Oral Tradition Special Feature

Art and Oral Literature:
A Conversation with Lee Haring

Lee Haring
Lee Haring

Lee Haring describes himself as a literary critic, albeit one whose research concerns “a bunch of literature that nobody gets to see until I produce it. That is,” he explains, “I retrieve the materials that I work with which consist largely, these days, of what we call oral literature.” Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Haring has worked to translate and analyze the oral literature and traditions of the Indian Ocean Islands. Lee Haring is professor emeritus of English at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York where he taught courses in folklore, comparative mythology, literary theory, and English and American Literature from 1957 until 1999. Professor Haring has published some ten monographs and more than fifty scholarly articles, multiple notes, reviews, lectures, and stints as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California-Berkeley, as well acting as a Fulbright Researcher and a Fulbright Lecture. His professional accomplishments have been recognized by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation with a fellowship in 1998, and with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Folklore Society's in 2013. He is a past president of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society, a member of key international organizations such as Folklore Fellows International, the Society for Folk Narrative Research, and the International Society for Oral Literatures in Africa.

Though Haring calls himself a “fellow traveler” through the changes in the study of folklore over the past fifty years, his career has in some ways exemplified its development. His earlier focus on collecting archival materials, through a more ethnographic and contextually situated approach to the performance of oral materials, and now, to his current tangling with theoretical questions and increasingly interdisciplinary explorations—this mirrors the shift in folkloristics from a collect and curate approach to a performance-centered praxis of scholarship.

“I believe that what I’m doing contributes to liberation movements,” Haring relates. In this informal conversation, we discussed the trajectory of Haring’s scholarship, his attention to how dominance and oppression shape culture, and the role of folklore scholarship in political struggles.


Interview with Lee Haring on Monday, April 4, 2016

Interviewed by Jennifer Spitulnik and John Zemke
Transcribed by Jennifer Spitulnik

JS: Like I said, this is just an informal—and correct me if I’m wrong—really an informal conversation. You’ve been doing this for a minute, and we’d like to get your perspective and hear some of the stuff that isn’t published in your articles and everything. I’d like to start out by asking a very general question: What do you do, and why?

LH: I’m a literary critic. I do research on a bunch of literature that nobody gets to see until I produce it. That is, I retrieve the materials that I work with which consist largely, these days, of what we call oral literature. That is to say, stories, myths, legends, folktales, proverbs, riddles, the words of folk songs. And the area that I’ve been working in the last thirty years or so are the Indian Ocean Islands. The islands that lie east of Africa. I lived for a year in Madagascar and did research there; I lived for a year in Mauritius, which is farther out in the ocean, and did research there, and I’ve resided and done additional research in all those other islands of that region. Why I picked that particular region is a long story, which we could go into if you like, but that’s what I’m doing these days. And I’m at the end of this long period of research in that region, which has brought me to a lot of—tangling with a lot of theoretical questions in the study of folklore, and so part of what I do is an attempt to connect up these previously untranslated, unknown in the Western world, materials, with theoretical problems from literary criticism. I used to be teaching literary theory, when I was teaching, and I’m interested in how folklore, as we call it, exemplifies or doesn’t exemplify the problems and challenges of literary theory.

JS: Ok. That’s interesting because —and this is not one of the questions that I wrote down—but I—it seems like your work is so strongly with the literary criticism, but also, I mean, to me, it really exemplifies the sort of classic folklore paradigm that I was taught, which is it’s that cross between literary studies and anthropology. And it seems like at least to an outside observer, that a lot of your methods and field sites, for example, are very anthropological.

LH: Yes.

JS: Can you talk a little bit more about that interplay between anthropology and literature in your work?

LH: I think there is a lot of interplay between those two fields, and yet I don’t think that people know about that. I think they don’t try to make it work for them. I think anthropologists have come across a lot of the same kinds of questions that literary theorists have come across, but it is —the divisions between fields are such that they don’t cross those boundaries very much. They don’t look around to see what other people might be doing that is analogous. See, what I think is most interesting is the way that things get formulated in one field, that are transposable into other fields, into other areas. So that the whole question, for example, of reader response is one that anthropologists actually know a lot about. Which, literary critics and literary theorists had to wrestle with a lot. A good friend of mine, Norman Holland, at the University of Florida, has done a lot of research on the relation between the brain and literature. In fact, that’s the title of a book of his, Literature and the Brain. And one of the most interesting things that’s happening nowadays is that the growth of cognitive science is providing a number of tools for anthropologists—if they would use them. And for literary theorists—if they would use them. Only, the way these things develop is unfortunately too separate, and I think we’re at a point where lots of boundaries are being crossed; I mean, obviously when I was in school there was no such thing as biometrics or biomathematics, and all of those other new fields which have developed as a result of the crossing of disciplinary boundaries. So to come back to your question, I think that anthropologists have actually provided literary theorists with a great deal of data that they could be using to understand the principles behind the reception and transmission of literature.

