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August '08

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The Voice Against the Voice:
Vodou, Psychoanalysis and Zora Neale Hurston
By:  Ed Cameron

August 2008

 “But she looked at me, or so I felt, to speak for her.
She depended on me for a voice.”
-Zora Neale Hurston
(Dust Tracks on the Road)


             In 1936 Zora Neale Hurston received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study Obeah practices in the West Indies.  This fellowship, which was renewed in 1937, was the culmination of her anthropological studies under the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia University.  During her productive time in Haiti, Hurston not only composed her most famous fictitious work There Eyes Were Watching God, but she also completed the anthropological fieldwork on Vodou that resulted in her 1938 ethnographic study Tell my Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica.  In Tell My Horse, Hurston’s semi-professional narrative account of Vodou in Haiti maintains a precarious balance between the viewpoint of an outside observer and the viewpoint of an initiate. 

             This precarious balance has led to a conflict at the heart of the critical reception of Tell My Horse, a conflict that brings to light a deep tension running through Hurston’s brand of ethnography.  Early on while reviewing Hurston’s use of Vodou in her literary work Alain Locke claimed that her folklorification of Haitian Vodou possesses the tendency to romanticize the past, and Richard Wright similarly argued that Hurston panders to her white readers’ needs by re-enforcing the stereotypical black superstitious primitive.   More recently, Paul Gilroy has claimed that Hurston’s desire to idealize African heritage has blinded her from seeing cultural transformation and made her resistant to social change.  Willy Apollon has argued that folklorification, in general, is “one of the most subtle forms of social control of Haitian Vodou” and possibly tames the social crisis instigated by the Vodou practices by reducing it to the empire of signs (par. 11). 

             Others, however, view Hurston’s ethnographic work from an opposing perspective.  Amy Fass Emery, contrary to Apollon, argues that Hurston’s celebrated folklore “has the power to be aggressively subversive,” that it “gives a voice to those on the margins who seek to challenge their oppressors” (328).  Noticing Hurston’s active participation during her studies and her refusal to merely collect field notes, Miriam DeCosta Willis argues that Hurston’s unique brand of anthropology actually shows black art to be a “living, breathing thing” (87).  Echoing this sentiment, Gwendolyn Mikell asserts that Hurston’s text actually provides an insider’s understanding of Vodou and is not written from the traditional anthropologist’s outsider’s perspective (224). Ifeoma Nwankwo further notices how Hurston’s ethnographic style refuses to completely silence her voice as a member of a community in order to play the role of the objective anthropologist (52).

             Hurston’s ethnographic style and practice may have been avante-garde and may have pioneered the new ethnography of the 1950s and 1960s, but it also leads to an unstable tone of voice in Tell My Horse, a instability tied to Hurston’s conflicting desire to be both an analyst of Vodou and a participant.  In his study of Vodou completed just eight years after Hurston’s, Dr. Louis Mars has even concluded that during a Vodou ritual or ceremony the line separating spectators and actors is eliminated, forcing even an outside observer to take a double role (13).  This dual role creates the double-edged voice Hurston utilizes to narrate her text, and this double-edged voice is responsible for the tension that critics have noticed.  By introducing a psychoanalytic framework in order to account for Hurston’s unique voice, one can illustrate how her narrative style replicates the double-sided voice that emerges within the Vodou possession ritual from where Hurston borrows her text’s title.  My essay, therefore, argues that the split nature of the “mounted” voice is performatively replicated in Hurton’s ethnographic account of Haiti and Haitian Vodou rituals.  Approaching her narrative through a psychoanalytically-inflected interpretation further illustrates how Hurston’s split voice, which ultimately articulates an indirect discourse of possession, unconsciously attempts to undermine her support for the established protocols of anthropological investigation.

