A new world in the New World

The Indians converted to Christianity by the European Jesuits were enthusiastic but “inconstant”. If they opened up to foreign cults, it was more, according to Viveiros de Castro, out of cannibalistic tradition than out of “faith”.

Was Lévi-Strauss right to say that the Indians welcomed the Europeans as if they had always been waiting for them, because their vision of the world required otherness, a bit like a hollow puzzle piece waiting for a protruding piece? ? The history of the evangelization of the Indians of Brazil by the Portuguese Jesuits deviates from the usual alternative between resistance and absorption. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro shows, the Indians received the words of the Gospel with enthusiasm, but without ever really believing them. From there was born the reputation ofinconstancy of the wild soul.

Jesuits and Tupinamba: the clash of ontologies

Labor et Fides publishes The Fickleness of the Wild Soul by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, author already known in France for Cannibal metaphysics. This publication gives a French-speaking and non-specialist audience the opportunity to discover a familiar text from Americanist anthropologists that touches on history, social sciences and philosophy. The author offers an analysis of modern Brazilian ethnography and a social theory of Tupinamba cannibalism, an ethnonym which designates various Indian groups from the Brazilian coast to the XVIe And XVIIe centuries. To do this, he quotes extensively and comments on a rich corpus of colonial literature, and one of the interests of the book is to introduce the French-speaking reader to Portuguese Jesuit literature of the modern era (José de Anchieta, Manuel da Nóbrega, etc.). The text is divided into two parts: “The problem of disbelief in XVIe century in Brazil” and “How the Tupinamba lost the war”.

The work of E. Viveiros de Castro is part of one of the major projects of contemporary anthropology which consists of describing and showing the variety of ontologies, that is to say systems of representation of the world which structure cosmologies, social links , and theories of identity and otherness of different cultures. Like Ph. Descola, the author is particularly interested in the deep mental and behavioral patterns which determine the various perceptions of reality and the social productions of groups. Through cannibals and Catholics, it was not simple morals that met, but different ontologies. This is what this book describes: the impossible encounter between two distinct mental structures and, in the brief moment when the Indians were spared, the composition of a new world in the New World. On the surface, contact between European and Native American societies produced friction, exchanges and many misunderstandings. Deeply, it shook the foundations of Christian Europe. As D. Barbu and Ph. Borgeaud say in their preface, “the cannibalistic moment… is inscribed at the very sources of modernity” (p. 24). The Fickleness of the Wild Soul also claims the influence of J. Clifford who proposed rewriting the history of contacts based on the principle that certain societies are founded not on identity, but on exchange and dynamic relationships with others.

Plant inconstancy

Viveiros de Castro recounts how the Portuguese Jesuits landing in the New World saw themselves as the first Christians evangelizing the Gentiles. To their great surprise, the Indians of the coast of Brazil were much less resistant than the pagans of the ancient Mediterranean: they received catechism, asked enthusiastic questions about God, attended mass, and made the sign of the cross. They seemed to have no religion and were quite ready to adopt Christ. Soon, they said, they would stop living naked, abandon the customs of their ancestors and adopt those of Europeans. The optimistic phase of Jesuit evangelization did not last long. The missionaries quickly noticed that as soon as their backs were turned, the embers returned “to the vomit of their ancient practices” (p. 37): vendetta, cannibalism, drinking bouts, polygyny, etc.

The Portuguese discovered that the Indians were “incapable of believing or capable of believing everything, which amounts to the same thing” (p. 30). They concluded that they were “inconstant,” and “the inconstancy of the savage soul” became the touchstone of Jesuit anthropology. To use the metaphor of the “emperor of the Portuguese language” António Vieira, the Indians were like these statues carved from myrtle bushes which must constantly be maintained, and which “without the hand and the scissors of the gardener, lose their new appearance and return to the old and natural brutality, to the wild state where they were before” (p. 28). This conception of Amerindian nature as plant-based, fickle and unfit for civilization had serious political consequences in the short and long term: sequestration of Indian children in Jesuit schools (p. 153), importation of African slaves deemed more capable of domestication (p. 32), indigenous discourses and practices of the Brazilian state (p. 39).

