Collapsible Rhetoric

It's 1937 and a building is collapsing: Evans-Pritchard's abstraction from that Azande granary which collapses again and again, in classrooms, libraries, on the desks of senior lecturers:

In Zandeland sometimes an old granary collapses. There is nothing remarkable in this. Every Zande knows that termites eat the supports in course of time and that even the hardest woods decay after years of service. Now a granary is the summerhouse of a Zande homestead and people sit beneath it in the heat of the day and chat or play the African hole-game or work at some craft. Consequently it may happen that there are people sitting beneath the granary when it collapses and they are injured, for it is a heavy structure made of beams and clay and may be stored with eleusine as well. Now why should these particular people have been sitting under this particular granary at the particular moment when it collapsed?

The cause of the collapse is not in doubt: termites. But the overlap between time of collapse and particular person sheltering from the sun Evans-Pritchard considers as a coincidence in "Western thinking", and as a necessary link in the action of witchcraft to "Zande philosophy", though, perhaps more obviously now, compensation culture and the unhooked feeling that someone is to blame after an accident is hardly a reasoned-coincidence too far from Western societies, this pointing up an unflagging opposition between the mystical and empirical which still frames Evans-Pritchard's argument.

The anecdote begins quite deliberately as a fable, "In Zandeland sometimes an old granary collapses." Then a summerhouse parachutes in to the homestead (or colonial park) and makes itself into a granary, where, in one long criss-crossing sentence-song of social life - talk and play and work - it collapses, but in the distance of "Consequently", a word which takes us back across continents to the seminar room ideal where the idea of "coincidence" falls down in tatters around the heads of another generation of students.

The granary opens the argument of Witchcraft, Oracles, And Magic Among The Azande, untestable, a pedagogical site. The "Zande" way of thinking is revealed incident by incident, witchcraft as the "socially relevant cause" of misfortune; but the appearance of an event can be all, as Aristotle wrote:

The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which toppled onto the head of Mitys' murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. (Poetics)
Coincidence or justice, or coincidental justice? Philosophy, law and poetry drawn in its dust: the timing of a fall is a source of wonder.

Edmund Hardy

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed