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Myth Is a Theorem About the Nature of Reality

May 15, 2014

The scholar of Native American literature on the vivid tradition of Haida poetry.

Robert Bringhurst is a poet, linguist, translator, and essayist who has championed, in a series of remarkable books and lectures, the literary heritage of Native American culture. He’s made it his calling to enroll oral mythtelling in the canon of world literature, arguing that Native American stories are not only anthropological artifacts, but works of art.

Bringhurst was born in the US but has lived now for a long time in Canada. His home, artistic and actual, is that country’s Pacific Northwest, but he’s a true intellectual peripatetic. He’s translated Parmenides, studied classical Chinese poetry, and compared Sophocles with a Crow storyteller named Yellow-Brow. He’s authored poems and essays about modern violence and Renaissance painting, and he’s written a classic treatise on typography, The Elements of Typographic Style.

But the beating heart within this body of work is his decades-long fascination with the literature and culture of the Haida, an indigenous American civilization native to Haida Gwaii, a chain of islands off British Columbia, once known to the people who lived there as the “Boundary Between Worlds,” the place where spirits and mortals met.

The classical Haida poetic tradition, which flourished for centuries among oral storytellers, is anchored in myth, a genre Bringhurst defines as “a theorem about the nature of reality, expressed not in algebraic symbols or inanimate abstractions but in animate narrative form.” In a living tradition, myths are not immutable; they are a language of conventions and archetypes that each mythteller can mold according to his or her vision of self and world.

The Haida myths describe a continuum between the most intimate infelicities and the deepest puzzles of metaphysics. Heroes pursue beautiful women to the top of the sky or the bottom of the sea; a raven accidentally creates the world in his pursuit of material satisfaction; a mischievous prank makes a wind god expose his penis; a man dances the path of feathers in a metaphor for reconciliation. The Haida mythtellers set forth a cosmology of universal interaction and perpetual ambivalence. In the process, they made language of great beauty.

Bringhurst’s exploration of the Haida is largely based on texts collected by the American ethnographer John Swanton, who more than a century ago learned the Haida language and patiently recorded—six days a week, for many months—the myths and histories of the surviving storytellers. The result is one of the most impressive archives of oral literature ever preserved in writing. Using the Swanton texts, Bringhurst has produced a magisterial trilogy, Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers. It includes A Story as Sharp as a Knife, a study of the Haida world, as well as two volumes of translations, each devoted to the work of a Haida master-poet. Nine Visits to the Mythworld contains the stories of Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, and Being in Being the complete works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay.

The following interview took place in a series of emails exchanged in late November and early December of 2013. Bringhurst wrote from his home on Quadra Island in British Columbia, only a few hundred miles south of Haida Gwaii, where sea and sky were straddled by these great American poets.

—Matthew Spellberg for Guernica

Guernica: How did you become interested in Haida culture and poetry?

Robert Bringhurst: I moved to the Northwest Coast in 1973 and have lived here pretty much ever since. When I arrived, I needed to find out where I was. I did that by walking the beaches, hiking the coast range, kayaking the coastal waters, reading botanical field guides, reading local maps and regional literature.

But this is a place where regional literature in English doesn’t reach back very far. So I turned pretty quickly to the ethnographic work: Franz Boas’s translations from Tsimshian, Nisgha, Kwakwala, Kathlamet, and Shoalwater Chinook; Edward Sapir’s translations from Nootka; John Swanton’s translations from Haida and Tlingit. And little by little I learned the identities of the speakers, despite the fact that Boas and some of the other early ethnographers had the misguided idea that in oral cultures the speaker’s identity didn’t matter.

The translations were often pretty ungainly, but nearly all of them impressed me in a way that the modern literature from the region did not. Without any question, it was the southern Haida stories that made the deepest impression. So I went looking for the originals. I found them in Philadelphia, where Boas himself and many of his students had deposited their field notes and transcripts.

I’d come to the Northwest Coast to live. And it was those Haida poets, who had died before I was born, who taught me how.

Guernica: These poems come from a world very different from ours, and there is so much a serious reader has to learn about Haida botany, ritual, hierarchy, lineage, boat-building, hunting—I could go on—in order to absorb all their complexities. What inspired you to go so deep into this culture?

Robert Bringhurst: Well, as I say, I’d come to the Northwest Coast to live. And it was those Haida poets, who had died before I was born, who taught me how.

