THE MEANING OF MEANINGLESS WORDS AND THE COEFFICIENT OF WEIRDNESS
(from: Coral Gardens and Their Magic, volume 2, "The Language of Magic and Gardening", pages 213-222)
Malinowski's anthropological investigations coincided with the avant-gardist (re)birth of the Dada sound poem and Russian Futurist zaum; a coincidence that provokes comparison.
Introduction by Jerome Rothenberg
Malinowski lays down one major line of British functionalism, as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown lays down the other (structural-functionalism). But if Radcliffe-Brown's version has the greater theoretical carry-over at present, Malinowski has set a model for anthropological fieldwork and its attendant theory and has had an extraordinary impact as a teacher of later anthropologists and on a range of Western and Third World thought outside of anthropology itself. His principal writings in this regard come out of his extended work in the Trobriands and other islands off the southeast tip of New Guinea (1912-1916), and include such books as Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, and Coral Gardens and Their Magic. The last, in its account of Trobriand ecology and the language of magic and gardening, is truly a major work of twentieth-century poetics. The key to the force of song and narrative set out therein recurs, for example, in Malinowski's description of myth and the attendant process of myth-making in the later but very influential Magic, Myth, and Religion. From a functionalist perspective, myth establishes the charter of a society and creates the group's coherence not merely [as] a story told, he writes, but [as] a reality lived (1948: 100). The implications of this favoring of enactment over explanation are enormous, culminating in one instance in Charles Olson's summary, circa 1953, of the link, through Malinowski, between Trobriand poetics, for example, and our own:
[Malinowski's] emphasis. . . strikes away the idea that a story is symbolical (that it stands for something, instead of being that something); and at the same time that it is meant to explain anything. . . . Malinowski is asserting the primary truth that the human fact is that there is no desire to explain-there is solely the desire to experience: that this is what is meant by knowing: to know is to experience, & vice versa: to experience is to know (histor). That is, to tell about it, and to tell about it as others have told it, is one act, simply, that the reality itself is one, now, & then. [Olson, number 10: 641
The reader who wishes to explore further the connections between meaningless words in traditional and contemporary practice (e.g., sound poetry) might begin with the present co-editor's Technicians of the Sacred (1968: 386- 391 ).
Magical formulae differ from other texts considerably, both as regards their intrinsic nature and the place which we have given them in our scheme of presentation. As to its intrinsic nature, the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life. As regards presentation, it was necessary in the course of our narrative account to make the garden magician recite his spells in a rhythmic elaborated English version of the native text. This was justified because, in native, the language of magic, with its richness of phonetic, rhythmic, metaphorical and alliterative effects, with its weird cadences and repetitions, has a prosodic character which it is desirable to bring home to the English reader. At the same time, just because the language of magic is regarded as sacred, too great liberties must not be taken with it: or at least, such liberties as are taken must be checked against an exact statement of how much is contained in the native original and how much is added by the legitimate process of bringing out implications. . . .
It follows that those difficulties which we have encountered in the free translation of ordinary texts become much greater here. If . . . all ordinary terms which have to be translated are yet untranslatable, this puzzling quality becomes much more pronounced when we deal with words which are avowedly meaningless. For the magician in the Trobriands as elsewhere deals out verbal elements of the abracadabra, sesame, hocus pocus type, that is, words the function of which is not 'meaning' in the ordinary sense, but a specific magical influence which these words are believed to exercise. In what way the 'meaning of meaningless words' can be conveyed is a paradoxical problem of linguistic theory which will have to be confronted here. . . .
The most difficult problem, perhaps, in connexion with magical formulae and, according to our conception of language, the central problem, is that concerning the function of a magical utterance. To us the meaning of any significant word, sentence or phrase is the effective change brought about by the utterance within the context of the situation to which it is wedded. We have seen how this meaning has to be understood in the active pragmatic speech which passes between a group of people engaged in some concerted task; an order given and carried out, an advice or co-ordinating instruction followed. We have also seen how words of praise or encouragement act, and how they have a dynamic significance. We have enquired into the nature of meaning when speech is used for planning, for education, for narrative or conversation.
Now a magical formula is neither apiece of conversation, nor yet a prayer, nor a statement or communication. What is it? What is the sociological setting of a spell, what is its purpose, what is the function of magical words? In order to elicit the meaning of an ordinary utterance we found that we had to ascertain the social context; the purpose, aim and direction of the accompanying activities-practical, sociable, or generally cultural; and finally the function of the words, i.e., the effective change which they produce within concerted action. But in a magical formula the purpose seems to be imaginary, sociological co-operation non-existent and the role of words just to be uttered into the void.
