impressions when he arrives in Guadeloupe after the two-week transatlantic journey:
All the way to the hotel we had not passed one white person. This, and the dazzling robes of the older women, the hundreds of black faces, the sound on every side of the odd new language, most of whose words were French but whose tenor was incomprehensible, this, and the murderous heat, invested the place with an atmosphere of entire strangeness.
Rather than repel or frighten him as it might a conventional English gentleman travel-writer, this “atmosphere of entire strangeness” calls to Fermor, pulling him into the fray. Not only does he foray into the local market before even reaching his hotel, but soon afterward he investigates all things Créole—the language, the population, and the dress. Within a mere two days—and despite the fact that Guadeloupe ends up his least inspiring destination—he has so thoroughly immersed himself in the very things whose strangeness had captured his attention that he can bandy Créole patois terms with ease and has decoded the amorous messages indicated by the number of spikes into which the older women tie their silk Madras turbans. What is striking is the thoroughness of his inquiry and his capacity to explain the exotic without eviscerating its alluring quality of otherness.
Fermor’s sustained immersion in the complexities of the exotic in these early expositions adumbrate the ethos that will become ever more striking throughout the travelogue: he is always in the service of the exotic, dutifully pursuing his every resource to learn and render it in all its complexity. This approach is a far cry from that of the prototypical English Gentleman Traveler whose main subject is ultimately himself. Whether earnestly or campily, such a figure occupies center stage while the exotic culture is reduced to background and occasion. How unusual, then, in this context, Fermor’s involved and inquisitive attitude catalyzed by a frank acknowledgment of difference, an attitude that characterizes all of his encounters with the exotic.
This is knowledge for the sake of understanding, not for the sake of power. Fermor’s irrepressible curiosity distinguishes Fermor from the more Orientalist type of travel writing, such as the famously detached prose of Edward Lane or even the lively prose of the more renegade Burton. These men write on foreign cultures with unshakeable authority. For them, as Edward Said noted, knowledge emerges from the will to dominate. Fermor, on the other hand, writes as a spirited amateur, a student unafraid to display his pupilhood, duly identifying the sources of his usually local edification, which tend to be local ones. To take the examples above, Fermor’s main source on Créolité is his hospitable Créole local host Raoul while his source on the amorous code of the women’s turbans is local interpretation of a famous old Antillean song. Generally speaking, Fermor prefers to display his amateurism rather than his erudition. Not for nothing does he, in the Preface, describe his book as a “haphazard, almost a picaresque, approach” whose primary purpose is “to retransmit to the reader whatever interest and enjoyment we encountered.” He does not aspire to authority the way Lane and Burton, for all their differences, do; he merely wants to convey his exoticist delight and all the incidental learning that it inspired.
Of course, books play an important role in his own process. When Fermor is not fraternizing with locals, he always has a book in hand. But it is worth noting that when our nose-to-the-ground traveler does consult books, they serve as an adjunct to direct experience. This is never clearer than during the intense Voodoo exploration he undertakes in Haiti toward the end of his trip. By night, he attends the elaborate and ecstatic voodoo ceremonies in the tonnelles, and by day he consults in the library of the Institut de Saint Louis de Gonzague local Haitian experts on this religious praxis notoriously misunderstood by Europeans. For Fermor, texts exist to illuminate and extend first-hand experience, not to buffer oneself from it as in the Orientalist tradition. Looking at his treatment of Haitian voodoo, for example, we see at work a humanist imagination not unlike Giambattista Vico’s. Intrigued by the beauty and mystery of the voodoo ceremony, Fermor undertakes a huge effort by day to understand the unfamiliar state of spirit possession. Consulting the writings of Haitian scientists and ethnologists on Voodoo, Fermor makes the humble claim, “I think their conclusions are right, inasmuch as a foreigner who has witnessed this difficult phenomenon no more than a couple of dozen times can be allowed an opinion.” This modest caveat would never be found in the authoritative impersonal treatises of Edward Lane or in the bravura travelogues of Richard Burton.
Fermor in fact often deploys local sources, from the street to the table to the library, to overturn conventional European understandings generated by the imperialist archive. In his rendering of Voodoo, for example, Fermor defers exclusively to local knowledge of the popular religion: “It is a phenomenon in which Haitian scientists and ethnologists are passionately interested and the brief attempt at explanation which follows is based on [Dr. Louis Mars’] essay, on the opinions of the other writers who have come to roughly the same conclusions, on conversations with various Haitians, and on limited personal observation.” In a decolonizing era when natives asserted themselves against Metropolitan distortions that for centuries had been enabled by the fallacy that natives could not represent themselves, Fermor’s stance as a pupil of local experts renders him a champion of the postcolonial effort. Far from rendering him the imperialist/Orientalist a dismissive postcolonialist might take him to be, Fermor’s exoticism eventuates in a postcolonial effort to challenge imperial knowledge. This is the sort of nuance that is lost in the wholesale denigration of exoticism.
Attracted by the utter alienness of the ritual, Fermor immerses himself into local Voodoo culture and expertise so that he can finally challenge high-handed and reductive dismissals of it. Two representatives of the imperial view of Voodoo, Father Cosme and Brother Yves, profitably offset Fermor’s remarkable immersion both on the ground and in the local library. Notably, Fermor draws on the very sources reviled by Cosme as chauvinist-nativist, namely local scholars of voodoo: Drs. Mars, Herskovitz and Dorsainvil. Without considerable distance from, and the resulting distortions of, native cosmology, the two men of the cloth might not be so repelled by it, and Fermor demonstrates that very alternative. Whereas Father Cosme, vainly spending his lifetime attempting to eradicate voodoo, goes apoplectic about the syncretism — for Cosme, sacrilege — that allows Voodoo to incorporate elements of Christianity, Brother Yves merely dismisses Voodoo practicioners with a “tolerant amusement…[saying] ‘Mais ils sont tout a fait coucou.’” Fermor gently mocks Yves’ dismissive response: “Cuckoo. It was a new ecclesiastical standpoint, and a more reasonable one, I thought, than that of poor Father Cosme.” But is it?
