Two researchers walk into a bar…(Peterson on Maya Deren and Rudolf Otto)

Two researchers walk into a bar.  The one exits the bar immediately, slips on a banana peel and while flat on his back is instantly overcome by the night sky, he is rendered speechless. The other takes a seat at the bar orders a rum, and another, and starts talking to the strangers around her and winds up drunk and has to be carried out the bar. She too is rendered speechless by her experience. These two researchers could readily be Maya Deren and Rudolf Otto who both endeavor to make claims about the efficacy of religious experience and divine encounter, but approach the topic in vastly different ways.

Maya Deren, in Divine Horsemen; the Living Gods of Haiti, determines to unpack the richly textured and highly structured mythical system of Haitian Voudoun.  In so doing, she offers a unique sympathetic interpretation of Haitian Voudoun which, by her own admission, differs from previous researchers whose theoretical limitations impaired what Deren considers “natural sensibilities” (6). Deren posits that her approach, as a film artist, makes her more sensitive to form, that is pertaining to the integrity of a particular aesthetic, which in turn informs her willingness to engage and experience Voudoun on its own terms (11).  Deren’s ethnography is born from being a participant-observer.  Moreover, her interpretations are shaped, less by prevailing academic theories about Haitian culture, although she readily references scholarship in her footnotes, but by her intuitions derived from her experiences and subsequently by the validation of her interpretations by her Haitian informants.  Her goal, put simply, is to experience Voudoun on its own terms and to vindicate Voudoun in her own terms. Personal experience is primary and making meaning of the experience is secondary.

The second reading for this week, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, conversely aims to construct a language of meaning around a particular kind of experience.  Otto’s resistance to myth and ritual is rooted in his read of them as manifestations of rationalism and logic.  Otto’s chief position is that the Holy is non-rational and therefore any attempt to contain the Holy by rational means reduces the Holy to dogma.  Otto would take issue with Deren’s eager embrace of Haitian myth as a valid means by which to encounter that which is other-worldly.

Deren’s willingness to subject herself to a ritual world for the sake of understanding that world is necessary for her conclusions.  She must succumb to the myth in order to experience the mysticism of the myth.  Given that Haitian Voudoun is not occupied with a direct encounter of the Supreme God, as the varied manifestations of the Mysteres, those lesser deities who can be concerned with the material affairs of humans engage humans directly, it differs greatly from Otto’s interpretation of myth. For Otto, myth’s aim to mediate direct experience with the divine, which reduces them to rationalist dogma (Otto 24). How might Otto’s dependence on particular language and very specific definitions undermine his overall argument?

Deren’s attention to detail and poetic brilliance do serve an important function in her work, it pulls the reader into the ritual experience with such vivid detail that one cannot help but feel a portion of the intensity of the experience from reading it.  In this way her accounts seem to echo the kind of extreme accounts William James uses in Varieties, yet Deren’s experiences in their own context are fairly normalized and non-exceptional.  When talking about extremes one has to recognize just how subjective that assessment might be.  Deren’s experience of a religious system that is not oriented around the same values as the Western intellectual tradition poses a challenge to the kinds of claims that James and Otto both posit as universal around religious experience.   Deren’s understanding of myth as a universal genre allows space for non-western traditions and a critique of western traditions.  She even notes how the western intellectual heritage might be rendered as an approximation of Voudoun (248-249) altogether.  A close inspection of her typology (see 82-83), reveals some interesting parallels between the Haitian Voudoun mythical structure and the the Academy.

Deren’s approach is not without its own limitations and challenges.  Some of these are made visible pretty early in the work. In the first chapter, Deren is adamant that Voudoun is practiced nearly exclusively by poorer and lower class Haitians.  She insists that middle and upper-class Haitians, in their desire to dissociate with those practices the West finds uncivilized and superstitious, have abandoned Haitian Voudoun. It appears this conclusion is based on her own assessment that those groups tend to be more concerned how they are viewed by western society.  While this conclusion is reasonable, it could also be the case that these groups are simply more secretive in their practices for very pragmatic reasons.  Deren as a white skin American woman, even with sympathetic interests, might not be trusted to bear witness to their religious practices, especially if they believe their practices to be important in maintaining their positions in society.  Because Deren sets Voudoun up as a fairly adaptable and pragmatic religious system, it is important to consider a wide variety of perspectives that might inform how people do and do not choose to grant access to foreign observers.   Furthermore, by her own admission, she concludes that the more magical aspects of Voudoun, tend to be inaccessible to the non-initiated (322).

