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The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 538-540



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Book Review

The Magical Body: Power, Fame and Meaning in a Melanesian Society


The Magical Body: Power, Fame and Meaning in a Melanesian Society, by Richard Eves. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998. ISBN 90-5702-305-9, xxii + 302 pages, figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography. US$59.

The prevailing metaphor in Lelet culture is that of the sunrise. This image encapsulates ideas of creation, or "coming into being," and revelation, or uncovering knowledge and insight. For the Lelet, the world is both always already there and constantly being discovered. These tropes form the crux of Richard Eves' ethnography, The Magical Body: Power, Fame and Meaning in a Melanesian Society. They are also, in a sense, a trope for the practice of ethnographic fieldwork and the attempt to interpret and describe another culture. Eves sees meaning as a combination of lived experience and shadowy extrasensory knowledge that is revealed from time to time in magical practices.

The book has several foci. It is an examination of Lelet magical practices; it is a discussion of agency and personhood among the Lelet; it is a rich analysis of mortuary ritual; and it is a discourse on bodiliness, movement, and experience. By the end, most of these foci are brought to bear on a discussion of power and intentionality within community leadership. Eves claims that one can only understand the Lelet culture and society by examining the way the people perceive their relations and experiences rather than relying on empiricist observation. His principle example relates to food. Although on the surface the Lelet have abundant gardens and surplus food to sell for cash income, they perceive themselves as being in a state of famine or impending famine. There are various reasons for this perspective, and Eves traces and analyzes the different modalities. The conversion to Christianity has meant that most Lelet have abandoned magic, especially garden magic, which previously ensured the fecundity of their crops. With no ready substitute, Lelet are loath to assume a successful outcome for their productive activities. Colonialism and postcolonialism have created other changes as well; in particular the changing patterns of relations and exchange with the coastal tribes has altered the Lelet perception of self-sufficiency. The Lelet, who live in the inland plateau of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, are excellent gardeners and thus provide a good deal of taro to the coastal and urban populations of New Ireland. This is their main source of cash. They see the flow of taro to the coast, however, as a loss to themselves. Because taro is constantly leaving their community, the Lelet are at risk of famine.

Flow and movement, including the flow of taro, are complex qualities for the Lelet. On the one hand, lightness, speed, and movement are highly desired and masculine qualities. These attributes are epitomized in the men's dances. On the other hand, heaviness and rootedness are important metaphors of social stability and fecundity. These qualities and their gendered opposition are widespread in Melanesia, and Eves draws some analogies with work such as Munn's. From his discussion of these qualities, however, I think even stronger connections could be made and a deeper interpretation reached. Eves discusses lightness [End Page 538] and movement as bodily qualities, but they are also moral qualities. Movement and its association with lightness and heaviness are expressions of a person's moral and social value. Antisocial persons are greedy, heavy, and enclosed. Powerful and productive people are quick and light. The problem with this dichotomy, and one Eves does not entirely work out, is that these positive attributes can only really be embodied by men, while women embody the less overtly positive attributes. Eves admits that these "less positive" attributes do have positive as well as negative connotations, but he does not address the ramifications of this complexity. He would do well to examine how others such as Munn (1986) deal with the many layers of meaning in a similar cosmology.

The core of Eves' work is his discussion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Pages
pp. 538-540
Launched on MUSE
2000-07-01
Open Access
No
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