I see this now as part of a more basic undertaking. Every Native North American text I’ve ever grappled with has taught me something important about how to live on the continent where I was born. I was born on the West Coast, but not the Northwest Coast. I was born in Southern California, and taken inland from there at the age of one year. I grew up in the Rockies, the Great Basin, and on the High Plains—Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Alberta. Then I went to school in Massachusetts, lived for a time in the Middle East and in Latin America, then spent a couple of years at Indiana University. When I rolled into Vancouver in 1973 to go to grad school, I had not only never lived on the Northwest Coast, I had never lived in any particular place for very long. The idea of staying put seemed stranger to me than going to the moon. But I liked the coast and decided to give it a try.

In those days, the 1970s, Canadian poets talked non-stop about place. Place was the sacred subject of poetry. The Haida poets, by contrast, never talked about place, but they lived and breathed it. Their work was immersed in the nonhuman world: the sea and the mountains, sea mammals and sea birds, beach rocks and beach weed and forest. What I needed to know in order to understand those poets was exactly what I wanted to know. It was what I needed to know in order to be where I was.

Guernica: When did you realize that you wanted to produce a concrete response to these poets, and that it would be big enough to fill three volumes?

Robert Bringhurst: I thought at one point that I was going to “make poems” out of these texts. Finally the truth began to sink in: they already were poems. They didn’t need me or any other literatus to turn them into literature. They needed to be seen, heard, and acknowledged for what they were.

Sometime in the 1980s, I started to work methodically on the language. By the late 1990s, I was ready to try to make translations of my own. Even then, I initially imagined that one volume would be enough. I thought I would just do the best work of the two best Haida mythtellers Swanton had transcribed. And I would, I thought, write a twenty or twenty-five page introduction to these translations, setting the scene. The introduction grew pretty quickly to five hundred pages, and another truth sank in. I realized that I really did have to explain what I was doing, and a single volume wasn’t quite going to do.

I did, in other words, an awful lot of blundering around: something autodidacts usually do. But looking back, I don’t really see that I had an alternative.

Guernica: I only learned by reading your Haida books what tools existed in indigenous American literature to give life and psychic weight to giant kelp, sequoias, and eel grass in the way that the Russians and the French had given a literary life to broad-leafed trees.

Robert Bringhurst: Russian literature, like colonial Canadian literature, comes with a lot of landscape backdrop. The characters often gaze reflectively at the great forest and pass repeatedly through it as they travel from one house or outpost to another. These characters seldom demonstrate detailed knowledge of that forest—most of them belong to a social class that has other concerns, which means they’re doomed to a kind of romantic and hollow relation to the land they float around in. Still, the forest is powerfully present, like the ocean in Moby Dick. The forest, in fact, can be one of the major characters in the story. So for a reader, it can be immensely helpful to understand what kind of forest it is.

I wonder, though, what percentage of the world’s novels take place almost entirely indoors. I’ll bet it’s much larger than the portion set almost entirely outdoors.

It isn’t so unusual for poems to situate themselves out of doors—though they may, at the same time, be set in an interior world: not inside the house but inside the mind and body of writer and reader. A lot of poems seem, in some sense, to pull the outside world into the interior. They aren’t perhaps emotion recollected in tranquillity but perception recollected in interiority. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a crystal-clear example. It is and yet it isn’t located outside. But there are poems that seem to work the other way. There are poets who haul their own and their readers’ thought into the great Outside: poets who think outside the box, outside the skull, outside the person, in the larger mind of the external world. Frost can do this on occasion. Robinson Jeffers does it routinely, and on a larger scale.

In the native literatures of North America there aren’t any novels. Instead, the major genre is myth. And myths are stories that are fundamentally about the world, not about human individuals. A myth needn’t include any humans at all. If it does include them, they’re usually minor characters—imaginary humans sent out like scouts to report back on what’s happening in the mythworld, but not central participants in the action.

If you refuse to take an interest in a world that is larger than the human sphere, all you can do with myth is trivialize it.

Guernica: One common description of pre-literate literature is that it’s anthropomorphic: human traits are expressed outward onto the elements of nature. Many Western philosophers and anthropologists, beginning with Hegel, have seen this as a crucial early step in the development of culture. But when you write that Native American literature treats a larger mythworld where humans are minor characters, it seems you are suggesting something else, or almost the opposite: that humans and their emotions were but pale imitations of the states of nature.

Robert Bringhurst: Many intellectual heroes in the European tradition seem to find the great outdoors a chilling prospect—and its literary analogue, the mythworld, equally chilling. As if a world in which humans have no leverage, and might not be present at all, couldn’t be interesting to humans. We expect something better than this—a bigger perspective—from geologists, biologists, physicists, chemists, and astronomers, but literary scholars and philosophers are allowed to get away with it. If you refuse to take an interest in a world that is larger than the human sphere, all you can do with myth is trivialize it. The result is a culture like ours, which doesn’t know what myths are for and tries to turn them into children’s books.