Brother Yves’ less vociferous “ecclesiastical standpoint” seems hardly more reasonable than Cosme’s, coming as it does on the heels of Fermor’s thirty-three-page intensive and appreciative exploration of Voodoo, an exploration marked by intimate exposure, genuine openness, empathetic intuitions, and intensive research. That Fermor’s theological interest in Voodoo far outstrips that of the Christians who so readily dismiss and denigrate it should tell us something about the value of humanist-relativist exoticism as an intellectual corrective for imperial attitudes about the Other that have hardened over centuries. While readers and critics tend to consider the ‘uncontrolled’ Voodoo excursus a rare unfortunate moment of writerly self-indulgence on the part of Fermor, the context of our discussion here invites us to consider it differently. We might think of it, by far the longest and most textured treatment of any cultural phenomenon in the travelogue, as a deliberate corrective to hardened imperial attitudes about this formerly criminalized subaltern sub-knowledge, attitudes epitomized by Father Cosme and Brother Yves. And we ought to note that Fermor’s corrective is born entirely out of a candid fascination with this exotic taboo practice. What might be “fascination of the abomination” for someone like Cosme is unalloyed “fascination” for Fermor. And therein lies the ethical difference in their exoticisms: one privileges repulsion eventuating in distance and ersatz knowledge while the other privileges attraction resulting in intimacy and genuine knowledge.
The voodoo episode offers an illuminating case study of Fermor’s exoticist process from start to finish. And thus we ask: just how does he manage to zoom in so much more closely than his European predecessors and contemporaries are willing and able to? What are the stimuli, mechanisms, and phases of his inquiry?
In classic exoticist fashion, the more obscure, the more taboo, the more alien the foreign element, the more Fermor longs to understand it. Fascinated by the “unfamiliar utensils” he sees at the local market, Fermor asks the vendor their purpose:
The old woman laughed, and indicated that it was too difficult to explain. When, intrigued by her reticence, I pressed her, she gave a toothless cackle and said “C'est pour le Voudou.” And so they were: vessels, as I was to learn later, for containing the souls of the initiates of the Haitian rites.
The vendor’s gesture “[indicating] that it was too difficult to explain” tacitly acknowledges the long-standing cultural chasm between the Afro-Haitians and Europeans—a chasm whose edges come into sharp focus a mere two scenes later when Father Cosme rails against the “abomination” that is Voodoo. Formerly outlawed by the French and constantly imperiled by missionaries, the exclusively black rite became increasingly clandestine in pre-Independence Haiti, a legacy that would appear to have continued through 1948 if Father Cosme and Brother Yves are any indication.
If Cosme is “extremely remote from the Haitian scene” despite having lived in the Republic for twenty years, then Fermor becomes thoroughly enmeshed in that scene despite the brevity of his visit. Aptly, the crescendo of throbbing Voodoo drums terminates the meeting between the two men and sends Fermor out in search of the tonnelles. Upon arrival, “the noise, the throng of Haitians, the scene that was taking place, and, above all, the idea of intruding three pale faces into a gathering so exclusively Negro, made us pause”; but the hesitation hardly lasts a moment. Despite the initial Guadeloupean moment of estrangement upon encountering an exotic environment, Fermor registers the distance between self and other only immediately to dissolve it. As is so often the case with Fermor, the agent of that dissolution is the sensuous. Fermor lets the sensory impact of the Voodoo scene supersede his minimal anxiety, hypnotizing him into a sort of Dionysian immersion. The sentence that directly follows the tentative one above reads “Slowly, out of the turmoil and the smoke and the shattering noise of the drums, which, for a time, drove everything except their impact from the mind, the details began to detach themselves.” Fermor’s analysis is always in the service of direct, sensuous experience of the exotic—the very opposite of Orientalism, a fundamentally “textual attitude” developed to cope with the unknown, distant, and threatening.
If raw experience is always the seed of Fermor’s textual forays, their midwife is empathic intuition of both the humanist and relativist varieties. When humanist, Fermor’s intuition is often enabled by yoking something seemingly utterly foreign to something known to him in his own culture. This impulse manifests itself constantly through the travelogue, but most interestingly in the face of the most alien phenomena. In such extreme instances, Fermor’s analogical impulse relates exotic Caribbean phenomena to the classical culture of which he is an ardent student. While this yoking might reek of developmental logic—"our" past is “their” present—or of assimilation—"they" can be seen as a version of “us"—I prefer to view Fermor’s analogizing impulse more generously. Dualistic thought is arguably hard-wired in the human brain (exceptional Buddhists and mystics must undergo great mental feats to overcome it); and so it is for us less beatified souls impossible not to encounter the unknown from the standpoint of the known. And there is a real benefit to this mental connection between known and unknown, for it dissolves the distance between self and other, thus inducing humanist empathy between cultures that would otherwise remain estranged from each other.
