Comedy of Things: Responses by Debbora Battaglia
What do you think that the Comedy of Things might be?
I take my cue from Richard Pryor. For me, he embodies the pun of “black humor” – in his case, the gallows humor of racism. If racism can give him a living (as a performer) it can also take it away (it can destroy him). To quote Isabelle Stengers, “we cannot not take this seriously”: when Pryor puts racism on offer as a comedic performance, the frame of the stage defines an expectation: the audience will do their part in coproducing black humor, by laughing. There is no requirement that they actually find the act funny.
What interests me are two moments in Pryor’s Sunset Strip act when he breaks frame from opposite directions, in each case leaving the audience in doubt as to whether what he is doing is meant to be funny. Early in his act, he leaves the stage to appeal for a glass of water. Later, he hacks into the act from his offstage life by making references to setting himself on fire and running down the street of his neighborhood in flames, in a well-publicized suicide attempt. The transgression in each case sets up conditions for a release of tension by laughter, but Pryor withholds easy laughter/inspires uneasy laughter.
In the contemporary moment, the Comedy of Things cannot not be about the “black humor” of fetishized things and sites, but asks that we take this as an occasion to throw water on our sacrifice of objects of personal meaning by creating a commons that exceeds the value or meaning of any one item. It puts comedy on offer as a theme, without presuming that everyone will share in easy laughter, and mean it. So, as the thought came to me while talking with Matt Candea on the ride here, the Comedy of Things is perhaps partially about the pleasurable absurdity of coproducing a commons of detachment from of release that are its condition of possibility.
In other words, is the innovation of this international workshop perhaps to perform a Fifth World (Whole World) bricolage of recombinant comedic items that produce, as an expendable excess, access to our personal lives – offering these up in sacrifice for creating an ephemeral event-artifact of surpassing value? Is this a cost of any commons? Is this partly why I’m having the most difficulty, a fatal difficulty, actually, producing a humorous anecdote from my personal life?
Here, the irritation is to distinguish “sharing” from “giving” and the inalienable from the alienable, respectively. Sharing of course implies same-substance consumption that can create identification across difference: If we were Apache, we could share jokes about the White Man, as along the same lines we gather here today in mind of regimes of property value that may be dominant, but are not invulnerable to doubt, to parody, to being roasted, wormed into, Trojan horsed by humor – at the very least irritating the desire for desire. In which case the event is a “pure gift” of a future configured otherwise, in the form of serious play.
The Wikepedia definition of “black comedy” is that it is a tool for provoking discomfort, which hilariously to me, it goes on to describe in excruciating paratactic detail – effectively turning the joke on anyone who goes there to begin with. We read:
Popular themes of the genre include: murder, suicide, depression, abuse, murder, suicide, depression, abuse, mutilation, war, barbarism, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, sexual violence, pedophilia, insanity, nightmare, disease, racism, homophobia, sexism, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, corruption, and crime.
If any one of these is absent from this workshop, I’ll be outraged.
Humorous anecdote from primary site of research
Not long ago, as I was clicking through the stations of the television in my study, I caught the tail-end of an ad on the SyFy Channel which brought my channel surfing to a halt and made me laugh. It showed a space capsule crashing through the ceiling of a university classroom into a gigantic jack-in-the-box, startling some student insurance agents as their Farmers Insurance professor stood by, unphased. “Obscure space junk falling from the sky? We cover that.”
The “Jack-in-the-Box” ad spot, with its theme of out-of-nowhere material threats had, as it turned out, appeared just a few days earlier on great-ads.blogspot.com, in fact, as I sat down to write the first draft of this paper. It included information that the capsule actually weighed as much as it appeared to in the ad, which the director, known for sitcoms, had insisted on for verisimilitude; it mentions the effect of the collision with actual tin, dust particles flying, and how the sound affected the actors. And the chimp was animatronic – no computer graphics imaging was used in the campaign.
Such props, and the ad spot itself, are instances of what in a recent piece I and my co-author, Rafael Antunes Almeida (2014), have termed onto-dispositifs: protentive devices that incline towards “hacking” the relations comprising recombinant worlds that we may think we understand. Creating in the process a new relation to ones that have been hacked, the onto-dispositif can arrest our attention, such that we open to unforeseen futures for particularly vulnerable ontologies, and possible zones of exchange across power differentials. In other words, the concept’s use for imagining resistance to dominant culture world-making practices and assumptions is of particular interest, in our view – cuing human actors to be on the lookout for devices that source to unbeautiful ontologies (such things as global mining technologies of extraction or PAC media campaigns come immediately to mind) – perchance to slow them down.
