Faces in the Smoke

As a child, Douchan Gersi, found himself transported from his native Czechoslovakia to the Congo (his parents had left for political reasons) and subject to experiences of the uncanny. These ranged across a servant visiting from the dead to thank Douchan's mother for arranging his funeral to witnessing reverse magic where the perpetrator of an evil spell has it returned to him with deadly effect. With this as background, Gersi became an explorer, writer and film-maker both of the outer world of 'peoples of tradition' (as he chooses to call primordial or indigenous people) and their inner belief structures - and where the two meet in exercising changes in the world that our current 'scientific paradigms' exclude as possible.

What I love about his book: 'Faces in the Smoke' is the matter of fact nature of his descriptions. This is what I have witnessed, here is my speculation about what it might mean yet make up your own mind. There is never a sense of somebody trying to sell you something or convince you of anything which, of course, in fact, makes it more compelling. Undoubtedly there is part of me that simply thinks here is a re-treaded Carlos Castaneda where you have no idea whether or not all (or most) has been imagined but, unlike Castaneda, nothing is wrapped up in a packaged metaphysics (or indeed anthropological imagination or theorising). The stories simply sit there giving rise to speculation without closure.

I especially loved the blind Touareg guide who skilfully navigates a Land Drover, driven by Gersi, across eight hundred miles of Sahara successfully without incident. With what and to what is he paying attention? How do you build a picture of a place where you have no 'picturing' facility, no sight? The potential of the human becomes extended, something other, than our common assumptions.

I, also, liked his account of a Brazilian healer who diagnosed through his hands (seemingly correctly) and treated by being a conduit for (visible) 'electricity' and turned out (in his day job) to be a physicist teaching at the local university, wholly respectable and respected!

As well as the simple pleasure of anthropological tourism that the book conveys in great measure, it helps break up that solid lump of 'scepticism' so called and help rests science back into mystery.

The happy assumption that there is so much that we do not know and it might be interesting to find out, to genuinely experiment rather than to foreclose with the assumption that it cannot be so because it is impossible (according to current assumptions) (or must be the consequence of clever manipulation). It places a pragmatic empiricism at the heart of things; and, I expect, we could all do with more of this as our default position.



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