JS: Okay, I definitely want to continue that, but I also want to backtrack a little bit, and ask you how you became interested in your area of focus with narrative—oral narrative—and also, Madagascar and Mauritius—

LH: Well, the only training I ever had in anything like folklore was a course that I took in ethnomusicology at Columbia University, in which all the materials were Native American materials. I didn’t learn anything about Native American cultures, and I never practice ethnomusicological research at all, so that means that as a folklorist, I’m almost entirely self-taught. Well, I was trained in literary history—that’s what you study when you’re an English major as an undergraduate, or as a graduate—you’re trained in the writing of literary history. And I knew something about how to do that, but when I first lived in East Africa, which I did in my late 30s, I began to see that a lot of the challenges of that research could be met with some of the methods that had been formulated in the—in literary historical studies. To take you through it step by step, in the Sixties I lived in Kenya; I became involved in the study of African oral literature, which was to me a completely unknown field, by that time I did know something about folklore, because in my earlier years, I’d been a folk singer, and had helped edit a couple of records for Elektra of American folk music. I knew something about folklore—I’d been teaching American and British folklore at Brooklyn College in New York. But I didn’t know anything at all about Africa when I was first there. But I’d realized once there that there was a lot of study that had been done and could —and more could be done—on African folktales, proverbs, riddles, other such materials. But I didn’t quite know how I was going to do it; I just knew that it was something that interested me. Subsequently, I spent a year living in Madagascar, where as a visiting professor in the university, I was able to teach something about folklore, and one of the amusing things to do, at that point, was to teach a folklore course using examples from the cultures of the people I was talking to. So I was studying up already on the folklore of Madagascar, and there was often a certain rustling in the room when I gave those examples. Because of course, they are—it’s a very —a culture that’s very possessed of its own cultural heritage, and I could feel the people saying, “what is this guy doing? What does he imagine he’s doing here?” But that went pretty well, and I learned in Madagascar that something that I —a principle that I had already heard about in America—at UC Berkley, the great folklorist Alan Dundes, often told his colleagues and his students that one of the problems in the study of folklore is the accumulation of materials that have been gathered, but never analyzed. And he thought that mere collecting was useless, and that what had to happen with collected folklore is that you looked at it, you analyzed it, you think about it! And that’s where the criticism part comes in. So I saw, in Madagascar, that an enormous amount of material had been collected, translated, published, and ignored. And in their field, and that even the French, who had been occupying Madagascar for a long time by then—I was there not too long after Independence—but even the French had not done the kind of analysis that French critics are extremely good at! Very skilled and very practiced—as long as they’re looking at Proust. But when they stop looking at Proust, and start looking at oral literature, it’s another matter. It took another whole generation before that really would develop. And now it has—the most scrupulous research and analysis of oral literature now happens in France. But it’s concentrated mostly in West Africa. There are wonderful studies coming out of the French scholars who work in West Africa, especially {???} language.

But to come back to me, I then spent the next few years trying to make sense out of the notes that I had taken on the oral literature of Madagascar. I made a big index of folktales, I did an analysis of several non-narrative genres—that is proverbs, riddles, oratory, and traditional oral poetry—and in general, I was trying to get this literature into a position where I and others could analyze it critically. Along the way, I discovered a very strange product, which was a folktale that had been partly written down in Madagascar at about 1830, and the rest of it was pieced out and completed by somebody else—we don’t know who—in the 1870s. And that was published in a book of folklore in Madagascar by a Norwegian Lutheran missionary, and the book has never been out of print. It’s been re-edited a number of times, but the lead piece in the book is this long folktale, which is not—which is and isn’t like any folktale that you ever saw. We all know about stories in which a hero grows up and leaves home, and goes in search of a wife, and along the way acquires one or more magic objects that will aid him in searching for a wife. In this particular story, the wife has been—the wife-to-be —has been abducted by somebody else, so there has to be a scene of struggle between the hero and the villain so that he can pry her away from him. That is the outline, but it’s a very, very—it’s 46 pages of Malagasy type in the original publication. Well what makes it so long? Well, there’s a lot of stuff in there that doesn’t really advance the story very much, but it’s very beautiful! There’s some very beautiful poetic passages, which are what you’d call “panegyric” in the study of African heroic materials. That’s the hero praising himself, or the hero being praised by somebody else. And there are a lot of other things that are mysterious —there’s a whole interlude about people playing games with each other that —that really doesn’t advance the story at all. And the British missionaries who noticed this work as collected by their Norwegian colleague, thought that it was strangely misshapen somehow. But I looked at it, and compared it to other stories of that general plot outline that I know, and I realized that what the narrator or narrators had done was to make an epic out of it. That is, they had created —by inflating it so much, they had made it a heroic epic. And what that was about, for them, I don’t know! What they—But it looks as though the initial impulse was a response to foreign invasion. It looks as though it’s a —it’s a little bit like King Arthur, in Britain. That is, that it’s a native product, existing in protest against or brought up in protest against the invasion of foreigners. So, that became an interesting question, because it didn’t match up with any system of genres that already existed in Madagascar. Well, I thought—well, that’s, ok, if that’s what it is, and so I published a translation of it, arguing that it’s really an epic. And that was one interesting thing that came out of all of that.