But the Farmer’s Insurance spot and its theme of irritating and otherwise slowing down life as usual seemed somehow familiar. And indeed, I eventually recalled another famously ll successful ad campaign for State Farm Insurance, likewise telling its audience that that damage to property from “space junk” is covered by State Farm – Farmer’s competitor and the company they were most concerned to distinguish themselves from (personal communication).
I went to YouTube. This ad, too, is strikingly arresting, but in a video game sort of way. It features a huge robot from outer space bent on random destruction of a suburban neighborhood that Deleuze would understand as “any-space-whatever,” as a couple of onlookers comment on what is happening to their unfortunate neighbor, Bob – again, matter-of-factly as meanwhile Bob is removed through the roof of his house by a robotic claw still seated in his Lazy Boy recliner and dropped from a great height (but unharmed) onto his perfect lawn. This particular ad campaign had actually sparked an online interactive version of itself, allowing players to virtually destroy their own homes – and afterward call a State Farm agent in their area. Here was an onto-disposif fully taking on a life of its own, not unlike the avatars that Tom Boellstorff (2010) describes in Coming of Age in Second Life which evolve material world effects, for example, organizing ppolitical campaigns which influence actual voting practices offline.
In the interest of time, I give you this award-winning “Jack-in-the-Box” ad spot for Farmer’s Insurance, which aired during the space junk scare:
Farmer’s competitor, State Farm Insurance, promptly upped the stakes with its own “State of Chaos” commercial. No longer a random shard of a spent satellite, the threat was a destructive Tranformer style robot that rampages through one suburban neighborhood and destroys one house, as two neighbors cooly observe and comment upon the mayhem:
So effective was this commercial that an online version allowed players to destroy their own homes, then seek a local State Farm agent nearby. A video explaining the evolution of the production process now appears on YouTube:
Humorous anecdote from primary place of origin
The political satire website Snopes.com recently addressed the claim that a giant squid had washed up on the beach in Santa Monica, California. Images of the event appeared in a vast array of social media websites, including one posted by a Facebook friend in the group “You know that you’re from Santa Monica when . . .”. And I suspect that no one whose childhood days on this beach were given to exploring the mysterious creatures and things that the tide brought in could dismiss the claim outright. In fact, the origin of the story was the Lightly Braised Turnip website, which announced on 9 January 2014: “For the second time in recent months, a giant sea creature has washed ashore in California. First it was a rare oarfish that had grown to a freakish 100-foot length. This time it was a giant squid measuring a whopping 160 feet from head to tentacle tip.” The claim was that the mutant creatures were “due to radioactivity” linked to the disastrous malfunction of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Snopes continues: “The Santa Monica area of California is just outside our home base here at snopes.com, and a quick drive along the coastline provided no view of a gigantic squid on the beach, nor did any of the many local news outlets cover any such topic. Disappointed, we headed elsewhere for our calamari lunch”. Read more at http://www.snopes.com/politics/satire/giantsquid.asp#8d8yXJsuFZBZdUZl.99
Of course, no one in their right mind would eat raw fish from the western Pacific at this moment in time.
Mythological narrative from primary place of research (Outerspace)
Once upon the time, an imaginary universe was created on the theme of intergalactic warfare. The Creator called this universe Star Wars. And so was born a film of and for the future, animating mutant creatures and robotic entities with agency, who could join with humans who in two forms: evil and good. The President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, believed that Star Wars was a documentary and not a work of fiction. So as the leader of the Free World, he added elements to the universe in real time. These included the Star Wars Defense System, which exists in various iterations to this day. People still make pilgrimages to behold the creation sites of the Star Wars universe: the snowy and desert and tropical places on Earth where iconic scenes were created, and to view the models that figured in the film. And these pilgrims are moved to tears.
