Monday, March 18, 2013

'Opeti Taliai and the art of unwrapping

I've whinged about some of the discomforts that Tonga can present to a palangi accustomed to a middle class lifestyle in a temperate nation like New Zealand - discomforts like heat, humidity, roads that turn to scummed lakes after a night's rain, the shortage of books, a super-slow internet 'connection', and huge tough cockroaches that are so relentlessly energetic that after I swat them I'm tempted to roll them over and check whether they run on batteries. I haven't talked enough, though, about the charms of this place - about the super-friendly people, the endless supplies of paw paw and watermelon, the art films and new releases one can buy on DVD for a couple of dollars, the thousand kava circles that convene almost every night, and, most importantly, the gentle tempo of life.

The languid quality of Tongan time allows for a feast of talk. In Auckland conversation is something that happens over a coffee or beer, in fragments of time found between work commitments; in Tonga work takes place in the gaps between conversation. In Auckland I tend to see friends only once every few weeks or months, for an hour or so, and fire questions I have been saving up at them; in Tonga I am able to talk for hours every day and night with my colleagues at the 'Atenisi Institute and other interesting people, over a bowl of kava or a meal of barbequed meat. I'm learning as much here by talking as I learned from reading in Auckland.

This is the first of a series of interviews I plan to do with people associated with the 'Atenisi Institute. 'Opeti Taliai is the Institute's Dean.

'Opeti: I grew up in Folaha, an ancient village on the shore of Tongatapu's Fanga'uta lagoon. Folaha is divided between Wesleyans and Catholics; I grew up in the Catholic side of the village, where houses look east towards Lapaha, the ancient capital of Tonga and the spiritual centre of our Catholic minority. When I paddled my canoe on the lagoon I could look down and see massive blocks of dressed stone, which had fallen centuries ago off barges heading for Lapaha, where elaborate stone monuments were raised on the tombs of kings. Most of the young people of Folaha do not receive an extensive education, but I was sent to Futa Helu's 'Atenisi Institute, where I lived mostly on foraged coconuts and slept in a dormitory. I remember staying up late at night with the other boys, debating the ideas we had been taught during the day by Futa and his colleagues. I taught at 'Atenisi in the late 1970s, before emigrating to New Zealand, where I raised a family, got a PhD, and taught at a couple of universities. Now I'm back, as we rebuild 'Atenisi in the wake of the tragic death of Futa Helu.

Scott: Your scholarly work involves the close examination of ancient words and phrases -

'Opeti: When you study human beings you encounter them through language. I study language to understand people. I don't see a difference between linguistics and certain other academic disciplines, like anthropology and history. Language and culture are so close that they can't be separated. I was introduced to the structural, ahistorical study of language in the University of Auckland's linguistics department, but I was never interested in that sort of restricted examination - never interested in the analysis of the structure of sentences removed from their cultural and historical contexts. When linguistics was established as an independent discipline by De Saussure it parted company with the older field of philology, which was and is preoccupied with the history of words, and has a method that is very influenced by philosophy. I regret the separation of linguistics from philology, and in some ways consider myself a philologist. I had a very difficult time in that linguistics department, but then I met the social anthropologist Max Rimoldi. He was very comfortable with my approach to language, and mentored me. My PhD, which was finished in the anthropology department of Massey University, looks at the history of Tonga and its neighbours using a method I call the unwrapping of language. I unwrap words and stories and look at what has been hidden inside. To do this unwrapping you must understand something of the culture of Tonga, and also the histories and cultures of nations like Fiji and Samoa. In the first appendix of my PhD I provided translations of some of the ancient myths of Tonga, which are often expressed in verse. I unwrap those myths in the main body of the thesis.

Scott: How does your work relate to that of other scholars of the Tongan past?