Vodou and Psychoanalysis

            Even though most people would not draw a correlation between a Caribbean pagan religion and a Viennese pseudo science, Vodou and psychoanalytic practices, in general, share numerous characteristics.  During her initiation into the Vodou cults of Haiti, Hurston mentions numerous cases of initiates being therapeutically relieved of their ill fortune from different loa (Vodou gods) like Damballah and Erzulie Freida.  During these ceremonies, according to Hurston, specific sums of money are required for the initiate’s desired effect; sometimes the loa himself demands payment in gold (188).  From an outsider’s perspective this mandated payment may appear as a scam, but from the perspective of an insider payment displays faith in the success of the ceremony.  One likewise often hears about the financial racket of psychoanalysis.  Clients pay what for most is a large sum of money to some quack who makes the analysand do all the work, never telling his patients anything concrete about their psychological conditions.  But payment for the psychoanalytic session has much the same strategy as it does in Vodou ceremonies: to elicit transference.  Once the analysand or the initiate pays for his or her services, he or she illustrates the fact that he or she has transferred onto the analyst or the houngan or the mambo the faith that this figure knows what he or she is doing.  Both practices realize that transference is an essential ingredient for the initial success of the respective ritual. 

            Another similarity between Vodou and psychoanalysis revolves around the Paket Kongo, commonly known as the Vodou doll.  It is a “magical and/or protective bundle, often vaguely anthropomorphic in shape” (Wyrick).  This ouanga, or charm, can be used for malevolent or protective purposes through sympathetic magic.  It functions as an indirect means of affecting someone because it supposedly houses externally the most intimate part of the person to be affected.  In this way the Paket Kongo resembles the objet petit a utilized in the Lacanian clinical field, the virtual object that plays a fundamental role in forcing the analysand to traverse his or her fundamental fantasy. 

             Even more revealing is the connection between the zombie of Vodou and the uncanny in psychoanalysis.  In Hurston’s words zombies “are bodies without souls”; they are the “living dead” (179).  Usually, an initiate has bartered the soul of a loved one to a bocor, a practitioner of supernatural Vodou, for some type of earthly benefit.  The loved one soon dies and his or her soul is stolen by the bocor for services rendered.  The deceased loved one is then left to wander the earth soulless as a cheap laborer.  The truly uncanny aspect of the zombie is how it represents a return to the drudgery of slavery, a return to a state that, in Freud’s understanding of the uncanny, should have remained long dead and buried.  In Haitian culture zombification is a fate worse than death precisely because zombies act like they’re still living under French colonial or American military rule.  Zombies are soulless to the precise extent that they are occupied by an outside force, and, in this way, they symbolize an uncanny return to a state when Haitians lacked autonomy over their own affairs.

             While all three of these connections between Vodou and psychoanalysis are suggestive and may even prompt further investigation, the Vodou practice of possession, or mounting, draws together Vodou, psychoanalysis and Hurston into a more meaningful accord.  In fact the title of Hurston’s text Tell My Horse is derived from the Vodou practice of a loa mounting an initiate like a horse and speaking to the ceremonial congregation through his or her body and mouth.  “Tell my horse,” therefore, refers to the verbal transaction between the spirit loa and the bodily initiate.  The equestrian terminology used to denote the Vodou practice of possession stems from the untamed actions of the possessed initiate, which is reminiscent of the “bucking of a wild horse, who feels the weight of a rider on his back” (Metraux 122).

             The Vodou loas only become incarnate in and through the bodies of their servitors.    During a ritual, a houngan will demand of Damballah, “the highest and most powerful of the gods” (Hurston 118), the authority or permission to enter into communication with a loa, and then the loa will become incarnate in the houngan or in an initiate (Hurston 225).  According to Joan Dayan, “The language of possession […]—that moment when the god inhabits the head of his or her servitor—articulates the reciprocal abiding of human and god.  The ‘horse’ is said to be mounted and ridden by the god.  The event is not a matter of domination, but a kind of double movement of attenuation and expansion.  For make no mistake about it, the loa cannot appear in epiphany, cannot be made manifest on earth without the person who becomes the temporary receptacle or mount.  And the possessed gives herself up to become an instrument in a social and collective drama.”  Contrary to some traditional views that the possessed experience is one of “psychic disruption, or proof of pathology,” initiates’ possession is “the result of intense discipline and study, for not everyone can know how to respond to the demands and expectations of her god” (Dayan).