But there are other people than these, who live in worlds seeking peaceful uses of outer space. These people have a different origin myth, which begins: In the beginning, China shot down one of its own satellites, from a position on Earth. The U.S. responded one year later by shooting down one of its own satellites, spalling off debris fields of 150,000 measurable shards. Some of these shards contained powerful pollutants: these survived the fall through Earth’s atmosphere, and it was bad. Some of these shards, smaller than the smallest coin, slipped into low Earth orbit, nearly puncturing the portals of the International Space Station. The station survived, as did its crew, and it was good. The script on a cosmos in which peaceful rules is still being written to this day.
Mythological narrative from place of origin (Santa Monica, CA)
My hometown of Santa Monica is known across the mediascape as the mythical site of the beach lifeguard drama, Baywatch. This was a television series that circulated as a franchise across America, and beyond. Everyone who lives in Santa Monica looks like the picture below; those who do not look like this are invisible. People from other cultures will interrupt their labors to watch reruns of Baywatch. Farmers will cease planting and harvesting; office workers, factory works – all pay homage to Baywatch during their working days.
But now there is a new mythical world that competes with Baywatch. It is Californication. All of the characters are grotesque consumers of things. Because they share the same beach in the vicinity of Santa Monica, where only wealthy people can afford to live, there is confusion loose on the land about how to imagine Santa Monica. Residents themselves no longer recognize themselves on the street. The situation is becoming alarming for theorists of recognition politics – the more so since reality t.v. has found occasional footholds in the area.
Comedy of Things: Responses by Alberto Corsín Jiménez
What is the comedy of things?
So here is a joke:
“I am walking down the street and I happen to cross a couple of motherfuckers – or is it Motherfuckerians?, you know, how you call the inhabitants of Planet M? Anyway, I hear these Motherfuckerians say that the cosmos is overrated, that it has been joked out of proportion.
I can’t stay for the punch line, it would look indiscreet hanging around, so I walk away wondering whether – if it was a joke they were telling – they may possibly have missed the punch line themselves, thinking the cosmos might have laughed as an effect, i.e., out of a proportion. A proportion!! As if comedy had a beginning and an end. As if laughter was a scale of sorts.
I keep on walking, ruminating, and then I pause, and I smirk to myself: Actually, that was funny: a joke that joked on itself!
Oh well, this Motherfuckerians are actually a humorous lot, aren’t they? Aren’t they…?!”.
Humorous anecdote or joke from primary site of research
Over a year ago I went out for drinks with some of the ‘urban hackers’ I work with in Madrid (guerrilla architectural collectives, street and digital artists). It was a beautiful summer night, we sat outdoors in a pub garden, and engaged in a light and joyful conversation.
Someone mentions a gathering of friends that is taking place simultaneously in the northern Spain. Under the name MixCommons these people have been working for over two years on- and off-line to re-think themselves as a creative community at a time of crisis and precariousness. On this occasion they have got together over the weekend to try to design some specific collaborative tools that will help them transition their organization into a cooperative of some sort.
Monica, a founding member of one of Spain’s most vibrant and emergent guerrilla art collectives, says that she decided in the end not to attend the meeting because, frankly, she doesn’t understand a word of what is normally said there. And gives as an example a tweet that one attendant to the workshop sent only a few hours previously. A rough translation would say something like: “We need to beware the HOW – relativist, cynic, sceptic and postmodernist. We ought to look into the WHAT also – structuralist, MixCommons.” “Now what the fuck is all that suppose to mean?,” says Monica. And adds: “ How does that relate to what am going through in my life right now? Fuck, I much prefer learning about the sexual life of furries and furry fandom on the Internet.”
Everyone laughed and we decided to give our own gathering a name too – the MixFurries, rather than the MixCommons, a name that has stuck since.
Humorous anecdote or joke from place of origin
‘Madrid smells of garlic’ (Victoria Beckham)
Now here is a joke that actually takes possession of the joker and jokes on her!
Myth or mythological narrative from primary site of research
In the beginning was the commons.
Myth or mythological narrative from place of origin
Madrid is a right-wing city.
Comedy of Things: Responses by Kasper J. Knudsen (jokes and myths)
AARHUS JOKE – SITE OF ORIGIN
A man from Aarhus got a job at NASA and on his first trip to outer space he was accompanied by a monkey.