You could expect, in a culture like that, some pretty wacky and condescending theories about the origins of myth—and boy, have we got ’em. The claim that myth is always a narrative spin-off of ritual; the claim that myth is the projection of human anxieties onto a cosmological scrim; the claim that myths are invented to give sanction to human predilections and institutions… These are ways of trivializing a mode of thought that has served humanity well for a very long time.

Anxiety projection can and does occur—in myth, in music, in fiction, and in the doctor’s office too. That doesn’t make it the basis of everything. A mythteller can start off to deliver a piece of mythology and get sidetracked into something much less interesting, such as explaining why it’s fine for men to beat their wives. Novelists, of course, can do the same—Tolstoy did in The Kreutzer Sonata. If an ethnolinguist happens to be sitting there with his tape recorder or notepad, the mythteller’s slip will be preserved. But a theorist who enshrines such slippages as principles is amplifying the error, piling one neurosis on another.

Nature, or the world, or reality, is what mythology is all about. Necessarily, therefore, it’s what myth-centered literatures—classical Haida or classical Navajo, for example—are about. Is E = mc² or C = 2πr a projection of human concerns upon the inanimate and inexpressible world? If so, then I guess Skaay’s poem about the Raven is a human projection too. I think Skaay’s poem, like those equations, expresses a human being’s admiration for and interest in the world, and an attempt to tell the truth about the world, not a desire to bring it under the human umbrella.

Guernica: How does the Haida tradition stack up against the broader world of oral literature? Are there consistent features to all oral traditions? Are there other indispensable transcripts besides Swanton’s for students of oral literature to study? Is oral literature still a possibility now and in the future?

Robert Bringhurst: These are all fine questions, and it would take a sizeable book to answer them properly—even if we skipped over Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania and spoke of Native American oral literatures alone.

If our species survives, oral literature will too. It’s the written record that may go.

Haida is one of fifteen or twenty really fortunate Native North American oral literatures—one of those in which a first-class ethnolinguist got together with some first-class oral poets before it was too late to hear an older tradition in action. Something similar happened with Cree, Chipewyan, and Eyak in the North and with Hupa, Kato, and Maidu in California, with Zuni, Kawaiko, and Navajo in the Southwest, Pawnee in the Midwest, and with Kathlamet, Kwakwala, and Tlingit here on the Northwest Coast. These literatures are all very different from one another, but yes, they do have things in common. There are shared themes, a common passionate interest in fundamental relations between humans and nonhumans, and some fascinating common principles of literary structure.

Can it still happen? Sure, but it’s getting rarer. And it is surely going to get rarer still over the next little while. One of the great northern Athabaskan literary figures, Catherine Attla, a speaker of Koyukon, died in 2012. She was eighty-four. She had thousands of admirers but no apparent successor.

In the longer run, however, there are powerful forces on the side of oral literature. Industrial capitalism looks more and more like an Ozymandias nearing the end of his arrogant reign. As the high-tech systems break down, I think the low-tech systems will rebuild themselves. If our species survives, oral literature will too. It’s the written record that may go.

Guernica: The Haida, like just about all human societies, lived in a violent world, and their poems tell of kidnappings, raids, banishments, murders, and parricides, to say nothing of hunts and storms and hungry predators. Is there a ritual or narrative function to violence? Is there a difference between the violence of nature and the violence of humans?

Robert Bringhurst: My own view is that violence is a part of classical Haida literature—and of every mythology everywhere, so far as I can tell—because it’s part of life itself. In the world of the hamburger stand and the supermarket, or the vegan café and the ashram, you might try to tell yourself it’s possible to be nonviolent. In a hunting and gathering society, violence is more difficult to hide.

As an honest person, you have to try to make sense of it, to atone for it when atoning seems required, and to keep it within tolerable bounds. If I’m right about this, then the first function of violence in Native American literatures is simply to acknowledge that violence is implicit, like gravity and sunlight, in the world and our relations with the world.

Guernica: What about the violence of colonization and disease, which the Haida poets Skaay and Ghandl witnessed firsthand?

Robert Bringhurst: No precolonial North American society ever had the capacity for inflicting violence on a modern industrial scale. The arrival of Europeans changed that once and for all.

