Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet

The Innocent Anthropologist Book CoverI. The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut [1983] by Nigel Barley – ★★★★

In the late 1970s, Nigel Barley went to North Cameroon to study the Dowayos, and choosing those that represent the most “ferocious” mountain tribe existing at that time. This is his debut non-fiction account of his travels and exploration in Africa as he embarks on his fieldwork. In this book, Barley is really an “innocent” anthropologist, an idealistic young man who is a bit ignorant about what to expect in the real world outside the academia. Barley tells us how he encountered the mind-boggling bureaucracy, got lost in “the vast range of loose kingship” in the country, overcame malaria, as well as survived a horror-trip to a local dentist, among his other stories. Barley’s style of writing is appealingly laid-back, and this concise book turns out to be funny and engaging as a result. It may not be the book on the Dowayos, but part of the charm is that the account is surprisingly honest and humorous. 

Barley does not hide the fact that he came to Cameroon to do his fieldwork completely mentally and even physically unprepared. Upon arriving, the young man struggles against financial pressures and has to adapt quickly to very different ways of “breathing and living”. He quickly finds out that having light when it is dark is an absolute “luxury”, and has trouble learning an impossible language to understand the culture of the Dowayos better. His observations on his environment are fascinating to read because our “protagonist” is so witty and new to almost everything he encounters. On his experience of first arriving to Africa, he recounts: my camera case was promptly seized by what I took to be an enthusiastic porter”, and “a solicitous taxi driver took me to my hotel for only five times the normal rate” [Barley, 1983: 20]. Even though most of his statements are amusing (amusingly horrifying), such as “by local standards, a car with only six people in it is empty” [Barley, 1983: 41], there is also sometimes an underlying melancholy or even despair in his tone, especially when he writes “there was no hope, this was Africa” [Barley, 1983: 40]. Barley then recounts the life and people’s habits in that part of Africa, making observations on the sexual behaviour, healing procedures and other beliefs of the people he observes. His tone is never judgemental, and he seems eager to find out more, even for the purpose of viewing his own life in a different way.

The downside is that the book is not as insightful as one would have hoped, and it is still written by a Westerner, who informs us on what he believes he sees. Even though the account may also now be dated, the book’s relaxed observation on another culture and adaptability to it is also appealing, and it is still a very enjoyable read because of the humour and honesty of the narration. 

Magic & Mystery in Tibet CoverII. Magic & Mystery in Tibet [1929] by Alexandra David-Neel – ★★★★★ 

Gods, demons, the whole universe, are but a mirage which exists in the mind, “springs from it, and sinks into it“” (Tibetan declaration, David-Neel, 1929/1965: 232). 

Alexandra David-Neel was a remarkable Belgian-French explorer who became the first European woman to set foot in Lhasa when it was a strictly “forbidden” territory of Tibet or the Land of Snow. Magic & Mystery in Tibet is her account of the spiritual and occult practices of the people of Tibet, a region of the world “bathed in occult influences” [David-Neel, 1929/1965: 7]. David-Neel’s book was so influential it laid foundations for many other travel writers, including Kerouac and Ginsberg.

Well-schooled in Buddhist doctrines, David-Neel wasted no time in Asia, which she travelled extensively, and took a cue to try to learn the Tibetan language to understand the people of Tibet and their daily practices better. In her non-fiction book, she describes funeral rituals, mystic practices, as well as her meetings with curious people, from the Dalai Lama to local Tibetan shamans and magicians. The great aspect of this book is that David-Neel wastes no time on herself in her account or the background, as many other travel writers do, and dives straight into the core of the matter – the occult beliefs and mysterious Tibetan practices. In that vein, she painstakingly sets out the little-known rituals which are followed in Tibet, as well as describes the Tibetan wonders and folk stories, for example, those connected with reincarnation or spiritual, psychic trainings. From apparent astral projection to secret teachings, which focuses on the importance of trance, meditation and concentration of thought, no area of the Tibetan “magic” is left unexplored.

It is clear from the narrative that David-Neel is enraptured by the still beauty of Tibet, and has high respect for the people and traditions. “No description can convey the least idea of the solemn majesty, the serene beauty, the awe-inspiring wildness, the entrancing charm of the finest Tibetan scenes” [David-Neel, 1929/1965: 234], writes the explorer. She writes that Tibet finds itself in high altitudes, in an isolated place filled with silence and solitude, and these conditions may play a role in imbuing Tibet with so much mystery and the aura of the occult.

The author also elucidates misconceptions about Tibet, trying to put them right. David-Neel tries to put each unbelievable story she tells in a context. It is not necessary to believe every miraculous story, but it is also important to keep an open-mind and to realise that, probably, some of the so-called “wonders” may be explained by common sense and by pointing out cultural misunderstandings. By looking differently at some things, these things can become explainable. Tibetans do not see miraculous happenings as wonders to be in awe of, but just the usual phenomena to pass a praise on. Miracles may just be “the forces of nature little understood“, and the conclusion is that “Tibetan theories are all grounded on the power of the mind” [David-Neel, 1929/1965: 244]. 

It is sometimes challenging to read this book because of all the terminology used to describe mysterious processes, such as the mysterious rite rolang (“the corpse who stands up”) and the Chod performance. However, the book is never dull, and it does keep the readers entertained with stories of people of superhuman endurance, and of how it may be possible to keep warn in sub-zero temperatures by following a particular ritual focused on mental concentration and visualisation.

Persuasive, intelligent and deep, it is no wonder that Magic & Mystery in Tibet stood the test of time, and, although written at the beginning of the last century, still represents a very important and influential work on Tibet, and its occult and mysterious practices. Gathering knowledge collected in at least ten years’ time, Alexandra David-Neel makes very acute observations on the mentality and life viewpoints of Tibetan people, ensuring an insightful and fascinating read.  

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5 thoughts on “Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet

  1. Your description of David-Neel’s book reminds me a lot of Theodore Illion’s book “In Secret Tibet”, in which the author embarks to Tibet under similar circumstances and relates some rather unbelievable stories. Although most certainly fictionalized, I enjoyed the read and am glad to know of another similar book that I could follow up with. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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