Well the work in Madagascar continued for a number of years—as I say, there were several books, one after another, and then I went to —I liked that part of the world, and I thought, “well, maybe I’ll make another attempt to try something else,” and I was lucky enough to be awarded a Fulbright research grant to go to the island of Mauritius, which lies 800 miles out in the ocean, east of Africa. And Mauritius immediately appealed to me for a number of reasons, one of which was that it was exactly like Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. That is, that it had people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds—different traditions—living side by side, and converging with each other. Interacting with each other. And it was around that time that I became interested in this whole concept of creolization, by which I mean the convergence of cultures, the renegotiation of cultures that happened when people of contrasting linguistic or cultural traditions bump up against each other. And I’d be seeing it happen in Brooklyn, New York, and so I made them laugh in Mauritius when I said I live in a place where there are these peoples of contrasting backgrounds bumping up against each other and trying to learn how to get along. In contrast to Brooklyn, Mauritius was always a very peaceful place. And so it was interesting to me from that point of view, too. So, I began the study of the cultural interrelations of those islands. There are essentially five sets of islands between—as you go east from Africa. There’s Madagascar, which is this huge, huge island; and there are the Comoros, which lie between Africa and Madagascar; and there’s Seychelles, which you may have seen on the National Geographic, because it has such beautiful beautiful beaches; and there is the French island Reunion, which is an overseas department of France. And as I say, there’s Mauritius. And all of these have somewhat similar and somewhat different histories. So I became interested in what that might tell you.

And that brought me to another thing: that is, folklore —folktales, myths and things like that—are very often studied by being first extracted from their place of origin, and then brought to the West—by translators, or anthropologists, or anthologists—and offered up as something that will amuse you, or maybe something that will be charming to a Western child. But the question that gets neglected at that point is the anthropological question, which is: what is this piece, what is this story, what is this legend, doing for the people amongst whom you found it. And that’s where the two things start to come together. Because it seems to me that the central object of that kind of study is not gathering inspiring stories to cure the sick soul of modern American middle class white people. That’s really not, to me, a legitimate goal of research or scholarship or publication. What would be interesting would be to look at what it does for those people, which means finding out what’s important to them. It means finding out what their systems of values are. And somehow at that point, the whole inquiry looped around onto something that I had met with many years before in teaching literature to American students. The fundamental question in teaching a literature course in an American college—the fundamental question that a student sometimes does ask out loud, and certainly should ask all the time—is “why would anybody like this?” Now, that question often takes on a double meaning in courses in the Victorian novel, where people are being asked to read many thousands of pages inside of fourteen weeks. (And that’s really completely impractical, and I trust that my colleagues who teach literature have found that out by now.) But the real question is exactly—not why should I like it, but why would anybody like it? And once you frame the question that way, then you have a whole inquiry in front of you of finding out what marriage means in this particular society. What’s the parent and child relation in this particular society? And how is the marriage or parent-child relations showing up in the stories? And that’s a lot of what I’m about these days.

JS: Two things. First of all, I keep wanting to go on with that, but I’m also wondering how you ended up in Kenya in the first place? And Africa in the first place, when you said you knew nothing about Africa?

LH: Fair question, fair question, yes.

JS: How did you end up there?

LH: I ended up in Kenya because in the 1960s, a group of Quakers in New York, of whom I am one, launched an educational program called Friends World College. “Friends” meaning the Religious Society of Friends, “World” meaning the geographical situation, and “College” meaning a four-year college program which would take students around the world to live and study in six or seven different regional places in the world. So we started it in USA, and the second stage of it happened in Europe. The third stage happened in Mexico, and the fourth stage was going to happen in Africa. Well, I’d been involved in creating and launching this program, and so a point came at which I was transferred from being a trustee of the institution to being a faculty member of the institution. And my wife and I went to Kenya to help launch this thing. Fortunately, we were aided by people who knew East Africa better than we did.

JS: Alright, well then I want to keep going with the other stuff, with your work there, unless, John, you have something you want to jump in with? It sounds like, at least initially, a lot of your fieldwork was mostly archival—

LH: Yeah.

JS: —looking through the archives—but I’ve seen in, I don’t know if it’s just later work, or even more recent, there’s a lot more in terms of interviews,

LH: Yeah.

JS: and since you delve into those anthropological questions

LH: Yes.

JS: via literature. So, was that a transition? Or was that just a sort of gradual shift? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

LH: Well I learned about what folklorists do by going to their meetings, going to their annual conferences, and I learned that fieldwork was an essential part of the folkloristic enterprise. And I thought, well I’d better do this if I can. And already when I was in Kenya, I started thinking about that, because there was, even there, despite the other responsibilities that I had, there was the opportunity of interviewing local people and listening to their stories, or riddles, or something else. And I wrote even a couple of articles about that, from the collecting that I did in Kenya. But the drift of the whole thing was that I was there doing this job—helping to run this educational program—and becoming interested in African folklore because I was interested in folklore! And that’s about the only way I can explain it, except that after that tour of duty was over, I kept on studying African oral literature.

JS: So you say you’re self taught, as a folklorist, but I also notice that the course of your career, and the development of your —not development, but the trajectory of your methods and focuses, and materials, and things like that, —they mirror, if not shape, the way that the field of folklore has developed.

LH: Yes.

