Monday, 23 November 2015

Reason is not the property of the West

The University of Otago’s second semester ends in October. I knew there were Summer School classes in January and February, because I’ve taken notes in them. I never knew there were also classes in November and December. But here I am. Turns out there’s a five-week course on titled “Introduction to the Māori World”, and one of the students taking it wants notes. My first class was last Tuesday. The lecture was about fundamental concepts in Māori culture, such as tapu and mana, and the polytheistic cosmology which underpins them.

A quick summary of that class. Tapu is of course the origin of the English word taboo, but it’s pronounced differently – both syllables are short and the stress is on the first one. Tapu is the presence or influence of an atua, a god. The gods are present everywhere, and one must treat them with deference and caution. But sometimes it is necessary to lift the tapu so that we humans can go about our ordinary lives without having to worry about it. Then, it becomes noa, which is simply the converse of tapu.

Which gods? On Tuesday we were introduced to four: Papa-tū-ā-nuku, Mother Earth; Tāne-mahuta, god of light and life and the forest; Tangaroa, god of all water, including the water in people’s bodies; and Ranginui, the Sky, Papa-tū-ā-nuku’s lover, who was separated from her by Tāne-mahuta to create the world of light. The gods are the ancestors of all life, including human beings. Most iwi (chiefdom-nations, though the word is usually translated “tribe”) trace their genealogy back to Tāne-mahuta. The chiefs belong to the elder line in each case.

Tangaroa’s dominion over water seems to be responsible for the tapu of blood, which in turn explains why women have a special power over tapu. A man can lift tapu by saying an incantation (a karakia) or using water, but a woman can lift it simply by virtue of being a woman, because women handle blood every month. When you enter or leave a marae – the space built at the hub of every Māori community to house formal gatherings – you pass through a gateway that symbolizes a woman’s legs, so that you don’t bring in any tapu you may have picked up on the outside.

Having just come back from Japan, I can’t help noticing the parallels with Shintō. There again, the kami are immanent in water, earth, and forests. Again, the kami are ancestors rather than creators of the human race, and the Imperial Family is the elder line of descent. And again you have that detail of the symbolic gateway, the torī in front of the shrine, through which you enter or leave the presence of divine power.

But there’s also a big difference. Japan is much more centralized than traditional Māori society, and you might expect to see that reflected in their religions – that Māoritanga would have lots of local spirits and Shintō would have a few big, important gods, like the pre-Christian Greek or Norse pantheons. In fact it’s the other way around. Each mountain, lake, river, and ancient tree in Japan has its own personal kami, but in tikanga Māori it is Tāne-mahuta in every patch of bush and Tangaroa in every body of water.

Mana is the other Māori word, besides tapu / taboo, that has been borrowed into English outside of New Zealand. Both syllables are short, so that to a New Zealand English speaker it sounds like “munna” – “monna” to an American. It’s been appropriated in crap fantasy books and games to denote a limiting resource for magic-users, like pixie-dust but slightly more badass. In fact mana is prestige, charisma, honour, dignity, authority; social power, not magical power. It’s about one’s standing with the gods. Duties and privileges in Māori culture are doled out entirely according to who has what kind of mana.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What are we escaping?

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me in a while, it’s not the usual reason (i.e. procrastination plus Nearly Finished Syndrome) this time. It’s because I’m in Japan on the last day of my first ever overseas holiday, and I didn’t spend much of it sitting in hotel rooms typing. I have picked up enough of the language to compose a few simple sentences and say them, but I still need a lot of help understanding what other people are saying to me. So far I have not experienced anything like what people call “culture shock”. Maybe this is because, with my social disability, I have never found that my own culture makes all that much sense either.

I guess it’s the same principle as learning to pronounce other languages. People have commented with favourable surprise on how quickly I master the pronunciation of Norwegian and Finnish – my choir had a Scandinavian-themed concert recently. The secret is quite simple: English is not the centre. The sound of the Norwegian word meg (“me”), for instance, is halfway between the sound of the English words may and my. It is quite comfortable there. It is not trying to be one or the other, as if English vowels were the underlying structure and Norwegian vowels had to be propped up between them.

I’ve been here two weeks now, which obviously isn’t enough time to have gained any deep ethnographic insight into Japanese culture. Still, superficial as they are, I have found the cultural differences I’ve observed quite easy to adapt to, simply because I wasn’t assuming that the way things are done in New Zealand is the most sensible or obvious way to do them. For example, in Japan, aesthetic and artistic sensibilities aren’t felt to be unmanly. Why should they be? In New Zealand, a real man drinks crappy beer, watches rugby avidly, and is disgusted by any form of entertainment that requires more than a kindergarten education to understand. This is presented as a “low-key” or “easy-going” or, of course, “un-PC” way to live; in fact it’s aggressively policed with homophobic ridicule.

But it’s not a difference between Japanese and New Zealand culture that’s really grabbed my attention this last couple of weeks – it’s a similarity. New Zealand and Japan are both modern countries, with advertising and traffic lights and shopping malls and, in Japan’s case, public transport. And both have that quintessentially modern phenomenon: abundant fantasies about not being modern. In amongst its narrow high-rise boxes, Japan has magnificent temples and shrines and old market areas, all clearly preserved with close attention. In New Zealand, of course, an “old” building is at most Victorian, but we made the Lord of the Rings movies, and we like to go out into what little remains of our wilderness areas and pretend we’re conquering undiscovered territory.