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Hubert Fichte as Ethnographer

Author(s): Klaus Neumann

Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 263-284
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Hubert Fichte as Ethnographer

Klaus Neumann
University of Newcastle

Hubert Fichte.
Otherwise known as Axel, Detlev, Jacki.
Writer: autobiographer and ethnographer.

Jacki is one of Detlev's imitations! [Fichte 1979a:70]

A fifty percent orphan.

A fifty percent Jew.

I am a first grade half-caste, I am an illegitimate child, and now I am gay, too-that's

a bit much. [Fichte 1979b:36]

Fichte wrote about psychiatry in West Africa.

Fichte wrote about prostitutes, hustlers, dropouts and pimps in Hamburg.
He wrote about Hubert Fichte's life, Detlev's life, Axel's life, Jdcki's and Irma's
Lokstedt. Schrobenhausen. St. Pauli. And all the rest of it.
Fichte wrote about Afro-American syncretism in the Americas.
Bahia de Todos os Santos.
Sdo Luiz de Maranhdo.
Santo Domingo.
Over a period of more than 15 years Fichte visited temples, observed initiation
ceremonies, talked with priests, diviners, and shamans. Watched women and men
possessed by Ogum.
Erzulie. Loko. Damballah. Ouedo. Agoud. Taoyo. Zaka. GuMd6 Nibo.


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Avlekete. Aido Ouedo. Oshala. Oshun. Oya. Oloko.

Shango. Sango. Chango. Xang6.

Of course, anthropologists write about other people's cults, manifestations

of other people's religious beliefs, about rituals they would never take part in if it
were not for their professional interest. It's their job. Yet it's not self-evident how
they come to know what they later want to write about.

The writer and researcher has two options to approach the description of initiation
He can himself submit to the rules of the religion and go through the initiation pro-
cess-if he does he is bound to observe confidentiality.
If he wants to satisfy the requirements of scientific description, he has to betray the
pledge of secrecy-with all the psychological and social consequences entailed-or
he has to betray the academic discipline.
The second option, which I chose myself, is to declare oneself as a writer and re-
searcher, and to collect and compare from a distance. [Fichte 1985:230]

Fichte chose to remain aloof. Throughout his books he remains the observer from
a distance, although betraying academia would have been no problem for him,
who despised much of professional anthropology and who, in -his native Ger-
many, was not considered one of them by most anthropologists anyway. In
marked contrast to most ethnographies dealing with other people's religious cer-
emonies, there are hardly any instances where I could not be sure whether, in
revealing certain information, Fichte in fact unveils a secret. Fichte carefully
avoided using the sociological methods which Sartre said resemble those of un-
dercover agents trying to worm themselves into the criminals' confidence in order
to trap them.
But whereas he consciously put himself in the position of the outsider, he was
desperate to narrow the distance separating him from the people he wrote about.

He went to great lengths to acquire competence and gain familiarity. He was

fluent in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Brazilian Portuguese, and French. He was pa-
tient, made friends, and came back many times. In an article on initiation proce-
dures in Haiti, a few lines further down from what I just quoted, he says:

Leonore Mau and I could take part in Raymond C.'s initiation ceremonies, because
for over six years we had been well acquainted with the temple, the houmphort, and
because we had introduced ourselves with a knowledge of African psychiatry and had
brought recipes for leaves from Africa to South America. [Fichte 1985:231]

He worked hard to become an outsider who could be trusted and who was re-
spected because of his competence and genuine interest.

He tried to narrow the distance by empathy. Nevertheless he remained the

white outsider who can afford to travel to and write about people who often can
hardly afford not to starve.

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Exceptions put aside, there are two groups of people: those who travel with James
Cook, and those who loot an army canteen because they are starving. [from a 1974
interview, quoted in Teichert 1987:241 ]

Without ever being able (or prepared?) to annihilate the distance, he empathized
to a degree that often makes his fieldwork appear to have been a painful exercise
and that sometimes makes reading him, a painful exercise, too. His empathy fell
short of identification. It may be this falling short that makes me feel tense when
reading Fichte, longing for a happy ending even though I should be aware of its
terrible implications.

Fichte narrowed the distance between the writer and what and who is written
about also by introducing his own person as subject to write about. Not in the
sense of a navel-gazing pondering his own role. But in introducing himself as a
guinea pig.

-You are egoistic, Alex says.

-I am the experimental subject best known to me, I reply. [Fichte 1979b: 199f1

Assuming the role of the guinea pig does not mean to play the believer, the ini-
tiate, the Black Brazilian, the Cuban living in exile in Miami. Rather it requires
assuming the role of the material that he is working on when writing. In his book
Herzschlag aussen Torsten Teichert says about Fichte: "Den Stoff seiner Texte
bereitet derAutor im Leben vor [In his life, the author prepares the subject matter
of his texts]" (1987:9). That is very nearly to the point. From and with his life,
Fichte prepared the subject matter of his texts. All his writings are in some way
Assuming the role of the guinea pig by playing a member of the Other culture that
is to be analyzed is not as dangerous as what Fichte does. Even where anthropol-
ogists' participatory fieldwork is more than a playful pretense at taking seriously
the rituals they observe and the cults they are initiated into, there are nearly always
spouses and friends and piles of books and cultural values and superannuation
schemes and comfortable offices waiting to be returned to once the fieldworker
has left the field (and has left, too, another culture's roles).

