Sensory Biographies – Robert Desjarlais

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Sensory Biographies – Robert Desjarlais | Robert Desjarlais’s graceful ethnography reveals by example that the senses are a valuable and underutilized key to deciphering a culture. He explores the life histories of two Yolmo elders, focusing on how particular sensory orientations and modalities have contributed to the making and the telling of their lives. These two are a woman in her late eighties known as Kisang Omu and a Buddhist priest in his mid-eighties known as Ghang Lama. Desjarlais has spent a great deal of time with them and other Yolmo wa, an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people, now numbering several thousand, whose ancestors have lived for three centuries or so along the upper ridges of the Yolmo Valley in north-central Nepal.
It was clear through their many conversations that both Kisang Omu and Ghang Lama, known familiarly as Mheme, or ?grandfather,” perceived themselves as nearing death, and both were quite willing to share their thoughts about death and dying. The difference between the two individuals was remarkable, however, in that Ghang Lama’s life had been dominated by motifs of vision, of knowing the world through visual means, whereas Kisang Omu’s accounts of her life largely involved a ?theater of voices,” in which the spoken words of others mattered greatly. In addition to bringing his readers very close to people whose lives might remain otherwise very remote, Desjarlais offers a fresh and readable inquiry into how people’s ways of sensing the world contribute to how they live and how they recollect their lives.
?One of the most powerful ethnographies in any field that I have read in recent years. …
a model of anthropological analysis that addresses questions on the cutting edge of the discipline.” VEENA DAS, author of Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India
ROBERT DESJARLAIS is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is Shelter Blues (1997), for which he won the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing.

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