Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Interview: Emma Anderson

In the latest of the blog's original interviews, the political scientist Ray Taras, whose scholarship includes many publications on ethnic conflict and belonging, interviewed historian and religionist Emma Anderson about her new book, The Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Native Convert (Harvard University Press, 2007).

One exchange from the interview:
Taras: You explain on page 49 that all-night torture sessions of prisoners carried out by both Innu and Mohawk were an affirmation of key cultural values shared by these antagonistic groups. Torture was understood as a mark of respect for the victim. Elsewhere you seem to regard physical privations (as in the winter trip of the protagonists made in 1633-34) as less severe than psychological traumas. Can you elaborate on why you are more concerned with psychological than corporal scars?

Anderson: I’m not sure that the pain explored in this book can be separated into neat categories of “physical suffering” and “psychological suffering” in quite the way in which you suggest, or that the amount of attention given to each can be neatly tallied. As you point out, suffering is a prominent theme in this book, be it the abstract analysis of the religious and sociological rationale behind indigenous post-war practices that you mention, or in its examination of the experiences of the young man who is the primary subject of this book.

Take, for instance, my presentation of Pastedechouan’s death. By any measure, to die alone of starvation and exposure would represent a terrifying ordeal. In the pages devoted to Pastedechouan’s death, I try to evoke what such an experience would likely have been like – the panic, the attempts to re-establish contact with potential rescuers, the attempt to construct shelter and create fire – and to chart the physiological symptoms of death from exposure – first pain, then numbness, then the illusion of warmth and the overwhelming desire to sleep. After evoking Pastedechouan’s likely actions and somatic experiences, however, I also address his likely state of mind. How would Pastedechouan have interpreted his apparent abandonment by his human kin? by the Innu pantheon? by the Christian God? How would he have interpreted the world which awaited him after death? How would these musings have inflected his experiences during his last hours? My assumption in posing these questions is that the two forms of suffering cannot be separated, as “physical” experiences are always inflected by psychological perceptions, and vice versa.

Another brief example from the book makes the same point. In Chapter Four, Paul Le Jeune’s experiences on the winter hunt are examined. In this case, too, physical and psychological torment are prominent, and, arguably, inescapably intertwined. In the middle of his winter with Pastedechouan’s kin, Le Jeune falls seriously ill, displaying a range of symptoms from vomiting to dizzy spells. Le Jeune’s own analysis of his sickness combines prosaic causations (the dried meat did not agree with his stomach) to a much more complex religious explanation in which he contrasts his spiritual health in a time of dearth to his spiritual sickness in a time of plenty. My analysis of Le Jeune’s ailment explores its physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions, as well as exploring how his ill-health was explained by the Innu community in which he was embedded.

There is one sense, however, in which I am, as you suggest “more concerned with psychological than corporal scars.” If I were forced at gunpoint to admit a distinction between physical and psychological suffering, and to indicate which is the more painful, I would indeed hold that psychological suffering is the more severe, simply because one’s psychological outlook regarding the meaning or meaninglessness of one’s physical suffering seems to affect how this suffering is perceived and experienced (for good or for ill). For example, Pastedechouan`s documented obsession with hellfire in the last years of his life would doubtless have sharpened rather than blunted the agony (both physical and psychological) of his final hours.
Read the complete Taras-Anderson interview.

Read about The Betrayal of Faith at the Harvard University Press website. Learn more about Emma Anderson's teaching, research, and other publications at her faculty webpage.

The Page 69 Test: The Betrayal of Faith.

--Marshal Zeringue