By Terry Rey. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, Inc. 1999.
$21.95, paperback. ISBN 0-86543-695-9
Review by LeGrace Benson
Imagine the Athenian army paying homage to their patron, Athena Parthemos then, fortified by her favor, going out to meet the Persians. Imagine their consternation when they discover the Persians marching forward under the banner of Pallas Athena. This is somewhat the scene Terry Rey presents in Our Lady of Class Struggle. Columbus invaded the Caribbean under the protection of Nuestra Seqora and the Spanish royalty, arriving in the flagship, Santa Maria. Nearly two centuries later captives from Africa would be baptized as Christians in an act Rey, using Pierre Bourdieu's telling phrase, calls "symbolic violence." The primary icon of "New World" Christianity then and into the present is the Virgin Mary in the various honorific personae devised for her by the faithful. Drawing upon a wide-ranging scholarship and several years of carefully designed and conducted field research, Rey uses his eight chapters to unfold the details that structuring a paradoxical fact: The Blessed Virgin is patron, protectress, advocate and comforter of both sides in the struggle between the Haitian elite and poor. Not only is Mary Queen of Heaven for Christians rich and indigent, she also walks with the powerful West African-Kreyol female spirit, Ezuli. Rey concludes, "...one can read the story of Haiti's epic class struggle in the history of its cult of the Virgin Mary." He adds, "...the sincerity of their devotion is unquestionable, and certain Haitian expressions of devotion to Mary are ...beautiful and moving..."
Impressed though he may be, Rey keeps a distance from his research, basing his investigations and conclusions on theory developed out of Gramsci, Weber and Bourdieu. It is the latter's notions of "symbolic violence," "field," (of religion in this case), and "habitus," (which Bourdieu calls, "...durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures...") that Rey skillfully utilizes as his primary intellectual tools to create a descriptive analysis of certain Haitian religious beliefs and practices. His insights into the perduring class struggles hint imply a possibility that the religious habitus may even be the source of factors with as much or more determining force than the well-known economic and political contentions.
Rey makes a poignant comparison between two of his informants, one impoverished, the other from a family of great wealth, selecting them for exemplification because he twice had opportunities to observe both at the same Marian feast. To return to our initial analogue, it is as though the Athenians and the Persians had stopped together at the same temple to Athena in advance of proceeding with their battle. In Haiti during the period of the Cidras coup, Rey observed poor individuals who prayed to the Virgin of Perpetual Help for the return of President Aristide. Some of them saw the hand of the Virgin in the visit of Pope John Paul II with his admonishment to the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier to make changes in favor of the destitute population. They were sure the Virgin of Perpetual Help would intervene again to save them. In barbed contrast, General Cidras, a Protestant, exhorted the people while standing on a balcony over the unfurled banner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Catholics of the elite were sure that the Virgin would save the country from democracy and show the poor how much better off they were under Duvalier. Our Lady would teach the poor "...not to hate the bourgeois..." and "...bring them peace and calm." Rey reports the extraordinary apparitions of the Virgin to Sister Altagrbce, a Haitian nun, who reported that the Virgin pronounced in visions the evil of the American (US) intervention to return Aristide, and gave instruction to the elite to fast and pray diligently against this eventuality.
The author prepares a road to enable the reader to comprehend this antilogy of Marianisms of the elite and of the poor equally under the presumed guidance and assistance of the same national patroness. In addition to the familiar historical writings and documents, he often brings forward material from little-used Haitian documents to provide support for his investigations into theological and sociological interpretations, the history of Haitian Marianism, and the detailing of the important relationships between ideas and images of the Virgin and those associated with Ezuli. He examines these latter relationships and their interpretations as conflation, of dissimulation, syncretism and of assimilation, going beyond each to agree with Desmangles (in The Faces of the Gods) that Ezili and the Virgin exist in "symbiosis," as do many other features of Haitian religious practice and belief. To use a Haitian phrase (that Rey does not employ) Mary and Ezili "walk with" one another. "...Mary has been adopted and welcomed by Haitians as an important spiritual force, operating side-by-side with Ezuli-each functioning in a complex mosaic among the many lwas and saints who may be invoked in the daily struggle to survive and the quest for health and the fullness of life." The twinned fabulous feminine powers flank the otherwise unbearable reality of many Haitian's daily lives. Rey's discussion shows a familiarity with the works of such scholars as Karen M. Brown, Leslie Desmangles, Laennec Hurbon, Michel Laguerre, Alfred Metraux and Maya Deren; moreover exhibits the fruits of extensive experience with the life of churches and Vodou communities of several locations in Haiti.
