Truth, Beauty and Goodness: Returnto LaughterIn Elenore Smith Bowen’s book Return to Laughter, she tells theexperience of Laura Bohannan, an anthropologist who interacts with a remotetribe in West Africa. In the novel, Bowen is able to tell the highlights andstruggles Bohannan endured over the year that she spent alongside the tribe. Duringthe field experience that we read about, we can see her overcome cultural shock, and grasp foreignconcepts of truth, beauty, and goodness. While Bohannan’s definitions of theseterms are very established, this cultural experience sheds light on a moreinterpretive way to define truth, beauty and goodness. The struggles Bohannan (Red Woman)faced can loosely be centered around the core values we each hold. Values areconnected and rooted in truth, beauty and goodness – which are globally definedwithin each culture; making each culture unique. Truth, is centered around the way wepresent statements and ideas; Beauty revolves around experience(s); andGoodness through the relationships we establish with others.
Truth, much like beauty andgoodness, is defined through a broad group of concepts that brings us closer toan understanding of truth as a whole. From a philosophical perspective, truthis 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 toanthropological concepts, as it is Philosophy can bedefined as “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being,knowledge, or conduct.
” However, theexperiences that we have ultimately define our truth, because they have beenconfirmed to us that it is real, and true because we have the factual or physicalevidence to confirm it. Truth, especially when explicitly expressed needs tohave strong evidence supporting the claims that are being made. In a very simplistic form, Truth canbe defined as, “A convergence of methods of investigation should all point tothe same reality/ truth” (Gardner). The convergent methods potentially includeculture, social/ individual experience, individual interest and involvement. We see these convergent methodsapplied in the novel. For example, Red Woman uses a journal during her time inthe field writing down her experiences and (language driven) questions (p.14). From her perspective, as ananthropologist, this aided her work; Not only later on for her to reflect onher experience, but to help her slowly break down her predisposed beliefs and culturalnorms and accept most, but not every the tribes culture.
Early on in the novel, it is veryevident that she struggles with culture shock; leaving her very scattered,which is presented in the way that the book is introduced and initiallyprogresses. The reader develops a sense of scatterings from the novel, which inturn, could be a seen as a representation for the way that Bohannan wasfeeling. She experienced difficulty interacting andrelating with the members of the tribe due to the language differences, on topof being viewed as an outsider; being stared at and ignored – she was not ableto fulfill her desired field experience as an anthropologist. This was theturning point for her, as she quickly had realized that she needed adapt to theway things were going otherwise her time spent there would not be in any waybeneficial to her field work. We seethis 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, moreexperiences shed light onto truth and acceptance, both things that Red Womanstruggled with during the early stages of her experience.
One of the mostsubstantial dilemmas that she encounters revolves around the belief andpractice of witchcraft. This topic sheds light on the contrast of herpredisposed views and the cultural views and beliefs of the tribe she wasworking alongside. The first experience she has with “witchcraft”, is when shesaw 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 instilledinto those dwelling in this area, was something that Red Woman did notunderstand, as she saw the events to be simply happenstance, not witchcraft. Theinteractions that she experienced aided the fulfillment she needed as ananthropologist. Which is when beauty is recognized in the novel. Beautyis often times uncovered through experience and understanding. The ways thatbeauty is defined is dependent upon culture and opinion.
Beauty can beinterpreted and expressed many different ways, and is received through oursenses the values we hold. In the novel, we see Red Woman struggle withaccepting a new definition of beauty within culture. Today’s culture in America is centered around models andmaterialistic items. Whereas in West Africa, where the novel takes place, it isfocused on the appreciation for the simplistic acts and items as well as the relationshipswith one another. A way that beauty is celebrated within the novel, is throughcircumcision (p.
261). Within Christian belief, the act of circumcision isstrictly spiritual, and within this tribe, represents respect and beautythrough this act. Although it is a simple act, it had complex implicationswithin the tribe – as it marked the moving up from boy to man. Acknowledgment of these acts allows for recognition that beautylies within us, and it is not always external, although it is often perceivedthat way in today’s American culture. Bohannan was able to find beauty in theculture and ended up enjoying herself which was a total turnaround viewpointturn 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.
Inthe beginning of Return to Laughter, Kako’s son reaches out to Bohannan,resulting in a close relationship. This interaction was able to bring her heartto a place of central goodness and understanding where should could reflect andrecognize what was good and what made her feel wholesome. An issue thatchallenged Bohannan was polygamy. She directly states “However, I personallycould never be involved in polygamy.” (Bowen, 131) When Bohannan was speakingwith Ava’s husbands, (one of the members of the tribe) she learned that ratherthan the woman being the one with the hard life, it was the man in thisculture, or so in this case. This realization for Bohannan, instilled a senseof goodness into her, which became evident in the way that she began to treatothers.
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 andsaw them as dignified people(sf). Goodness can be represented through the relationships wehave 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 deemsas acceptable.
Multiple times throughout the novel, we see Red Woman face moraland ethical dilemmas that were difficult for her to process and handle. Some ofthe specific issues Red Woman struggled with included polygamy, the treatmentof men and women, as well as the treatment she received initially. The conceptof polygamy in today’s culture is frowned upon, however; it is embraced withinthe tribe. It is a cultural difference RedWoman had to learned to come to terms with, while she began to understand theirways, 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 thetribe, 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, theredeveloped grounds for a mutual truce amongst herself and the tribe.
Despite the challenges she faced, Bohannan developed anew understanding and appreciation for cultural goodness. She observed thegoodness through the manners held by the members of the tribe. An example ofthis I shown early on in the novel, as she talks about her experience inaccepting gifts and the various ways to accept them. On page 8, Bowen explainsthe socially ‘correct’ way to accept a gift, and how to do it in such a waythat is deemed ‘respectful'(p.8).
Respect, was ultimately one of the catalysts forthe understanding that developed throughout her time in her field experience. Throughgoodness, the concepts held within truth and beauty become evident in goodnessand 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 culturaldifferences are compared and contrasted, these differences give the reader agreater understanding for the concepts of truth, beauty and goodness. Thisallows them to see that truth, beauty and goodness are much more complex thaninitially believed to be. Relating what we learned in class to the novel, Bowenproves that different situations require adaptation of the original definitionof truth, beauty and goodness.