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When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 3)

July 15, 2011

(part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood (continued…)

For the introduction to this post, I just want to direct your attention to two excellent articles and one smart blog post related to my topic. The first is an essay by Megan McArdle, “Anatomy of a Fake Quote” (published May 3rd, 2011 in The Atlantic); the second is Jason Zinoman’s “Style, Soap, Sex–and Splat!” (Slate, Aug. 2, 2010); the third is a post on Racialicious called “Frenemies, Magical Negroes & Biscuits: True Blood S03E07” (Aug. 4, 2010), hosted by Thea Lim and featuring Joseph Lamour, Tami Winfrey Harris, Latoya Peterson and Andrea Plaid (none of the authors could tell what Lafayette was saying about the lesser religions either!). While McArdle’s article is about the apocryphal attribution to Martin Luther King Jr. of a quote that went around the internet in the days after bin Laden was killed, the analysis of why and how the quotation mutated while still being linked to King is important for thinking about the same process that happened to the Copper Eskimo song. McArdle suggests why people became so defensive about the apocryphal King quote as they went to great lengths to try to prove its truth:

“We become invested in these quotes because they say something important about us–and they let us feel that those emotions were shared by great figures in history.  We naturally search for reasons that they could have said it–that they could have felt like us–rather than looking for reasons to disbelieve.”

In my generous moments I want to believe that a similar operation is at work with the Inuit song. However, as Thea points out in “Frenemies”: the Inuit prayer…

“did feel a little appropriative, despite last week’s conversation about the proper way to honour the Orishas. I mean, this is the same show that had three of its characters brutally murder an “ethnic” sex worker a few weeks ago: it has the tendency to make use of people of colour.”

Slate’s writer, in contrast, takes an altogether different approach to the Inuit prayer in his article about the mash of genres that makes True Blood so irresistible. He writes:

“Finally, let’s peel the onion of this week’s conspicuous literary reference. At the hospital bed, Lafayette’s recitation of Inuit poetry that rethinks the importance of my “small adventures, my fears, those small ones that seemed so big,” fits nicely with the current vampire plot to eradicate the human race. Its spiritual imagery also frames the mystical elements of Sookie’s dream. But the writers of this show are tricky and I would bet that one of them spotted this quote from the end of the 1983 adventure film Never Cry Wolf.”

While I have yet to see the film, I did read the original book version by Farley Mowat. Zinoman continues with a brief but pertinent plot summary:

“The plot of that movie follows a biologist assigned to northern Canada [in the book, this is Mowat] to figure out whether wolves are responsible for destroying the caribou population, only to find that humans are more at fault [actually it is the white trapper and mining population destroying the caribou herds and also driving the indigenous people to starvation]. Is this a hint at the role the werewolves will play in the vampire conspiracy? Or might this be a lighter joke? Wikipedia reports that Never Cry Wolf was the first Disney movie to show a naked adult derriere. As die-hard fans know all too well, Alcide, the werewolf hunk standing around the bed, showed up in the nude for the first time [the week before]. Only an obsessive fan would connect these dots, and it might be the case that someone just liked the sound of this quote. But True Blood loves its hints and teases as much as it does its skin and scares.”

And I’ll leave it at that and abruptly shift gears to talk a little bit about my interest in this Inuit song, namely the edited version’s relation to the full poem and how it fits in a wider context of the tradition of Inuit song. Please feel free to comment about these other takes on the use of the quote in the comments section or add your own interpretation.

The song in question, or pisiit (pisiit, or traditional songs, sometimes called ajaajaa, are usually owned by a specific person. Sung by someone else, verbal credit was given to the owner. The term is now also used for hymns. A pisiq which has had changes made to it is called an ikiaqtagaq [“Perspectives on Traditional Law”)]), could be a personal song of either a shaman or a powerful individual or just as easily an ordinary man or woman (although Rasmussen had a habit of seeking out the shamans of each group he visited). This particular song (and quite a few others that I have read) situates the singer in space as it also orients the singer out towards a world in which natural forces such as wind can destroy life quite easily. The singer, through the act of song, engages and renegotiates certainties like knowledge about the world and the self as outside forces require. What is interesting to note is that the version ascribed to the Thule Expedition has a line that specifically assigns the fear felt by the narrator to “When from a shore wind I drifted out / In my kayak / And I thought I was in danger.” And the “great day that dawns, / And the light that fills the world” comes from the ability “To live and see in huts and on journeys…” The other long version (Tegoodligak’s) is similar in its inclusion of from where the fear arises (being on the windy ocean in a kayak), but does not include the parallel calm that comes from being located once more in a known realm of hearth and home, a repositioning that allows the speaker to once more journey out and (hopefully) return.

With regard to the matter of an “original” it seems to trouble those in the habit of collecting the song rather than the maker. Diamond Jenness it has been noted in his attempts to record “Eskimo Songs” in his ethnographic studies in the early to mid 1900s, was often frustrated by his lack of being able to attribute poems and songs to a single author and by his singers apparent lack of interest in the matter of origins. At one point he states disagreeably about the material he has to work with (although he does not speak the language, he is still able to shift the blame to others): “All the individual words…may be capable or translation, yet taken together they will yield no meaning…There are cases probably where the obscurity lies in the translation rather than in the original, owing to my imperfect knowledge of the language and the inadequacy of my interpreters” (13, qtd in McCall, 21-22). And in the end, he finds the poems or songs themselves at fault for they will not conform to his aesthetic understanding of the lyric poem. And it is really not until modernism and the rise in popularity of the language poem that an aesthetics could be attributed to Inuit “poetry” by a western Euro-American audience as they became consumable through translation to a wide readership (note all the different editions of “Eskimo poetry” published in English). Of course, the politics of difference is edited out, as is the unease that comes with partial translation as subsequent generations of editions edited out difficult or nontranslatable terms and ideas (cf. McCall, Groening).

And next time, I will explain and expand on that last summary sentence. Stay tuned!

From → Literature, Poems

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