Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jorge Luis Borges: The Ethnographer

I happened upon a story by Borges which has stayed with me. It is called "The Ethnographer" and is from In Praise of Darkness, a collection from 1969.

The story is about an ethnographer who starts out as an eager researcher in his field work in a tribe of native inhabitants somewhere on the American continent. Here he is supposed to live with a reclusive tribe and learn their secrets, for further use in academic studies.
He leaves a dedicated scholar wanting to lure out knowledge no one outside the tribe has ever had access to, so as to preserve it and publish it and then gain personal glory for his discoveries.

The young man stays for a few years with this tribe. Sleeping on the prairie, parttaking in big and small activities.

When he returns to his professor a new man, the conversation is as follows:
"'I learned something out there that I can't express.'
'The English language may not be able to communicate it,' the professor suggested.
'That's not it, sir. Now that I possess the secret, I could tell it in a hundred different ways. I don't know how to tell you this, but the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.'
After a pause he added:
'And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.'"
The turning point of the tale is really quite remarkably beautiful and simple: "The young man found that on nights of the full moon he dreamed of buffalo." This one sentence resets the web of the story and gives direction to the underlying mystery -- a mystery which is setting this man, this presumed antagonist, free.

Dreams of buffalos at the full moon leading to knowledge of the mystery.
Makes total sense to me.