One of Deren’s most prolific insights emerging from her experience is her tracing a particular portion of Haitian Voudoun to Native American origins. Deren argues convincingly in her appendix that the intensified manifestation of the deities, the Petro, is consistent with the shamanist traditions that typify Native ritual practice.  These manifestations are not inherently bad or evil, but instead are more amplified in their expression.  Deren postulates that Africans in the American context found pragmatic use for the intensity that characterized Native American ritual practice.  She concludes early on in the book and again in the appendix, that the Petro loa empowered Haitians to directly engage their new enslaved context, and gave Native Americans a site for revenge against the white man (11).   Deren’s pragmatism does have the effect of demystifying some aspects of Haitian Voudoun making the system palatable to a particular understanding of myth.  The part that remains specific and essential to Haitian Voudoun, still, is the centrality of the human body in mythical manifestation.  That is, Haitian myth is not best captured in words, pictures, stories, or memories, but in actual service.  Even for Deren, it is her own physical encounter with the loa that renders her powerless and, as Otto would say, in a stupor.

Her nuanced explanations allow the reader a peek into parts of the Haitian psyche; these glimpses are most notable when the interpretation of an experience from a Haitian perspective would so readily disagree with the interpretation from a Western perspective.  For example, in her chapter “The White of Darkness,” where she details her own experience of being mounted, she notes how the loa’s silence and indifference to the human needs and petitions are often interpreted as a sign of comfort by the worshipers.  “Distance between man and his god,” she says, “assures that the good endures and will endure” (248).  This kind of logic would not readily satisfy Western rationalist.  Voudoun, however, is filled with constructions and interpretations that do not adhere to Western standards, the chief of which would be the various possessions Deren describes all throughout her work. The complex rituals that are necessary to serve the loa, require the surrendering of one’s financial resources, time, and one’s ego and body in ways that would be readily  considered absurd, irrational, and illogical.  This would definitely count as an extreme experience by James’ estimation, but I am not so certain that Otto would buy into the whole of Deren’s account.

For Otto God must be saved from rationalism, freedom from the prison of human intellect and understanding.  In order for this to happen, the Holy must function outside the limits of human rationality. While Otto crafts a pattern language for this, he does not provide testimony of a direct experience.  His conclusion seems to rest on a kind of encounter with the divine that leaves the human with a sense of his smallness and insignificance within the vastness of the Holy. In this way, it seems the experience Deren described in her last chapter of being mounted – where her own ego and her psyche is completely dislocated from her body so as to make space for the loa, and her own inability to fully recollect that experience cognitively is akin to the kind of experience Otto is pointing to.

Nonetheless, Otto would critique Deren for her willingness to function in the world of myth.  Because for Otto, to systematize and ritualize that which is too deep for words, the wholly other, is to degrade the divine to rationality and conceptual manipulation.  Otto ends by suggesting that the words transcendent and supernatural can point to the non-rational other-worldly space that the Holy must occupy.   Deren, conversely, would uphold that it was the specific set of ritual practices and experience that gave way to her encounter with the other-worldly.   For Deren, you cannot have one without the other.  While she readily names the non-rational as such, she does not create the kind of dualism to which Otto is fundamentally committed.  In this way Deren’s approach and subsequent conclusions are more compatible with my own sensibilities.


Holding all this together a number of questions and ideas arise:

  • What are the benefits of Deren’s ethnographic approach? What is at stake in such an approach? At times I found Deren’s descriptions cumbersome because of her desire to portray Voudoun in a sympathetic light, what are the limits of subjective interpretation?
  • Deren maps a very elaborate typology for Haitian Voudoun (82-83), as I was reading this portion of the book, I was struck by the parallels between Haitian Voudo and the Western Academy – how could you read Deren’s work as a critique of the Academy itself as a mythic system?
  • Otto is fundamentally committed to the Holy as non-rational, why is this approach so important to him and what are its limitations?
  • In tending to a definition of religion, how might esoteric experience inform what is religious? Who gets to define the boundaries of the other-worldly?
  • How does one best tend to universal claims in the domain of religious discourse?