'Opeti: I am in some ways criticising the approach of Queen Salote to Tongan history. She talked to the scholar Elizabeth Bott about Tonga's traditional stories, and Bott wrote up those conversations in the book Tongan Society. But Salote focused her attention on the Tu'i Kanokupolu, which is only one of Tonga's three dynasties - and is of course the dynasty which has been in power for more than a century and a half. Salote rejected some of Tonga's oldest myths, on the grounds that they were really Samoan. But my argument is that it is impossible to make a wall between early Tongan, Samoan, and Fijian history. Salote's privileging of Tu'i Kanokupolu and her nationalist approach to history were both motivated by her desire to legitimate her family's rule. She misrepresented the past for political purposes.

Scott: I'm very interested in your criticism of nationalism in Tongan historiography, because it seems to me to resonate with a trend in New Zealand. I've been reading Tony Ballantyne's book Webs of Empire, and I notice that it argues against treating the nineteenth century history of my country as a conflict between two isolated peoples, Maori and Pakeha. In recent decades many influential people have begun to talk about New Zealand as a bicultural nation, founded by an agreement of Maori with Pakeha, but Ballantyne warns about turning this fashion into an assumption about past beliefs. He notes that, in the nineteenth century, most Pakeha thought of themselves as citizens of a global empire, and drew parallels between their experiences and those of white settlers in places like India. Ballantyne wants to break out of what he sees as an insular approach to New Zealand history and place the country's past in a global context. I think a number of other scholars are trying to do the same thing. A young historian named Felicity Barnes, for example, recently published a book which considered nineteenth and twentieth century London as a New Zealand city...

'Opeti: I am trying to put aside Salote's nationalism and unwrap some of the oldest Tongan stories.

Scott: Can you me an example of this unwrapping?

'Opeti: Let me use the story of Ahoeitu, the first king of the Tu'i Tonga dynasty. Ahoeitu grew up without a father, until he asked his mother about his ancestry. She told him that his father was the god Tangaloa, and showed him a causarina tree he could climb to reach Tangaloa's realm in the sky. He climbed the tree and met his father, who was delighted to see him, and his half-brothers, who became angry after he beat them in a game of sika, or darts. Ahoeitu's brothers were so angry that they killed him, cut off his head and dumped it in some bushes, and ate the rest of his body. When he found out about this murder Tangaloa was outraged. He made his sons vomit up Ahoeitu's body and retrieve his head, then reconstructed the boy and sent him back down to earth to rule as the first Tu'i Tonga. Ahoeitu's half-brothers were made to serve him. I believe that the Ahoeitu myth represents the beginning of the notions of guilt and duty in Tongan society. Fatonia is our word for duty, and whenever we have a funeral or wedding, or another important social event, people do their duty - they provide food and other goods as gifts to relatives and to people of superior rank, and so on. Ahoeitu's brothers pioneered fatonia.

Scott: There seem to be parallels between the story of Ahoeitu, and its legacy of guilt, and the Christian notion of original sin -

'Opeti: There are parallels. I have argued that duty has a dual purpose - it forces submission, but also binds society and allows for a certain amount of material progress. Tonga is the most contradictory society in the world. Everything here has a double aspect. That's why the literary device of heliaki - the saying of one thing and meaning of another - is so important.

Scott: Niel Gunson has argued that the traditional Tongan sense of time is cyclical and shamanic, rather than linear. I notice a strong emphasis on the cyclical nature of history in your work. Do you get this idea from the Tongan past, or from Western thinkers with a cyclical view of the world?

'Opeti: When I read Vico I immediately saw parallels with Tonga. And it may be that this is a sign of the universality of Vico's ideas. They are true in Tonga and in Italy...I use Western thinkers to help me understand Tonga. I like Heraclitus' sense of flux, his notion of the world as continually changing, and I see Hegel's dialectic as similar, in practice, to heliaki. I admire Zizek and his use of Hegel. The 'Atenisi aproach is about blending ideas from different traditions. I like the Greeks - but I don't think that they can do it on their own. Nor can the Tongans. Let us synthesise what is best.

Scott: It's interesting that some scholars committed to developing an anti-elitist, 'bottom-up' view of the past have nevertheless rejected oral history. EP Thompson distrusted stories transmitted by tongue because of their endlessly mutable nature. He was troubled by the way that a story purporting to tell us about a century-old event could have been revised five minutes before a scholar recorded it. He preferred to use old texts. And Henry Reynolds has relied on texts rather than Aboriginal oral tradition while researching his histories of the conquest of Australia. Does the mutability of oral tradition trouble you?