By making an earnest attempt to be a competent and empathic observer and

by bringing his own life's full weight to bear, Fichte narrowed the distance be-
tween the author and his subject. Yet if he writes about himself, doesn't he elim-
inate the distance altogether?

Monsieur Ouine-Herr Jein-Mister Yes-'N'-No. [Fichte 1979a:98]

No coherent wholes.

Being beside oneself-sensing the Self beyond one's body, that is .

. . . some giddy trance-like state. [Fichte 1979b:38]

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Herzschlag aussen, heartbeat on the outside, Teichert calls his book on Fichte,
alluding to a quote in Petersilie:

Heartbeat on the outside. The world as the heart around me. [Fichte 1980:73]

Instead of appropriation by means of identification, Fichte exiles part of his Self

to be able to enter a dialogue with the Other. (I have been trying out various sub-
stitutes for the verb "to exile": to cut off, to split off, to sacrifice, et cetera, but
I am uncertain whether the dialogue requires an active effort best described by
one of these metaphors or whether it has more to do with a crack, or a doubling,
or a fraying extension. The effort involved then would be the effort to tolerate and
perhaps to acknowledge the crack.) Venturing outside the familiar may be an at-
tempt to use the experience of close contact with the unfamiliar Other to learn
more about the seemingly familiar and about oneself. Using the Other as a catalyst
to provide the A-effect to have an-other look at one's Self. In the way Michel
Leiris exploits the Other as documented in L'Afrique fantome (1934). (And as
ridiculed by himself nearly half a century later.) This is not what Fichte does.
"Sensing the Self beyond one's body," "heartbeat on the outside," means per-
mitting a double bind to watch and describe the interplay of Self and Other on one
and the same level. Where is the ethnographic "I"'? Where is the ethnographer's
eye? "I am the experimental subject best known to me," Fichte says, observing
and recording his cracks.

... I would never, I say, write a book in first person singular.

In the "I" you sit in a swivel-chair watching time that has been overcome.
With the "I" everything comes up to me and shuts itself off from me and turns into
the past. [Fichte 1979b:36]

Fichte says in the novel Versuch uber die Pubertdt, the first novel he wrote con-
sistently in the first person singular, the last novel he wrote before publishing
Xango (1976), his first ethnography proper. The "I" that he rejected here is an
"I" going into its own shell and snatching the she'ss and "he"s passing by. Yet
being aware of the traps of the first person singular (aware, too, of the traps the
"I" tends to set for others) he does not hide behind Hubert or Jacki or Detlev
when recounting his encounters with Brazilians and Haitians. Mind you: he does
not recount these encounters in order to let the reader participate in his personal
experiences in Brazil or Haiti, but to provide an understanding of Brazil and Haiti.
Whose personal experiences anyway?

Who I?
When I write "'I," do you think of you or of me?
-Have you yourself actually been in an orphanage?

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-But Jacki and Detlev are two characters, flesh and blood, aren't they?
Creatures of flesh and blood. Corpses of flesh and blood.
-Don't you think that Jacki and Detley share many traits?
You and I and Detlev and Jacki and Jacki's I and Detlev's I and my I and your I.
[Fichte 1979a:69]

In order to be successful with your application for funds to carry out anthro-
pological research it is not enough to say: "I want to know. I intend to gain ex-
periences. I am going to listen, smell, watch, taste, feel. " There ought to be prob-
lems that shall be solved. Explanations sought and given. Phenomena described
and interpreted and analyzed and tamed/conquered/exorcized. Safeguard your
journey with definitions and references! Create order and coherence-categoriz-
ing, systematizing, structuring, classifying! In order to be successful with your
application for funds to carry out anthropological research, in order to be a suc-
cessful writer of ethnography, in order to be successful when submitting a disser-
tation, in order to be successful when bidding for the chair-it is not enough to
say: "I want to know. I intend to gain experiences."

Hubert Fichte had no degree in anthropology. Nor any other academic de-
gree, for that matter. Maybe defining himself in halves (and sometimes as two
persons in one) helped him to bear recording the fragmentation of reality and to
resist the temptation to construct coherent wholes. Maybe his position outside
academia helped him to make do without applying structures and systems to what
he observed. (Certainly his position as a renowned writer of novels helped main-
stream academia to neglect his work as an ethnographer.)