             Possession usually occurs during religious ceremonies and the individual can become possessed for reasons varying from a means of an escape from an unpleasant situation to self-punishment to providing pleasure to those “ground down by life” (Métraux 134).  Dr. Mars has outlined the basic symptoms of possession (24).  The possessed individual takes on a new personality, belonging to the loa who has inhabited him or her.  Possession then causes an appropriate change in the voice and facial features of the possessed individual, and the possessed individual’s behavior will often be characterized by motor excitement: uncontrollable dancing, writhing in the dirt and/or cataleptic posture.  Also, the possessed individual will develop glossomania, ranging from unintelligible speech to enigmatic utterances.  Finally, the possessed will develop sensitivity abnormalities and suffer from post-possession amnesia.  Even though some possession rituals appear very theatrical, Vodou custom dictates that no possessed individual is acting; rather, the possessed becomes the character of the loa who inhabits him or her.  According to Métraux, the possessed individual “becomes not only the vessel but also the instrument of the god” (120).  Since it is the personality and the thoughts of the loa that are expressed during possession, “the individual in a state of trance is in no way responsible for his deeds and words” (Métraux 132).   

             Loas are said to ascend from below the water into the heads of their people much in the way unconscious thought might be said to emerge in speech.  It is also said that the loas “gain sustenance from the most intimate moments of their people” and that they suffer when “implicated in the general zombification of Haitians” (Dayan).  They indeed seem to represent a sort of life force of Vodou practitioners.  When an initiate is mounted he or she possesses a vitality, a courage and a voice that is otherwise nonexistent.  Examining the voice as an object of drive reveals the connection between Vodou possession and psychoanalysis.  Interestingly enough, Hurston, herself, refers to one of the spirits as “Grande Libido” (236).

             In psychoanalysis, voice is one of the five objects of the drive, along with breast, feces, phallus and gaze.  The voice specifically refers to that in speech which is beyond the grasp of the signifier in general and, in religion, that which is beyond the word, corresponding to the ineffability of God (Dolar 22).  It is, according to Mladen Dolar, “not a function of the signifier, since it presents a nonsignifying remainder, something resistant to the signifying operations, a leftover heterogenous in relation to the structural logic which eludes it” (10).  But this notion of the voice has nothing to do with some unique individuality of the voice, some idiosyncratic quirk in the personal speaker’s voice because the object never fits the body.  In this manner the voice as object of drive relates to the voice of the possessed Vodou servitor.  During possession, the servitor speakes through his or her body and speaks relatively understandable utterances, but the voice itself remains an odd kind of object voice beyond the utterance.   

             Accordingly, psychoanalysis does not believe that we as humans can speak because we have been endowed with the bio-physiological capability to speak but because the object voice, the voice that used to belong to Mother as the first embodiment of the Other, demands that we speak.  Without this demand our bio-physiological speech organs would be rendered useless.  This demand, which is nothing other than drive itself, emanates from a sort of pre-historical realm of the individual and intervenes into the present.  In the same manner the voice of the loa that emerges during the Vodou ritual of possession figures an ancient tradition intervening into the present.  Not only is this voice of the loa a remainder or afterlife of African cultural memory, but it functions as a reminder in the present of the marrionage, the drive that resulted in the 18th-century slave revolts that led to Haitian independence. 

             That the Creole term for god loa is pronounced very similar to the French term for law (loi) can be very telling.  When a houngan calls for the voice of the loa to speak through his body or that of an initiate, he is, in a sense, calling for the voice of the law.  And in normal psychoanalytic parlance the voice pertaining to the law is nothing other than the voice of the superego, the voice that buttresses and supports the law.  There simply is no law without the voice.  The voice as remainder testifies that the law is founded only by an act.  Therefore, the voice further bears witness to that which could not be absorbed by the law at its founding moment.  And what is not absorbed by the law can serve one of two functions: it can either seal the law as the voice of the superego does, or it can haunt the law by giving voice to the law’s lacking foundation.  The voice then appears to be a voice that is inherently split, one side that “endows the law with authority and one that irretrievably bars it” (Dolar 30). 