'Opeti: I see history and myth as the same thing. History becomes myth. What was history in the days of Heraclitus is today myth. Our world will become myth.

Scott: What is the relationship between the sort of work you're doing and archaeology? Patrick Vinton Kirch argues, on the basis of the excavations he and his colleagues have done across the Pacific, that the old distinction between prehistory and history - between the past recorded by non-written means, like campfire stories and songs, and the past recorded in text - is no longer tenable. Kirch claims that he can read a ruin in the jungle or a buried fishing village as precisely as he would an old document. Do contemporary archaeological findings potentially make oral history redundant, by providing more reliable and copious information about the past?

'Opeti: I don't find Kirch demoralising! In my PhD don't reject all his work but do challenge him on some points involving old words.

Scott: Could you explain what you mean by the name Samoa'a-toa, which makes regular appearances in your PhD?

'Opeti: I see Samoa-a-toa as an ancient society that existed in Tonga, Samoa and several other parts of the Pacific. It was egalitarian, and was eventually usurped by something hierarchical - the ancestor of today's very stratified Tongan society. The myth of Ahoeitu may record a moment in this usurpation. In Samoa-a-toa the fish was the iconic animal, and the coast was the focus of habitation. Later, in Tonga, the pig usurped the fish, and people moved inland.

Scott: I detect a sort of melancholy in your discussions of the demise of Samoa-a-toa, and the rise of a hierarchical, martial society - it's almost as though you are lamenting the fall of man from an ideal to a corrupt state -

'Opeti: Not really. I'm doing history. I believe in the importance of objectivity.

Scott: As you know, this is a point where we disagree. I don't like the word 'objectivity', because I think that all research, even the most rigorous research, must have a partly subjective quality. I agree with Gadamer that we cannot avoid bringing our own preoccupations and presuppositions to the study of any subject: that we need these things, in fact, to give the subject a background against which is it comprehensible.

'Opeti: It is always hard to limit the interpretations of your findings. 'Atenisi traditionally encourages its students to answer the question 'What is the case?' rather than the question 'What is to be done?' The instrumentalisation of thought is rejected. But I would add that a scholar can assist progressive forces in his or her society by seeking objectivity. By providing a true picture of reality, he or she can allow for the formulation of correct strategies and tactics. Futa Helu was able to assist in the founding of Tonga's pro-democracy movement because he had an accurate understanding of Tongan society. Let me give another example. We are entering an era of globalisation. We may seek to protect vulnerable nations like Tonga from the negative aspects of globalisation, but to do that we must avoid nationalist myth-making, and the illusion of invulnerability it can give, and have an accurate picture of the world.

Scott: What pieces of scholarship are you working on this year?

'Opeti: I want to revise my PhD for publication, and I want to write an essay for the literary journal brief about 'Pieta', a poem by Queen Salote. Pieta is the Tongan word for piety, and Salote's poem explores the rivalry between Tonga's Catholic majority, which is associated with the ancient Tu'i Tonga dynastic line and the ancient capital at Lapaha, and its Wesleyan majority, which includes the present ruling class...

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

An interesting discussion. Good you have time for such. Good post.

11:15 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

Really enjoyed this interview, thanks,Opeti and Scott.

"Language and culture are so close that they can't be separated." -
this chimes with my own interests.

It's been interesting during the recent political turmoil in the UK to see class distinctions bubbling up in the language again as the middle classes aspiring to the Tory elite try to shame their working class neighbours into submission over the Ding Dong song - everything is suddenly "tasteless". I'd like to see a renaissance of the association of the word "vulgar" with all things excessive wealth, but that's perhaps for another post..

I'm interested to know more about heliaki, now. And I look forward to Opeti's essay in a future issue of Brief.

9:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i thought the interview was great showed really good aspects of tongan traditions

7:38 pm  
Anonymous Takapuna Ika said...

malo ópeti e talanoa fakaófoófa lahi.You should make it live on air.

1:40 pm  

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