Contribution to the Syndicate Symposium on Martel’s book In the Closet of the Vatican curated by Sean Larsen
In his book The Cassowary’s Revenge: The Life and Death of Masculinity in a New Guinea Society, the late Social Anthropologist Donald Tuzin describes what he found on his second visit to Ilahita, a New Guinea village, over a dozen years after his first, made in 1972. The males of the village had recently and suddenly renounced their secret cult, or “Tambaran”, and along with that, their “men’s house” from which the cult had emanated. By means of the cult and the house they had dominated the women of the village for generations. Indeed such houses have been prominent features of many Melanesian societies prior to western influence. It will come as no surprise to friends of mine that the mythology which the males handed on, centring around the Cassowary (a large and potentially dangerous flightless bird), seems to have been made to measure for a Girardian reading. But that is not my concern here. It is Tuzin’s description of the various factors which had impinged on Ilahita life between his 1972 visit and the collapse of the cult which are fascinating: the presence of different forms of western life including, but not limited to, evangelical missionaries. The voluntary self-destruction of the men’s house was one of the most visible symptoms of the complete collapse in the meaning of masculinity among the inhabitants, and the concomitant need for all of them to renegotiate all the dimensions of the meaning of being women and men. I once met one of the tribal men who experienced all this as a youth. He had, since the time of the collapse of “Tambaran” became an openly gay Qantas air steward. In less than forty years, he had thus lived through the identity changes which the last six thousand years or so have wrought among the rest of us.
Yes, but is it true?
Before I go any further: some disclosures. Of the many sources in this book, I am one of relatively few to appear under their own name. I was approached because a Parisian colleague of the author’s tipped him off to my attempts, over the last twenty-five years, at writing and talking about this reality. To my considerable relief it turns out that I had indeed intuited many of the story’s structuring elements. As a bonus, the author has treated me with undeserved generosity, even to the extent of including my French Bulldog, Nicholas, in his pages. I wish to disclose, however, not merely the fact of being a source, but also what I learned through the process of becoming one, since it has a direct bearing on whether the author is trustworthy, and whether what he says is true. These are questions which are likely to be raised given the need some people will surely have to shoot the messenger and downplay the message.
The Canadian podcast, The Ferment, invited James Alison for a lively conversation.
In the producers’ words, “an uncloseted priest from the edges of the Roman Catholic Church speaks into central issues for our time”.