             The latter voice is undoubtedly the voice in Vodou possession rituals that drove the Haitians to rebel from slavery and defeat the law of French colonial rule.  It functioned as a loosening of libido away from support for the law and therefore had to once again fall under the service of the law after the War of Independence.  According to Apollon, the very voice that drove the enslaved peasantry to overthrow the unjust law of colonial rule had to be transformed into the voice that supported the new law of Independence.  During the order of Independence possession rituals were theatricalized and folkorified, emasculating and restraining the libidinal energies of Vodou rituals into a superstitious side show that supported the law of the new ruling elite.  The erotic nature of the ritual of possession was simply aestheticized.  After Independence, possession no longer constituted a historic socio-political crisis as it had under French rule.  The Vodou ritual of possession simply became overdetermined by the political, and the staging of possession simply served a national fantasy.

             This was most obvious in Duvalier’s particular brand of noirisme.  In what Dayan has called “Duvalier’s cynical exploitation of vodou for political ends,” it became virtually impossible to envision Vodou possession as a practice in the service of “collective liberation and renewed consciousness.”  Duvalier mimed Baron Semedi, the Vodou god of death, not only by donning his signature dark glasses and bowler hat but by sending thousands to the grave where his loa resides.  “Once connected to accounts of blood-drinking in the palace and the eating of enemies on the roads, Vodou became less a place of survival (or marronnage) and more a signal for sorcery, terror and the gratuitous exploits of the dread[ed] Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier’s secret police” (Dayan).  Duvalier’s heavy-handed incorporation of his secret police into Vodou ritual bears witness to the superegoic fact that the law requires someone or some supernatural force to do its hidden dirty work.

             But everywhere that Vodou rituals function to support the law or are controlled by those practitioners in privileged relationships with the loas, the law is also secretly re-worked from within by possession’s libidinal duplicity.  The mounting by the loas has also often been seen as a threat to ruling hierarchies and corrupt social order and as method of peasant self-expression (Lemothe 166).  I.M. Lewis argues that “spirit possession [often] represents a quasi-covert form of social protest for women and for marginal, oppressed groups of men for whom any open protest would be exceptionally dangerous” (qtd. in Trefzer 306).  This form of “ritualized rebellion” (Trefzer 306) as a more or less covert form of protest almost has to be allowed by a repressive law that perversely legitimates itself within the rhetoric of Vodou nationalist fantasy.  Although this reverse side of possession operates within certain limits, by giving a voice to those on the margins, it does allow for a certain amount of subversive protest and empowers the powerless.

            In another manner, however, when the houngan sings to Legba to open the door to the possession ritual, he opens the way to memory, not fantasy.  In this manner Vodou functions as a collective imaginary that resists its folklorification and nationalization by re-staging the noxious quality of the drive.  When a servitor is possessed he or she is possessed by the object voice that predates the founding of Haiti; it is a voice that re-awakens the memory of Africa.  As Dayan has pointed out about Haitian culture, “beneath the tinsel cover of elegance, fashion, and good French, lay the dark and heady substratum of Africa.”  While it is true that Vodou is linked to African cultural memory, it is not true that Vodou is nostalgic or primitivist.  Again, as Dayan points out, the gods of Vodou exist more as unconscious drives than as superstitious spirits:

The institution of slavery, in wrenching individuals from their native land and from their names and their origins, produced communities of belief that would ever be distinguished from the mood or character of Western religion.  The gods came to the New World.  In their travels something unique would happen to the possibility of nostos.  When the gods left Africa, they taught their people how to live the epic of displacement.  No longer simply identifiable in terms of parentage or place, they would come into the heads of their people and there urge a return to a thought of origin, a place as urgent as it was irretrievable. […]  The loa live en teas de l’eau, “under the waters,” in an unlocateble place called “Guinee.”