JS: Like, so you’re doing a lot of collection in the early 70s and late 60s and then that shifts to a more sort of contextualization,

LH: Yes.

JS: and performance centered method—

LH: Yes, yes.

JS: So it seems, based on my understanding of the history of the field—you’re part of that shift, right?

LH: I am, but in many ways, I’m a fellow traveler on it. The shift of attention in the study and teaching of folklore to the actualities of performance is something that I’m extremely sympathetic to, for lots of reasons. But it’s not really something that I can have participated in very much, for the same reason that you said; because I start out doing essentially archival research. And the way that that —the way I resolved that apparent contradiction was that I began to realize that I was reading a lot of these old journal articles in French periodicals from many decades ago, I was reading them as though they were the scripts of plays. I was reading them as though they were—because I had done a lot of reading of play scripts as a child, my father was a Broadway theatrical executive, and he often gave me the scripts of the shows that he was helping to produce—so I’d read a great many plays in my life, and I had done a lot of work in drama and theater as a young guy. So I began to realize that what I was doing was, I was trying to imagine what this performance felt like or sounded like to the people who were hearing it for the first time. Even if the people who were hearing it for the first time were only French ethnographers. So, I developed what I call a—an approach that I call “folkloric restatement,” which is to imagine that situation, to imagine the situation of the moment of actually recording it for the first time. Because by that time, even in teaching literature, I had been telling my students, “look, all of these things are performances!” Even the writing—the writing of Bleak House is a performance in itself. And your reading it is also a performance. So, the things began to converge in a way that was helpful for me.

And so what’s interesting to me now, is carrying on with that and seeing what shifts occur with the passage of time. One of the things I’ll be talking about when I give my talk tomorrow night is the problems of translating that came up in the colonial period, as against to the problems of translating in the period of independence, and how attitudes have changed on the part of investigators, to —we hope—to improve, or to give a more accurate picture of the way a story, for example, is being communicated. And we’re learning a lot more about the skills of storytellers. ...

JZ: Jenni, can I just interject? I’d like to ask two questions: The first one is, you mentioned something that I think is a key element in all kinds of humanistic endeavor, but especially in historiography in its broadest sense, not just imagination. So, the problem of trying to re-imagine, or imagine, what settings for a Medievalist, is to try and reimagine what the setting of the performance was, and who and where and how and etc. etc. So, can you speak a little bit more about how you understand the factor of imagination in the work of folklorists? And then, I have a separate—I’ll just say the second question so I can butt out and let Jenni get back in—But, could you say a few words about your sense of what the value of the kind of the work that George P. Murdock did at Yale with HRAF [Human Relations Area Files] files, and just, if you have some thoughts about how valuable that kind of work is for ethnography or folklore? Those are my two questions, and now I’ll butt out.

LH: Well the question about the role of the imagination for the historian is really interesting. I think that historians and all of us can learn a lot from the very deep study of—of—social communication that has been carried on over the last forty years or so. I’m thinking particularly of the work of James Fernandez, for example, who has thought very deeply about the values that are inherent in the kind of material that he works with. Which is for itself, not interesting to me at all, but what he does with it is very interesting to me. And the part that we must come back to the question of the divisions between—the separations between disciplines that cause some things to be interesting and other things not to be interesting—But I think a lot of anthropological work, and work by folklorists like Richard Bauman, shows us the nature of situated social communication, and shows us in its actual occurrence. Of course the challenge that I had, since I had been working with archival research, as Jenni said—the challenge that I had was “so what?” If I can’t observe a performance that occurred decades before I was born, what can I do with it? Well I have to work with the written record that I have, and, well, I already talked about that, so I won’t repeat that. But it’s a difficult question, and it is the fundamental historical question: how do you make any sense out of history, starting with that classic question about how is it that Thucydides could be writing these speeches of these people when nobody was there with a tape recorder? So, that has a long history. In—I’m making a pun—that has a long story in the study of history that has to be dealt with.

Your other question—-has to do with universals. And I —with the development of anthropology, at least in America, but many other places too, under the influence of Franz Boas, universals have not had a very happy time of it. Because in the 19th century, people thought that was the—universals were the reason why you would look at myth at all. Because you were going to find universal truths. And missionaries went to many, many parts of the world, determined! to find that the local people were really intuiting Christianity somehow, that they were somehow getting hold of monotheism, or —-and so, it ought not to be difficult! to convert them to the “true” truth, because they already were on the track of it. And subsequent to that, Boas and other anthropologists convinced their students and their followers and coworkers, that that was not the track to be on. That until you acquired a great—many more data than was available at first, you would never know you’d never be entitled to make any big generalization about universals at all. Yet, in the popular mind, the yearning for universals never dies. And it is kept alive by writers like Joseph Campbell, who has had an enormous influence on people, rewriting the stories of the world as though they were all one story! Well they aren’t! There is no such thing as a universal myth, there is no such thing as a universal plot element of anything! What there is, is what we are beginning to hear from cognitive scientists, which is that there is equipment in the brain which guarantees that metaphor, as we call it, is going to be part of the experience of an infant from birth—if not before—and that the use of metaphor is going to be the basis of all thinking. This is the most exciting development, in my view, in the study of folklore. Not because it’s going to tell us directly anything, but because it enables us to look not in the wrong place, but in the right place for what might actually be a universal. Well, the future doesn’t look great, for universals if you’re talking about heroes, or heroines, or gods, or goddesses, no. That’s not how it’s going to be. But the future looks very bright if people are willing to start looking at brain function and the equipment that people are born with, and starting to correlate what we know about the metaphorical equipment in the brain with the actual metaphors that people produce. Which are, again, going to be different in every single place. They’re not going to be the same. I’ve talked about this at length with George Lakoff at UC Berkeley, who is a leader in this field. And, what we got to is sort of agreeing that there’s a great deal ahead—there’s a great deal of work ahead.

