By Joan Dayan
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995
ISBN # 0-520-08900-6
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
I am an inveterate note taker, collecting bits and pieces of information I find interesting, then constantly organizing these notes under specific headings. Over years what has emerged are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of mini-pictures of Haiti. Stories of the uses of poisons; the revolutionary Accau; Jefferson's writings on Haiti; the role of Freemasonry; Papa Doc's pater noster; Babancourt rum; the Hotel Olaffson and on and on. These bits and pieces, the myriad individual stories are all about Haiti, but otherwise have no unity, no focus, no organization or organized principle. Piece by piece I try to tell the little stories. Now and again I pull a dozen or so related stories together into a larger unit. This is, obviously, a never ending labor, or is it a hobby?
When I read Joan Dayan's HAITI, HISTORY, AND THE GODS, in this same fashion -- dozens of only loosely connected "bits and pieces" of Haitian history, then I find a fascinating, rich and well-researched volume of collected stories. When I try to read Dayan's book as a unified volume telling a single tale, then the book doesn't work well for me. Such a unified thesis is too difficult for me to identify and many of the arguments, which seem to push in the direction of a larger thesis are unconvincing. Much too speculative for my taste.
It seems to me that Dayan herself is unclear about this issue. In the Prologue she tells us:
"This book does not aim at conclusiveness. Since I am committed to allowing conflict and collision among texts that differ in origin, purpose, and effect, these voices from the past are not encased in a chronological grid or clarifying summary argument. Rather, I try to dramatize a complex and perplexing social history too often lost in exposition." (p. xi)
Just a few pages later she repeats this theme:
"The three parts of HAITI, HISTORY, AND THE GODS should be read as three superimpositions that reinforce one another, while discouraging a unified point of view. I tell the same story again and again in different ways." (p. xv)
However, she does at the same time seem to have an overall thesis, though it is one she allows "...I try to imagine what cannot be verified." The closest claim I find to her belief in the overall thesis is that her collection of stories presented "...leads me to claim the vodou practices must be viewed as ritual reenactments of Haiti's colonial past, even more than as retentions from Africa." (P. xvii)
Along the way, however, I found 267 pages of fascinating tales and reflections. Dayan looks at Haitian history in a fresh fashion, pulling together materials that have not often been linked, and often suggesting challenging and original insights.
There are too many examples to cite them all. I'll select a few of my favorites as illustrations. Early on Dayan compares the language used to describe European "heroes" of the 18th century and their brutal exploits celebrated for their heroism and world defining nature, while, the language used to describe the revolution in Haiti underlines only the brutality, barbarism and horror of this particular world historic event.
In her treatment of Dessalines one finds an intriguing argument to the effect that Dessalines' program of progressive land reform was more responsible for his death than his alleged tyranny.
Those interested in the place of women in Haitian society will find a wealth of material on such figures of Haitian Revolutionary society as Sanite Belair, Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere, Difile and Claire Heureuse.
The middle section of the book is an interesting analysis of several Haitian literary figures with an especially long and thorough treatment of the work of Marie Chauvet. This detailed story led me to expect that some day Dayan may produce an entire monograph on Chauvet, and I even wondered if perhaps her doctoral thesis might have been on this mid-twentieth century novelist.
I could go on and on recounting numerous bits and pieces including fascinating material on Aaron Burr's involvement with Haiti or the place of the Jesuits in pre-revolutionary Haiti, but I think the point is made.
Each individual piece is well documented and well written.
There is always a difficult issue of just how reliable are the sources in history. Dayan is certain right that Haitian history, like most history, "... involves ambiguities, obscurity, and details that do not cohere." But she too often slides over questions of just how reliable various sources are, so there's a serious danger that all sources come to be valued with the same weight and trust. Such a reading would be unfair to Dayan and miss her intent, yet her style makes such a mistaken reading quite easy for the less careful reader to make.
This book is for those who already have a fairly good sense of a chronological history of Haiti. Dayan's "bits and pieces" are illuminating, challenging and interesting, but without a prior sense of an overview, the book would be extremely difficult to follow and make sense of.
I envy much of Dayan's achievement. I too have this massive collection of bits and pieces. I hope some day I could put as many mini-stories into such interesting and complete form with even a fraction of Dayan's documentation.
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