During possession, Black Haitians return not to some idealized fantasy of Africa that they have lost but to “Guinee,” an irretrievable non-place from which the object voice emanates.  In fantasy the subject adopts the Other’s object as the sine qua non of it own desiring (Copjec 256), and this is what happens when Vodou possession is guided into service for a ruling law that, in turn, restrains its libidinal energy.  Apollon would call this “the extinction of the libido at the hands of the political” (par. 17).  But the object voice of possession can also drive the servitor toward its previous inanimate state, forcing the subject to engage in symbolic life in the name of the lost Other, not to represent its demand but to encircle it, illustrating the law as incomplete or internally inconsistent (Copjec 260).  By idealizing the object voice, by subscribing to the superegoic voice that supports the law or loa, possession points to an object that is above us and out of our reach, a sublime voice like Duvalier’s behind the law, substantiating and legitimizing its rule.  But the voice of possession can also function as a sublimated voice.  Rather than idealizing the voice, this mode of possession de-idealizes the voice and “delights not in the object itself, but in the act of installing it” (Copjec 261).  In this manner the event of possession ruptures the fantasy structure of idealization by substituting for the satisfaction provided by the object voice itself the satisfaction derived by the very act of voicing, thus demonstrating that there is really nothing, no voice, behind the law, the loa, nothing supporting the law but its own act of installment.                       

Vodou, Psychoanalysis and Hurston

             The double-nature of the voice is performatively re-enacted in Hurston’s writing style as she herself struggles to find her voice throughout Tell My Horse.  This is notable in the juxtaposition of the first two chapters of Hurston’s text.  The opening chapter of the Haiti section of Hurston’s treatise, entitled “Rebirth of a Nation,” not only appropriates and re-inscribes the title of D. W. Griffiths thematically racist film but also is written as a very lyrical telling of the events that led to the nineteen-year U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915.  She writes about the 1915 uprising as if it were the second coming of the revolt against slavery and French colonial law and authority.  However, according to Hurston’s narrative, this time Haiti was revolting against its own corrupt internal authority.  Throughout the chapter she focuses on what she calls “the voice in the night,” which figures the growing restlessness of the Haitian people with authority and their horrific response to President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam’s execution of 167 political prisoners.  This chapter is also written in what Henry Louis Gates would call Hurston’s “highly idiomatic black voice,” as opposed to her more professional “literate narrator’s voice” (296).  Indeed, Hurston’s tone of voice in her opening chapter often makes her account sound more like a folktale than a professional ethnography, as when she provides an account of the inevitable arrival of the U. S. military in 1915:

A prophet could have foretold it was to come to them from another land and another people utterly unlike the Haitian people in any respect.  The prophet might have said, “Your freedom from strife and your peace shall come when these symbols shall appear.  There shall come a voice in the night.  A new and bloody river shall pour forth from a man-made rock in your chief city.  Then shall be a cry from the heart of Haiti—a great cry, a crescendo cry.  There shall be survivors, and they shall have a look and a message.  There shall be a Day and the Day shall mother a Howl, and the Howl shall be remembered in Haiti forever and nations beyond the border shall hear it and stir.  Then shall appear a Plume against the sky which shall give fright to many at its coming, but it shall bring peace to Haiti.  You who have hopes, watch for these signs.  Many false prophets shall arrive who will promise you peace and faith, but they are lacking in the device of peace.  Wait for the plume in the sky.” (65-6)

In fact, Hurston writes the entire chapter in the voice of the masses, referring to president Sam as “a greedy, stupid pig lacking in good manners” (68) and acknowledging how the “outraged voice of Haiti had changed from a sob to a howl” (72).  This chapter not only provides the reader with an unorthodox historical account, but it also establishes Hurston’s voice as, at least partly, aligned with the unofficial voice of the folk. 

            Hurston’s second chapter, “The Next Hundred Years,” switches tone to a more orthodox anthropological voice, a tone she wavers through until a return to the lyrical in the text’s final chapter.  In this chapter, Hurston moves away from the lyrical, poetic voice of the peasantry and into the typical voice of the ethnographic outsider:

Haiti has always been two places.  First it was the Haiti of the masters and the slaves.  Now it is Haiti of the wealthy and educated mulattoes and the Haiti of the blacks.  Haiti of the Champ de Mars and Haiti of the Bolosse.  Turgeau against the Salines.  Under this present administration, the two Haitis are nearer one than at any time in the history of the country. (73)

In this passage, Hurston speaks of Haiti as an observer, as one who possesses a most general understanding of the complicated situation of this unique island nation.  But, even though Hurston stylistically trades her “idiomatic voice” for her “literate narrator’s voice,” thematically she re-enforces indirectly the divided-nature inherent in any attempt to understand Haitian culture.  One can understand Haiti from an educated perspective, as the stylized voice of the second chapter indicates, or one can understand it ethnically, as Hurston attempts to display in the first chapter.  It is almost as if, in the passage cited above, Hurston is figuratively charting out the topology of her own narrative, charting the distinction in her own authorial commentary, hovering between a super-egoic voice in support of the dominant culture and a sublimated voice that de-idealizes her subject matter.

