Friday, May 10, 2013

Cannibalism and the teacher-student relationship

Nicolas Argenti, an anthropologist who apprenticed as a Cameroonian woodcarver, recently discussed a ritual by which such apprenticeships traditionally concluded. He does so in “Follow the Wood: Carving and Political Cosmology in Oku, Cameroon,” which is chapter two of African Art and Agency in the Workshop (Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster eds.; Indiana University Press 2013). I would give a page reference but I’m reading the book on a Kindle; in Kindle terms, the discussion I’m referring to, and quoting from, occurs around “location 1781 of 9227.”

This ritual is no longer practiced, but evidently it’s still remembered. At the end of the apprentice’s training, the apprentice brings the master “a ritual offering of food and wine.” The master consumes the offering – all of which seems quite amicable, except that the name of the ritual is “eating the apprentice”!

That’s quite a name. Shall we say, putting the matter delicately, that it points to the possible ambivalences of the teacher-student relationship? Perhaps the meal marks the point at which the apprentice’s youthful individuality has been completely consumed by the master. Having been eaten up, the apprentice offers another meal in recognition of his consumption.

Or perhaps the point is almost the opposite – the apprentice has consumed the master’s knowledge and must now, inevitably, replace the master. Argenti says that “the threat posed to his master by the newly accomplished apprentice was neutralized by this ritual act of cannibalism.” A somewhat different reading would be that, by way of apology, and to avoid the master’s natural resentment of this prospect of replacement, the apprentice offers up a meal.

I’d rather think of the event’s overtones, however, as more amused than angry. The master has devoted years to teaching the apprentice, one hopes with the view, as a figure in Middlemarch puts it, that “the earth belongs to the young.” The master is not sad that the apprentice has achieved mastery. On the contrary, the master should be proud of the success of his (or her) teaching. The master also understands that the alternative – a real alternative, as the elders among the Baga or other groups whose ritual traditions are collapsing in the space of a generation or two have actually experienced – is that there will be no more masters, and their knowledge will simply vanish. So the master is not resentful.

Still the master may well be rueful, and less thrilled by the passage of time than is the apprentice now coming into possession of the world. The “eating of the apprentice” then is not sublimated revenge but an ironic, autumnal reflection on one way that we make the best of the fact that we don’t live forever – namely, by passing on what we know to the young. 

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