Our Lady of Class Struggle takes on the task of making sense of the conditions of the Haitian religious field and habitus which are everywhere and throughout Haitian history complex, subtle and frequently contradictory. Theoretical positions proposed by Pierre Bourdieu provide Rey with the major part of his heuristic tools. (Rey would probably prefer the word "framework.") This capacious but rigorous instrumentum affords inclusion of ideas from the early writings of Karl Marx, of Antonio Gramsci before and during his imprisonment, and of Max Weber's proposals in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and The Sociology of Religion. No ideologue, Rey wisely reminds us that Marx claimed for himself that he was "no Marxist." By including Gramsci's personal endurance of several kinds of painful physical and social marginalization, he ties a validating understanding of the underpinnings of the theory to insights into Haitian religious sensibilities. The results of Rey's comprehensive field work show how Weber's otherwise invaluable work cannot, however, be used to explain Haitian elite devotion. Whereas Weber firmly posits that for the ruling classes the "...need for salvation is remote and alien," the reports Rey includes in this book indicate that this cannot be true for Haiti.
There are important components of the larger Haitian religious field which make but scant appearance here. Protestants, who vigorously exclude any devotion to Mary or any personage other than the members of the Trinity, are understandably out of sight. Perhaps there will be a book to follow in which the iconic use of Jesus Christ as a political, economic, and religious figure can be detailed. There is the diverse religious habitus of the small but growing Haitian "middle" which needs much research and analysis to be better understood. There is the large question of Haitians of every corner of the field and from every possible habitus who are in diaspora. It would be both instructive and fascinating to read results of Rey's instruments of research and analysis as applied to these populations. That is another piece of work for another several years; perhaps with a team of collaborating researchers. It would be a huge undertaking.
Those who study the arts of Haiti would certainly find interesting what more Rey might have to say about the visual images of Haitian Marianisms coupled necessarily with images of Ezuli. The book's only illustration is that on the cover. Rey mentions this as an example of works that "...enrich her [Our Lady's] image with characteristics of Ezuli..." The work in question is a Virgin and Child by the late Ishmail, an artist working mostly in and near Deschapelles. Ishmail, according to his testimony to Rey, whom he trusted, was an houngan. Yet according to a blan researcher (whom the artist had just met) discussing some similar works with the artist at an upscale gallery in Pitionville, when asked to discuss the relationship between the images of the Virgin and those of Ezuli, protested strongly: "No, no. I am a Catholic Christian. The works have nothing to do with Ezuli or Vodou." Reading Rey's book reveals how both of Ishmail's assertions can be true.
Rey leaves unanswered the question of why the Marian visual images in Haiti, including those aggregations which become Mary-as-Ezuli, are nearly without exception of European Renaissance or late Byzantine derivation. A Marian image even so slightly localized such as Paul Gauguin's "Ia Orana Maria," (Ave, Maria) presenting a woman and child of Tahiti with the aureoles of sanctity, is rare in Haitian art. There are some exceptional Ezuli's that should be thought of as Haitian natif-natal, notably those of Hector Hyppolite, and the "Queen Erzuli [sic]" of Robert St. Brice at Musie d' Art Haotien du Collhge St. Pierre, Port-au-Prince. But even St. Brice's may have an Italian background: it is entirely likely that the artist would have seen Piero della Francesco's red-robed Madonna-as-Mediatrix-of-Salvation in one of the books of Renaissance art in the library of the Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince. The Byzantine style of the Ismail Virgin and Child on the cover of Our Lady of Class Struggle was, according to one collector/expert, the result of the artist's developing his signature style subsequent to Mrs. Mary Ann Whitney's suggestions and sharing of a book of images at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital compound. It is intriguing to speculate as to why a people of such great pride and self-awareness, whether poor or elite, have not developed more distinctively "Haitian" visual images of either Mary or Ezuli.
Rey does focus on the images as imbricated in the struggles; and who would disagree that Haiti was born in struggle and remains locked in battle for place, for resources, above all for control. Yet despite combat, there is konbit. Historians, economists and sociologists exclusively attend to the combats, these being what consumes time, treasure and souls. But every instance could be shown to have another side, the konbit (collective work to complete a community task), the lakou (literally the group of closely related or close friends living in proximity; figuratively any durable, close-knit group), and fanmi/famille (the family, nearly always an extended family). Rey himself mentions the TKL, Ti Komonite Legliz (Small Church Communities) describing their efforts as (in part) related to the notions of the Mary of the Magnificat. This Mary, far from being the subservient role-model of the institutional Church, sings a praise song to God that begins with reverence followed immediately by the self-confident declaration, "...For behold all generations shall call me Blessed!" For Haitian Christians outside the elite, the lines following that are profoundly consequential: "He [the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob] has brought down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent empty away." The emphasis is on the victory of the meek but with the same breath comfort, support, rejoicing that God is present with them. The Magnificat Mary is uniquivocally on the side of the poor in the implied struggle. Clearly there is a contest; just as clearly the comfort and collaboration. Similarly the konbit functions in the labor of bringing nourishment out of the soil. So too the lakou in establishing and maintaining the web of familiar and usually comfortable relationships that enable many Haitians to survive. So too the family, an institution that in every aspect of Haitian life, whether among the poorest or among the richest of the elite is a source of assistance, protection, passing along of traditions, education at whatever possible level, and, of course, comfort. While Rey leaves discussion of such manifestations to one side, it is evident from the reports he brings forth that Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Ezuli Freda, or Our Lady of Czestochowa/Ezuli Danto moves as easily in the households of recycled boards and sheet metal as in the gated grand houses up on the hills. Compassion chooses no side. How might a study that systematically broadened the focus to include observations of assistance, and even participation within and across economic and family class lines affect our understanding not only the imageries and their uses, but the direction and style of the struggle itself?