              On one level, Hurston’s text appears to be guilty of all the criticisms that were mentioned above.  Her voice seems to truly re-enforce the dominant authority of anthropological discourse.  At certain moments, Tell My Horse’s anthropology figuratively echoes the zombification of Haitians much in the same manner as the French or US occupational rule.  Ifeoma Nwankwo, in fact, points out that Hurston’s text reads more like a conversation with other Americans about Haitian culture than it reads as if it were written by one who is a genuine insider (67).  Arguably, Hurston re-inforces the superiority of American blacks over Haitians by subtly utilizing a “civilization-versus-barbarism hierarchy” several times in her analysis (Nwankwo 73).  Early on in the text, Hurston refers to the “unconscious cruelty” of the Haitian people as displayed in the peasants treatment of animals but also in the elites’ ruling practices.  Combining this complaint with what Hurston refers to as “the most striking phenomenon in Haiti”—the Haitians habit of lying, Huston recounts a debate she had with Jules Faine:

“Why should these peasants be tender with animals?” he asked gently.  “No one has ever been tender with them.”
“Why do you Americans always speak of our cruelty to animals?”  The editor of Le Matin asked me.  “You are cruel also.  You boil live lobsters.”
“Yes,” I said, “but the people who sell them would not be permitted to drag them by the legs from Massachusetts to Virginia, nor half-skin them on the way.”
“It is all the same.”  He shied away from actuality and went on. (83)

Critics also note that Hurston tends to identify with the educated elite of Haiti (Mikell 225) and that her search for the truth behind zombification would appear blasphemous to any real initiate of Vodou (Nwankwo 65).  In fact, as Amy Emery has argued, Hurston’s desire to photograph the Haitian zombie woman in the hospital yard in Chapter 13 epitomizes and even allegorizes the primary gesture of anthropology—to extend meaning while simultaneously embalming:

In this sense, the zombification of vulnerable human beings as embodied in the silenced, abject woman photographed by Hurston is suggestive of what the process of textualization of oral speech at the heart of Boas and his colleagues’ salvage operations threatens to become:  something parasitic and aggressive that sucks the life/soul out of its subjects. (Emery 331)

But at the heart of Hurston’s narrative there is also an ambivalence about her own learned methodology of remaining alienated from her subject.  Just as the Haitians have been victims of the possession of foreign masters, Hurston seems to recognize in their Vodou rituals a sort of transformative mastery of possession.  Her voice itself may at times appear as possessed by the ethnographic methods of her master Franz Boas, but when she treats Haitian Vodou formally as an internally coherent system, she herself seems to recognize the ability of Vodou to possess would-be colonizers like herself.  In her account of the annual Vodou ceremony of the Head of the Water, in which hundreds participate and which takes place at the sacred waterfalls at Saut d’Eau, Hurston claims, for example, that “the Ceremony of the Tete L’Eau is a thing to induce the belief in gods and spirits” (226), illustrating the power such ceremonies had over her.  By the end of her account, she appears completely under the influence of the ceremony’s power, assigning the Vodou ceremony more importance than any purely Christian ritual, which, according to Hurston, functions to  restrain the libidinal force unleashed during a typical Vodou ceremony.  Her own opinion moves in this direction when she accounts for the minimal cases of possession occurring during this ceremony where she was a participant:

There was a fly in the ointment that day.  The local [Catholic] priest who is a Haitian had used his influence to station a gendarme at the falls.  Therefore there were few cases of possession.  There was a lavish denunciation of the priest though.  High and low were there and all felt that a police at the waterfall at Saut d’Eau was a desecration, but expressions of fervor were not to be suppressed entirely and the hundreds of people entering the eternal mists from the spray and ascending the sacred stones and assuming all possible postures of adoration made a picture that might have been painted by Doré.  It was very beautiful and fitting. Whether they had the words to fit their feelings or not, it was a moving sight to see these people turning from sordid things once each year to go into an ectasy of worship of the beautiful in water-forms.  Perhaps the priest has some good reason for attempting to break up this annual celebration at the waterfalls.  I only heard that the Church does not approve and so it must be stopped if possible. I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them [the Vodou adepts] to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing.  It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare feet and meet him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.” (234-35)