Once in space, the monkey opened its envelope first with all the necessary instructions: which buttons to push, the temperature of the engine and, finally, a thick manual with all the experiments they were going to do. Then, according to plan, the man from Aarhus opened his envelope, which was a simple piece of paper with the following instructions: “Remember to feed the monkey”
GHANA JOKE – PRIMARY SITE OF RESEARCH
In church the Pastor was preaching and announced to all the men: “If your wife is controlling you, move to the left”
All the men in church moved to the left except for a man named Akpos.
The Pastor was amused and asked Akpos: “How come your wife can’t control you?”
To which Akpos quietly replied, “Pastor, it was my wife who told me not to move.”
AARHUS MYTH – SITE OF ORIGIN
Myth: The white lady of Moesgaard
A white lady famously haunts the historical main building at Moesgaard which is located in the forests just outside of Aarhus. Her cries can be heard at night in the halls of the old manor. The story goes as follows:
In times past when Moesgaard was still a manor, a young lady was living there with her father, the estate owner. It is said that the young lady was madly in love with a young man to whom she was engaged and about to get married.
At that time a gang of robbers plagued the forests around Aarhus stealing and killing people after dark. One evening the estate owner and his coachman were on their way home when their carriage was suddenly attacked. However, the estate owner had with him a knife and in retaliation he inflicted several wounds to the robbers and cut off the finger of one them.
Several days later the young woman received a visit from her fiancé who had his hand covered in cloth. Upon seeing this, the estate owner quickly realized what had happened and he took the chopped-off finger which he had found on the carriage the day following the attack and presented it to the young man: “Perhaps this is what you are looking for. Why don’t you see if your ring fits?” the estate owner said. The young man was arrested and admitted that he was, in fact, the leader of the notorious gang of robbers and he was sentenced to death and hung. The young woman never recovered from her loss and she mourned herself to death. To this day, you can allegedly still hear her wailing after midnight as she restlessly moves throughout the old wooden corridors at Moesgaard.
GHANA MYTH – PRIMARY SITE OF RESEARCH
The fall of Lucifer
In Ghana many people are particularly preoccupied with maintaining good relations with the spirits of the earth. However, to the Christian churches these earthly spirits are seen as satanic demons. A man from the eastern part of Ghana explained his conception of the relation between the devil and the spirits of the earth to me like this:
“When God (Mawu) had created the heavens and the earth he had with him Lucifer who became the devil (Abonsam). Lucifer was one of the most powerful among the angels, but he thought he was better than God and so he wanted to rebel. When God saw this, He became angry and threw Lucifer from the heavens to the earth. But from heaven to the earth is a long, long way to fall. It’s not easy. So Lucifer hit the ground so hard [SMASH] that he dispersed into many different gods (trowo) like Blikete, Kpakpaki and Trigeli. These are gods of the earth that people worship today for protection and strength by drawing small figures in the sand like a face and declare that this is a spirit. They put leaves around the face because leaves have power and provide the spirit with ears so people can talk to it and command orders which the spirit will do because the spirit is now with power and people believe in power. But people worship these gods for themselves and not for God. They think they will be saved by worshipping Lucifer, but they do not know they have to go to Jesus.”
Comedy of Things: Responses by Trine Mygind Korsby
What might the Comedy of Things be?
One question regarding what the comedy of things might be, seems to concern whether comedy lies in the relation between things or in the things themselves. Are things immanently comic or is their funniness dependent on their relations and context? Is comedy made out of connectivity? It is easy to see that things can be comic simply by being placed in an awkward or unexpected context, such as a man sitting in a crowded train working on his computer, which is not a laptop, but a stationary computer with a huge 27-inch screen, hard-drive and keyboard. The stationary computer in itself is not funny, but the context it is placed in, makes us laugh. However, I would argue that things can also be comic in themselves, meaning that they are comic because they are exactly what they are. Here I am thinking of the funniness of a fruit or a vegetable which looks like an angry, surprised or happy face, which is funny simply because it is not a human face, but a vegetable, such as an eggplant with an outgrowth on one side, which unmistakably looks like a long, pointed nose.