Perhaps it is here that a part of the paradox is resolved. The woman who invokes the assistance of Mary to keep a disorderly and unpredictable democracy at bay projects her own sense of sympathetic protection. The woman of Grand Bassin who lifts her hands to shout at Our Lady of Lourdes impels the Mother of Healing All to bring a suffering family out of the destitution imposed by the mighty. Both women are tautly circumscribed in their own moves toward clemency, yet each expects boundless grace from Mary.
From the point of view of studies and experiments by a number of researchers over several decades, one might take issue with the fundamental assertion Rey uses from Bourdieu: "...since the history of the individual is never anything other than a specification of the collective history of his group or class, each individual system of dispositions may be seen as a structural variation of all other group or class habitus."
Given, both Bourdieu and Rey give more latitude to the individual than these words would suggest, and would agree that the statement does not exclude the role, sometimes powerful, of individuals. Nevertheless the position raises questions. It can be argued that the "direction of the gaze" of an artist or a prophet, hence the production of ideas and images even those that are novel, are fully determined by place and time within the social habitus. Perhaps most of what is even apparently unique and remarkable can be shown to be anchored in the prevailing attitudes and tacit presumptions. Bourdieu claims that this is so much the case that in order to understand the ideas and images of a certain time and place, it is necessary to understand the codes of the relevant habitus; that nothing can be comprehended without this knowledge. There is such strong evidence to support this that contrary data are obscured, especially for those who deal primarily with alpha-numeric and iconic codes in the course of their investigations.
However, interesting consequences derive from the apparent facts of the perceptions by humans and other creatures that appear to be genetically developed over eons in reciprocity with the niche or usual habitat structures, that is, the affordances for survival behaviors that are present and require accurate, direct and immediate apprehension. The color and sheen of ripe fruits is an example. The edge-phenomena and sharp change in textural gradient that specify a dangerous drop in terrain is another. Such findings imply that in addition to, perhaps undergirding, the socially-determined codes, there is a fundament of information available to human perceptions, usable by rulers, artists, poets, prophets and housewives anywhere anytime; everywhere and always the same. Our social circumstances do direct our gaze ("attention"). They do teach us particular kinds of importance ("detection" and "discrimination"); do create and provide the sounds, gestures and marks by which we communicate what we have discovered or learned. The unspeakably meaningful depiction of Mary with her dead son that Michaelangelo found in his block of marble does requires knowing a code to know this is the Virgin Mary with the body of the crucified Christ. Yet it requires the uncoded experience of being in a mortal body, of perceiving/experiencing the state of being mortal related to other mortals to be grasped in its depths. It is this fundament that supports the code and renders it of interest. Haitian Marianisms provide an opportunity to explore such a notion further.
Given that engagement with some form of feminine elevation to deity seems well-nigh universal, dating back some 30,000 years, are there survival-information-features that lie beneath the codes used in Haiti, and to what extent are they directly apprehended? What would then help explain the strong appeal for aspects of Ezuli and other aspects of Vodou that seem to fetch and captivate attention of many, unlikely non-Haitian beholders? Rey writes, "...perhaps the symbiotic assimilation of Mary and Ezili strikes for Haitians a functional balance that either figure in and of herself could neither achieve nor offer." What if this "functional balance" occurs at the level of uncodable perceptions? Rey ( and also Bourdieu) seems aware of the minute and unique delicacy of the system of belief and practice of individuals, and of the exigencies that move such individuals to take one or another direction of political belief and action. They both present details as though in fact, less determined than the conceptual model. A consideration of "genetic" apprehensions of the world might well prove compatible with Rey's investigations and analysis.
Our Lady of Class Struggle broaches a conversational opening about politics, religion, and the uses of imagery in Haiti, all within the crucially important frame of class struggle reality. Rey brings many voices to this conversation. Unusually for most contemporary investigators, he gives a well-described place to elite religious practice and belief. Perhaps because many elite men conduct most of their lives outside (perhaps even "out of sight of") the church, the description is largely limited to women. It is not as clear that this is similar among the poor. It would be helpful to see more data and rationale regarding gender differentials. In any case, line are open now for several directions of inquiry and discussion.
It is to be hoped that Haitians and Haitianists of various points of view and several relevant disciplines will read and begin to continue the discussion. Out Lady of Class Struggle posits a model for the next efforts to study, discover and discuss the social structures, the class struggles and the religious fervor that characterize Haiti. While there is abundant information for researchers in several fields, Rey's the writing is accessible to any reader interested in a fuller understanding of Haiti. He defines all technical and theoretic terms, and provides detailed documentation to make this contentious subject about contentions approachable by readers of whatsoever political or religious stance. It is a work of transparent scholarship, giving due regard and respect to Haitians of many sides of class struggle or religious commitment. It is "must read" for inhabitants of Corbettland.
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