THE WAY OF THE MASKS
Volume 11 Number 2.
Claude Lévi-Strauss is a professor of social anthropology at the College de France. This book was first published in 1975 as La voie des masques. It has been translated by Sylvia Modelski, who worked closely with Professor Lé vi-Strauss and his original sources. The book is a work of scholarship; the principal subject matter is the Swaihwe mask of the Salish, which is reversed in every significant detail both of appearance and social utility in the Dzonokwa mask of the Kwakuitl. Important myths of both peoples accompany the mask study, along with considerable comment on the important symbols of copper, frogs, earthquakes, and monsters in all the Pacific Northwest cultures. The mask does not exist in isolation, Lévi-Strauss argues; it cannot be interpreted only for itself, by what it represents, but also for what it transforms, what it does not represent. He bases many of his arguments on the premise that a myth and its physical representation in mask and/or ritual becomes inverted or reversed, when adopted by a neighbouring culture. "Over . . .immense territory, beliefs, practices and works remain mutually congruent when they imitate one another, and even, perhaps above all, when they seem to be contradictory."
One hesitates to take issue with a famous scholar, but one argument jars. Lévi-Strauss does not feel it necessary to visit the Pacific Coast himself; he says it would be futile, because the cultures are "ruinous." Even in the seven years since the book was first published we have seen that the cultures of the Pacific Northwest are far from "ruinous." One critic has said "to understand a poem one must stand where the poet stood." So with other works of art specific to a locality or a culture. To understand Pacific Northwest masks, one must come to the Pacific Northwest and stand between the mountains and the sea. Fine-spun theories have a way of dissolving into sudden insight upon direct personal experience. I kept looking for the masks to be somehow tied to the very strong spiritual sense of the Salish people, but found almost no mention of it.
No attempt is made, either, to assess the different versions of the masks as art, although the illustrations themselves are plentiful, unusual, and superb. As an anthropologist, the author is concerned with common features, not with individual artists. As an anthropologist, however, Lévi-Strauss rejects the straight-jacket of kinship systems, with all the specialized terms, as not fitting Pacific Northwest culture. He has added instead the concept of "houses" with a definite geographical location.
The book is a sure-to-be-discussed addition to Pacific Northwest anthropology. (The book jacket says "controversial.") It will be useful in its new English translation, with a bibliography in four languages, to university students, not to schools.
Grace E. Funk, Harwood E. S., Vernon, BC.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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