Intentional or not, the introduction of European diseases constituted a very effective form of biological warfare. Millions—I am not exaggerating: millions—of Native Americans died of imported pathogens. And the cause was inscrutable, because no direct contact with Europeans or with trade goods was required. Whole societies and languages were wiped out; others were reduced to straggling, displaced bands of refugees. Then firearms and the horse were introduced to people who’d never seen them. Old territorial boundaries dissolved. Gardens and fishing grounds were destroyed. Seemingly inexhaustible food species were hunted to extinction. Societies that had coexisted, often quite peacefully, for centuries were pressured into conflicts with each other, on top of their hopeless conflicts with the colonists, the trading companies, railroads, and the US Army.

So North America was full of corpses, traumatized survivors, and children whose cultural inheritance had been shattered beyond repair. Not so different, perhaps, from France during the Hundred Years War, or Europe as a whole in the First and Second World Wars. But this particular war continued, making its slow way across North America, for closer to four hundred years. Did this affect people’s behavior? Did it change their personalities? Did it affect the stories they told? How could it do otherwise?

But no indigenous North American society had its own pre-contact system of writing, so later records are all we have. Some were written by outsiders, some by Native Americans themselves, but never until long after the damage had begun. So no one can do a real comparative study of pre- and post-contact oral literature. Still, there are some things we can observe.

Skaay, for example, had seen what the nineteenth century had to offer. He knew all about rifles and ammunition, steel knives, iron kettles. He was also familiar with steamboats, tables and chairs, glassed-in lanterns, printed books, and lots of European foodstuffs. None of these is allowed to surface in his myth cycle. A European folding knife—he calls it sqaaw qquudaxung, “a knife that can open its mouth”—plays a prominent role in a story he tells about the history of his lineage and he connects that knife directly with the smallpox epidemics. (The lineage history, or family history, by the way, is a separate genre in Haida literature: not the same as myth, and not the same as history, though it has some features of both.)

But when he’s functioning as a mythteller per se, his imagery is 100 percent indigenous. Not just indigenous, but old-fashioned. When he talks about houses, he describes a style of Haida house that had gone out of fashion before he was born. But when his friend Kilxhawgins, an oral historian, tells stories set in the era of European contact, he mentions steamships and firearms freely.

Cree and Navajo mythtellers do essentially the same: they keep their myths, but not their historical tales, free of European contamination. With the Navajo, however, there’s one significant exception. They give the horse a place in the mythworld: the horse but not the saddle, the bit, or the gun. It would be wonderful to probe a little further, to try to find out if the level of internecine violence depicted in Skaay’s myth cycle is the result of colonial pressure. But I don’t see how that question can ever be answered. You’d need to know how the stories were told two centuries earlier—and that information is irretrievably lost.

Follow any written literature back to its foundations and you’ll come to the oral world.

Guernica: In addition to translating the language, your Haida books translate a medium, making a written record of poems that were originally oral. And you’ve written often, both in the Haida trilogy and elsewhere, about the distance between the oral mind and the literate one, and between the agricultural and pre-agricultural views of the world. Can you say something about your own efforts to understand these other ways of being—oral, pre-agricultural—and to transmit them in book form to people who have only known a literate, industrial, agricultural society?

Robert Bringhurst: Once again, Native American literature—by which I mean the genuine goods: oral works in Native American languages—is never about a human-centered world. It’s about a larger world, a wild world, where humans are minor players. This can come as quite a shock if your idea of literature is mostly formed on French and English novels. Even in Homer and Sophocles, where the gods have more power than humans, the humans play pretty big roles.

Books are the best method we have for keeping literature around. And books make me happy. I feel honored to have them on the shelves, honored to write them, edit them, design them, and set them in type. Books are houses for something else, not me. And that’s what literature is too, oral or written. Sure, there’s a gulf between the oral and the written, but there’s a gulf between the written and everything else. There’s a gulf between the verbal and the real, and we cross it every day. However different oral and literate culture may be, they have plenty in common.

Follow any written literature back to its foundations and you’ll come to the oral world. Putting oral literature into printed books is actually quite common, because we keep going back to those foundations: Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Kalevala, the Nibelungenlied… You don’t escape from the oral by learning to read.

But a lot of people have tried to escape from the wild by taking up farming and ranching, and by moving into cities and finding jobs, and by doing their provisioning in heated and air-conditioned malls. Our species as a whole has tried to escape from the wild, and from the real, by exerting industrial control over the planet. A work of literature that asks you to give up that control, and maybe even the desire for that control, is bound to be a challenge for most readers.

