There is a period in the life of every child when he is especially susceptible to the ‘call of the fields;’ when he roams through woods or by shady brooks gathering flowers, fishing for mud-cats and cleaning out bumble-bees’ nests. It is often compared with the life of the savage and is merely the outward expression of an inward craving for a closer relation with nature and her creatures. If one can reach a child while at that age he has a ready listener and an apt pupil. That is the time to guide and instruct the child along the line of nature study.” Leonard Lassman, The Elementary Study of Insects. Missouri Book Company, 1923
We might be tempted to laugh upon coming across the words above. Who is this child who is so savage-like? Who are these savages? What have we to teach such a child? Archaic language, perverse imperatives, we mutter, so wise from our readings into various colonialisms and their civilizing missions. But what if we were to consider the place of insects in our perambulations and our stopping briefly to take note of them. We may see them as pests, a nuisance, useful, useless but still be astounded by their diversity. Perhaps our forays of attention trace out the childlike or the savage within the mundane and the purposive? In Infancy and History (1978/1993) Agamben would disagree. He would say that childhood is a land whose loss we daily mourn. But in his essay “On the Mimetic Faculty” (1966/1978) Benjamin says that children’s play and our language maintain a mimetic, sensuous and non-sensuous relationship to [End Page 169] the world. In The Savage Mind (1962/1966) Levi-Strauss scorns the division between the scientific mind and that imputed to the savage, locating structural, analogy-forming, typologizing, seriated thinking within the domain of the everyday and its practical preoccupations, intermingled with the most causal of explanations. And Cavell follows Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Finding as Founding” (2003), asking that we not lead the child to the world but that we allow the child and the world to dawn on us.
Insects dawned on me once again1 during my most recent bout of fieldwork in the winter of 2013 on silt islands that come and go within the Jamuna River, a fierce river that tears through the northern half of Bangladesh but that has a braided nature allowing for sediment to deposit here and there and for land to be born within its many strands. But this land is only ever on loan by the river, and those who come to occupy it live with this awareness. The question that I was pursuing this winter was whether the restless movements of the river could be seen to influence the restlessness imputed to the mentally ill within these chars as the silt islands are called. It was quickly dawning on me that the question was ill-posed, that the mad here were seen as just like the mad elsewhere in Bangladesh, but that the more significant question was whether the chauras, a very impoverished and marginalized population, had the wherewithal to tend to their mad.
I was speaking with Shahnaz, a beautiful, sad eyed woman who, from the accounts I had been hearing from her husband, her in-laws, her neighbors and herself, suffered from a mental disorder but who declared herself recovered through her husband’s relentless efforts to seek help for her, his determination unusual for these parts. We were having a long conversation about her past struggles but I sensed that she was getting increasingly weary at having to stay put, speak softly, accommodate the boy child and the baby girl at her breasts, and smile at her neighbors who rattled off the funny limericks she made up about them when she was out of her mind. As soon as everyone cleared out of her hut she spoke very fiercely. “The voices I heard all the time, they were of jinns (creatures of smoke and fire). They wanted me to become a healer. They said they would guide me...