Although Hurston maintains her literal position as an observer throughout this extended passage, speaking more of what she saw and not what she felt, it is clear, by the end of the passage when she denounces the law’s practice of restraining the libidinal force of the ceremony, that she is recounting her feelings as much as her observations. 

            Hurston recognizes precisely how the practice of possession forms a resistance to colonial strictures and post-colonial rule.  She devotes a chapter to the practice of mounting by the gods entitled “Parlay Chevel Ou,” creole for “Tell My Horse.”  She maintains that the Vodou gods (if not gods in general) “always behave like the people who make them” (219).  For instance, the “boisterous god” Guedé (pronounced “geeday”), the only loa who is entirely Haitian—no background in Europe or West Africa, is the loa of the peasants, the market women and the domestic servants precisely because he says the things they are unconscious of wanting to say.  Often peasants and domestic servants are mounted by Guedé so he can take “occasion to say many stinging things to the boss” (219).  It is through the loa Guedé that the lower class blacks of Haiti, according to Hurston, effect their strongest means of social criticism.  Guedé is also the only Vodou loa who lacks a hounfort, a ceremonial temple or sanctuary, because he is housed not in any place but in the people.  This is the very type of possession that occurred during Hurston’s participation in the Ceremony of the Tete L’Eau when many of the adepts became possessed by Guedé in order to use their possessed voices to denounce the Catholic priest who had brought the police to stifle the ecstatic practices of the Vodou celebration.  Hurston illustrates the quasi-political use of the possessed voice that allows the powerless to retaliate against an oppressive colonial religious law.

            Oddly enough, Hurston seems at times to take on this anti-colonial mounted voice.  She devotes a chapter at the end of her text to the expatriate American and former marine from the US occupation, Dr. Reeser, a man who runs the insane asylum in Pont Beudet.  She also refuses to ask him for any information about Vodou as most American visitors or fellow anthropologists do because, as she says, she considers herself “amply equipped to go out in the field and get it [her]self” (252).  Hurston even admits that she is breaking a promise with Dr. Reeser by mentioning him at all in the book.  She even purposely misspells his name as “Reser” in her text, as if she is protecting his identity.  This calculated joke of Hurston’s sets up wha Emery calls a “parodic representation” of Dr. Reeser.  Emery has further pointed out that Hurston’s strategic misspelling of Reeser’s name both illustrates Hurston’s signifying art and creates “a palindrome that suggests that the reverse of what she says she is saying is also true” (332).  “Hurston’s change of the man’s name indicates that she is ‘signfying,’ that her use of repetition with difference is ‘motivated,’ in [Henry Louis] Gates’s sense, and her intentions ambiguous” (Emery 332). By slightly changing the spelling of Reeser’s name, Hurston tips off the reader to a subtle denunciation underlying her recounted intimate visits with a former occupier.  Through her parodic representation of Reeser, a leftover from the American occupation of Haiti, Hurston finishes her text by subtly undermining any of her own earlier praising of the modernizing effects of the U. S. occupation (Emery 333). The palindrome forces the reader to hear this undermining, and Hurston accomplishes this through the very indirect “signifying” that she has herself witnessed in the Vodou ritual of possession. 