When Fermor delineates the Voodoo pantheon, he describes one of the deities thus: "The Baron [Samedi] is paramount in all matters immediately beyond the tomb. He is Cerberus and Charon as well as Æacus, Rhadamanthus and Pluto.” With this intuitive analogy he creates for himself and for his European readers an immediate point of access to the otherwise alien rite. An even more dramatic mobilization of the ancient Mediterranean world occurs soon afterward when the dancers become possessed by the Lwas:
Motions of disorder erupted at short intervals as the Lwas effected their entrance into one or other of the dancers. They writhed and staggered and fell and lay twitching and gasping, and slowly rose again transformed, and evolving with the impotence of somnambulists under the control of their immanent deities. The road from Olympus had been thrown open…The Lwas were falling out of the sky as thick as leaves, and by the time, hours later, that we extricated ourselves to go, the tonnelle had become a running, stamping, howling, gasping and shrieking theodrome.
In an effort to get a handle on the bewildering phenomenon of spirit possession without disenchanting it in the scientific language of Drs. Mars, Dorsainvil, and Herskovitz, Fermor enlists classical mythology. This is a valiant effort at the difficult task of grasping and rendering others’ enchanted states from an outsider’s perspective; and it bears resemblance to that of 18th and 19th century philologists at their best—such as Giambattista Vico in his richly imaginative New Science, an attempt to reconstruct different phases of ancient history. And like the great humanist Vico, Fermor’s intuition for the Other (for Vico, the Other of history; for Fermor, the Other of geography) is unlocked by the philological key. It is telling, therefore, that the passage continues with Fermor announcing his newfound dedication to Voodoo:
The moon had set half a dozen hours ago, and the rattle of the drums faded as we followed the beam of Rodolfe’s torch. Faded, but as they died, others sounded, and as we advanced, grew louder. Going home was unthinkable. Plainly the only thing to do was to continue till we fell asleep, or till everything had come to an end.
The following day, reflecting upon the phenomenon of spirit-possession, “the most interesting thing, apart from the general mystery of Voodoo and the astonishing virtuosity and, sometimes, beauty of the dances,” Fermor continues to pursue as far as they will take him—but no further—analogies to spiritual traditions of the West. He observes:
There is nothing singular about the first part of the crisis, the falling flat on the ground in a movement of violent religious emotion. Such events were common in the Dionysiac mysteries and they were caused by the same factors: the semi-hysterical state coupled with the knowledge of divine presence which accumulates through many hours of gregarious dancing…. Similar cases … are recorded again and again in the history of Christian mysticism, and are especially remarkable, for instance, in the writings of St. Angel of Foligno, or the fascinating records left by Marie de l'Incarnation, the Ursuline nun; and when the wind of inspiration was blowing through him, Schiller fell flat upon his face.
Hardly the gratuitous erudition postcolonial critics accuse English gentlemen travelers of displaying in order to establish their superiority, Fermor’s learned references here serve entirely to penetrate more deeply what he had seen the night before.
What is so impressive about Fermor is that he does not allow the analogies to his own culture, nor erudition more generally, to exhaust difference. After gleaning what he can from the European parallels to the Voodoo crisis of possession, he frankly admits their limits: “The schizophrenic phase which follows this temporary extinction of the ego, the domination of mind, will and body by an intruding spirit, is much harder to explain.” Though when he needs them he looks to his local experts—Mars, Dorsainvil and Herskovitz—for guidance, and acknowledges his debt to these Haitian scientists and ethnologists, he recognizes that even their “formulae, invented especially to apply to this isolated phenomenon, define obscurity with obscurity.” Fermor intuits that something in this “schizophrenic phase” lies beyond his grasp, and even beyond the language of ethnology. He can only speculate as to that culturally-rooted uniqueness:
Again, as with the Lwas, the religion loses itself in a jungle of details, and (I think) goes no farther. One writer says that Voodoo, like all ancient religions, is impatient of explanation. It was developed instinctively to lead the slaves to a private liberty that the state of things in their world forbade. The open air and the sunlight meant the cane-fields, the sweat, the chains, the whip, the endless toil and misery of a slave’s existence. So…the slaves went warrening back into the darkness, farther and farther away from the heartless glare. There they crouched in the warm secrecy of their own sounds and spirits and joys and terrors, and above all, with memories of Africa which grew, with every passing generation, dimmer and more wonderful….They were not heading for but away from something, and that is why I think Haitian writers are wrong to look any farther than the Lwas [i.e., to some ultimate principle or goal of initiation]…Initiation can only lead deeper and deeper into the dark burrow, into the secret. The burrow led nowhere. It was being there that mattered.
Here, Fermor acknowledges a historical contingency—African diasporic slavery—as accountable for a unique quality of the popular religion that defies explanation in European (scientific, ethnological) terms. His empathic imagination allows him to intuit—now in a more relativist than humanist manner—the radical difference between the cultural formation of these former slaves and that of ancient Greece or medieval Christian Europe. But acknowledging radical difference does not mean that his imagination quits. Rather, having come so far through humanist connection, he can now open himself to the profoundly relativist appeal of the exotic. Its ineradicable difference challenges his raw imagination to extend itself farther than it has gone before. His ability to imagine radical otherness — how it must have been for these former slaves — reminds one, again, of the best of the 18th and 19th century philologists (Vico, Nietzsche) who were able to reconstruct a distant culture through their tremendous imaginations.
In a culminating paragraph, Fermor achieves the sort of understanding that is possible through humanist-relativist exoticism: the exoticist gets as close as possible to the foreign phenomenon without reducing its mystery and radical Otherness. That said, the radical Otherness is now perceived in a much more textured way than it was at first glance (a first glance that would also be the last glance for the more Orientalist sort of traveler). And this higher-level appreciation for difference preserves exoticist fascination as well as the autonomy and complexity of the Other. Fermor concludes:
So the point of Voodoo, and the whole of the religion, is its practice. If the drums and the dances and the tonnelle were to cease, the whole vast structure would collapse into a débris of superstition, and of vague memories that would soon vanish as they have vanished in America. It exists for itself. The ideas that it represents—the memory of Africa; unity against a cruel and hostile world; survival; the enthralling miracle of possession, the mystery, the warmth, the drums and the dances—are all part of the religion’s actual performance. No theory, not a written line, embraces them. I was at first mystified by its lack of rules, of a code of ethics, of a logical hierarchy…. But to the masses in Haiti, it is far more than a philosophy, a dogmatical or metaphysical system or a code of ethics. It is the past, the present, and the future, the air they breathe, the entire universe.