Fichte tried to come to grips with what he calls "the different layers of real-
ity" (1978:44). He learned to write down discrepancies he perceived in what he
observed in order to describe it. Again, the most prominent subject to be observed
and described is he himself:

Recording my defeats, cracks, contradictions, not patching up the disjointed, but

leaving parts unconnected side by side, taking a bearing on the facts by means of two
false, exaggerated statements. [Fichte 1979b:294]

Not patching up the disjointed, but leaving the layers visible in one's writing.
"Kinostil [Cinema Style]," the novelist Alfred Doblin called for in his Berlin
Program in 1913 (Doblin 1963:17). Fichte dissolves narrativity by juxtaposing
passages resembling short strips of film. The temporal relation of these strips
seems to be of less importance than their ability to talk to each other, and to rep-
resent the multilayered reality he experienced.

Layers instead of stories, pebbles, time lapse, slow motion, losing the time of the day,
and losing again, too, the refound time. [Fichte 1979b:294]

Writing against the linearity of time.

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Writing by piling layers of memories on top of each other, and fitting the pile into
one moment of linear time-that's what he does in his first novel, Das Waisen-
Writing by constructing simultaneousness.
Writing by obstructing the self-evident flow from past to present to future.
Writing by reifying time and playing around with bits of frozen, fattened, gelled,
melting, burned time.

Time-a reef from the shells of deceased moments?

Cut and worn around the neck? [Fichte 1978:35]

When aiming at representation of the inconsistencies and incoherencies of

his subject matter, he also reveals his own incoherencies and shortcomings in ob-
serving and recording it. Addressing the academic descendants of the famous Ger-
man ethnographer, Leo Frobenius, at Frobenius' former place of work in Frank-
furt, he urges them:

Contradictions, lies, the fake, the exaggeration, the incoherence-leave them, do not
look for easy solutions-doubts, defeats. [Fichte 1980:364]

In order fully to relay the meaning and the weight of this quote, it would need to
be said in one breath. Fichte demands that ethnographies no longer be cleansed
of what their authors consider to be irrelevant or false information, and that they
no longer be cleansed of the ethnographers' doubts either. "Doubts, defeats".
Doubts leading to defeats. Doubts guaranteeing defeats? The following quote
from Xango is probably the passage most often cited to highlight Fichte's ap-
proach to anthropology:

We are the victors.

We act victoriously.
Knowledge is power.
The perception of physics is the perception of victorious physicists.
The anthropologist emerges victoriously from the structural analysis of the Indian
Journalistic reports are trophies of hunger, of hermaphrodites, of executed people.
The painter triumphs over material and over faces. (C6zanne alone finally did without
victories and left white patches on the canvas as defeats.)
The novelist triumphs in the novel; the reviewer conquers the reviewed.
The avant-gardist triumphs by means of his doubts.
In a conversation we triumph on two fronts: over the subject and over the partner; our
words are like the French who butcher the Spaniards and the Indians.
I do not emerge victoriously from Haiti.
My notes are the notes of errors, false conclusions, rash actions.
If, somewhere between the silence of Wittgenstein and the language of our victorious
analyses and victorious syntheses, there were another language in which the move-
ment of changing and contradicting opinions, the dilemma of sensitivity and conform-
ity, despair and practice, could be made clear, I should use it.
It would be a fundamentally different language.

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Perhaps the Indians and the Africans had a means of expression that is less colonising.
[Fichte 1976:1191

"I do not emerge victoriously from Haiti." In the context of the quote, this sen-
tence is certainly not a self-pitying acknowledgment, nor is it said with resigna-
tion. In claiming the defeat, Fichte refuses to be among the masters, he refuses to
be among those mastering their subject matter, putting themselves in command
of Other realities, being in control of Other and Self. The sentence reminds me of
a boy defiantly stomping his feet: I do not emerge victoriously. Note, however,
the opening sentence of this passage: "We are the victors." Fichte was horrified
at the prospect of becoming corrupted by joining the victors. In his writings, he
documents his defeats perhaps also to support his claim to innocence. Whereas
most of his academic colleagues publish their victories and boast of their suc-
cesses in penetrating Otherness-in order to be successful with their applications
for research monies and for a job, and in order to lock out uncertainties and
fears-Fichte lists his defeats. He ponders about ways to avoid being victorious.
He seems to require defeats in order to legitimize his anthropological research.
"Doubts." Defeats." Yet the pairing is less consequential than Fichte pretends.
Did he not also say: "The avant-gardist triumphs by means of his defeats."? The
nonhierarchical discourse Fichte longs for requires more than self-critical, self-
conscious scruples. It requires working toward a new way of experiencing the
Other. "If there were another language somewhere between the silence of Witt-
genstein and the language of our victorious analyses." If there were. . . . There
is not. Yet Fichte explores new forms that go far beyond the jargon of many trendy
academics, beyond the postmodern Newspeak that is so fashionable (ironically,
also among those claiming to be open to a convergence of poetry and ethnogra-

In many respects being an outcast himself, Fichte empathizes, yet he does

not identify with the people he writes about. He knows very well that their plight
is not his. When he says: "We are the victors," putting himself on a par with
those of his colleagues who produce victorious analyses and victorious syntheses,
he aptly describes his position from the point of view of the Afro-American slum
dwellers he writes about. He has to acknowledge the consequences of being a
citizen of one of the richest countries of the world, yet wherever possible he tries
to avoid compromising himself. Falling between two stools. Not denying to be
one of them, one of "us"?, yet being afraid of contagion. Suspicious even of the
privileges of the ecrivain engage traveling to Nicaragua and residing in the most
expensive hotel in Managua at the Sandinista government's expense.