Also, throughout the chapter devoted to Dr. Reeser, Hurston adopts the tone of an interrogating ethnographer in a manner not witnessed anywhere in her relations to native Haitians.  Oddly, enough, she never asks him questions about Haiti and Haitian culture, let alone questions about Vodou, only questions about himself: how he became so popular in Haiti, where he is from, etc.  Hurston is not interested in learning about Haitian culture from an American resident of Haiti; she seems more interested in learning what impact Haitian culture has had on a foreign resident.  Eventually, Hurston is able to persuade Dr. Reeser into revealing his “firm belief” in the power of Vodou.  Lastly, she reveals how Dr. Reeser, a member of a former occupying force, has become, in turn, completely possessed by the libidinal energy of Vodou:

Dr. Reser began to tell of his own experiences while in the psychological state known as possession.  Incident piled on incident.  A new personality burned up the one that had eaten supper with us.  His blue-gray eyes glowed, but at the same time they drew far back into his head as if they went inside to gaze on things kept in a secret place.  After awhile he began to speak.  He told of marvelous revelations of the Brave Guedé cult.  And as he spoke, he moved farther and farther from known land and into territory of myth and mists.  Before our very eyes, he walked out of his Nordic body and changed.  Whatever the stuff of which the soul of Haiti is made, he was that.  You could see the snake god of Dahomey hovering about him.  Africa was in his tones.  He throbbed and glowed.  He used English words but he talked to me from another continent.  He was dancing before his gods and the fire of Shango played about him.  Then I knew how Moses felt when he beheld the burning bush.  Moses had seen fires and he had seen bushes, but he had never seen a bush with a fiery ego and I had never seen a man who dwelt in flame, who was coldly afire in the pores.  Perhaps some day I shall visit his roomy porch again and drink orangeade and listen to him discourse on Aristotle, but even in the midst of it, I shall remember his hour of fire. Ah Bo Bo! (257)

Just like Hurston’s enthographic study, it appears, on the surface, that Dr. Reeser’s discourse follows the proper laws of Aristotelian logic, but underneath it burns with the possessed libidinalized voice of Vodou.  

            Thus, a question and a puzzle always remains about Hurston’s text:  which voice is hers and which is she possessed by?  Is hers the voice that reinforces the superiority of her haughty patron Charlotte Osgood Mason and the American audience who is the supposed receiver of her discourse?  Or does she embody the voice that skillfully utilizes indirect discourse in order to subtly undercut this reinforcement?  Rather than providing a fitful conclusion to her anthropological fieldwork in the final chapter entitled “Gods and Pintards,” Hurston finishes in the voice of the peasantry.  She tells a folktale that poetically provides insight into the vagabond drive of the sublimating voice.  In the tale, God sends first Michael, then Gabriel and then Peter to scare the pintards away from his rice fields.  All three fail in their attempts because they find themselves under the influence of the pintards’ rhythmic voice.  When God finally approaches the birds himself, he too notices the “double rhythm” of the pintards’ song (261).  Also becoming seduced, God decides against scaring the birds away from his crops in favor of sending them down to Guinea.  This is how the vagabond libido that is staged during Vodou possession ritual came to Haiti.  It is a rhythmic voice that, according to Hurston’s folktale, only God recognizes as possessing a double rhythm, at least consciously recognizes.  Here, it is as if Hurston’s learned ethnographic voice has become unconsciously possessed by the nomadic voice of those very folk she seems at other times to dismiss through her institutionalized anthropological authority.


Works Cited

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Copjec, Joan. “The Tomb of Perserverance: On Antigone.” Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity. Eds. Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin. New York: Verso, 1999. 233-66.

Dayan, Joan. “Vodoun, or the Voice of the Gods.” Raritan 10.3 (1991): 32-45. 10. October 2006.

Dolar, Mladen. “The Object Voice.” Gaze & Voice as Love Objects. Ed. Renata Salecl and Slovoj Zizek. Durham: Duke UP, 1996. 7-31.

Emery, Amy Fass. “The Zombie In/As the Text: Zora Neale Huston’s Tell My Horse.” African American Review 39.3 (2005): 327-336.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

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Willis, Miriam DeCosta. “Folklore and the Creative Artist: Lydia Cabrera and Zora Neale Hurston.” CLAJ 27 (1983): 81-90.

Wright, Richard. “Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Gates and Appiah 16-17.

Wyrick, Deborah. “Divine Transpositions: Recent Scholarship on Vodou and Santería Religious Art.” Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies 3.1&2 (1999). 10 October 2006 <>.

Ed Cameron is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at The University of Texas-Pan American. He has published numerous articles on topics ranging from Gothic fiction and psychoanalysis to serial homicide and religious cults. He is currently finishing a book on Gothic literature and psychopathology.

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