JS: That is really exciting. And one of the things that I appreciate about your work, and your focus on translation and creolization, is the ways that you look at the implications of colonialism and the history of the area and of the people. And that specificity, right, so it’s not like we’re generalizing, based on this one thing, but is that something that’s more recent? That kind of specificity,

LH: Yes.

JS: that postcolonial theory?

LH: Yeah, it’s the way that an attention to postcolonialism has fed back into field research, sure.

JS: And when did that come in for you? How did you get started with that?

LH: In Madagascar. When I lived in Kenya, it was obvious that just a few years after independence, that it was a very happy time in that part of the world, because there was this —lands that had been alienated to the British were being redistributed to other people, and there was a lot of optimism. And Jomo Kenyatta, who was alive at that time, and was one of the great statesmen of the world, was showing—was leading —was a leader of all kinds of—a model for other African independence movements. But in Madagascar, it was impossible to avoid noticing the heavy hand of the French in many ways. So that’s where I began to see that the materials—the archival materials that I was looking at—were the product of a colonial enterprise. And since a lot of the stuff I was working with was generated by missionaries, I began to realize, oh, these missionaries were here as part of the large colonial enterprise of containing native culture! Containment is the essential move; and that of course is still going on everywhere we look. But in the colonial period, it’s a little easier to take hold of, to see that the difference between the Protestant missionaries, for example, in Africa—The difference between Protestant and Catholic missionaries was that Protestant missionaries were really always trying to turn the culture into something else. And the Catholic missionaries were far more sophisticated, and saw that you don’t get anywhere that way. If you want to teach—make them into Catholics, you let them do their customs and their beliefs. But you join Catholicism to it. That’s a very roundabout way of answering you, but that’s the way it seems to me. That the colonial—What you learn is that dominance and oppression are the fundamental fact of—not only of colonial times, but of world history. And that what gets produced in situations of dominance and oppression—the culture that gets produced in situations of dominance and oppression —is often very beautiful.

JS: Well not just the culture that’s produced, but the culture that’s recorded, right.

LH: That’s right. When I was thinking of that —the example that I would give is the recordings that Alan Lomax made in the state penitentiary in Parchment, Mississippi. Which is some of the most beautiful music ever created. And Alan had continually to, [laughing] in effect, to answer the question: do you have to have prisons in order to generate beautiful music? And whatever way you answer that question is going to carry a lot of weight.

JS: Well, and so, since you were in Madagascar, so close to the beginning of independence - right? Is that what you said?

LH: I was at—well, no. I was there—several years after Independence.

JS: Several years after Independence.

LH: Yeah.

JS: Still, you know, folklore—we often see folklore playing a large part in nation building,

LH: Yes, yes.

JS: What was that like, to watch? Did you see that happening?

LH: Well, that didn’t start happening until after I left. What happened with higher education in Madagascar was that, of course, the curricula were not—at the outset, were not strongly oriented towards the history of the country. But then young men came along, and it was mostly men, came along who wanted—who were sufficiently nationalistic to want to know the history of their own country. And they wanted to learn it at a higher level. And a lot of them —for circumstantial reasons—were obliged to seek their higher education abroad. So I would meet them in Paris. And there’s this whole —there’s a very large number of doctoral dissertations written outside of Madagascar which are the way that Madagascar’s history has been written, or rewritten over the last fifty years. It’s very exciting. I’m sure the nationalistic impulse was in there, but it was married to a rigorous scholarship.

JS: Yeah. Oof. Okay. I feel like my generic questions are just not—Well, maybe you could tell us a little bit about mentors and colleagues who you feel have shaped your work, or have been really important in the development of your work, or of you as a folklorist, or getting you into the field in general.

LH: The first, most influential folklorist on me was Alan Dundes, whom I knew as a friend and colleague but of course, he was not my professor, not my mentor in any direct sense. But what I learned from Alan was something that I’ve tried to emulate in my own work, which is: that you keep reaching for what other scholars are doing in other fields that we can use. In other words, to be a thief, to be a poacher. Essentially, to be a folklorist is to be a poacher. To look for usable ideas, usable methods in other fields and carry them over onto the materials that you’re working with yourself. And he was very good at that. And he opened up so many avenues of thought and research that people have hardly begun to explore. And also, he was one of the most generous scholars one could ever meet. So he was a great person to have as a mentor, even at a distance. Um—I had colleagues who were of my generation, like Roger Abrahams, who were going in the same direction that I was going in, using—Roger was doing research in the Caribbean and in African American cultures. But the problems were the same, in the sense that dominance and oppression were always what we were looking at, and the results—the cultural products that come out of dominance and oppression. So, that was a—he was a useful colleague. I don’t think of any other colleagues in the field of folklore; the most I ever learned about the relation between the intellect and everything else was from Paul Goodman, the social critic and novelist and poet who was very influential on me in the 1960s, and who made me see that this research and scholarship that we do is —is itself part of a political move... I believe what I’m doing contributes to liberation movements.

