Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spirit spouses and circumcision

I’ve written before about Susan Vogel’s fascinating study of the Baule and their art, African Art Western Eyes (1997). Here’s one more observation from it, this one not entirely about art.

Vogel explains that in Baule society, “[e]veryone originally came from the blolo” – the world of spirits – “and is never entirely free from relations with the spirits left behind there. Everyone had in the blolo an entire family that can continue to interfere with life after birth.” (67) Later Vogel revisits the issue, and comments that “[s]ome Baule people believe that before birth they also had parents and other relations, who—spirit mothers especially—may play a small role in their lives; but spirit spouses are ubiquitous, and are liable to influence crucial areas of one’s life at almost any point.” (247) In response, “a Baule man or woman often has a figure carved to represent and appease his blolo bla, or spirit wife, or her blolo bian, spirit husband.” (67) (For a photo of a sculpture of a spirit husband, from Vogel's book, click here.)

The resulting sculptures are a significant part of Baule art, though “the shrine or sculpture for a spirit spouse is normally hidden, like any personal shrine.” (253) As Vogel emphasizes, a lot of Baule art was actually hidden, despite its importance in Baule lives (see 291).

Perhaps one reason much of Baule art is hidden is that it may embody a striking and disturbing truth. Vogel writes:

In some sense the spirit spouse is an alter ego, a sort of opposite-sex twin of its human partner …. Spirits spouses seem to suggest the disorienting idea (found in other Baule artworks and in other parts of Africa) that humans might harbor in themselves elements of the other sex. The figures both express and remedy this contradiction by externalizing and isolating the male side of a woman and the female side of a man.” (267)

Vogel also observes that:

It is interesting and perhaps significant that most Baule groups do not practice circumcision or clitorectomy. Elsewhere in Africa, these "corrective" operations are credited with removing the male element in women and the female element in men, often for the express purpose of furthering fertility. Among the Baule, beliefs in blolo bian and blolo bla fulfill some of the functions of these procedures. (266-67)

If the Baule dissipated the psychic pressure towards clitorectomies with spirit spouse sculptures, that’s a happy result of art. But before we dismiss all this as part of a culture very different from our own, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask what the roots of circumcision are in Western society (we don’t need to ask this question about clitorectomies since fortunately they are largely absent from the West). The Book of Genesis, needless to say, does not attribute the divine command of circumcision to sexual anxiety, but is that, in the end, what this practice stems from? Of course a practice can mean many things, one thing in one region and culture and another somewhere else. Of course, too, a practice can mean one thing when initiated and something very different thousands of years later. But still, this hint at where circumcision might have begun at least underlines the question – is this practice really a good idea?

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