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Rereading Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Ethnographer”

By Matthias Teeuwen        I have read “The Ethnographer” and “Dr. Brodie’s Report” without thinking much of it. Sure, I had found it curious that Borges, who ranks among my favourite authors, would devote some of his writings to ethnography, but I haven’t thought much of it. Or, to be precise, I had planned to do my thinking on it at a later time. So when I came across an article in HAU Journal (2016, Volume 6, nr. 2) by Edgardo Krebs who argues that the anthropologist Alfred Métraux was Jorge Luis Borges’ inspiration to write the two stories, my curiosity was piqued. By reading the article by Krebs and re-reading “The Ethnographer” I have come to see the story as a challenge to the ethnographic endeavour of anthropology.

In this article Krebs relates the affinities and differences the two had. They both belonged to a circle of poets, artists and intellectuals that were active in Buenos Aires around the 1930s. Métraux was an ethnographer from Switzerland who spent most of his youth in Argentina. Borges was an erudite author who inspired the literary genre of “magical realism”. Métraux, it seems, was the inspiration for “The Ethnographer” and “Dr. Brodie’s Report” that Borges wrote in 1969 and 1970 respectively. Here I will turn to the shorter of the two stories: “The Ethnographer”.

“The Ethnographer” describes the career of Fred Murdock from Texas. Borges writes that he “was naturally respectful, and he distrusted neither books nor the men and women who write them”. He studied Amerindian languages at the university and was given the chance to study the initiation rites of an undisclosed tribe in a reservation in the west of the United States. His aim was to discover the secret doctrine passed down from medicine men to novices. So “he lived for more than two years on the prairie” and “came to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers”. He faithfully recorded what he saw and heard and subsequently destroyed his field notes. “Perhaps to avoid drawing suspicion upon himself, perhaps because he no longer needed them.” We will never know.

He learned the secret, unexpectedly left the reservation, and returned to the university. There he tells his professor that he has discovered the secret but will not reveal it. Why? He was not bound by oath. Nor does he think that the English language cannot express it. The reason he does not disclose the secret is that a scientific expression of it cannot do justice to it. He adds: “And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.” The story ends with the announcement-like statement that the ethnographer “married, divorced, and is now one of the librarians at Yale”.

Why did Borges write such a tale? The first time I read it, I was struck by the abrupt ending: Even though the ethnographer in the story had learned the secret he does not want to write an ethnographic monograph on his findings nor does he want to live among the Indians. I did not recognise the debate that lay behind the story. I was impressed by the way Borges succinctly captured a central problem of ethnographers: How can you adequately describe the lives of others? And intrigued by the answer alluded to by Borges: you can’t.

The article shed more light on the matter by looking at the differences between Borges and Métraux. As Krebs says “Métraux and Borges crossed paths in several publications”: The main difference between the two men might be caught in the juxtaposition of description and interpretation. In “The Ethnographer” Borges critiques description. According to him, true knowledge does not come with describing and recording cultural perspectives but with examining and deconstructing one’s own cultural perspective. (This idea is worked out by Borges in the essay “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.)

“The Ethnographer” presents Borges’ answer to the meticulous ethnographic work of Métraux. Métraux was driven by ethnographic enterprise of recording the lives and practices of the Indian tribes in Argentina and by the refusal to classify them as inferior to European culture (which was vogue in Argentina at the time). He wanted to incorporate the richness of Indian cultures into the self-representation of Argentineans. So while Borges shared Métraux concern with familiarising Argentinean society with its Indian heritage he disagreed with Métraux’ methods, preferring interpretation to description.

I would like to argue that “The Ethnographer” presents a challenge to ethnographic writing. It challenges us to find ways to convey otherness adequately and to find ways to overcome the “problem of otherness”. Let us not respond to otherness like the ethnographer in the story who keeps his unique encounter with the “other” to himself. Instead, ethnography should expose the hermeneutical process that is at work in the encounter with the other, showing how these encounters not only teach us something of the other but also teaches us something of ourselves.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of cultural anthropology and theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science. 

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