Tuesday, July 6, 2010

As far as I know Claude Levi-Strauss never visited Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), though we know he was familiar with the work of Haida artist Bill Reid, at least enough to write a second edition “Preface” to a book of Reid’s retellings of Haida legends and myths, or “mere glancing versions," as Reid put it.

The Raven Steals the Light (1988) is a curious project. Inside are nine “stories”, each prefaced by a Reid drawing, each attributed to Reid and Robert Bringhurst, a poet, typographer and something of a gadfly when it comes to Haida literature.

Bringhurst’s role is strange in light of comments made by Levi-Strauss and Reid.

In dedicating this book to Haida storyteller Henry Young, Reid wrote:

“I wish I had had more patience and had spent the tiny part of my life he requested, to learn something of the wonderful language he spoke so resonantly and well, and to learn more of the stories of all the mythcreatures whose many adventures instructed, informed and entertained the Haidas during their long history.”

So there it is: Reid did not know the Haida language. But he knew English, and was throughout the 1950s a writer-broadcaster at CBC radio. So how does that explain Bringhurst’s contribution?

Nowhere in The Raven Steals the Light does it say how the Reid-Bringhurst co-authorship came about, or why it exists. The only direct attribution to Bringhurst is a 174-word italicization entitled Haida Gwaii (also italicized), which, though it appears on the contents page, is, unlike Levi-Strauss’s “Preface” and Reid’s “Prologue”, unascribed (only after we read the piece do we see that Bringhurst wrote it). As for the content of the piece, we learn that “Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the People, lies equidistant from Luxor, Machu Pichu, Ninevah and Timbuktu,” and that the islands’ namesake is “a woman who never saw them” – Sophie Charlotte Von Meckenburg-Strelitz, who married “the Mad King of England, George III.” If this tour of ancient civilizations should not suffice, Bringhurst concludes with the influence of trickster Raven, and not European colonialism, on why “Haidas and outsiders alike” refer to these islands by their imperial name.

Levi-Strauss tells a different story. At the beginning of his “Preface” we are treated to an anecdote that, inadvertently or otherwise, makes a mess of Reid’s achievement, particularly in light of Reid’s admission: that he does not know the Haida language.

In 1974, while the Levi-Strausses are waiting for a ferry to Alert Bay, Levi-Strauss strikes up a conversation with a “young-looking Indian man in a pink tracksuit.” The man, a decorated athlete, tells the anthropologist that he is returning to his Kwakiutl home, to take up sculpture, which, he adds, will be “difficult,” because he will have to learn the language. “His words seem very revealing,” writes Levi-Strauss, “since the traditional arts of the Indians of the Northwest Coast are indissolubly linked to legends and myths.”

And if you do not know the language in which those legends and myths are told, what might that sculpture look like?

At the conclusion of his “Preface”, Levi-Strauss, while acknowledging Reid’s language deficit, insists that evidence of the artist’s “intimate knowledge” of Haida legends and myths lies in the presence of his “masterworks.” This is an odd assertion, the same "logic" that was noted by my teacher’s teacher, Stanley Diamond, who, also in 1974 (In Search of the Primitive), attacked Levi-Strauss for his a priori reasoning and insistence on the universality of underlying binary structures in determining a culture's shape. Which leads me to wonder, What would Bringhurst make of this?

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