Donald Tuzin and the Breath of a Ghost

Donald Tuzin
Donald Tuzin

In the Scientific American piece Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased, Vaughan Bell describes how the dead stay with us. An embodied sense of them, present yet gone, comes strongly through our memories and our perceptions: “for many people [loved ones] linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences.”

Bell issues a call for more research on grief and embodied remembrances, and then notes, “There are hints that the type of grief hallucinations might also differ across cultures. Anthropologists have told us a great deal about how the ceremonies, beliefs and the social rituals of death differ greatly across the world, but we have few clues about how these different approaches affect how people experience the dead after they have gone.”

I wrote previously on Bell’s article and how writers have explored this terrain in Grief, Ghosts and Gone. Still, the anthropologist in me took Vaughan’s point as a challenge. Ethnographic work is not as widely known in the larger scientific literatures, but it is both broad and deep. My search was rewarded!

Donald Tuzin has a striking 1975 article, “The Breath of a Ghost: Dreams and the Fear of the Dead.” In this piece (scribd full text) he describes his research with the Ilahita Arapesh of northeastern Papua New Guinea and the confluence of their beliefs and practices surrounding the dead with everyday experience.

Tuzin pays particular attention to “the functional implications of (1) the different ghost types encountered by the Arapesh dreamer as distinguished by degrees of familiarity in life, and (2) the strikingly different beliefs held about ghosts as against the more temporally remote ancestors (556).”

Here is one relevant Tuzin quote in relation to Bell’s piece:

“I once had cause to ask a group of informants what smell was the worst one imaginable. The answer came back quickly: it was the breath of a ghost. The odor, they explained, resembles that of human putrescence, except that it is worse, much worse—and different, like nothing on earth. In quality and derivation the breath of a ghost is to mortal decay as a ghost is to a man.

My informants were not without some experience in this matter, for they were middle-aged and well remembered the traditional practice—discontinued some twenty years ago under administration insistence—of placing a family corpse in a shallow or open grave in the groundhouse floor. This was to protect the remains from hungry witches eager to imbibe the powers of the dead, and also to allow easy access to the bones when later they were exhumed for magical purposes. The stench must have been horrendous and the blowflies bothersome, but not to have suffered these things would have implied a lack of filial piety; the vapors hung as a pungent reminder of the recent loss (Tuzin 1975:556-557).”

Tuzin drew on psychoanalytic theory to help develop his interpretation of dreams and ghosts in relation to the individual. Today we can use neuroanthropology, and talk about memory as relived, the neurological correlates of hallucinations, and the strong emotional component of grief. Still, the insights that Tuzin draws from psychoanalysis, of ambivalence and individual experience and the power of death, are important, since they help us recognize common aspects of human experience. Indeed, psychoanalysis and neuroscience are not always so far apart, as the neuroscientist and psychiatrist Eric Kandel has argued here and here (full text).

Tuzin himself began to see this confluence, and the importance of considering neural function, in some later work. In his 1984 article Miraculous Voices, Tuzin is explicit about linking cross-cultural experience to both brain and culture. In the 2007 American Anthropologist obituary for Tuzin, Robbins and Leavitt write:

“Tuzin drew on research on epilepsy documenting the ‘numinous’ or ‘religious’ feeling that immediately precedes a seizure, to explain how patterns of brain activity might produce an experiential response that can be easily appropriated culturally as ‘religious.’ The deeply resonating sounds of the Arapesh ‘voice of the tambaran,’ created by the amplified sounds of the bamboo flutes (technically trumpets) blown into the base of the wooden drums, could, through base acoustics, produce brain wave patterns that evoke numinous feelings readily interpreted by the individual as religious awe. Tuzin suggested that similar dynamics could be found in the sounds associated with religion everywhere. These and other studies emphasized the deeply human and personal dynamics that he had encountered in his Ilahita field research.”

In Vaughan Bell’s work, it is the same deeply human and personal dynamics that become elaborations into internet communities that support what others call paranoia and delusions, or grief and ghosts that then become both religious and at times pathological.

One critical elaboration for how to think about such a process comes in other parts of Tuzin’s corpus. In Tuzin’s 1976 book The Ilahita Arapesh: Dimensions of Unity, Tuzin discusses the complex social organization of the village, maintained through overlapping and often opposed social networks that work without a central leader.

Rather than the structural oppositions linked to an abstract human mind (as Levi-Strauss might have argued), Tuzin argues that this organization comes from everyday life. Robbins and Leavitt describe in the obituary, “this elaborate social system… resulted from individuals making mundane choices in the face of recurring situational demands.” Those demands are structured by cultural values and knowledge, but not determined by them. You can see more of this argument in Tuzin’s book chapter, The Organization of Action, Identity and Experience in Arapesh Dualism.

I was quite happy to have found Donald Tuzin’s work. In all fairness to Vaughan, I didn’t know of his research either. But here is yet another early precursor of the sort of work that Greg and I now do. Tuzin offers us many insights, from good descriptive ethnography, to a focus on individual and social dynamics, to theory-driven considerations of the intersections of brain, mind and culture.

2 thoughts on “Donald Tuzin and the Breath of a Ghost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s