Is there a way of evading the antagonism established by colonialism? How

is it possible to dissociate oneself from the victors?

When reading Marcel Mauss' Manuel d'Anthropologie I realise that the industrial na-
tions' arts have colonial streaks. The countries of the Third World supply raw mate-
rials for the marxist, structuralist, existentialist conceptions of the world, for the world
views of natural sciences and of the arts, that are constructed from them.

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As with cars:
The VW is exported from Brazil to Nigeria.

Would not another way of experiencing the world be conceivable?

Not James Cook, not Spartakus-Guide, nor Marcel Mauss-not the storing of expe-
riences, the pickling of trophies of experience-but waiting, in the centre of a world
and its happenings, until the Other approaches and discloses itself? [Fichte 1976:217]

Never did he come up with a solution. In the novel Forschungsbericht, writ-

ten in 1981 and published posthumously in 1989, he recorded the failure of his
attempts to find another way of experiencing and another way of writing. In the
novel Platz der Gehenkten, written less than a year before Fichte died, white
patches outweigh the text. If there is not another language, somewhere between
the victors' obscene prattling and Wittgenstein's silence, then one must opt for a
white canvas and an empty page.

Yet when putting into words his longing for an uncorrupted language that
could legitimately be used to represent his perceptions of the world as the heart
around him, he touches upon another way of experiencing and another way of
writing. And isn't that the most we could hope for anyway?

All languages aroused his suspicion; the opulent, slurping one, with greasy caps and
a firm handshake, insertions of dialect; the high-pitched, roaring one which people in
France had been fond of using, behind his back, and which, so it seemed to Jacki,
could still be used in France, there it had not handed out bath soap and dry towels for
showers which never let out water; it had not been party to the suffocating of entire
-It had not been party to the suffocating of entire populations, Jacki thought.
-In France they get away with that kind of bullshit.
-Do they get away?
Which kind of German may Jacki use without feeling guilty?
-What does remain?
Jacki thought there must be a language polished as sand, texts which did not raise the
everyday, the behaviour of peasants, psychiatric orderlies, road menders, drop-outs,
above itself to turn into a strangeness long known and into shocks ever the same, but
sachte, softly
Jacki again thought the Hamburg word sachte which he had not remembered in all
those years in the Provence-
sachte, softly touch and turn so that forms emerge such as those created by the tides
in the mudflats, for a few hours only.
And the incoming tide reclaims them. [Fichte 1988:9fl

Through Fichte's texts shines his ardent desire to save his ability to talk and
to write from a reality that threatened to refute all attempts at representing it.
Around 1980 he began devoting much of his time to learning yet another lan-
guage, classical Greek. At first sight, it was in order to be able to appreciate Her-
odotus. Questioning himself more closely about his intentions, he notes:

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Jdcki's need to talk, which had, but for miserable residue, in the face of reality suc-
cumbed to silence, started to arise anew with the Ionic, with the Karian of the Turk
Jacki reckoned that the eagerness with which he pursued this language, was the ea-
gerness to survive as somebody talking. [Fichte 1989a:35]

He is never carried away by his own sensual experiences. In Fichte's collage

different layers of reality highlight each other, contradict each other, get in each
other's way.

I do not see anything.
The power fails.
I barely smell anything in the darkness.
I do not think of taste, or touch.
Through my enormously extended hearing the world consists of drops and frogs only.
Frogs like donkeys.
Frogs like birds.
Frogs like Michael.
Frogs like hammer and chisel.
Frogs like "Help!".
Frogs like pneumatic hammers.
Frogs like circular saws.
Frogs like Viennese choirboys.
Frogs like cars.
Frogs like frogs. [Fichte 1976:79]

There follows a pun on the sounds created by frogs and toads which I cannot
translate. Fichte continues:

What happens when it rains in a favela for 24 hours:

Mud houses go soft and cave in.
Everything is wet:
Blankets, clothes, hair, flour, beans, wicks, matches, charcoal. The tins with pow-
dered milk go rusty.
Amoebae and pulmonata are washed into the well water. [Fichte 1976:80]

There is nothing arty about Fichte's poetics, nor about the way he juxtaposes and
intertwines material that most anthropologists would have filed away in different
categories: "interviews," "fieldwork diary," "statistical data," "newspaper
clippings," "personal diary," later to draw on this raw material only to reach a
synoptical synthesis, a synthetical synopsis in their ethnographies. At first, I had
the impression that Fichte only quotes what others might term "raw material."
Certainly his texts still resemble notes, data, primary source material, despite his
work on them. Casual poetry.