Furthermore, the fact that it is a simple eggplant, which is making us laugh, adds to its funniness. In this way, a context is built up around the eggplant through its own immanent funniness, a context enveloping the eggplant and making it – and its spectators’ own place in the comedy – even more funny than it originally was (“are we really standing here laughing because of an eggplant?”), and not the other way around, where the context provides the comedy of the thing. The eggplant-with-face is funny in multiple contexts, not only particular ones, in contrast to the stationary computer. Rather, the comedy of the eggplant is extended into its landscape, it creates its own comic context. The eggplant’s cloaking can thus be extended everywhere the eggplant goes; it is not dependent on time and place.
The intensity of the comedy of things might lie in the ‘softness’ or the ‘hardness’ of the unfolding of the comedy of a thing – does the funniness unfold with force, abrupt and hard, or in a sneaking manner, soft and imperceptible? Is the comic nature of a thing immediately discovered, or do you have to search for it? Do you have to look at the eggplant for only one second before you realize its funniness or must you look more closely and see, extract and interpret larger connections between vegetables, human noses and maybe other parts of the human body in order to see that it is funny? Is the comedy of the thing immediate or obstinate, or put otherwise: what is the comic tempo and comic precision of the eggplant?
The everyday nature of the thing can add to its funniness. The fact that we all know eggplants and have probably all eaten them, extracts any remainder of sophistication or exclusiveness from it as a thing. On the one hand, it could be any eggplant, and on the other hand, it is an eggplant with a face and a nose, which sets it apart from other eggplants. Because of its everydayness, the eggplant is unexpectedly and effortlessly funny without any prior build-up or explanation.
Humorous anecdote from the field
This story was often told – to great joy and laughter – among my informants, who work as pimps in Eastern Romania. The story was favourite anecdote by Alex, who also has one of the leading characters in the story, which goes as follows:
As so many times before, Alex and his friends are having a party at Nicu’s house. There are solely men present at the party, around 25 men to be more precise, and after having consumed many litres of beer and plum-brandy, and the party having turned into a mix of half-hearted fights, singing and shouting, they decide to call a girl for sexual entertainment for them all. They decide not to call any of their own girls, but a girl who works for another pimp, whom they all know. Everyone gets ready for this coming escalation of their party, going to the bathroom to wash and freshen up, and there is an excited atmosphere. Alex and Nicu suggest to go down and receive the girl in the street when she arrives with a taxi, but when they leave the living-room, they lock the door, without any of the others noticing it. Alex and Nicu greet the girl when she arrives, and they take her to the basement of the house, where they both have sex with her. Sex which turns out – according to the story – to be spectacular in every way. After having finished, they pay her and send her off in a taxi again, returning to the rest of the party, unlocking the door to the living-room where the rest of the party is situated, eagerly waiting for the girl to arrive, and triumphantly Alex and Nicu reveal what just happened in the basement. The rest of the men now realise – with great embarrassment and disappointment – that they have been tricked by Alex and Nicu, and they stand there, more or less powerless, with all their excitement built up and nothing to do about it.
Humorous anecdote from place of origin
Three men are sitting in the labour ward at the hospital on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. The first man is from Bornholm, the second man is from Copenhagen and the third man is from Uganda. All three are waiting for their children to be delivered. The midwife exits the delivery room and says that she is happy to announce that they are now all three fathers, but unfortunately there has been a swop of the children, and the midwife and nurses are now uncertain which child belongs to whom. The fathers are chocked, but they flip a coin, and it is decided that the man from Bornholm can go and pick his child first. A few minutes after he comes out of the delivery room, carrying a black child. The midwife asks why on earth he decided on that child, and he answers: “I just wanted to be absolutely sure that I did not get the Copenhagener”.
Myth from the field
My informants are pimps, living in Eastern Romania. Most of them aspire and try to take their business abroad, hoping to hit the jackpot by pimping girls in countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. Among the pimps, the myth of the “perfect girl” exists. This myth goes that if one is able to spot the right girl and enroll her into one’s business, then one can become very wealthy. This girl should contain the exact right affordances for being a good sex worker, referring to being able to strike the balance between being, on the one hand, soft and feminine, while, on the other hand, being tough enough for this business. A girl who knows how to dress the right way and how to communicate with clients. According to the pimps, there are many girls who can become good and mediocre sex workers, but to find the one who in every way has it all, on all parameters, could be a direct road to the big pot of gold abroad. The myth of the existence of this “perfect girl” with the right capacities is an engine for most of my informants in their attempts – over and over again – to go and search for new girls that could secure their fortune.
