Accepted paper:

Jean Paulhan in Madagascar


Lee Haring (Brooklyn College)

Paper short abstract:

In folklore fieldwork in Madagascar, Jean Paulhan probed the aesthetic of the proverbs of the highland Merina. His sensitivity to ambiguity in language created a literary place for Madagascar in France.

Paper long abstract:

In colonial Madagascar, narrators being interviewed by French civil servants or teachers would withhold "full performance." Because myths (tantara) were true, they must be kept back from the foreigner. Tsy misy melo-batana, fa izay melo-bava no meloka, No one is guilty in body, but the guilty-in-mouth is blamable, said a Merina proverb. An early challenger to Malagasy secrecy in that period was Jean Paulhan (1884-1968), who passed 33 months in Madagascar as a teacher among the highland Merina. Fieldwork taught him that Merina men-of-words achieved authenticity by using fixed-phrase folklore. In the Europe that produced him, he knew, such commonplaces and readymade expressions would irremediably taint poetic production. After leaving Madagascar in 1910, Paulhan worried over this contradiction for another seventeen years and produced classic studies of traditional oral poetry and proverbs. It was Paulhan's writings that created whatever literary place Madagascar acquired in France. He also influenced the critic and novelist Maurice Blanchot to develop his sweeping doctrines of the generality and impersonality of poetic language. Paulhan did not conceal where he got the idea that fixed-phrase folklore has a power of its own, or that there can be such things as surprising proverbs and ingenious clich├ęs. Blanchot did conceal whatever debt he might owe to those Malagasy men-of-words, choosing to ignore the fertilization of French criticism that had come from the colony. How useful the colonies were, after all, in supplying raw materials to the metropole. As the creator of Madagascar's literary place, Jean Paulhan played a classic ambassadorial role.

panel P221
New histories of anthropology: the hidden emotions of colonial ethnography