The conventional treatise about an anthropological field translates the informants' dis-
course into an academic discourse.
Without any semantic or poetic stringency.

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The second discourse is postulated superior and desirable. It suggests that both theory
and empirical data are comprehensive and precise, which hardly ever is the case.
[Fichte 1989b: 18]

The following extensive quote is from a chapter on Bahia in his first ethnography
proper, Xango. It should give you an idea of Fichte's ethnographic prose:

Rice cost in 1967 0.67 cruzeiros-in 1970 1.12-1971 at the Feira Sao Joaquim 1.80.
Beans in 1967 0.48-in 1971 1.80.
Cassava in 1967 0.18-in 1971 1.20.
Pork in 1967 2.00-in 1971 4.00.
One egg in 1967 0.10-in 1971 0.19.
One litre of milk in 1967 0.15-in 1971 0.70.

Jornal do Brasil:
During the first three months of this year basic food went up in price by 10 percent.

We accompany Professora Theresa to the market of Sao Joaquim to buy sacrificial

animals. It is the people's market, and food is displayed in the dirt to be sold to the
A goat costs 50 cruzeiros, an Angolan fowl 10 cruzeiros, a dove eight.
The following is required:
3 goats,
3 Angolan fowl,
3 chicken,
3 ducks,
3 white doves-for each novice one four-legged sacrificial animal, and poultry to
"cover" every one of the goats' legs. I am allowed to transport the sacrificial animals
by VW cab to the cult house.
I feel in the centre of these African proletarians' friendship.
Sure, I think, they will let me take part in the most fascinating, the most shocking,
the wholly atavistic-Muhl, Nitsch, Lil Picard-blood bath, and Leonore will make
her most beautiful photos-not in order to make a fabulous amount of money, for the
fabulous sum which would cover the debt incurred through this journey could not be
brought in with photos.
I imagine marvellous photos. Leonore's sensitivity and all this indigestible flowing of
In the afternoon the fourth and last puxada. Today, the skulls are decorated with an
expensive blue paint.
Actually it should have been real indigo.
But African indigo has become scarce in Bahia.
With their make-up removed the girls go skipping round the sacred room.

A nineteen-year-old carpenter comes from the interior to make his fortune in the big
city of Bahia.
For weeks he does not find a job.
-I have come to know everything. Even hunger.
Now he is employed in a cabinet maker's workshop for less than 70 dollars a month.
He works 52 hours per week, unpaid overtime not included. With two mates he lives
in a shack with walls of cardboard. In the morning he is given coffee and two eggs at
this place. He eats bread for lunch. In the evening beans and rice. For this he pays 25
cruzeiros per week. He has 24 cruzeiros, 10 dollars, left for love, education, relaxa-
tion, clothes, cigarettes.

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As often as he can he takes pity on elderly men who take pity on him. [Fichte

As if empathy were to be disguised by a matter-of-fact account of living condi-

tions. Or is it a painful awareness of the hardships the protagonists of his ethno-
graphies experience? A listing of cool statistical data, or a listing of figures so
naked that they hurt? And then there is the contrast between him talking, from
some distance, about a 19-year-old carpenter, and him talking, from some dis-
tance, about the anthropologist pursuing his research in Bahia. In the second in-
stance he creates the distance by squeezing in an irony that must hurt the anthro-
pologist he is writing about. (It turns out that, at the time Professora Theresa had
invited Mau and Fichte to visit her, the offerings had already been made. Even
then Leonore Mau wasn't allowed to take photos.)

Some of his writings resemble inventories. Lists of words, lists of fragments

of sentences. Listed one underneath the other. A full page with justified lines con-
veys order, solidity, and completeness. Too many white patches disturb. They
suggest fragmentariness and gaps that point at missing links and missing endings.
Fichte's prose is condensed. Often his sentences seem terse and to have been jot-
ted down in haste to allow him to record every detail, every single step in a ritual,
the remotest information obtained. But it is not simply a matter of using language
economically. His prose is condensed as if he were afraid of unnecessary words
squatting on white space. And sometimes, as if he were on the verge of becoming
mute, afraid to use words corrupted and hollow-most striking in his last novel,
Der Platz der Gehenkten (1 989c).