An open society

What despaired the Jesuits above all was “the Tupinamba version of the ‘problem of unbelief in XVIe century”” (p. 76). It is in the chapter “The hardness of faith” (p. 73-89) that we clearly understand why this book is published in a collection of History of Religions. Viveiros de Castro addresses the question of religious faith by maintaining that it is not an autonomous psychological phenomenon, but that it implies, as its condition of possibility, a form of social structure which did not exist among the Tupinamba : a closed society organized around a centralized and transcendent power. Inspired by P. Veyne and J. Clifford, the author writes very suggestive pages here (p. 78-84). The Tupinamba do not speak “the theocratic language of belief” (p. 82), because there is faith only when there is principle, and there is principle only when society is closed. The principle is in fact a sacred idea which establishes the community by binding its members and distinguishing them from others. However, Tupi society is not formally based on a closure of identity, but on exchange with otherness. Since it is not based on principles, its members are not determined to have faith. Viveiros de Castro thus clarifies here one of J. Clifford’s ideas according to which the concept of society does not necessarily imply the closure of identity: there are in fact societies structured by the relationship and the exchange with otherness (p 46).

Théodore de Bry, scene of cannibalism, XVIe century

The openness to otherness characteristic of Tupi society meant that it seemed to desire “(its) own perdition” (p. 43). How can we understand this society, so strange for us, who believe that “the being of a society is in its perseverance” (p. 45)? What Viveiros de Castro calls the “ontological incompleteness” (p. 83) of the Tupinamba would explain their desire for otherness. What made them metaphorically drink the words of the priests is also what made them literally ingest their enemies. The analysis of the revenge complex and warlike exo-cannibalism clearly illustrates this dependence on others. The honor of avenging the dead gave Tupi society its “centrifugal momentum” (p. 63). The Tupinamba took captives whom they put to death and ate ritually. In return, they attracted the wrath of their enemies and thus maintained the endless cycle of revenge. The culmination of the ritual was not the cannibalistic feast, but the dialogue between the victim and the killer. The condemned man claimed his own status as a killer by reciting the names of those he had killed, and announced that he would soon be avenged in his turn by his own people. The group was therefore heteronomous to the point of placing its memory and its future in the hands of its enemies. Revenge was the driving force of social time. It placed the “truth of society” in the “hands of Others”.

Between philosophy and ethnography

We can regret that the distinction between belief and faith is sometimes vague in a book where this question is central. Indeed, Viveiros de Castro seeks to show that the Tupinamba have beliefs, but not faith. As the author understands it, faith is a form of belief: visceral belief in something that we consider sacred. Having faith is thus the characteristic of someone who is “constant”, that is to say who attaches himself body and soul to an object. Thus the “inconstant” is the one who believes without having faith. The distinction is mentioned in particular on p. 45 when the author seeks to characterize the “mode of believing without faith” (acreditar sem fé) Indians. Also, when he mentions the absence among the Tupi of a “theocratic language of belief” (early theoretical language) (p. 82), we should rather say “theocratic language of the faith”.

At the limit of anthropology there is always the question of language: the concepts of society, religion and war are so loaded with Western meaning that, while proving necessary to make us see otherness, they risk losing it. reduce. In an interview for the magazine Ballast, P. Déléage criticizes E. Viveiros de Castro for putting academic mental constructions in the heads of Indians. This criticism is sometimes heard, it is true, with regard to The Fickleness of the Wild Soul, often more conceptual than ethnographic. But as P. Déléage himself agrees, there is a “fascinating” side to the “theoretical freedoms” of E. Viveiros de Castro. Because in addition to its literary and historiographical quality, this text has the advantage of reestablishing the ontological fault that separated the European and American worlds at the time of contact. In this, it goes against a problematic tendency in ethno-history to level out the differences between civilizations in order to better compare them. Far from serving the interests of Others, the humanist reflex is the most misleading expression of Western ethnocentrism. By discarding it, we now see how difficult the history of contact is to write, but also how much more interesting.