8 thoughts on “Two researchers walk into a bar…(Peterson on Maya Deren and Rudolf Otto)

  1. I had a similar thought to Rebekah when reading Deren’s work – is this an account of her own spiritual journey in her time of Haiti (especially given the account of her own possession) or an exploration of the principles of Voudoun as described and experienced by native Haitian worshipers? Her descriptions of the ideas and ceremonies were very artistic (and perhaps a bit too wordy for my preference) and I was left wondering whether this was her own interpretation of the events or drawn from actual conversations with individuals in Haiti. In her preface, she mentions that she had a ‘strong distaste for aggressive inquiry’ and did not come with any methodology or training (7). Although coming with an open mind ready to absorb can be a helpful strategy, I wondered how much time she invested in actually collecting and documenting the stories told to her by the natives versus just living the experience as an artist who spent 18 months in a foreign country (a short time on many accounts). An image came to mind of a 60’s ‘flower child’ appropriating First Nation dress and customs as her own. In the end, I decided to read the book as it is – a white western woman’s experience with a religious (group?) in Haiti.
    That being said, I found the reading very informative. I was surprised by detailed it was and at times wondered if Deren really had spent only 18 months in Haiti without studying some previous works and historical accounts. Particularly, the chapter on the Christian influence and African origins (Les Serviteurs) had me question whether she had no other preparation prior to going to Haiti. Admittedly, prior to reading this book,I had not considered Voudoun to be a religion unto itself, or at least not as complex as a religious system as Deren describes it. This ignorance is probably due to remnants of my fundamentalist upbringing which rejected Voodoo as witchcraft or magic. Deren must have encountered this misunderstanding at some point in her life as well because she makes it a point to differentiate between religion and magic – “religious training develops the psychic perception and power of the individual” while magic is shrouded in secrecy and manipulation (158). The description of the metaphysical world of the loa in the first part of the book opened my eyes to the complexity of the religion. Deren describes in detail how the honored grandfather becomes ancestor and then ancestor becomes loa, but that loa is not necessarily one actual person who lived in history, but an archetype of a character or principle (28-33). In describing various rights and ceremonies, I appreciate that Deren highlights that those presented in the book are not universal – that the principles might be more universal but each region may have different practices, yet I still found myself wishing to have seen more first hand accounts from native Haitians than just from Deren’s own perspective and experience.

  2. You all have given me a lot to think about! I want to echo some of the concerns raised in the response threads. I must confess that I wouldn’t mind doing a full ethnographic study on Deren herself! There is so much complexity in this text. Before I get to my qualms, I do want to say that I thought Deren brought so much perspective to Haitian Voudou and I was frequently amazed that anyone in 1953 could write in such a thoughtful and self-critical way (and still get published). But, I’m wondering if Deren is truly trying to present Haitian Voudou “on its own terms.” Is that even possible? In particular, I wonder if Deren’s sense of audience actually kept her from doing just that? While reading, I frequently asked myself, “Who is Deren writing this for?” It is clear that she has a more Western audience in mind, as she attempts to compare/contrast Haitian Voudou with North American Judeo-Christian thought.

    On the one hand, Deren is doing precisely the work we discussed last week. She is trying to render the unfamiliar more familiar. But at what cost? One of many examples of this would be the fact that Deren ensures her readers that a houngan is still “subject to democratic controls” (176). This helps alleviate any concern her (presumably democracy-loving) readers might have about a houngan abusing his/her power. Deren herself becomes a way of pulling readers into the “rational, principled” order of Haitian Voudou as she is mounted by a loa. This makes the religion not only “rational,” but “believable” (which is also a term she resists throughout the text). I think there are some very necessary reasons that Deren makes important rhetorical moves for a Western audience in the 1950s. It’s brave and really quite amazing. But, there is so very little from practitioners of Haitian Voudou in this text. The result is that Deren is the primary mouthpiece for the religion. I’m not sure she could do otherwise at the time, but it still brings up a number of ethical implications for me. As budding ethnographers, who are we accountable to? Our interlocutors or our imagined audience? Probably the answer is both, but how do we balance this dilemma?

    I also share Rachel’s concern that Deren may bleed into apology, but I also feel conflicted because sometimes I think an apology-esque piece might be necessary to debunk some serious ethnocentric and xenophobic ways of writing about African-derived Religious Traditions.

    1. Ok, now I’m just being an over-achiever. But, if we wanted to talk about the segment on “Rites as Collective Discipline” forever, I’d be ok with that too (starting on 188). There’s so much going on there!