JS: Ok, so this is a question I have. And, you know, bring me back if it’s going in the wrong direction. But, one of the things that we see a lot, growing out of a lot of the theoretical shifts and reimaginings of folklore as a field in the 70s is a turn towards the local. And a lot of people in my cohort of folklorists —like, I study Broadway performers, and there’s a little bit more of a—a lot of us start with field sites that are very close to where we’re in school—

LH: Right.

JS: I mean, poor Newfoundland, they’ve been studied to death, right?

LH: Right, right!

JS: And so there’s this sense of American folklore studying vernacular American culture. And staying on the continent. And in my head, one of the primary differences—especially as an ethnographic folklorist—one of the primary differences between anthropology and folklore is that folklorists tend to stay at home, and anthropologists tend to go abroad.

LH: Mm.

JS: And I see that shift a lot, in that shift towards performance or context, and Dundes, in the “we’re all the folk” kind of thing—you know, “who are the folk,” “any group of people that share something in common,” right.

LH: Yup.

JS: So it’s not just “tribes in Africa,” things like that, it’s also—it’s us! Like academics are “the folk.”

LH: Right.

JS: But at the same time, you and Roger Abrahams and some of the others, you’re doing work that’s very far abroad. Like, you are going abroad to do this work. And I was wondering—again, please bring me back if this is an odd question—but I was wondering there’s ever any —I don’t know if “tension” is the right word—but how you feel like that’s sort of gone along with what other people are doing. Like, if you’re sort of bucking trends, or with trends? How does that feel to be sort of in that position?

LH: Well, the initial point that you make about the separation of the field areas between anthropology and folklore, is ancient, and that goes back through the whole history of both fields. So the American folklorists didn’t invent that, nor did they invent the scheme of focusing on their own culture, or their own people. At the same time, a lot of American folklorists have specialized in groups that they could see at the outset are enclaved. That is, they are distinct—distinct from majority culture in some way. And that seems to be important in the history. Um—My—attention to African and Malagasy and Mauritian and Indian Ocean folklore is only the result of a series of circumstances that put me in places where I could do it. But at the same time, I was already beginning to see that what was necessary in intellectual life is the transposability of methods and problems from one field to another. So everything becomes an experiment in that, in that kind of transposition. And that seems to—seems to be a lot of payoff for that.

JS: I really like what you were talking about—I want to say recently, but it was a while ago now—but about the resistance of a Grand Theory of folklore, but rather the sort of focus on method. I thought that was really interesting.

LH: Yeah.

JS: Interesting, and, yeah, true. [laughter]

LH: Well, the—we did have a sort of interesting exchange there, over a few years, that Dundes said in an important lecture, “why is there no grand theory in folklore?” And so we assembled a bunch of people to try to answer that question, and we did answer it! It’s clear, why there is no grand theory, it’s because American folklorists don’t like theorizing! They’re more interesting in the folk, they’re more interested in the material, they’re more interested in studying the immediacy of social communication, and that’s a cultural preference, so to speak, within there. And I don’t think it’s a conscious rejection of theory, I just think it’s a way that people gravitate!

JS: It is interesting though, because the moment we—like, now that you are—“now,” in the last 10-20 years—that your work is more focused—or, not more focused, but brings in some of these larger theoretical questions, like theorizing translation itself, and creolization, and hybridization,

LH: Right.

JS: and convergences. It becomes something that is more —-it helps us to develop our methods and thinking about other —-it’s work that’s more directly applicable

LH: Yes.

JS: to, let’s say, the work I do.

LH: Yes.

LH: Yes, yes! Yes.

JS: And even though it’s such a different focus. And so, it’s like our work has more in common when we can think about those larger questions,

LH: Mm-hm.

JS: but I think that it takes a perspective from where you are, where you’ve spent so much time on those specifics, to be able to see a larger—

LH: Yeah, you do. That’s right.

JS: Sorry, I don’t mean to be answering my own question—[laughing]

LH: [laughing] Well, you have.

LH: There is eternity in that grain of sand, yes, there is. [William] Blake was right, it’s there. And if you don’t see it, that’s a separate thing. But it is there. And any close examination of situated social communication is going to show you things that are universal.

JS: Because of things like the universality of metaphor,

LH: Yeah!

JS: even though the metaphors are different.

LH: Yeah! Yeah.

JZ: So if I could just interject one thing, I was recently reading Geertz’s —it was chapter two of his book on culture, and he makes the point that—well, he makes a very nice statement he says, “maybe what’s most distinctive about human beings is we could live a thousand different lives, but we only live one life.

LH: Right.