Haikus often say more about a particular society than three tons of card indexes turned
upside down.
Sharp focus.
That means: no redundancy-but enough comprehensibility.
Any human fact can be expressed in a way that makes anybody willing and interested
understand it. [Fichte 1980:363]

Few people would be as willing and interested to understand as Hubert

Fichte. If he wanted to suggest that others should live up to his own high standards
of willingness and interest, his last sentence would become meaningless. He
could with justification ask for comprehensibility from those anthropologists who
defend their niche by erecting walls from academic jargon around them. But does
it make sense to apply the criterion of comprehensibility to poetic representations
of reality? To me, the criterion of immediacy seems more fitting here. A haiku
does not have an arcane meaning that needs to be deciphered. It does not call for
a probing into mysterious depths. Fichte approaches reality on the most direct
route. His renderings of reality do not make an interpretive detour, nor are they
impressionistic infusions of the author's brooding upon reality. Which makes it

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futile to brood over Fichte's words in order to distill a deeper meaning from them.
But beware of Fichte's prose! His "haikus" may leap at you. And not making an
interpretive detour does not mean that his writing is not analytical.

Poetry is analytical. [Fichte 1987:196]

Is there a link between Fichte's condensation and the ornate style of his subject
matter, the Vaudou and the Baroque playwright, Lohenstein, much admired and
often discussed by him? Fichte shows that there is a delicate structure behind the
bombast of Lohenstein and the Afroamerican rituals. He reconstructs the slender
delicacy of his subject matter in the forms he chooses to represent it.

Particularly in those details yet tight accounts where key words seem to have
been isolated lest their clarity be lulled with soft fillers and paddings, in being
strung together the words assume a new meaning. Strings of words might turn
into litanies. And instead of lulling the readers, those strings of words enchant,
bewitch, make the readers hypersensitive.

A litany brings about a poisoning by words. The meaning sinks back, and the words
themselves soar and beckon to fellow words, become saturated and fall down again,
not far from the place where they rose up.
They have changed like food gone off.
If the litany is chosen close to bodily representations, it turns into tenderness, desire,
into bodies with more than one sex, and hermaphrodites come out of the mouth and
re-enter through the eyes.
Worse still: mouth and ears fall off, and I go blind. [Fichte 1979b:57]

Cinema style.
Desperate attempts to represent the different layers of reality.

The modem litany! [Fichte 1980:364]

Fichte's poetic representation of reality is in its critique much more radical than
an interpretive, explanatory, penetrating scientific representation could ever be.

Poetic ethnography. Ethnographic poetry.
The temptation to fit Fichte's writing into categories.
Victor Segalen. Michel Leiris. Claude Levi-Strauss.
The temptation to package the author by wrapping him up with others.
With Segalen he shares the concern for an approach to the Other that's not colo-
There is little his empathic listening to the world as heart around him has in com-
mon with Leiris' narcissistic listening to his own heartbeat.

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Levi-Strauss epitomizes what Fichte detested. There is no other author Fichte has
so viciously criticized as Levi-Strauss. Probing into the language of Tristes Tro-
piques, Fichte exposes L6vi-Strauss as somebody who is interested in the Nam-
bikwara and Bororo as human raw material to construct scientific theories. Fichte
despised the French ethnographer for writing about a people whose language he
did not speak (he shows that even Levi-Strauss's command of Portuguese, the
language used by the interpreters, was poor). The sentimentality of the Tristes
Tropiques, a book much admired for its literary qualities and its "sensitive" ap-
proach is torn to pieces by Fichte for its fascist and colonialist nature. (The harsh-
ness of his critique makes me wonder, though, whether he recognized in Levi-
Strauss's confessions basic premises of anthropology that Fichte himself could
not completely evade in his own writings.)

When trying to write about Fichte, I kept thinking of the first volume of Klaus
Theweleit's Buch der Konige (1988), where he looks at male writers whose bio-
graphies travel over lines of women's dead bodies, bodies sucked dry of creative
energies. Murderers and carrion-eaters: Benn, Brecht, Hamsun, Dante, Ezra
Pound, and others. (Jean-Luc Godard and Franz Kafka are introduced as the ex-
ceptions proving the rule.) Theweleit convincingly argues that there is a deadly
male logic according to which men create art by means of surviving women close
to them. There is none of this obscene survival in Fichte's writing. The author is
his own victim. But Levi-Strauss: drawing energies from vanishing Indian tribes.
Levi-Strauss, ethnographer and survivor. Yet he would be only the most promi-
nent representative of ethnographers whose writings are driven by dying cultures
left behind. Maybe that is also what Fichte is talking about when he says: "We
are the victors." I am optimistic that, at least in this sense, being among the vic-
tors can be avoided, even for men.
Fichte himself drew up several lists of authors he chose to hold up as ex-
amples. He continuously modified these lists. When citing some of the names he
provides, I try to select those I consider to have had a determining influence on
Herodotus. ("My friend Herodotus.")
Proust. Certainly Proust.
Euclides da Cunha.
Daniel Casper von Lohenstein, playwright of the German Baroque.
Selma Lagerlof (or would it be more correct to say: Nils Holgersson?).

