On Female Presences and Absences in Heavenly Places

By Valeri, Valerio | Oceania, September 1994 | Go to article overview

On Female Presences and Absences in Heavenly Places


Valeri, Valerio, Oceania


In 'Death in Heaven' (Valeri 1989) I use origin myths and the kava rite, (in which title-holders were installed), to reconstruct the representation of authority in Ancient Tonga. My main thesis is that these myths and rites have a sacrificial structure. A sacrifice is the mediated encompassment of the sacrifier by the gods. Through it he acquires some of their superior attributes and thus authority over his fellow humans. This transformative encompassment is represented as a literal ingestion -- with subsequent vomiting and rebirth -- in the myth that explains how 'Aho'eitu became the first Tu'i Tonga 'king of Tonga' (Valeri 1989:224). My secondary thesis is that this and related myths display at times oedipal symbolism, as they represent conflicts between father and son (mediated by conflicts among brothers). These conflicts often result in the killing and dismembering of one of the two. James misleadingly reduces the whole of my essay to this secondary ('oedipal') thesis,(1) and counters it with my own main ('sacrificial') thesis, which she appropriates without acknowledgment(2) (James 1991:290). While I regret James' reduction of my essay to a psychoanalytic interpretation, I shall meet her on the battlefield she has chosen.(3)

James' critique is based on a Malinowskian syllogism. Its major premise is that the Oedipus complex is coextensive with a social structure founded on 'patriarchal' principles (including patrilineal descent). Its minor premise is that Tonga was not 'patriarchal'. The conclusion is that there was no Oedipus complex, and thus no ground for applying 'Freudian dogma', no matter how qualified (James 1991:291). James does not attempt to justify the major premise of this syllogism: she takes it for granted. This is astounding in view of the criticism to which it has been submitted, even on empirical grounds. For instance, Ortigues and Ortigues (1966:57) have found a privileged reference to the father in all their West African patients, whether they came from patrilineal or matrilineal societies, whether they were raised by their father or by their mother's brother, and even in those who had never met their father. The issue is no doubt complex,(4) but instead of delving into it, James prefers to stick to anti-Freudian dogma, sometimes to the point of caricature, as when she claims that psychoanalysis 'implies an individualistic voluntarism which is foreign to the traditional emphasis on the group (kainga), still significant today in the conduct of Tongan affairs'. That the individual is not a pertinent concept in psychoanalysis is well known (Green 1977:82). As for the 'voluntarism': how can unconscious desires and unconscious emotional processes imply the will, which is conscious?(5) 'European psychoanalytic theories' are pitted by James (1991:287) against 'non-Western myths' (ibid.), with the sort of essentialism which presupposes what should be proven: that those theories are mere reflections of European conditions and that all 'non-Western' myths reflect completely different worlds. But let us turn to specifics.

'PATRIARCHAL FREUDIAN PSYCHOANALYTIC CONCEPTS' AND 'NON-WESTERN MATERIAL'(6)

At the end of my essay, I speculated that Tongan myths about political authority borrow some of their imagery from oedipal experiences, because the ambivalence vis-a-vis that authority evokes the ambivalence of the child vis-a-vis the authority of the father (Valeri 1989:240-1). James believes that this hypothesis is undermined by evidence that 'in many cases the child may not necessarily have been with the father's people in his earliest years', since wives

frequently returned to their own natal group to give birth to a child (Wood Ellem 1987:210-11). Some remained until bidden to return by their husband. There is even the suggestion of a second payment proffered by the paternal group after the formal celebration of alliance before the child was given back (Williamson 1924, V. II:108) (James 1991:291). …

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