This heightened awareness of the Other’s “Otherness,” paradoxically achieved through approaching it as closely as possible, redoubles Fermor’s passion for Voodoo. Humanism and relativism function dialectically in this form of exoticism, the one mode eventually leading to and requiring the other. The moment we are analyzing demonstrates this dialectic: humanism brings Fermor so close to Voodoo that he can, ironically, see what is unique unto it; that relativist discovery in turn drives the desire to get yet closer to it. What had once been a mere interest in or commitment to explore Voodoo is now raised to the status of obsession: “The weeks that followed were obsessed by Voodoo. It seemed impossible to talk or think or read about anything else, and, as night fell, we would listen for the first faint roll of drums with the anxiety of dipsomaniacs waiting for opening time.” To read this quotation now, having seen the process through which Fermor got here, is to be made wary of the sort of facile dismissal of exoticism of which we might have been guilty when we first encountered such a passage out of context, that is, without some sense of the emotional and intellectual journey that informs such an obsession.
The cardinal feature of the humanist-relativist exoticism exemplified by Fermor — substantive interaction between self and other catalyzed byfrank attraction to otherness — is not only essential to genuine understanding; it offers the only possible corrective to Orientalism’s ersatz knowledge and all the serious consequences that issue from it. Travel and its literary form, travel writing, have a crucial role to play in this sort of humanist exoticism, for travel presents superlatively fecund opportunities for interaction between self and cultural other. Otherness becomes something more than notional. It must be confronted directly by the self; no text can serve as a buffer, as it can and does in Orientalism. If travel originally laid the groundwork for Orientalist notions of the Other, travel can also undo them. Indeed, such undoing is, on the whole, exactly what Patrick Leigh Fermor accomplishes.
Curiously, though, it is Fermor’s anomalous failure in this regard that helps us better assess his otherwise tremendous achievement. In his nearly 400-page odyssey through the Caribbean, only one episode stands out as unmarked by the sort of humanist exoticism that defines his way. In his brief visit to the Carib Indians of Dominica, Fermor suddenly becomes an Orientalist: the episode is marked by superficiality of encounter, cosmopolitan detachment, ethnographic rendering, mocking/belittling tone, and complete deference to the textual archive and its stereotypical images of the primitive.
Playing amateur anthropologist, Fermor captions two photographs thus: This Carib girl washing clothes in a brook is typical, with her Mongoloid cast of feature and long straight lustrous hair, of the dying race to which she belongs. The only thing that impugns her pure Carib descent is the shape of her nose, which may be an indication of some remote miscegenate strain […] No such doubt can be leveled at this girl, with her clear bronze skin and the well-defined bridge of her nose.
With its intensely racialized physiognomic description, its appeal to the myth of the vanishing Indian, and its ethnological prototyping, this description could have been extracted directly from the 19th century imperial ethnographic archive. Here, as in the corresponding chapter on the Caribs, Fermor seems to be only the most recent in a long tradition of British writers playing amateur anthropologist, a tradition dating back to the first modern realistic novel, Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe’s notorious initial description of his “noble savage” Friday (presumably meant to represent a Carib Indian) obsessively catalogues the details of his physiognomy from a racialized point of view. He goes on for fifteen lines, offering such observations as:
His hair was long and black, not curl’d like Wool; his Forehead very high, and large…The Colour of his Skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny, as the Brasilians, and Virginians, and other Natives of America are; but of a bright kind of a dun olive Colour, that had in it something very agreeable…his Nose small, not flat like the Negroes.
If, as Edward Said claims in Culture and Imperialism, Robinson Crusoe was the literary spawn of Empire, it is worth remembering that it was not the firstborn child. This inaugural novel indeed established a two-century strong link between the new genre and Empire, but that link merely supplemented the connection between travel writing and Empire that had existed since the early modern period. Recall that our inaugural novel passes itself off as a travelogue. This generic cross-dressing is, I believe, as imperially salient as the oft-noted emplotment of a homo economicus who goes abroad to establish a fiefdom, for it shows us the fortification of the textual attitude of Empire that Said himself diagnoses in Orientalism. Like Matryoshka nesting dolls, the same images are reproduced over and over again by these interlocking genres— ethnography, travel writing, novel. Such reproduction buttresses the textual authority of all three genres and petrifies a particular “structure of attitude and reference” toward the Other.
According to Thomas Keymer and James Kelly, who annotate the current Oxford Edition of Robinson Crusoe, the passage introducing Friday borrows heavily from the conventions of travel writing, particularly the sort of amateur ethnography that was expected by the Royal Society. These two critics offer as an example of such ethnographic travel writing a passage from Dampier’s description of a New Holland aborigine, claiming that Defoe conjured his description of Friday in direct—if antithetical—reference to it: “Their hair is black, short and curl’d, like that of the Negroes; and not long and lank like the common Indians. The colour of their Skins…is coal black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea.” That Empire enters the novel by way of travel literature indicates how crucial the currency of certain images was in shoring up generic authority, particularly a burgeoning one like that of the novel. As Said argues in Orientalism, a whole textual tradition was built up through the reproduction of certain representations of the Other. In this regard, the novel turned out to be not so novel after all: it fitted itself seamlessly into the Orientalist tradition. Likewise, Fermor, when in doubt—as he seems to be vis-à-vis the Caribs—taps this thickly construed imperial script.