JZ: Which I think was his kind of cogent statement of an underlying idea, or an ideal, which is that what’s universal about us as human beings is that we’re all unique. And this is said very nicely by A.L. Becker, who is one of my—for some reason my favorite authors, when he says, the problem that confronts us when we do cross-cultural studies is just a magnification of an everyday problem that we confront, which is “I am like you, I am not like you.” And I find this to be such a brilliant statement of our—how what we experience as human beings

LH: Right.

JZ: as we move through the various stages and relationships of our life, and we have to come to terms with this thing that, “I am like you, and yet, I am not like you!”

LH: There’s a wonderful line about that in William James,

JZ: Was there?

LH: And I can’t quote it, but it’s something like All human beings are alike and the differences are infinitely important. [general laughter]

JZ: Oh, that’s good!

LH: Every time I think about it, I think, I really have to go and read all through William James and find that quote, but I haven’t.

JS: I bet you could Google it! [laughter] There’s also the challenge of imagining the Other complexly.

LH: Yeah! Yes!

JS: Whether it’s me sitting across the room from you, or somebody, like—

LH: Right, it’s not a bit convenient, to imagine it complexity on the part of the other.

JS: No.

LH: And that’s what stereotyping means, that what racism means, it’s a way of thinking about other people that slots them into the categories that are usable for you!

JS: Mm-hm. Or even just in...

LH: And if you’re—if you happen to be in a dominant position, if you happen to be in a position of power or money, you can use those categories very well! The current presidential campaign shows that.

JZ: It sure does.

JS: [chuckles]

JZ: Okay, so you used a very interesting word, which is: it’s terribly inconvenient to have to

LH: Right.

JZ: contemplate how different experiences really can be.

LH: Right.

JZ: And when you say “inconvenient,” you mean inconvenient to power. Or to the exercise of power?

LH: Yes, but I think it’s also inconvenient in a more mundane way, which is: it involves—if I really want to know you, hear you, listen to you; I’m really going to have to work hard to set aside my own conditioning. My own preconceptions. And since your conditioning and preconceptions tell you that “this is what you have to live with this is the equipment that you have!” You dare not set it aside. That is a permanent problem. That’s a permanent problem.

JZ: I see.

LH: As I get older, I see it very clearly, that I thought that my upbringing had given me the tools that I would need to manage in the world, and that I would be able to manage the system somehow! And the older I get, the more the damn—they are changing the damn system right in front of me! [laughter] And so, it’s really —it’s very humiliating! But, it takes you to a very deep place in human relations, which is that place of really being able to listen. This is what Buber writes about in that great book, I and Thou, that kind of listening. That’s —it is available to everybody all the time, but they have to practice. And as I say, they have to set aside their own preferences.

JS: I remember in the first folklore paper I ever wrote, for an undergraduate class, I was writing about family folklore, so I wrote something about my brother.

LH: Hm. Yes!

JS: And I said something about how “when he said this, he was poking fun of me for this old joke in the family that he’s the favorite” or whatever.

LH: Oh, yeah.

JS: And when he read that, he was like, “oh, no, that’s not what I meant at all!”

LH: Ah ha!

JS: And that’s my brother!

LH: Yes, yes.

JS: And I was like, wow, I don’t know what people are thinking!

LH: No, you don’t! You don’t.

JS: You kind of learn that right away, hopefully. If you’re lucky.

LH: Well the fundamental thing, if you want to get to the most mundane level of all, comes back to the statement that people do what they do for their own—out of their own program! It is their program, it is not yours! It’s never going to be yours! And the most humbling part of that is to realize that nobody does anything that they do because of you, [laughing], they’re doing it because of their own program! And it’s—I mean, when you’re an infant—your daughter is convinced, rightly, that everything around her is happening because of her. And what she will learn sooner or later, as she grows up, is that that’s not how it is! That’s not how it is, they’re not doing it because of you. And when she’s tiny, you have a right to expect that—expect it. When you’re being mature, you don’t have that right any more. But now we’re not talking about folklore.

JS: But aren’t we? [laughter]

LH: Yes! Glad you know that!

JZ: If extended folklore is a kind of, what Geertz called “patterns of cultural interpretation” that are the equipment that you use

LH: Right, right.

JZ: to get through life, then we’re still talking about folklore.

LH: Ralph Linton said very clearly that culture exists to give people solutions to the problems that they’re going to face. And so, we all do it! We hang on to our culture! That’s why people keep doing the things the same way that they did them before!

JS: That’s why we see such violence and resistance, even if it’s just rhetorical violence,

LH: Right! Right, right.

JS: Resistance to change, and not knowing how to change the culture for that.

LH: Well there’s a—people talk about that in American, in thinking about America a lot. I mean, that the governing principle of American foreign policy for a long time, has been that principle that says “what we’re doing is not working, so let’s do it more!” [laughter from JS and JZ] And it is clear that the increasing domination of this country by militarism—by military power, by military models of command and control—is not working, and so we’re going to do it more! The language that we understand for helping the countries of the world solve their problems; the language that we have is militarism. We have armament, we have soldiers. That’s what we use for that purpose. It doesn’t work, so we do it more.

JS: how are we doing on time, by the way?

MJ: We’ve got about eight minutes of tape left.

JS: We can put in another tape, so keep talking as long as you want to! [laughter] And I’m certainly willing to keep listening.