Let us look more closely at the facts, however. When the magician mumbles over some herbs in his hut-is it just an empty monologue? No audience of listeners is supposed to be necessary to the effectiveness of the spell; therefore, according to our definition of meaning, the words would appear to be plainly meaningless. What is the point of his ritually uttered magical comments when, in striking the soil of the garden, he says: I am striking thee, O soil? Does he address the land, or his stick, or any people who chance to be present? Or again, on other occasions, does he talk to the herbs, or to a stone, or to one or other of the two saplings, or to spirits which, even if present, are not believed to do anything? When he addresses a spider or a bush-hen, a lawyer-cane or a dolphin, what sort of co-operative act, if any, is involved?
Some of these questions we are in a position to answer. Let us start from the purpose of magic. Imaginary it is from our point of view, but is this a reason for dismissing it as socially and culturally irrelevant? Certainly not. Magic happens in a world of its own, but this world is real to the natives. It therefore exerts a deep influence on their behaviour and consequently is also real to the anthropologist. The situation of magic--and by this I mean the scene of action pervaded by influences and sympathetic affinities, and permeated by mana--this situation forms the context of spells. It is created by native belief, and this belief is a powerful social and cultural force. Consequently we must try to place the utterances of magic within their appropriate context of native belief and see what information we can elicit which may help us towards the understanding of spells and the elucidation of words.
All the acts of magic, from the first oblation to the spirits to the last fragment of a banana spell, consist, from the dogmatic point of view, in one type of performance. Each rite is the 'production', or 'generation' of a force and the conveyance of it, directly or indirectly, to a certain given object which, as the natives believe, is affected by this force. In the Trobriands we have, then, the production and application of Melanesian mana, the magical force for which there is no name in our ethnographic province, but which is very much present there in the reality of belief and behaviour.
Take the principal spell of Omarakana garden magic, which begins with the word vatuvi [show the way]. The magician, after certain preparations and under the observance of certain rules and taboos, collects herbs and makes of them a magical mixture. Parallel with his actions and in concert with him, the members of the community make other preparations, notably the provision of fish for a gift to the magician and the spirits, and for a festive eating. The magician, after ritually and with an incantation offering some of this fish to the ancestral spirits, recites the main spell, vatuvi, over the magical mixture. Let me remind you of how he does this. He prepares a sort of large receptacle for his voice--a voice-trap we might almost call it. He lays the mixture on a mat and covers this with another mat so that his voice may be caught and imprisoned between them. During the recitation he holds his head close to the aperture and carefully sees to it that no portion of the herbs shall remain unaffected by the breath of his voice. He moves his mouth from one end of the aperture to the other, turns his head, repeating the words over and over again, rubbing them, so to speak, into the substance. When you watch the magician at work and note the meticulous care with which he applies this most effective and most important verbal action to the substance; when afterwards you see how carefully he encloses the charmed herbs in the ritual wrappings prepared, and in a ritual manner --then you realise how serious is the belief that the magic is in the breath and that the breath is the magic. . . .
To the Trobriander the spell is a sequence of words, more or less mysterious, handed down from immemorial times and always taught by an accredited magician to his successors; it is received by the first human wielder of the magic from some supernatural agency, or else brought by the first ancestors who came from underground, where they had led an existence in which magic apparently was already in use. The myths about the beginnings of magic are not altogether consistent and sometimes not even clear. Theology, from Australian totemism or Trobriand magical lore to scholastic disputes, modem faculties of divinity and the councils of Christian Science or Theosophy--is always controversial and inconsistent. But on the whole we find in the Trobriands one fundamental belief--that the magic of gardening was first effectively exercised by such cultural heroes as Tudava, Malita, Gere'u and others, and a much more precise belief, that each garden magic has come from underground on the very spot where it is now being practised, or else that it has been introduced to this spot and naturalised there. Furthermore, the belief is very strong that supremacy in differential fertility is due to the fact of one magical system being better than the others. Also the element of luck, whether good or bad, is always accounted for by magic.
The important point for us is, however, that in whatever manner magic has come into the possession of man, the spell as such has existed from the very beginning of things, quod semper, quod ab initio. . . . It is regarded as a specific quality of a relevant aspect of the world. Fertility and the growth of yams matter to man, and cannot be mastered by human forces alone. Hence there is magic, there always was magic, and the magic resides in the spell. When speaking of things sacred and ritual, the Trobriander would fully endorse the truth of in principio erat verbum. Though the the natives would not be able to formulate it themselves, this is in brief their dogma; and though they also would not be able to tell it simply and in an abstract manner, wherever there is an important human activity, which is at the same time dangerous, subject to chance and not completely mastered by technical means--there is always for the Trobriander a magical system, a body of rites and spells, to compensate for the uncertainty of chance and to forearm against bad luck. . . .
How far does this dogmatic background help us in understanding the wording of magic? If the main principle of magical belief is that words exercise power in virture of their primeval mysterious connexion with some aspect of reality, them obviously we must not expect the words of Trobriand magic to act in virtue of their ordinary colloquial meaning. A spell is believed to be a primeval text which somehow came into being side by side with animals and plants, with winds and waves, with human disease, human courage and human frailty. Why should such words be as the words of common speech? They are not uttered to carry ordinary information from man to man, or to give advice or an order. The natives might naturally expect all such words to be very mysterious and far removed from ordinary speech. And so they are to a large extent, but by no means completely. We shall see that spells are astoundingly significant and translatable and we shall also see why this is so.