Myth from place of origin
On the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, the mythological narrative of what is best translated as the subterranean trolls (“de underjordiske”) exists. The trolls live in the cliffs, burial mounds and particular formations of rocks. The myth of the trolls stems back to the Iron Age, and they are often portrayed as protectors of the dead as well as protectors of the wild nature. They are rarely seen, but when it happens, the trolls are small, have big noses and ears and often wear pointed hats. One of the best known myths of the trolls is of a young boy who borrows the hat of the trolls. The hat makes him invisible, which enables him to go to a wedding party which he otherwise was not allowed to attend.
The most famous troll’s name is Krølle Bølle who has turned into almost a landmark of the island, also having given name to an ice-cream which the island is famous for. Therefore, for many tourists on Bornholm, the trolls seem solely fun and joyous, reminding them of summer, holiday and ice-cream, but for people living on the island, the trolls are also serious business. The trolls are said to help, protect and reward people who are helpful themselves, but to tease the ones who are stupid, and to scare people who brag too much. Most often the trolls stick to themselves, but children are taught not to play with or spray with water when playing on cliffs, since that might provoke the trolls negatively. Bornholm is an island made of rocks, so that rule holds true in many places. When being on cliffs, one should generally be careful with water which is not naturally present from the sea. Provoking the trolls can cause different kinds of nature-related outbursts of anger, such as storms or heavy rain, or problems with crops or harvest, or it can lead to people losing their mind, house or property.
Comedy of Things: Responses by Rane Willerslev
What is the comedy of things about?
If I were to judge on the basis of three films (and I have nothing else to go on), I would expect that the theme running through the upcoming workshop is the following: Causality as predesigned by God vs. causality as controlled by human technology. The idea is to show that both situations are essentially unbearable and human beings are, at the end of the day, salvaged by humor which signifies both a full control over the threads of causality and it is also the highest possible homage to the divine, since by joking, human beings recognize the divine’s infinite distance from their finite reality. Now, how do I come to this reading of the films?
The art film, which shows a fully human controlled chain of cause and effect by means of technology, reveals both the pleasure that we experience through the control of the forces and the emptiness or stupidity of this control. It is pleasurable because we really design cause and effect connections that are in our absolute control (and even if they are not we can by means of film technology make it look as if they were). Yet what is it really that we control? Nothing really, beyond a surface spectacle of insignificant connections.
Von Trier’s film also takes up the theme of causality, but his film experiment is about uncovering what human life would be like if it was predesigned by God. Christian faith tells us that the God persona is present, even in the smallest things, such as ants. In addition, orthodox Christianity claims that everything would be so much better if we actually acted in accordance with the willpower of God. Thus, the key issue here is what kind of life evolves if it is predesigned by a power outside our control. What the film quite clearly shows is that a predesigned life becomes a nightmare of paranoia, beastly drives, and hatred.
Now, the standup comedian points to our salvation. Why is this? Firstly, he creates an endless number of absurd cause and effect connections, which are funny. But he does more than this: Every time he has established a link between two ore more phenomena, he quickly moves on to undermine this link so as to establish a new connection. In this sense he is never on stable ground, he is never creating a permanent order of things and thus the causal connections that he establishes are incapable of being turned into a totalizing system. In this sense, the comedian, just like the fool, is powerless. What does this have to do with God? Well, there would be no meaning to the divine test if there were only certitude. Since humor undermines any sense of certitude it is the highest possible homage to the divine; it exposes more powerfully than prayer the incomplete and finite existence of the human. It is for this reason that within certain traditions of Judaism as in much indigenous animism humor is the highest form of serving the divine.