Guernica: So Haida literature, as you say, gives us a view of the world that is much larger than any individual, and, in fact, much larger than the human race itself. But one of the major arguments in your Haida trilogy is that Native American myths should be thought of as the work of individual artists who shape their subjects in ways peculiar to their genius and inclinations. What makes these two greatest Haida mythtellers, Skaay and Ghandl, such distinctive poets?

Robert Bringhurst: I keep asking people to notice the similarities between Haida oral literature and another great mythtelling tradition that is much more widely known. That other great tradition is Renaissance painting.

Do I really mean to suggest that Bellini and Titian and Mantegna could have counterparts in a nineteenth-century Indian village? I do. Titian and Skaay, to pick just two examples, have three big things in common. First: a rich mythological tradition shared by their fellow artists, their patrons, and to a considerable degree their society at large. Second: a highly developed set of technical resources—a sophisticated language—also shared by their fellow artists, and passively shared by many others in their society. Third: tremendous individual talent, persistence, and luck, which are not quite so widely shared.

A Renaissance painter tells stories; he doesn’t invent them. He doesn’t invent the Crucifixion, the Adoration, the Birth of Venus, Daphne Transforming Into a Laurel, or Actaeon Into a Stag. But if he’s as good as Mantegna or Titian, he tells these stories as no one has ever told them before. He also tells them in such a way that they have the shock of the real. He makes the myths immediate and tangible. And so he knits together timelessness and time. Skaay and Ghandl do that too.

All I ever wanted to do was climb some mountains and write some books.

Guernica: You are a freelance poet and critic, doing serious research outside of the university system—a rarer and rarer thing these days. How do you feel about the institutions of scholarship and teaching, and your relationship to them?

Robert Bringhurst: All I ever wanted to do was climb some mountains and write some books. A paltry ambition, I admit, but it has served me well enough. Along the way, I’ve had a lot of incidental interactions with the university, and my life would have been much poorer without them. I’ve also had a good deal of help from private foundations and government agencies that support scholarly work, and for that help I’m enormously grateful.

But half a century ago, I and most of the people I knew had very idealistic notions of the university, and our perceptions now are different. Is that just because we are older and stupider, or because things have actually changed? Quite a few of my oldest friends have spent their lives in the university, and many of them feel that their dreams have been betrayed. They didn’t want to join an enormous bureaucracy, nor to be sidetracked or sidelined by the theory wars, nor to find themselves in an educational supermarket, competing to sell their wares. I have the sense that by staying on the margins, I’ve lucked out. But I didn’t stay on the margins because I was smarter or more prescient than my friends. I stayed on the margins because that’s where I felt I belonged. I suppose I’ve had less leverage there, but I’ve surely had more freedom.

Guernica: Is there important work being done in the world now—in universities or otherwise—on oral literature?

Robert Bringhurst: Most of the great modern students of Native American oral literature—Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Paul Radin, Ruth Benedict, Melville Jacobs, Dell Hymes—spent their lives in the university, but some of the very best work was done by marginal figures—Ruth Bunzel and Archie Phinney, for example. Some of it was also done by people whom the university deliberately expelled: Morris Swadesh, Gene Weltfish, and others whose political views irritated a certain American senator, and therefore came to terrify a whole generation of spineless university administrators.

The essential, foundational work in this domain—composing and transcribing oral poetry—can’t be done in the university, and never could be. It’s like geology: something that can’t be done in a lab. But at least the university could, and sometimes did, give the transcribers a place to come back to, to edit and translate and publish, and a place to think about and teach things they’d learned in the field.

Some of this foundational work is still going on, but not very much. We’re into the era of desktop bureaucracy, where people sit at computers building websites and analyzing data rather than listening or reading. I don’t see that this approach offers much of value in the humanities. You can build big dictionaries and grammars this way—and lots of grammars and dictionaries are needed for studying Native American literatures. But to make a dictionary useful to genuine readers, the lexicographers have to be readers themselves, not data analysts or morpheme detectives.

There’s an enormous and rich body of Native American oral literature, transcribed between the 1880s and the 1980s. Nothing of this depth or breadth could be gathered now, even if you had the world’s largest research grant and half a million well-trained, diligent researchers. What could be done now is to put that big body of transcribed literature to use. It could be edited and re-edited, published and republished, read and reread. If it were internalized by a generation of readers, North American society would be fundamentally changed. A culture based around the factory, the parking lot, and the supermarket, astoundingly disrespectful and inconsiderate of the land in which it lives, might be changed into a culture that felt a real and articulate kinship with the ground beneath its feet. The USA and Canada and Mexico could outgrow the colonial mindset at last. Where but in the universities is that work going to begin?


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