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  • Insularités: Hommage à Henri Lavondès
  • Serge Dunis
Insularités: Hommage à Henri Lavondès, edited by Alain Babadzan. Nanterre: Société d'ethnologie, 2003. ISBN 2-901161-73-1; 268 pages, tables, figures, photographs, appendixes, notes, written in French, bibliographies. €21.85, FF143.33.

These writings about "insularities" (island worlds), collected by Alain Babadzan, pay homage to the French ethnologist Henri Lavondès, who died in 1998. But the accounts of these island worlds are so heterogeneous that they do not even constitute an archipelago; the book would have been more appropriately called "mélanges" (miscellanies) to avoid misleading the reader. Despite the use of plural forms in the titles of the two parts of the book ("Oceanias" and "Harmonics") in a vain attempt to pull the contributions together, the component parts range very broadly —from a purple patch written by French ethnologist Paul Ottino (who passed away shortly after the death of Lavondès, his colleague and friend), to a study of ritual shouts in the Amazon, to crime and punishment in Africa. The reader may also be [End Page 193] put off by the repeated allusions to the unpublished work of the "unassuming scholar" (Lavondès).

Encouragingly, a few contributions do reveal the riches of the mythological data Lavondès collected in the Marquesas. In the first part of the book, fired by the pan-Polynesian motif of the "Island of Women" (Lavondès, Terre et Mer, 1975, 411), Marika Moisseeff launches into a challenging analysis of the contemporary inability of affluent societies tocope with all the responsibilities inherent in pregnancy. Singling out a suggestive myth variant collected by Lavondès, she is the only one among a dozen fellow contributors to actually pay tribute to the beloved master. Next, Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini cast a sharper light on ritual objects from the Bismarck Archipelago than any museum will ever shed. Marie-Claire Bataille-Benguigui takes over to resolve the symbolic contradiction proffered by sharks in Oceania: contrary to their negative image in other parts of the world, Pacific sharks are deemed human—and often feminine—or divine. Living up to his responsibilities as editor of this volume, Babadzan writes a bracing analysis of the cultural manipulation of symbols in modern Tahiti. Herman Melville would have relished the universal cannibalism tackled by these baroque "Oceanias."

The second half of the book, "Harmonics," begins with a contribution that is rather jarringly entitled "Dizziness." Supposed to honor Lavondès's taste for the game of swing or seesaw, this contribution goes back to remnants from fieldwork conducted by author Jacques Galinier in the early 1970s in Mexico. In the next contribution, Philippe Erikson explores the sexual antagonism expressed in the ritual use of speech sounds among the Matis of the Brazilian Amazon. Next, Alfred Adler carries on from his former collaboration with Lavondès in the field of political anthropology. Adler suggests that killing in Black Africa (1) by definition eliminates someone; (2) releases destructive forces against the criminal; and (3) affects life as a whole—its very origin, the earth, the ancestors. In other words, a homicide does not just affect moral standards, it affects all society; this is a subtle distinction, granting status to the killer, and grounding a kind of primordial social hierarchy. The final, real contribution to this second part of the book, Manga Bekombo's "The Word-dizzy Bard," artfully responds to the opening contribution "Dizziness." The real interest in this piece, however, lies more in the story itself—whose hero, like the Hawaiian demigod Maui, is able to come out of and go back into the maternal womb at will—than in the formal considerations of oral culture in coastal Cameroon.

The use of the expression "real contribution" above is meant to draw a line between the chapter-like papers, and the letters of condolences, as it were, written by Claude Robineau and Georges Condominas at the beginning of the volume, and by Jean-Francois Baré (not even two pages in length) and Marie-Dominique Mouton (who provides a list of Henri Lavondès's works) at the end. From [End Page 194] Condominas, we learn that the lifelong...