Joke from the field
In 1992 I was on an expedition in northern Kamchatka with my twin brother, Eske, and my friend and anthropologist colleague Morten Axel Pedersen. This is the area in Siberia that has the densest population of brown bears, living primarily on Pacific salmon that make their way up the rivers in enormous numbers to breed. In the evening, when we were lying in our tent, we constantly heard sounds that we thought came from bears. Usually, the source of the sounds was as harmless as a beetle crawling across the stretched-out canvas, or a fox that had strayed into camp. But we had to be on guard, because who knew what it sounded like when there was a bear walking around in a tent encampment. Well, we finally found out one night. The worst thing was that we were not even armed. At first we heard heavy steps and a hollow grunting outside the tent. After that came some seconds of silence when we lay nervously looking at each other. Then I felt the canvas being pushed in close to my head. It was the bear, sniffing the tent. Its large, wet snout ran inquisitively across the fly sheet, leaving a trail of slime on the thin nylon material. The bear was so close to me that I could feel its stinking fish breath deep down in my lungs. A cold shiver ran down my spine. I looked over at Eske and Morten, who were just as terrified as I was. Suddenly Eske whispered that he had to pee. The intense stress must have been too much for him. I saw how he was lying in the sleeping bag, squeezing his legs convulsively together to hold onto his water.
“Lie still! It’s still there,” whispered Morten.
But after a little while, Eske spoke up again: “I really have got to pee.”
“Then pee in your sleeping bag,” Morten hissed in annoyance.
Eske ran his eyes down over his new, specially made goose-down sleeping bag. could see that he was thinking it would be completely destroyed. Instead he stuck his hand out, pulled over a small plastic bucket, and carefully unzipped his sleeping bag. Eske’s urination could soon be heard, followed by a soft sigh of relief. But now the tent began to move. It was the bear trying to lie across the fly sheet. The plastic bucket tumbled around in the tumult, and the contents began to slosh around in the tent, reaching halfway up to the edge of the groundsheet Eske and I had brought. Luckily, it was the extra thick model. It was worse for Morten, who had chosen the thin version. His sleeping bag was soaked in pee, clumping the down together. Morten howled in disgust. In the same instant, from inside the tent we could hear the bear tumble off at high speed through the brush. Whether it was Morten’s wail that scared the bear, I do not know. But it was gone.
Myth from the field
I go to visit Nikolay Likhachev, or Igor Khanas he is called in the village. Apart from a Christian name, every Yukaghir also has a nickname, which has the purpose of confusing the evil spirits. The nickname may be in Yukaghir or in Russian such as “Chemodanchik,” which means “the Little Suitcase.” What the nicknames have in common is their reference to an unflattering trait of the person. Thus, Chemodanchik
is the nickname for a short, fat man with a rather square body build. As for the nickname Igor Khan, nobody can remember the exact meaning anymore. Some think it means “the One-Eyed,” because he is blind in one eye. Igor Khan is special in more ways than one. He is the oldest living Yukaghir. In fact, nobody knows for sure how old he is, not even himself, because he was born before the community registered births. But people estimate that he is at least ninety. His grandfather was one of the last Yukaghir shamans. Igor Khan began the long training to become a shaman himself, but his course was halted by the advance of Communism in the 1930s. Nevertheless, his partial training has given him a special insight into the spirit world. He knows more about the spirits than most and is much more explicit about what
he knows. Perhaps for that reason, Igor Khan is a marginalized and feared figure in Nelemnoye. His name is associated with dozens of frightening and inexplicable events. For example, some years ago, he was lying mortally debilitated by tuberculosis. During the night, the dogs of the village began to howl plaintively in chorus, a sure sign that somebody would die. Everybody presumed that it was old Igor Khan who was about to expire. Instead, a youth of only seventeen hanged himself. The next day, Igor Khan was on his feet, running around as if he had been born anew. All traces of tuberculosis had vanished. People in the village claimed he used his magical abilities to steal the boy’s good health. So they have warned me against visiting him. But for me Igor Khan is a key person in my anthropological fieldwork about the Yukaghirs’ belief in spirits.
Igor Khan’s sled dogs howl when I approach his little log cabin, which is hidden away on the outskirts of the village. Igor Khan sticks his wrinkled troll face out. His spiky hair with mixed shades of gray sticks out on all sides like a brush. Under the countless creases and convolutions of his face, I can just glimpse his only functioning, but extremely penetrating, eye, which looks inquisitively at me. He is dressed in a padded jacket and canvas trousers. On his feet he has a pair of long leather boots whose shafts reach almost up to his groin.
