Thursday, May 19, 2005

WRITING ABOUT GOD FROM THE SKY –AND SUSPENDING JUDGMENT

Here is an uncertain effort to relate "adventures” of Samoa and still suspend judgment as I write: Thomas Mallon, in the Books and Critics section of The Atlantic, May 2004, noted that American author Booth Tarkington wrote to his friend about one of his characters (Alice Adams): “…the girl is drawn without any liking or disliking of her by the writer.” Mallon commented: “Whether he knew the term or not, Tarkington had stumbled on the practice of what Keats called “negative capability”—the artist’s gift for suspending judgment while he simply creates”. Mallon was persuasive as he called to mind Tarkington and the nostalgia that clings to his titles, (e.g., The Magnificent Ambersons, Penrod and Sam, Etc.). I would surely like to learn how to suspend judgment while writing --it could possibly be the difference between creativeness and the pedestrian stuff I would like to avoid; current results may in fact be evident in what follows.

When I got into the taxicab on one of those bright and golden California afternoons, shadows were just beginning to lengthen, (a line that does not sound original even to me), in an altogether lovely and relaxing part of the day. I looked forward to the trip, especially since the driver, who is from Samoa, is not a stranger to me. In fact I had already written about him in a letter titled “All the Beautiful People”. He is a kindly man who had once gone far out of his way to return a small package I had left in his cab even before I knew it was missing. “Fah Lo Tah” is the way the Samoan “Aloha” sounds to me. Here is a difficulty already; I am going to write about this man and what he told me on this day, and I already like him. So far, that in itself seems to constitute a major failure in suspended judgment.

He had told me a story about his granddaughter, together with a charming Samoan folk tale, during a previous ride in his cab; today out of nothing more than idle curiosity I asked him if he had ever worn a lava-lava, one of those picturesque long, skirt-like garments worn by men in Samoa. I assumed they were just for tourist shows these days, but I remembered seeing them on Samoans in Hawaii years before. His answer surprised me: “Oh sure, I usually put one on when I get home from work. In fact, I wear a more formal kind of ceremonial lava-lava at church.” Here was more than I had expected, or hoped for; topics which among other things might more than make up for my chronically meager fund of small talk! Here were two wide vistas of unexplored terrain -– Samoan culture and its religion. As my informant began to enlarge upon both these subjects, he recalled that he had worshipped in the Mormon Church (established there in 1885) before leaving Samoa; after immigrating to this country he settled into a Samoan enclave (of which, he assured me, there are many scattered over the US) and is now attending a branch of the English Church first established in the Islands in1830 by the London Missionary Society. My driver told me this was going to be the “happy” part of the story about religion in Samoa. In the agreeably patois–tinged speech of the islander that he is, he proceeded to tell of times before 1830 when Christianity first came to Samoa. It seems that there used to be many gods; gods in plants, fish or animals. The people evidently lived in great dread of making them angry. In those days Samoans were very warlike, “fighting first, asking questions later”. Today this history is echoed as they excel the world over in the sport of rugby, and a recent study showed that of all NFL players in the US, Samoans are 40 times more likely to be chosen over other ethnic group members. It also occurred to me that during my stay in Hawaii nearly all the policemen in Honolulu appeared to be Samoans.

I read from a brief history by missionary R.M. Watson (circa 1905): “Their mythology and methods of worship, which have been ably classified by earlier missionaries, differ widely from Tahiti and other Pacific groups, in that the custom of human sacrifice, practiced with extensive and horrible cruelty in many parts of the Pacific, did not exist among the Samoans.” They apparently had legends of creativity and “they worshipped many high war and village gods, and many lesser gods of the household.” My driver told about the chief god over all, a Jove-like figure called Tagaloa of the Skies. The gist of the story from this point is that a Samoan chief was told by a Queen from a distant island (probably from Tonga where a Wesleyan Mission had been attempted earlier) to wait for the emissaries of the “greatest God from the sky”. They were apparently waiting: According to this legend, the chief and many Samoans had heard something about Christianity and the surprised missionaries from England found all the people eager and anxiously awaiting the “Good News”. Historical sources confirm the pre-awareness and “sweet” attitude of all Samoans to embrace the True religion, which emphasized love rather than aggression. According to my driver, the previously war-oriented chief now faced his people and said, “Do not call me chief, call me Missionary”.

My driver then announced, “Here is the ‘sad’ part”, and mentioned the name of John Williams; I later read that in 1827 “the famous Missionary John Williams” had journeyed to Raratonga in the Cook group and “there built a vessel of some seventy to eighty tons for island work which he called ‘Messenger of Peace’, and which, being built almost entirely of local products, was a remarkable effort of ingenuity. In this vessel … he sailed to Samoa … landing on Savaii…” in 1830. It is recorded that two missions, each with four Tahitian teachers was established there. Williams did not stay long at that point due to his firm resolve to try to bring Christianity to all the Pacific islands, but he revisited Samoa after two years, landing “some 200 miles from Savaii, and was greatly and agreeably astonished to find the natives claiming the new religion and clamouring for a teacher. … Williams, after visiting much of the group, sailed away (for a time) … Samoa had found its natural doctrine of love.” Visiting Samoa again in 1838 he found British missionaries settled, presumably in relative comfort, and the entire population of the ten islands of the Samoan group was said to be under Christian instruction. “He built a house for his wife, intending to make Samoa his headquarters. To the regret of the English-speaking Christian world, however, he was not permitted to do so.” It is reported that Williams was murdered, along with a young missionary named Harris, while landing on a beach at Erromango on a voyage to New Caledonia, in the New Hebrides.

My driver is more explicit. He told me that Williams and Harris were in the process of going ashore in the Gilbert Islands where “wild people lived”. First Harris and then Williams was killed and eaten by the cannibalistic natives.

It was not for nothing, apparently, that one 18th century explorer first called Samoa the Navigator Islands; with their many oared war canoes and well crafted sailing vessels they had access to a large part of the Pacific. My driver told me that upon hearing about the deaths of their “own missionaries”, a party of Samoans set sail to the Gilbert Islands and found skulls hung on long poles near the beach where the two men had had perished. Without any real opposition, (due probably to Samoan reputation), these faithful sailors brought the skeletal remains back to Apia. As it is otherwise recorded, the remains were “… later partly recovered and now lie buried beneath the Native Church of the mission of Apia – a fitting monument”. Earlier Watson had happily noted, “By inherited instinct the Samoans are lovers of religious observance. Now none can be found that is not a professed Christian ... “.
It is indeed true that some adventures can be completely vicarious, as was mine on this day –of an authentic tale about missionaries and cannibals. As for judgment, the only thing suspended was not judgment, (good Samoans, unsaved “wild people”), but rather my breathing pattern, as I raptly listened while my driver told the story.

3 comments:

Doug said...

So ... what happened next?

Anonymous said...

I wrote this down for all you lovely people. NLK

Jenny Penny said...

He sounds like a great cab driver that I would have loved to meet in New York. The missionary story is wonderful, and you are such a wonderful writer.