  3. Hi Nick,

    Awesome precis—I especially like the thorough contrasting of Deren and Otto. I think perhaps a focus on the “aesthetic” could serve as one specific way of approaching some of your questions. I would really appreciate discussion tomorrow of the strengths and weaknesses of Deren’s ethnographic approach as an artist—her “sensitivity to form”—as well as the aesthetic analogies that Otto likes to fall back on. How does this aesthetic paradigm function for each of them—does it simply corroborate their claims about what’s “more” beyond rationality and language? Is it just a different rationality/language?
    To draw some potential connections, which may or may not hold up: Deren likes to emphasize that the artistic perspective allows her to see ever more of the implications and connotations surrounding rituals and other experiences. Can this be seen as parallel to James’s discussion of viewing experiences “on the whole”? Even, perhaps, to Otto’s discussion of meaning vs. causality?
    Lastly, I’m really glad you directed us to Deren’s insight about the New World evolution of Voudoun in conversation with Native American mythology and ritual. This might be a worthwhile place to discuss how much “pragmatism” a religion can truly handle before it is no longer the same religion. Does a religion require an inviolable essence around which adaptation can take place but without which the religion ceases to exist? Is everything up for grabs? Does it just depend on how quickly or gradually changes take place?
    I look forward to discussing things with y’all tomorrow!

  4. Thanks folks, these are all great and important comments so far. Let’s make sure to pick up some of these concerns in class tomorrow. See you then!

  5. Hey Nick,

    Thanks for the fun precis, and the fun beginning! A couple of thoughts on your thoughts:

    First, I thought your grasp of Deren was superb, both in her strengths and her weaknesses. I was curious about the term you used to describe her method, that of the “participant-observer;” I’ve been out of the academic world for some time, so is that a specific term? If so, is it strong enough to describe Deren’s position as one who was actually a Voudoun initiate herself?

    In her introduction, Deren ends by saying that her goal is to present Voudoun as a rational, reasonable system, which, I inferred her to be saying, is at its heart no different than any other religion you would find in the Western world. At what point did her experience as an ethnographer and desire to present a religion with integrity bleed into something more like apology, or what Dr. Seeman referred to, I think, as “true adherents” from last class? Is it problematic in that it taints her vision, or is she just more self-aware and honest about her tainted vision than the rest of people attempting to study “other” cultures?

    I think your contrasting of Otto and Deren is a fair reading of their differences, especially in terms of embodied experience of the divine and an un-name-able experience of what Luther would have called God’s alien consciousness, which is just to say the experience of God as something wholly other than human. However, I wonder if in some ways Otto is fundamentally setting up a foundational aspect of Deren’s argument which is that the world, however we experience it, consists of both elements which are human and elements which are mysterious, numinous, awe-ful, and divine.

  6. I may be missing the point here, but isn’t it problematic that Deren relies overmuch on her own observation and interpretation of Voudou myths, practices, and their meaning? While her explanations are really beautiful—and uniquely insightful as an artist I would think—it is as though we are only learning what Voudou is for Deren and not what it is and how it is experienced for Hattian long-time practitioners.
    Deren seems a bit over-involved/ over-invested in presenting a particular snapshot for her audience. Her distaste of the scientific, non-artistic approach—while perhaps warranted—leads her to overextend in dismissing the usefulness of the memory and verbalizations of actual practitioners (pg. 11). In the end, I was left wondering if this was Deren’s exploration of the metaphysical principles of Voudou (pg. 20) or a personal diary of spiritual discovery. How much does it matter?

  7. Hey Nick,

    Thanks for such a thorough post–you brought up several things I had been thinking about. One is the question of academic form, as it relates to Deren and to ethnographic work today. I appreciate you referencing the possible parallels between the mythic structures of Western intellectualism and Vodoun, because it prompts me to ask: what is at stake for us in our mythic structures? Just as connections with the major loa served an essential psychic function for the people in Deren’s fieldwork, what needs–psychic, material, ethical, intellectual–do our academic structures (IRB, peer-review, credentialing, etc) serve? This relates to a question I began asking during her methodological note in the beginning, which is: would a study like this be possible today? If not (and I’m not sure someone without a graduate degree could publish an ethnographic text and be taken seriously in the academy now), what have we lost? What does someone like Deren bring to the table that those of us with academic training do not? On the other hand, what have we gained? How does the balance between these losses and gains lead us to evaluate our present intellectual assumptions?

    Another place your post intrigued me was in the comparisons between Deren and Otto. I guess I read Otto slightly differently, in that I think in some ways he and Deren are trying to do the same thing: to convince people that religious commitment (either generally, for Otto, or specifically with Vodoun, for Deren) is driven by something “more.” More than rational, more than magical. I think they differ on what that something is: Deren emphasizes the vital and almost-comforting nature of contact with the forces that hold the world together, while Otto seems convinced that the feeling must be awe-ful, eerie, overwhelming (and does do the universalizing thing, which I agree would be good to talk about). But he does, like Deren, seem to be trying to make the case that even in ritualized forms, something of that “more” is apparent (see pp. 17-18). So I don’t know, I think there are ways that they converge and diverge–it would be great to talk about this more.

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