“Oh, it’s you. Come in,” he says in broken Russian, revealing his last two teeth, one in the upper jaw and one in the lower. We go inside. The room, which is equipped solely with a wooden bench and a small table, is indistinguishable from a hunting cabin. There are wood shavings and garbage lying everywhere, and the stench is almost unbearable. But Igor Khan does not seem to mind. His little manikin body, which is just under five feet tall, seems wiry and agile for his age. When he strides forward through the filth, it is as if he is dancing lightly over it, almost without his feet touching the floor.
“What do you want?” asks Igor Khan, and he yawns loudly— a signal to me not to stay too long.
“I’d like to hear about death. What happens when you die?” I ask as I sit down. Igor Khan smacks his lips pensively. When he goes to say something, he breaks out in a vigorous coughing fit, which ends with a decent gob of spit on the floor. But then the words flow. “When a human, a moose, or other being dies, its soul (Yukaghir,
ayibii) travels down to the Land of Shadows (Yukaghir, Ayibii-lebie ), which is the resting place for all the dead souls. The same applies to a cup that gets broken, or a house that burns down; all their souls travel to the Land of Shadows, where they regain their original shape. The dead souls gather in a colossal city, the Other Moscow. I know this because I have been there myself.” I look at him in incomprehension, but Igor Khan continues unabashed.
“Once, when I was hunting, I fell through a hole in the ground. I stood up and looked around me. It was as dark as a tomb. I lit a match and could see footprints leading in through a long passage and on into a cave. I followed the prints and came to a colossal city on the opposite bank of a dark river. Where I was standing, there was a canoe (Russian, vetka ) with its paddle dripping water, as if somebody had just used it. I sat in the canoe and paddled over to the city. It was gigantic. Buildings of all kinds towered up around me: tents, wooden houses, high-rise blocks, and skyscrapers in a total mess. Thousands of people of all nationalities, Yukaghirs, Yakuts, and Russians, were walking around the city. There must have been Danes like you there, too, but at the time I didn’t know what they looked like. None of the people could see me. To them, I was invisible. “I noticed a Yukaghir family living in a bark tent. They were sitting eating rotten meat. It was as black as charcoal. And the tea they were drinking was also completely black. Now I know that it’s because they were consuming the “shadows” of our meat and tea. It was disgusting, but I was hungry, so I snatched a piece of meat.
“‘Who took my meat?’ the daughter cried. But of course none of them could see that it was me. After they had eaten, the family went to bed. I lay down beside the daughter, as used to be the tradition for a guest. She was fat and lovely, so I took my trousers off and penetrated her with my penis. “The girl gave a terrible howl: ‘My tummy hurts! My tummy hurts!’
“Her parents woke up, and when the girl went on screaming, they fetched a shaman.
“I recognized the shaman. It was my grandfather, who had died a few years previously. When he looked at me, it was as if two rays of light went through me: ‘You are not dead. What are you doing here?’
“I told him that it was all a mistake and that I just wanted to go home. Then he laid a piece of horse leather in his hand and ordered me to sit on it. In the same instant I was flying through the air on the back of a horse. It went so fast that my ears got cold.
“Suddenly I found myself beside the hole that I had fallen down into. It was morning, and I could see everything clearly. I went home to Nelemnoye. A group of men came and asked me where I had been, as they had been out looking for me.
“‘I was in a big city,’ I replied.
“‘Which one?’ they asked. ‘There are no big cities here.’
“I asked them how long I had been gone.
“‘Two months,’ they replied. ‘We thought you were dead.’
“I thought I had been gone for only two days. When my father heard about my experiences, he became terror-stricken. ‘You’ve been in the Land of Shadows. We must find that hole and cover it over so that other people don’t fall into it.’
“We tried to find the place but couldn’t. You see, that’s why I can tell you for certain where the soul goes after death. When I die, I’ll see the lovely girl again.”
Igor Khan laughs aloud. I am quite stunned by his account and do not know what to think. I wonder whether he really experienced the realm of the dead, or is the whole thing perhaps something he dreamed?
“Does the soul stay living in the Land of Shadows?” I ask.
“No. A person’s soul will live in the Land of Shadows until the moment a woman among his or her living relatives becomes pregnant. Then the soul will return to be reborn in the child. The two will then become one and the same person, and the child must be named after the deceased. We always greet a newborn baby with the words:
Myth from Home
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.
5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,
7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time
16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,
17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,
18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.