Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnocentric Guilt in Tony Hillerman's 'Dance Hall of the Dead.'(Popular Literature and Film)

Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnocentric Guilt in Tony Hillerman's 'Dance Hall of the Dead.'(Popular Literature and Film)

Article excerpt

Tony Hillerman's ethnographic detective novels have been widely acclaimed. He has acquired a loyal following of readers among both Native and Anglo-Americans as well as international readers. This success has been attributed in part to the Navajo detectives Hillerman has created, who, according to Ernie Bulow, open up "a world of interesting characters, beautiful landscapes, and a people who see things in different terms than Anglo-American culture," and in part to Hillerman's having a "hell of a knack as a storyteller" (Hillerman and Bulow 14).

Hillerman is not the first or only writer to introduce detectives from non-Anglo or non-European cultures into mystery novels.(1) His Navajo policemen, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are, however, probably the only non-Anglo or non-European detectives to date whose educations include academic degrees in anthropology.(2) Hillerman has explained that this formal study of anthropology, in which his detectives engaged before joining the Navajo Tribal Police, provides them with a credible knowledge of the technicalities of Native American culture and religion about which the average Navajo would not be able to talk. One of Hillerman's goals in including this detailed cultural information in a popular literary form is to instruct his readers, amusing them while helping them understand that the Native American peoples of the Southwest, far from being "primitive savages," have a sophisticated and admirable cultural heritage.(3) In other words, in his novels Hillerman seeks to fight the ethnocentrism and ignorance that have dominated in the majority view of Native American cultures.

The anthropological aspect of the detectives' backgrounds, while furnishing the narrator with verisimilar access to complex and recondite Navajo, Hopi and Zuni lore, nevertheless implicitly introduces into the text one of the theoretical problems which has recently troubled philosophers, anthropologists, and cultural critics: the problem of a possibly ineradicable ethnocentrism, aesthetically, ethically and epistemically inscribed in Occidental civilization or, to borrow a metaphor from postmodernism, inscribed in the grand narratives of the West. It is not easy, maybe not even possible, to conceive of a non-ethnocentric narrative. Even opposing ethnocentric and non-ethnocentric is problematic. Richard Rorty(4) has noted that the post-Enlightenment critique of and attempt to avoid ethnocentric judgments and actions are unique to Western culture. Rorty maintains that anti-ethnocentrism is a cultural bias, grounded in the Western cultural superstructure. Thus the anti-ethnocentrist is theoretically entangled from the beginning in a paradox that undermines a universal theory of anti-ethnocentrism: by espousing anti-ethnocentricism, one is fundamentally ethnocentric (Rorty 1986).(5)

Thirty years earlier, Claude Levi-Strauss sketched the contradiction underlying Rorty's position in a semi-theoretical meditation on the ethnographer's profession which isolates and emphasizes the role of cultural guilt, a concept that not only recurs in Western theoretical discussions of ethnocentrism, but is also inseparable from the detective story narrative. In Tristes tropiques, which was marketed as "les confessions d'un ethnologue," Levi-Strauss sees the ethnographer balanced between a naive anti-ethnocentrism that is philosophically grounded in occidental values (and therefore implicitly ethnocentric) and an amoral cultural relativism, which implies the abandonment of all values.

On the one hand, naively anti-ethnocentric moral judgments in favor of exotic cultures are implicitly grounded in the moral code of Western culture; that is to say, when Westerners let themselves be seduced by the "superior" customs of exotic peoples, they are judging those cultures by European cultural standards, to which their judgment implicitly bestows superiority. On the other hand, from a relativist stance, no moral judgments at all can be made: infanticide in China, anthropophagy in Brazil, auto-da-fe in Lisbon, and widow burning in Calcutta are equally understandable and philosophically justifiable from the point of view of the cultural relativist. …

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