The obvious upshot of all of this textual reinscription is that it bars the possibility of substantive changes in the perception of the Other. It is astonishing to note how little the rhetoric for describing indigenous Caribbeans changed from Dampier to Defoe to Fermor. Defoe’s description of his noble savage may have been “pointedly antithetical to [the Dampier] norm,” suggest Keymer and Kelly, “and more akin to Aphra Behn’s idealizing portrait of Oroonoko in her novel of 1688,” but such idealization operates along the same axes of racial logic as Dampier's—i.e., Friday is good and unlike Dampier’s New Holland Aborigine because he is not like a Negro and deploys the same magisterial objectifying gaze on the Other. Likewise, Fermor’s depiction, despite the benefit of hundreds of years, shows little change from Dampier’s and Defoe’s; it simply updates the rhetoric to incorporate the purity-obsessed jargon of nineteenth-century racial science. As such, Fermor inherits the “structure of attitude and reference” shored up by generations of travel writers, ethnographers, and novelists; he maintains the status quo, even if it is a century behind the times, an anachronism that is more typical of his English Gentleman Traveler peers than of his usual writerly persona.
But even more significant than the textual tradition’s reinforcement of racial topoi is its perpetuation of the generally detached perspective, the two of course existing in an endless feedback loop. Whether pseudo-scientifically rendering humans as specimens or mystifying difference by exaggerating it unto the point of caricature, Orientalists depend on the detached perspective. (Note the two sides of the coin of ersatz Orientalist knowledge: the will to dominate and the will to mystify.)
If Fermor plays pseudo-scientist in the caption, he plays sensationalist yarn-spinner in his body text on the the Caribs. Normally—as we have seen—Fermor privileges direct interaction with the local culture over the European archive. However, in the case of his visit to the Caribs, not only is the proportion reversed, but there is hardly any interaction to speak of. For all the ceremony and poignancy of initial encounter, nothing fruitful is generated.
We dismounted and walked towards them, and, as we met, hats were raised on either side with some solemnity. And we all shook hands. This meeting with the last survivors of this almost extinct race of conquerors was as stirring and impressive in its way as if the encounter had been with Etruscans or Hittites.
Though Fermor’s trademark analogical impulse connecting Carribean locals of the present to Europe in its civilizational beginnings manifests here, it quickly drops away. For the remainder of the treatment of the Caribs, not a single parallel to anything European is drawn. If Fermor is not deliberately estranging his reader from these indigenous people, then he is at least maintaining the distance already established by the imperialist archive.
And to that archive he defers immediately upon the initial encounter described above:
The presence of these men sends the mind winging back to the vague centuries before the November Sunday in 1493 when, with a volley of poisoned arrows, the ancestors of these Caribs drove the sailors of Columbus back to their boats, forcing the Admiral to set sail again in the direction of Guadeloupe. How many centuries earlier, nobody knows, for the only traces of that dim pre-Columbian age are half a dozen lumps of stone scattered among the islands, incised with a few barbaric golliwogs, and all the rest is surmise.
And yet, surmise he does. Though it would be possible to dispel some of the vagueness by learning directly from the Caribs about their own history, Fermor inexplicably foregoes the opportunity. The elders of the Carib forest-capital Fermor visits speak English and Creole, so language would have posed no impediment to communication. Moreover, Fermor’s immediate host King George Frederick expresses the desire “to have a serious chat about island affairs” with the absent Mrs. Napier, their liaison. Whereas Fermor might have offered himself as a proxy interlocutor for the King, thus learning directly through interview, as he does in every other community, about the contemporary state of affairs, Fermor is instead content to rely on a U.S. government ethnologist whom Fermor deems “certainly the best living authority on this race.” Thus the king of the extant Caribs is demoted to fact-checker of the foreign ethnologist: he functions to verify the ethnologist’s document, but not to generate his own representations of his community. In typical Orientalist fashion, a text written by an outsider prevails over knowledge generated by or among the natives themselves. All in all, Fermor reports no substantive conversation with the Caribs.
Even more curious than his reliance on a foreign ethnologist’s treatment of the contemporary Carib society in front of Fermor’s very eyes is his is reliance on 17th century European monks for an account of the “vague centuries before the November Sunday in 1493” to which “the presence of these men sends [his] mind winging back.” That “presence"—i.e. immediacy—should instantly be displaced by past is itself odd. That the way into that past should be not conversation with the Carib elders about their history but rather inter-texts by European monks tasked with converting the heathens is even odder. Hardly reliable informants, these monks, intent on converting heathens, would likely have seen the Caribs as outlandish, backward. Whereas Fermor establishes his position on voodoo culture as diametrically opposed to the beleaguered and disdainful Father Cosme’s, here Fermor readily defers to the monks. The only explanation I can offer for this contradictory relationship to missionary sources on local culture would be the exclusively textual attitude in the one case and not the other. Where Fermor has no interaction with the locals, he has recourse only to such sources as these; he must derive his authority from them since he has no on-the-ground interactive authority from which to speak.