But the fact remains that unless the reader is forewarned that a great deal of the vocabulary of magic, its grammar and its prosody, falls into line with the deeply ingrained belief that magical speech must be cast in another mould, because it is derived from other sources and produces different effects from ordinary speeech. He will constantly be at cross-purposes with the principles according to which the translation of magical utterance has to proceed. If the ordinary criteria of grammar, logic and consistency were applied, the translator would find himself hopelessly bogged by Trobriand magic.
Take the very first formula, for example. This is a direct address to ancestral spirits--a man-to-man communication we might say; hence in parts it is lucid and grammatical. And then comes the sentence: 'Vikita, Iyavata, their myth head is.' After much consultation with informants and etymological research in their company, I had to conclude that in no sense can these words be set equivalent to any ordinary prose sentence. The meaning of the magical expression is simply the intrinsic effect which, in native belief, it exerts on the spirits and indirectly on the fertility of the soil. The commentaries of the natives, however, reveal the mythological references connected with the names Vikita and Iyavata. Those who are versed in the magical tradition of this spell can interpret the significance of these words and tell us why they are ritually effective.
In what way, then, can we translate such a jumble of words, meaningless in the ordinary sense? The words are supposed to exercise a mystical effect sui generis on an aspect of reality. This belief is due to certain properties and associations of these words. They can therefore be translated in one sense and in one sense only: we must show what effect they are believed to produce, and marshal all the linguistic data available to show how and why they produce this effect.
To take another example, the exordium of the most important spell:
Vatuvi, vatuvi, vatuvi, vatuvi. Vitumaga, i-maga.
Vatuvi, vatuvi, vatuvi, vatuvi. Vitulola, i-lola.
The better one knows the Trobriand language the clearer it becomes that these words are not words of ordinary speech. As actually recited in the spell they are pronounced according to a special phonology, in a sing-song, with their own rhythm and with numerically grouped repetitions. The word vatuvi is not a grammatical form ever found in ordinary speech. The compounds vitulola, vitumaga, are again weird and unusual; in a way, nonsense words. Words like vatuvi or the root lola are clipped; but there are other words which are compounded, built up, developed. . . .
In some formulae we are able to translate the words clearly and satisfactorily after our magically illumined commentator has given us their esoteric meaning. Thus we are told that gelu is a magical word for bush-hen, in ordinary speech mulubida; that kaybwagina is a clipped form of mitakaybwagina, which is the mystical name for the millipede, known in ordinary speech as mwanita. Some of the animals, it is true, are called by their ordinary names. . . . But even these ordinary words, by association with others. . . not used in common speech, and with proper names of spots which are not comprehensible without a mythological and topographical commentary, are incorporated into a complex prosodic structure, specifically magical in character. We could discover such characteristic structures, usually rhythmical and symmetrical, in almost every formula. . . .
Again we have in many spells what might be called negative comparison on the pattern 'this is not (here the object to be charmed or a part of it is named) . . . but it is (here a pattern or ideal object is named).' Thus, for instance, we have 'this is not thy eye, thy eye is as the black ant's' or 'this is not thy flight, thy flight is as a 'parrot's. . . . The same features can be found in any formula: most words can be translated if we know for what reason they are used in the spell. If, for example, we know that the dolphin is big and long as the tubers should become, that its weaving in and out of the rising and falling waves is associated with the winding and interweaving of the luxuriant vines whose rich foliage means a plentiful taytu harvest, we can not only translate the word 'dolphin,' but several sentences based on the allusion; above all, we can understand the structure of the whole spell. The same applies to the bush-hen in [another formula], whose large nest is associated with the swelling round the taytu plant when tubers are plentiful. . . .
Thus all magical verbiage shows a very considerable coefficient of weirdness, strangeness and unusualness. The better we know the Trobriand language the more clearly and immediately can we distinguish magic from ordinary speech. The most grammatical and least emphatically chanted spell differs from the forms of ordinary address. Most magic, moreover, is chanted in a sing-song which makes it from the outset profoundly different from ordinary utterances. The wording of magic is correlated with a very complicated dogmatic system, with theories about the primeval mystical power of words, about mythological influences, about the faint co-operation of ancestral spirits and, much more important, about the sympathetic influence of animals, plants, natural forces and objects. Unless a competent commentator is secured who, in each specific case, will interpret the elements of weirdness, the allusions, the personal names or the magical pseudonyms, it is impossible to translate magic. Moreover, as a comparison of the various formulae has shown us, there has developed a body of linguistic practice-- use of metaphor, opposition, repetition, negative comparison, imperative and question with answer--which, though not developed into any explicit doctrine, makes the language of magic specific, unusual, quaint.
Reproduced from Symposium of the Whole, eds. Diane and Jerome Rothenberg with the editors' permission