There were others he wrote about at length:

Henry James.
Hans Henny Jahnn.

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I wonder why he did not mention an author who seems such a close affine: Alex-
ander von Humboldt, gay, he too, gifted with a painful sensitivity and he, too,
the experimental subject best known to himself. Another affine whom he actually
did mention when talking about Lohenstein's Agrippina and the langage of the
Vaudou: Schwitters, the Dadaist poet, who wanted, through his technique of col-
lage, to "create links, preferably between everything that exists in this world"
(Hage, quoted from Teichert 1987:163).

Why Herodotus? Fichte is fascinated by Herodotus's urge to know, his immense

curiosity, his restlessness: knowing by way of traveling. Herodotus could not
have known that there should be a difference between a poetic and a scientific-
factual representation of reality.

The difference between science and literature is one between index cards and A-4-
sized paper. For Herodotus there was no such difference. [Fichte 1989a: 139]

Fichte, reading Herodotus, notes:

gentleness in approaching reality. [quoted from Teichert 1987:38]

And Fichte, like Herodotus, declines the penetration of reality by explaining it.
He opts for the poetic report and rejects the dissecting analysis. "Herodotus does
not explain anything. His report is the driest," says another of Herodotus's ad-
mirers, Walter Benjamin (1977:392).
1963: DerAufbruch nach Turku. A collection of stories. Autobiographical.
1965: Das Waisenhaus. A novel. Autobiographical. On one year of Detlev's
childhood, spent in a Bavarian orphanage. The only one of Fichte's books that
has been published in English (Fichte 1990).
1968: Die Palette. A novel. Autobiographical. On the bar Palette, Jicki's
probing into and involvement with the world of dropouts in the 1960s in Ham-
1971: Detlevs Imitationen "Griinspan. " A novel. Autobiographical. On
Jicki, and on Detlev's childhood and youth in Hamburg.
1972/1978: Interviews aus dem Palais d'Amour / Wolli Indienfahrer. A
novel. Interviews with prostitutes and pimps and the manager of a brothel.
1974: Versuch uber die Pubertat. A novel. Autobiographical. On Hubert
Fichte's adolescence in the 1950s in Hamburg and in France.
1976: Xango. On Afro-American syncretism in Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad.
1977: Hans Eppendorfer: Der Ledermann spricht mit Hubert Fichte. An in-
1980: Petersilie. On Afro-American syncretism in Santo Domingo, Vene-
zuela, Miami, Grenada.
1980: Psyche. On psychiatric treatment in the Senegal.

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1982: Zwei Autosfiir den Heiligen Pedro Claver. Radio plays.

Saint Pedro Claver, an uncompromising and cracked-up figure of history-both sweet

and terrible. [Fichte 1985:390]

Pedro Claver, a Jesuit priest who baptized thousands of African slaves landed in
Cartagena in the first half of the 17th century.

Pedro Claver's life, his death, and his funeral resemble those Afroamerican rites he
was most successful in stamping out in Cartagena. [Fichte 1985:395]

San Pedro Claver, a man gushing with empathy, self-negating, compassionate

and merciless at the same time. Fichte was obviously electrified by these contra-
dictions, trying to sense, I guess, the messianic elements and a bizarre love for
the Other, which were also part of European colonialism.
1985: Lazarus und die Waschmaschine. An ethnography. On Afro-American
syncretism in the Americas. The only one of Fichte's ethnographies that has been
published in a language other than German (in Brazil, under the title Etnopoesia,
Brazil supposedly being the country with the largest number of licensed editions
of Fichte's writings).
Plus some volumes by Leonore Mau, for which Fichte supplied texts. Leo-
nore Mau and Hubert Fichte, Irma and Jacki. She was Fichte's lover, and partner,
with her photography coauthoring their sensitive representation of reality.
Plus essays, interviews, radio plays, and radio features, which enabled
Fichte to survive as a writer and to pay for his trips overseas. He could not have
lived on the royalties of his books, none of which were particularly successful in
terms of numbers of copies sold.
Plus, at the time of Fichte's death in 1986, 17 volumes of unpublished
works, most of which have already been published posthumously: novels, eth-
nographies, radio plays, essays.
Fichte's oeuvre is taken care of by Fischer, one of the biggest and most rep-
utable publishing houses in West Germany.
The German city of Hildesheim, where I have been writing this paper, has
about 100,000 inhabitants. Many institutions of tertiary learning, one university.
Large catchment area. Many bookshops. Between them, the five largest book-
shops had four books by Fichte, among them only one book that has been pub-
lished recently. All booksellers I asked said: "Fichte does not sell."

Did Fichte write fiction?

Ethnographic fiction?
Autobiographic fiction?
Hubert Fichte writing novels featuring Jacki: fiction that gets dangerously close
to reality, that in offering the readers this stinging uncertainty: fiction or non-fic-
tion? disturbs them and drags them into an unseemly intimate relationship with
what is meant to be only the author's subject matter.
Fiction or nonfiction?