The missionaries’ ostensible estrangement and mystification indeed trickle down to Fermor’s text, which establishes so little critical distance from his inter-texts that he can refer to them as ”[giving] us a clear idea of how these savages lived.“ That reference to "these savages” is emblematic of Fermor’s ventriloquism of Fathers Las Casas, De Tertre, and Breton. Before long, Fermor has blended his voice with theirs so thoroughly that citations begin to drop out, and we are left with a Fermor speaking with great, if dubious, authority about the Caribs. The following is an example of such elision of voice: “The general effect [of female adornment] was charming, especially as the women, though reserved and modest, were gay, smiling creatures with beautiful hair and eyes and perfect teeth; while the faces of the men had, when it was possible to see them, a melancholy cast.” Fermor’s declarative tone makes it seem as if he were an eyewitness to what he merely relays. (How would he know whether the general effect was charming?) He defers so completely to his clerical sources that there is nothing subjunctive about the information he conveys; and the result of this is not only a curious elision of perspective, but also a spurious authority.
Further, Fermor’s ethnographic descriptions, whether about the Caribs’ diet, their epistemology, their decorative arts, or their governance, or—most troublingly—their collective mentality, tend toward mystification, with “strangely” and “odd” serving as leitmotifs throughout the descriptions. Although Fermor makes the caveat that Father Labat, as compared with his monastic colleagues, takes more of a human than a conversion interest in the Caribs, it is difficult to discern a humanizing aspect in what Fermor conveys. In fact, none of the unattributed descriptions that follow “[transform] these aboriginal phantoms into real and vivid people”; rather, they remain bizarre phantoms with weird, even grotesque, customs. Not surprisingly, it is the more outlandish scenarios that he lavishly elaborates. Here is one such instance of hyperbolic hypothesizing:
Decisions, usually involving warlike expeditions, would only be made under the impulse of gregarious drunkenness, and the deadlock was usually resolved by one of the old women. She would burst into their indetermination, flourishing the smoked arm or leg of an enemy, and, haranguing them about the wrongs of their race, fling the trophy into their midst. They all hurled themselves upon it in a frenzy, gnawing and tearing it to shreds; then, inflamed with rum, tafia and ouicou, and at last decided, they gathered their weapons, and, blowing their conch-shells, ran down through the trees to their canoes.
In this all too vivid description of a “cannibal conclave,” Fermor gives his imagination wing, but without the sober, even poignant, imagination that allows him insight into the role of Voodoo in slave life. Rather, he offers an unoriginal fantasy fed by centuries of European Orientalist-style exoticist revulsion to and obsession with the Caribs’ alleged cannibalism. As is well known, the word “cannibal” itself is thought to be a misnomer for “Carib,” thus indicating the metonymic association in the European imagination between this indigenous group and their alleged anthropophagy. Fermor extends the long-lived metonymic association, lavishing more attention on this particular Carib practice than any other. He seems downright ecstatic when in a library in St. Kitts he later came across a magnificent old volume of De Rochefort [Histoire Naturelle des Antilles de l'Amerique], who says that the Caribs of his day—half a century earlier than Labat—had very decided and discriminating views on meals of this kind. French people were considered delicious and by far the best of the Europeans, and next came the English. The Dutch were dull and rather tasteless, while the Spaniards were so stringy and full of gristle as to be practically uneatable.
The comic tone displayed above marks nearly all of Fermor’s references to this most alien of practices, some quite gratuitous. For instance, early on, he describes the Caribs’ pre-Columbian conquest of the archipelago as rapidly eating and marrying their way through the Windward and Leeward and Virgin islands, and into the greater Antilles…They never, as far as I can gather from their chroniclers, settled permanently in the Western Caribbean…Perhaps their arrival in these regions coincided with the advent of the Spaniards, or perhaps they preferred the gorges of the Lesser Antilles to the sierras and savannahs of Borinquen. Or they may have felt that the time had come to pause and, as it were, digest their conquests.
The initial reference and final joke turn the Caribs into a caricature, or worse.
Fermor’s treatment of the Caribs’ alleged anthropophagy is thrown into relief by comparing it with his treatment of the same in the Haitian Petro rite. In a tone of high seriousness, sympathy, and subtlety, Fermor writes explicitly against the Euro-colonial grain on the controversial Petro rite and on voodoo ritual more generally. I shall quote amply from this passage to offer a full sense of Fermor’s respectful tone, and his sincere and sustained attempt to account for the maligned local customs—both of which dimensions are utterly lacking in his parallel treatment of the Caribs’ anthropophagy I have already discussed:
The Mondongo Lwas also form part of the Petro rite. They are the representatives of the Congolese race of the Mondongos, who were notorious in colonial times for cannibalism…There is no doubt that human sacrifice has, in the past, played a certain minor role in the rites of the Petro Lwas. But, as Dr. Dorsainvil suggests, these ritual murders were the equivalent of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to enlist the favour of the gods, or of Abraham’s abortive immolation of Isaac to appease Jehovah. It is the expression of a psychological state fairly general in primitive humanity. And it is, above all, a characteristic of primitive religions in which the gods may be unkind, harmful and wayward powers which can only be appeased with human blood. So, though the offering may, in point of fact, be eaten, such sacrifices must be absolved of the vulgarity of ordinary cannibalism.
One can detect in this passage the attitude of cosmopolitan attachment that generally characterizes Fermor’s relation to his foreign context. As per his usual humanist exoticism, he draws analogies to classical and Biblical mythology in order to diminish a cultural distance between Europeans and Haitians that has heretofore been exaggerated by other writers; the ultimate goal of such a rhetorical move is to induce cross-cultural empathy in the reader. And finally, in a spirit of sympathy he qualifies a colonially-maligned local practice so as to place it, sympathetically, if not quite to vindicate it. In each of these ways, Fermor’s approach to the custom is radically different from the Carib case.
