Praying and Preying: Book Review

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2016.  Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, translated by David Rodgers. Oakland: University of California Press.

Reviewed by G.E.R. Lloyd (Needham Research Institute, Cambridge UK)

This is a truly remarkable book.  In most anthropological monographs the reader is given a detailed analysis of one particular collectivity, the circumstances of their lives, their kinship relations, social structures, myths, rituals, ways of making sense of the world and of their place in it.  That is certainly what Vilaça here does for the society she has been studying for more than 30 years, the Wari’ who live in what is today the Rondônia province of Brazil.  But a principal theme of this book is the interactions between the Wari’ and the missionaries (Protestants and some Catholics) who have lived among them and attempted, with varying success, to convert them to Christianity.  The Evangelical New Tribes Mission in particular, whose activities date back to the 1940s, may be said to be the subject of a second interlocking ethnographic analysis.  This adds a new dimension to the study of mutual intelligibility with which Vilaça is centrally concerned.  First there is the missionaries’ understanding of the Wari’ (they are not particularly concerned to learn from them or even about them but they certainly wish to get their own message across).  Second there is the Wari’s understanding of the missionaries and of what the missionaries are trying to teach them.  Third there is Vilaça’s own understanding of those divergent understandings and her further entering into dialogue with her fellow anthropologists.  I shall come back to that.

The problem of translation thus takes centre stage, and that takes multiple forms.  This is not just a matter of finding particular terms in one language that will be adequate to convey what is meant by some word in another. This to be sure was a major preoccupation for the missionaries, for what they were hoping to achieve was a rendition of the Word of God, as contained in the Bible, itself interpreted literally.  But for the Wari’ translation was quite different.  Their starting point is that Wari’ is the language spoken by everyone, every living being (and not just humans).  But the same term, used by different agents, may and often does have quite different referents.  The plot thickens when the agents are non-human persons.  When the jaguar drinks the blood of its victims, what the Wari’ see as blood is, for the jaguar, beer.  Of course translating from jaguar perceptions to those of the Wari’ takes special skills, the province of expertise of shamans in particular (though with Christianisation their power has been on the decline).  But the Wari’ in general are used to calling upon what may be thought of as internal dictionaries facilitating translation between jaguars (for example) and the Wari’, and of course also between the missionaries and themselves.  The consequence for reference is radical.  We are used to recognising that for someone to be a ‘father’ implies a relationship with another person, a son or daughter, who makes the father what he is.  But that principle is applied quite generally.  So that ‘blood’ is (only) blood to some agent for whom it is blood.  Indeed, a ‘person’ is only a person in virtue of being seen as a person.

That of course was the central message of the perspectivism proposed by Viveiros de Castro, which the Wari’ instantiate particularly clearly.  But where does that leave Vilaça herself?  On the one hand, she evidently distances herself from the assumptions of the missionaries, that the Word of God sets out a definitive statement of how things are.  On the other, she resists the relativising conclusion that the different understandings of translation, and of terms across languages, effectively rule out any possibility of mutual intelligibility.  That is not a conclusion the Wari’ themselves draw.  On the contrary their perspectivism suggests a particular focus on the efforts needed, and the difficulties likely to be encountered, in the task of translation.

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