Truth, Beauty and Goodness: Return
to Laughter

In Elenore Smith Bowen’s book Return to Laughter, she tells the
experience of Laura Bohannan, an anthropologist who interacts with a remote
tribe in West Africa. In the novel, Bowen is able to tell the highlights and
struggles Bohannan endured over the year that she spent alongside the tribe. During
the field experience that we read about, we can see her overcome cultural shock, and grasp foreign
concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness. While Bohannan’s definitions of these
terms are very established, this cultural experience sheds light on a more
interpretive way to define truth, beauty and goodness.

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            The struggles Bohannan (Red Woman)
faced can loosely be centered around the core values we each hold. Values are
connected and rooted in truth, beauty and goodness – which are globally defined
within each culture; making each culture unique.

            Truth, is centered around the way we
present statements and ideas; Beauty revolves around experience(s); and
Goodness through the relationships we establish with others.

            Truth, much like beauty and
goodness, is defined through a broad group of concepts that brings us closer to
an understanding of truth as a whole. From a philosophical perspective, truth
is based off of the experiences we have and what we perceive our reality to be,
based off of these experiences. Although philosophy poses an initial threat to
anthropological concepts, as it is Philosophy can be
defined as “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being,
knowledge, or conduct.” However, the
experiences that we have ultimately define our truth, because they have been
confirmed to us that it is real, and true because we have the factual or physical
evidence to confirm it. Truth, especially when explicitly expressed needs to
have strong evidence supporting the claims that are being made.

            In a very simplistic form, Truth can
be defined as, “A convergence of methods of investigation should all point to
the same reality/ truth” (Gardner). The convergent methods potentially include
culture, social/ individual experience, individual interest and involvement.

            We see these convergent methods
applied in the novel. For example, Red Woman uses a journal during her time in
the field writing down her experiences and (language driven) questions (p.
14).  From her perspective, as an
anthropologist, this aided her work; Not only later on for her to reflect on
her experience, but to help her slowly break down her predisposed beliefs and cultural
norms and accept most, but not every the tribes culture.

            Early on in the novel, it is very
evident that she struggles with culture shock; leaving her very scattered,
which is presented in the way that the book is introduced and initially
progresses. The reader develops a sense of scatterings from the novel, which in
turn, could be a seen as a representation for the way that Bohannan was
feeling. She experienced difficulty interacting and
relating with the members of the tribe due to the language differences, on top
of being viewed as an outsider; being stared at and ignored – she was not able
to fulfill her desired field experience as an anthropologist. This was the
turning point for her, as she quickly had realized that she needed adapt to the
way things were going otherwise her time spent there would not be in any way
beneficial to her field work.  We see
this turning point explicitly in the novel: “I’ll talk to anyone and everyone.
I’m here to learn about these people, and there is no other way to do it.”
(Bowen, 12).

            As the novel progressed, more
experiences shed light onto truth and acceptance, both things that Red Woman
struggled with during the early stages of her experience. One of the most
substantial dilemmas that she encounters revolves around the belief and
practice of witchcraft. This topic sheds light on the contrast of her
predisposed views and the cultural views and beliefs of the tribe she was
working alongside. The first experience she has with “witchcraft”, is when she
saw people(s) roaming through what could be described as the marketplace with
‘balls of light’, which resulted in the residents in this area petrified –
refusing to leave their homes (Bowen, 39-43). The fear that had been instilled
into those dwelling in this area, was something that Red Woman did not
understand, as she saw the events to be simply happenstance, not witchcraft.

            The
interactions that she experienced aided the fulfillment she needed as an
anthropologist. Which is when beauty is recognized in the novel.

            Beauty
is often times uncovered through experience and understanding. The ways that
beauty is defined is dependent upon culture and opinion. Beauty can be
interpreted and expressed many different ways, and is received through our
senses the values we hold. In the novel, we see Red Woman struggle with
accepting a new definition of beauty within culture.

            Today’s culture in America is centered around models and
materialistic items. Whereas in West Africa, where the novel takes place, it is
focused on the appreciation for the simplistic acts and items as well as the relationships
with one another. A way that beauty is celebrated within the novel, is through
circumcision (p. 261). Within Christian belief, the act of circumcision is
strictly spiritual, and within this tribe, represents respect and beauty
through this act. Although it is a simple act, it had complex implications
within the tribe – as it marked the moving up from boy to man.

Acknowledgment of these acts allows for recognition that beauty
lies within us, and it is not always external, although it is often perceived
that way in today’s American culture. Bohannan was able to find beauty in the
culture and ended up enjoying herself which was a total turnaround viewpoint
turn from the beginning of the novel.

Goodness can be defined as “relationships we have with others”,
which is demonstrated in the novel between various interactions with people,
but specifically could be focused on that of Kako, Amara, and Kako’s son. In
the beginning of Return to Laughter, Kako’s son reaches out to Bohannan,
resulting in a close relationship. This interaction was able to bring her heart
to a place of central goodness and understanding where should could reflect and
recognize what was good and what made her feel wholesome. An issue that
challenged Bohannan was polygamy. She directly states “However, I personally
could never be involved in polygamy.” (Bowen, 131) When Bohannan was speaking
with Ava’s husbands, (one of the members of the tribe) she learned that rather
than the woman being the one with the hard life, it was the man in this
culture, or so in this case. This realization for Bohannan, instilled a sense
of goodness into her, which became evident in the way that she began to treat
others. Although she did not agree with many of the ideals she was exposed to,
once she began to accept the cultural norms she treated them with respect and
saw them as dignified people(sf).

            Goodness can be represented through the relationships we
have with others, and rooted in morals and values held by each individual. Typically,
goodness is defined through the way that we interpret culture and what it deems
as acceptable. Multiple times throughout the novel, we see Red Woman face moral
and ethical dilemmas that were difficult for her to process and handle. Some of
the specific issues Red Woman struggled with included polygamy, the treatment
of men and women, as well as the treatment she received initially. The concept
of polygamy in today’s culture is frowned upon, however; it is embraced within
the tribe. It is  a cultural difference Red
Woman had to learned to come to terms with, while she began to understand their
ways, she never fully became comfortable taking part in them (ex: polygamy). Originally,
she struggled with the way that she treated and understood the members of the
tribe, as well as was treated, until the point when there was an understanding,
and she received the nickname, “Red woman”. Once she received this nickname, there
developed grounds for a mutual truce amongst herself and the tribe.

            Despite the challenges she faced, Bohannan developed a
new understanding and appreciation for cultural goodness. She observed the
goodness through the manners held by the members of the tribe. An example of
this I shown early on in the novel, as she talks about her experience in
accepting gifts and the various ways to accept them. On page 8, Bowen explains
the socially ‘correct’ way to accept a gift, and how to do it in such a way
that is deemed ‘respectful'(p.8). Respect, was ultimately one of the catalysts for
the understanding that developed throughout her time in her field experience. Through
goodness, the concepts held within truth and beauty become evident in goodness
and the way it is viewed. Therefore, reiterating the concept that all three
(truth, beauty and goodness) are intertwined.

            In this novel, there are many instances where cultural
differences are compared and contrasted, these differences give the reader a
greater understanding for the concepts of truth, beauty and goodness. This
allows them to see that truth, beauty and goodness are much more complex than
initially believed to be. Relating what we learned in class to the novel, Bowen
proves that different situations require adaptation of the original definition
of truth, beauty and goodness. 

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