Different, too, is Fermor’s willingness to engage honestly with what he calls “delicate” aspects of the matter at hand. Fermor goes on with the discussion:
This is a delicate theme. Ever since, in 1864, eight people were publicly executed for sacrificing and eating a small girl called Claircine, the youthful Republic has had a bad time from foreign writers. This reached such a pitch in the last century that Froude, disembarking for an hour or two in the Haitian port of Jacmel, records, with an insincere coyness surprising in such a writer, that he hardly dared to glance at the butchers’ booths in the market for fear of the disquieting wares that might have been exposed for sale.
Here Fermor does not simply distance himself from colonial writers on Haitian anthropophagy, but he becomes the champion of the beleaguered “youthful Republic” that “has had a bad time from foreign writers.” The irony is that Fermor’s diagnosis of Froude could well apply to himself in the Carib case of anthropophagy: “an insincere coyness surprising in such a writer” and a reluctance to engage with the culture in front of him. A curious case of cognitive dissonance.
Fermor finally dispels the myth of voodoo anthropophagy altogether, but in doing so, offers respectable justifications for its former existence:
To me, ritual murder seems more remarkable by its scarcity than by its actual occurrences. A very large number of the slaves originated in the Congo, and of these, many were drawn from the populous Mondongo tribes. After the War of Independence…. there was nothing to veto the prolongation of the customs to which, in the happy freedom of Africa, they, or their fathers and grandfathers, had been accustomed. Whether Mondongo anthropophagy was religious or merely gastronomic—Moreau de Saint Mery hints that it was the latter—atavistic beliefs certainly spiritualized and elevated it. Instances, with the infiltration of western prejudices, became steadily rare, and authorities are today agreed that human sacrifice, in Voodoo, does not exist.
Note how Fermor judiciously shifts the emphasis from occurrence to scarcity, correcting for his European forebears’ excesses. Moreover, he offers a sound, sympathetic—even ennobling—and historically contingent explanation for whatever vestigial cases of anthropophagy might have existed in the immediately post-Independence era. He presents this atavistic practice of cannibalism as an understandable liberationist impulse, one merely claiming the “happy freedom” of the ancestors of recently enslaved people.
Having acquitted contemporary voodoo of the specific allegation of cannibalism and human sacrifice, Fermor goes on to extend the association between voodoo in general and liberation, thereby embedding even the most controversial practice within a generally unimpeachable framework. Like Alejo Carpentier and other European admirers of Haiti, Fermor attributes the crowning moment in Haitian history to Afro-syncretic voodoo:
It was the unifying force of Voodoo, far more than the advent of New Ideas from Euope, that impelled the slaves at the time of the French Revolution to revolt. The first chain-breakers—Mackandal the poisoner and Boukman, whose terrible jacquerie struck the first overt blow—were both Voodoo initiates, and the Haitians were carried to victory by the inspiration of their equatorial numina, for, like Castor and Pollux at Lake Regillus, the Lwas appeared on the battlefield and participated in the rout of the whites. Now the heroes of the war are themselves triumphant denizens of the Voodoo pantheon, worshipped in the Petro rites with fanfares and drums and with the explosions of gunpowder and the clashing of sabres…This, for Haitians, is the sovereign importance of Voodoo: the memory and the worship of their great ancestors and heroes and a melancholy and triumphant nostalgia for their lost home in the forests of Africa—the remote and legendary green kingdoms of Nan Guinan.
In this short passage, Fermor redistributes credit from European Enlightenment to native cosmology. Further, he evokes a rousing scene that makes vivid for his reader the power of this cosmology to change the face of world history. Fermor’s tone becomes so poignant in this passage that he leaves no doubt as to his sympathies for Haitian voodoo culture. He presents Voodoo practice as a historical necessity of sorts: it has thrived because the (former) Haitian slaves feel compelled to dignify their existence by recalling their New World heroes and ennobling African traditions.
To connect ritual to history is to consider a culture in diachronic terms, but it is precisely the diachronic framework that has typically been refused to foreign cultures with exotic customs; instead, exotic practices are seen as the timeless expressions of a culture’s essence. In stark contrast to his historicist approach to Haitian ritual, Fermor takes precisely this synchronic and essentializing view of the Caribs’ customs, a view that regards foreign customs as frozen in time and based in racial essences, and thus requiring no serious historical engagement.
The Carib case is so entirely anomalous as to provoke further speculation about the source of his troubling non-engagement with his subject. Did he spend too little time with the people to allow for a substantial conversation? Was he sick during that portion of his trip? Did he, despite the council’s hospitality and the King’s interest in talking with Mrs. Napier, take seriously the reputation of this group as a “stubborn and compact community in their attitude to the outside world”? (If so, this would be an example of the phenomenon Said observes even in traveler-writers like Flaubert and Nerval, who occasionally trust textually authorized notions over the evidence of their own senses.) Was Fermor so affected by the stereotypes of the Caribs’ fearsomeness that he was afraid to interact with them? Whatever the reason, his aloofness from the Caribs results in a 16-page interlude featuring a narrative mode and persona unrecognizable as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s.
This brief but striking exception in a 382-page book proves all the more convincingly the necessity of direct substantive interaction to break the Orientalist feedback loop. That the same person should be able to inhabit both poles indicates the strength of temptation of the textual universe. In the absence of direct experience—whatever the cause—one has recourse only to texts. This need not be a bad thing: which sorts of texts constitute the archive makes all the difference. The first and most powerful category of texts includes those that merely perpetuate what is already there, as in Orientalism. Such texts necessarily require that experience not undermine textual reproduction; so the detached perspective becomes both the cause and effect of textual reproduction. The second is a very different category of texts—smaller and less influential in the face of the imperial archive, but significant and redemptive for that very reason. These alternate texts, like Fermor’s Traveller’s Tree in the main, privilege experience over the archive. The understanding gained on the ground often serves as a corrective for the archive, in much the way that Fermor’s knowledge of voodoo, gained in Haiti and through Haitians, serves to correct for western misconceptions perpetuated by colonialist texts about the Haitian practice of anthropophagy.
