Every time we understand, we die a little

An angel holding a woman

Western anthropologist might have had a sense of superiority when they started to roam the world. In coping with magic and religion their attitude often resulted in explaining that magic through rationalisations of te purpose.

Our ancestor Malinowski said that people ‘call on magic when they come to a gap in their knowledge or powers of practical control yet have to continue their pursuit.’ He thought people cling to a believe in life after death by imagining the salvation by an eternal spirit from a visibly decaying body. (See: Death, Mourning and Ritual by Antonius Robben)

Now we might hope that anthropologists have come into an era where they attempt to perceive their own perception equally valid as those they interact with. In doing so holding two potentially opposite world views in balance. They enter a space of uncertainty and ambiguity.

A sense that is similar to the liminal phase after the physical passing of a member of the community. Every culture has rituals that accompany the deceased from physically death to a social closure. In some places there are even two burials. Simply because they distinguish two deaths. One being the physical and the other being the social. In between

Arnold van Gennep vividly describes this transition.

In this phase of the ritual, the corpse, the living, and the souls of the dead are in an ambiguous and dangerous relationship. The corpse rots and, over time, loses its mortal appearance and becomes an object of dread. Eventually, all that is ‘wet’ (flesh) becomes ‘dry’ (bones). In the final stages of the rite, the corpse, amidst great celebration, is moved to a more permanent place of keeping; that is, the dead are moved irreversibly from the world of the living to join the souls of the dead: they have become ancestors.

The anthropologists coming back from the field with two conflicting perceptions of reality might be able to balance those two for some time. But chances are that on a personal level one of those believes will prevail. In a moment of new understanding one perception of reality ceases to exist. Every time we understand something new we inevitably leave behind perception that could have been us.

We die a little.

Since last year we have been gathering with some anthropologists to discuss topics in our hearts and minds. First in a room in Amsterdam, more recently in online sessions.

We come and we share ideas. It’s like a book club where no one read the book, but we are ready to write a next chapter.

You are welcome. Our next session is one July 7 and you can register on our meetup page.

Afbeelding van Karina Cubillo via Pixabay

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