LH: I can recite the rest of King Lear [laughter]

JS: Can you really? [laughing]

JZ: I’m sure he can. I’m absolutely sure he can. [laughter] I have no doubt.

JS: Well I guess one of the things I want to know is: what would you like to talk about that I haven’t yet been asking? Or that we haven’t touched on?

LH: Art.

Because it’s word we have not used! In this whole time. And yet, what folklorists study is art. [pauses] You probably have read the article in which Dell Hymes described the lady hanging out the fish on the line to dry after they’d been caught. And when she finished it, she stood back and said, “Isn’t that beautiful?” [quiet laughter] That’s not just a joke. That is a statement about the universality of creativity, and the universality of aesthetic appreciation. And that’s what folklorists do! My beloved friend Henry Glassie points this out repeatedly, and people are still not noticing that that’s really what—they’re not willing to call it art! They’re not willing to—But it—There’s more appreciation of that in this country among public folklorists. They know art when they—when it’s being created in front of them, and they want to show to other audiences the creation of that art, and that’s one of the nice things about it. [pause] What that implies, for me, is that [pauses] that art historians are a wonderfully self-circumscribed folk group. And that they have the support—they’ve always had the support of the rich, and they continue to have the support of the rich. But they’re still a folk group, and they’re doing their—they’re carrying out their principles and methods in the way that supports the continuance of their field. Meanwhile, the people who are studying so-called “folk art” are, to my mind, are broadening the scope of the whole field of the study of art. So, what’s interesting in looking at—for example, the anthropological study of folktale has some classic formulations about how folklore exists to support the norms of the society, and to maintain the stability of the culture. We happen to live in a time when increasing numbers of cultures are faced with instability of a forced kind, there are uncountable millions of displaced people now in the world, who are continually under threat, and that would be a whole separate investigation. But, the—looking at the art that is produced along with those social and psychological functions, looking at the artistic side of that, has to be part of what folklorists do. It’s not enough to say that “this story functions to reinforce the norms of marriage” in a particular island somewhere. Because it wouldn’t work at all if it wasn’t artistically done! [laughs] So there’s that.

JS: Huh.

LH: There’s that.

JS: Well on that note! [laughs]

LH: Yeah! We could stop there if you like.

JS: I mean, unless there’s more that you’d like to talk about, or if I—

LH: Can’t think of it!

JZ: I think you’ve talked a really marvelous interview, and of course, it is a conversation, a dialog,

LH: It is, yeah.

JZ: he’s not just inventing off of the top of his head, because he knows, experientially and theoretically, what he’s talking about. But he’s prompted by you! So you guys have had a very nice interaction,

LH: Yeah, yeah.

JZ: I’ve gotten to learn a great deal that—In fact I have some holes here, because I didn’t get to pencil and paper soon enough, that I want to follow up and ask!

JS: [laughs] Well, we have the tape.

LH: There are two reasons that you’re a good interviewer. One is that you know —you know the difference between open-ended questions and the other kind! [laughs] And the other is that you’re informed about the field that we both work in, so it really helps a lot.

JS: Well thank you! ...

JZ: You know, I haven’t said this to Professor Haring, but one of the purposes of this interview, and I hope he’s amenable to this, is we’ve had the opportunity to interview individuals that I personally, and I think the discipline as a whole, consider to be luminaries or pathfinders, or have made very significant contributions. And the Center—one of the proposals, or what I’d like to see the Center do, is to have these conversations available to anybody who wants to hear them! To see, and listen to what Lee Haring says about the questions that Jennifer Spitulnik pitches him.

LH: Mm-hm.

JZ: We did the same thing with Dan Ben-Amos, and Jonathan Burgess, and Sam Armisted, and... that would be wonderful that we continue to do this, because folklorists—I read a lot of folklore of late, [laughter]

JS: He taught a three week seminar in India.

JZ: A lot of it tends to be—A lot of folklore articles review the history of the discipline. Which is really great, because each one of them, each one of the authors, will give a particular aspect or perspective on it. So to have your perspective on the discipline as it is now today, and the people who contributed to your formation, so that you are doing the kind of work that you do—To know this and have it available, I think is very important. So the—That’s part of the purpose of why we wanted to interview you.

LH: Good. Good. I think the advantage of this format is that [clears throat]—that it ends up being so fragmentary. That the informality leads to an inconclusiveness on the part of the speaker. [laughs] Which is really something people can use, see.

JZ: Definitely.

LH: They can use that inconclusiveness much better than they can use a set of propositions and correlates that are laid out in a chart.

JS: That’s one of the things I like about conversations, as opposed to public published articles. Because you have to—There has to be some sort of way to—Even if you’re pointing forward to future work, or trying to open a conversation, you have to end it with some kind of conclusion. Whereas with this kind of stuff, you can just be like, “yeah! That’s cool.”

LH: Right, right. I learned the most, actually, in the early days when I was trying to educate myself in this field, there is a book called Four Symposia on Folklore, which came out of Indiana [University] and which shows exactly that: it’s conversations, and it’s more formal than this, but nevertheless, it’s exchanges about the problems that they were facing in the Fifties. It’s a very interesting book.

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