What makes the experiential factor in such alternative texts possible in the first place? Exoticism of the sort I have been discussing. Attraction to otherness is the initial catalyst for the sort of immersive interaction that makes a richer and more complex understanding of a foreign context possible. This seems so obvious as not to be worth arguing. Yet, frank acknowledgment of one’s naïve attraction to the Other for its very otherness has become increasingly difficult in a suffocating intellectual atmosphere brought about by, in part, a crude and reductive approach to postcolonialism. Such a politically correct atmosphere on one hand induces shame for not already knowing what there is to know about foreigners, and on the other hand, disincentivizes the kind of writing, like Fermor’s, that — in part — would make such knowledge possible.
If travelogues written by Westerners about the non-West are taken a priori to be Orientalist for their mere representational presumption — this is the sort of crude postcolonialism to which I refer above — then we miss the opportunity to recognize and enlist the alternative ones as part of a collective humanistic project that might offer some resistance to the ever-ramifying legacy of Orientalism. The Orientalist textual tradition can be challenged only by experience: not just in the form of postcolonial subjects “writing back” to it, but also in the form of European writers whose representations of non-Westerners offer a corrective to it. Together, this Metropolitan strain and the postcolonial strain form the counterpoint to Empire. Drawn by an exoticism that results in intimacy, candor, compassion, and nuanced perceptions of natives, these Metropolitan texts arguably have more in common with postcolonial writing than with the Orientalist tradition. To identify such literary affiliations is to re-map the cultural terrain.
It must be one of the great ironies that a crude reading of Said’s own initial work on Orientalism has resulted in shutting down the prospect of resistance to it. Then again, his own work allows for this unfortunate result. Worse yet, his own work occasionally manifests a similar blind-spot to Metropolitan literary resistance to Empire. Said identifies “[taking] seriously the alternatives to imperialism” in Metropolitan writers’ genuine acknowledgment of “the existence of other cultures and societies.” This is precisely what 20th century ethnographic surrealists—as opposed to 19th century Orientalists—and Fermor did; and they did it through exoticism. Yet, Said never observes such a scruple when he refers to exoticism. Just prior to the preceding quotation, Said makes the following sweeping condemnation:
Conrad is the precursor of the Western views of the Third World which one finds in the work of novelists as different as Graham Greeene, V.S. Naipaul, and Robert Stone, of theoreticians of imperialism like Hannah Arendt, and of travel writers, filmmakers, and polemicists whose specialty is to deliver the non-European world either for analysis and judgment or for satisfying the exotic tastes of European and North American audiences.
Reiterating the logic of his critique of Orientalism (will to know and will to mystify), Said leaves no room for the possibility that a particular kind of exoticism might actually enable Metropolitan writers to take seriously other cultures as alternatives to one’s own culture, and certainly as alternatives to Empire. This, to me, seems an enormous blind-spot since so much of what I am calling humanist-relativist exoticism was devoted to precisely this endeavor.
There is a third way beyond the will to dominate and the will to mystify: it is the will to understand. Said himself made this distinction in various forums toward the end of his life. He emphasized repeatedly the difference between knowledge for the purpose of domination and knowledge for the purpose of understanding and compassion. The model of humanist-relativist exoticism as practiced by ‘attached’ cosmopolitans has become more essential than ever. Denying frank attraction to otherness means fewer of the sort of genuine, easy-going, and substantial interactions exemplified by Fermor. Wherever Fermor unabashedly indulges his attraction to the exotic, he immerses himself in the local culture, generating a textured, generous view that revises superficial notions of the Other in terms comprehensible to his home culture without flattening difference altogether.
Nowadays, our repression of exoticist attraction has tied us into such knots that we can only marvel at Fermor’s mid-century ease with foreigners. With so many injunctions—particularly the one against exoticism—running through our heads and inhibiting our intuitive attraction to difference, it is easy to become neurotic and withdrawn in a foreign context. At least then one can be assured that s/he is not unwittingly committing any ideological sin. But doesn’t such politic withdrawal only widen the chasm between cultures and quell any potential to challenge prevailing notions of the Other?
If it were not for the injunction against exoticism—an injunction mistakenly extended from Orientalism—I wonder who wouldn’t admit to being attracted to the exotic. Ever since my first reading of The Traveller’s Tree a decade ago, when I was so struck by Fermor’s candid and generative exoticism, I have wondered at the open secret that is exoticism in our current climate: exoticism remains the guilty pleasure of the very disciplines that critique it (anthropology, postcolonial studies, world literature, ethnomusicology) and, injunctions notwithstanding, continues to be a considerable stimulus for reading, travel, sex, and other dimensions of everyday life. Rather than hushing up the pleasure of exoticism, why not openly explore the many aesthetic, philosophical, ethical, and affective dimensions of exoticism that have been overlooked? Writing a century ago, Victor Segalen, one of the rare theorists of exoticism, extolled it as the capacity to conceive other-wise—in other words, the capacity to perceive diversity in its most existential sense. This sensibility is alive to all that is other to self: foreign culture, opposite sex, nature, platonic ideal of self (Bovarysme), God. Nowadays, we still valorize diversity—if a more banal view of it—but we have abandoned the notion that exoticism is the epistemology required by it. Perhaps it would be worth revisiting this notion: unrepressed, our exoticist impulses might well serve the diversity cherished in progressive politics.