Biography 26.3 (2003) 506-509
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Written with a sharply focused clarity that is free of academic jargon, Sensory Biographies compellingly explores the life histories of two elderly Yolmo, members of a Buddhist ethnicity whose ancestors migrated from Tibet into Central Nepal three centuries ago. The work juxtaposes these two lives, each serving as a mirror not only to the other but also to Yolmo society. One is a hereditary lama, "Mheme" ("Grandfather") Lama, a widower, twice married, who was eighty-five years old in 2000; the second is a twice married lamini [End Page 506] (daughter of a hereditary lama), Kisang Omu, a widow, eighty-eight years old in 2000. Both Mheme and Kisang found themselves displaced from their traditional community, awaiting death in the care of family members who have migrated from Helambu down into the Kathmandu Valley. To portray these lives in ways immediately accessible to those who know little of Himalayan cultures, Robert Desjarlais develops a phenomenological method of inquiry, an approach that seeks to describe phenomena as they appear to the consciousness of other peoples. Key phenomena explored in this book include the workings of time, form, perception, selfhood, bodies, suffering, personal agency, morality, memory, vision, and language (6), an extraordinarily ambitious list of topics which are nevertheless each lucidly explored in the diverse ways that they have taken form in and through these two lives.
As both Mheme and Kisang were fully aware that they were nearing death, themes of aging and dying featured prominently in their conversations with Desjarlais. Their focus on death is in accord with Tibetan Buddhist teachings that encourage contemplation of the fragile, transitory nature of all existence in an effort to overcome the delusions that bind one to that existence. Paralleling the ways that these two elderly Yolmo examined the ends of their lives, they also reflected on the passing of the society that they had known, now undergoing changes so rapid and pervasive that its "death" also seems to be approaching, its transformations documented through the details of these two life histories. This deterioration of a society, too, agrees with Buddhist tenets regarding the erosion of all forms in time, an observation that comes easily to Yolmo. The rhythms of different temporalities—a life's course or cosmological time, calendric time and mythic time, economic time or narrative time, remembered times and forgotten times—pervade Yolmo selves, establishing multiple ways of knowing and talking, of living and dying. A concentration on just two individuals might seem excessively restrictive, but it is remarkable how much a reader will learn of the multiplicities of Yolmo selves through the subtleties of Desjarlais' presentation of those two lives.
Beyond demonstrating the ways that careful attention to two particular lives can unfold an understanding of an entire culture, and confirming how central are questions of selfhood and subjectivity to anthropological inquiry, Sensory Biographies advances well beyond all previous "person-centered" ethnographies through its insightful exploration of how these two individuals each emphasized a different sensory modality in their understandings and retellings of their lives. Vision was of central importance in Mheme's life. This involved not just his emphasis as a lama on writing and visibility (explored in the extraordinary chapter "Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at [End Page 507] Vision"), but also his insistence on perceptual clarity. For Mheme, "seeing" had multiple features, variously metaphoric, pragmatic, political, epistemic, transformative, or intersubjective (55). He "spoke in ways that brought to mind ideas of materiality and immateriality, appearances and disappearances, contact and disconnection, longing and fulfillment, remembrance and forgetting, matter and the decay of matter, the changes that time effects, the fate of sentient bodies, the life and death of things" (2). Kisang's account of her life, in contrast, largely entailed a "theater of voices." Kisang was particularly attentive to the flow of words in her life. She often invoked the voicings of key...