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The author himself-a string of words tainted with prejudice. [Fichte 1978:343]

Fichte wants to lay open motives that make the anthropologist choose her or
his subject.

Is it disgraceful to admit that somebody does research on the Woloff because he is

gay? [Fichte 1980:362]

He demands to lay open the contexts in which anthropologists collect their data.

It should not be concealed that in the heat of the day, after a four hours conversation,
after twelve hours of rites, anthropologists go crazy. [Fichte 1989b: 17]

He demands to lay open the circumstances that enable anthropologists to do

fieldwork, enable them to obtain information.

He [the houngan] wants money.

About ten dollars.
I put two dollars down and say that I will not give more.
If I had to pay an entrance fee, he should have said so earlier.
And I realise that all those admired treatises on the Vaudou, on the Ewe, the Fon, the
Yoruba developed from this kind of bargaining.
Why does not anybody mention it?
No amicable exchange of knowledge, no graceful exchange of niceties.
Bought secrets. Bought analyses. Bought systems. The students of the great univers-
ities are being trained for purchasing gestures, smiles, sweat, sacrifices. [Fichte
1976: 144f]

Barely concealed behind the scorn directed at his academic colleagues who do not
mention the bargaining for information, he voices indignation at the fact that in
many cases an amicable exchange of knowledge is simply impossible. An indig-
nation that might have made his colleagues not mention the bargaining.

Fichte's ethnographic texts, his accounts of religious ceremonies, are ac-

counts of Hubert Fichte gaining knowledge of religious ceremonies. In 1976,
when Xango was published, Fichte would have been breaking new ground if he
had been taken seriously by the relevant academic discipline. Until then, anthro-
pologists who obtained their knowledge "in the field" tended to hide the expe-
riences they made in the process of getting-to-know-with very few exceptions.
Michel Leiris had published a diary of his fieldwork in Africa, yet he had carefully
separated his personal account from his "scientific" ethnographic texts. Mali-
nowski never intended to let his colleagues read his fieldwork diary (which was
published 20 years after his death, causing a lot of irritation). Levi-Strauss waited
20 years before publishing a personal account of his fieldwork in Brazil. Laura
Bohannan waited 10 years, and, using a nom de plume, pretended Return to

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Laughter was fiction. Just think of the fears that must be involved here. A fear,
too, to report the fear of losing one's piercing and uninvolved eyes in the field?

On Santo Domingo:

Layers of decay.
Will I be dragged into this? [Fichte 1980:171

Participant observation. There are many ways one could be dragged into it.
Hubert Fichte in his novel Palette:

Every day I sit in the Palette. I do not intervene. I observe the movements on the
occasion of robberies and parties. [Fichte 1978:106]

On Hammed, a waiter, and Hugo, a regular:

-What do they actually think of me? Hammed: he is crazy. Or: he understands me.
Somebody who gives generous tips. Also you never know what the women think
when doing it.-What does Hugo think of me, the fifty percent Jew, the fifty percent
drop-out? Hugo said: Hitler should have put the wogs, too, into the gas-cham-
bers. . -Would they laugh at me? Join forces against me? Shout: Faggots out!?
[Fichte 1978:212]

After leaving a religious ceremony in Bahia:

Psychosomatic disorders after listening to the drums:

We get up at night and vomit.
Allergic reactions.
Our mental abilities change.
We become inactive, uncritical, unable to remember. [Fichte 1976:75]

Fichte's ethnographic texts do not allow the reader to forget that the infor-
mation they read is bound to the concrete situation where it was obtained. Fiction
or nonfiction? Ethnography or novel? Read the account of a visit at Freddy's tem-
ple in Venezuela in 1977:

Freddy caresses me.

Freddy, addressing the congregation:
-You haven't a clue how to deal with men.
I am supposed to visit Franzisca Duarte's grave early next morning and steal a golden
Freddy names the owner of the car who is to give me a lift.
He tells me to stick needles into his arm.
I do not want to.
Freddy himself sticks them in just a bit, takes my arm, pushing the needles in until I
can feel his bone resisting.
Everything goes hot and black.

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I go into the courtyard.

I think that I would be sweating less if I fell into a trance.
Is the trance a remedy against this terrible feeling of nausea?
I am called in again.
I am told to pierce Freddy's nose with a needle.
I do not want to.
Freddy does it himself.
I am told to watch him doing it.
Freddy takes my head and aligns it with his face.
I say:
-I am going to vomit in a minute.
Freddy says:
-What have you got in your heart.
He sticks a needle into my chest.
-It will come out on its own.
Half an hour later it comes out on its own.
Freddy turns into the negro Felipe.
Freddy talks in Haitian language.
Freddy turns into the Queen of Alaska.
Freddy turns into the negro Felipe.
Freddy hits his believers with the back of a knife hard against their foreheads.
Jose Ochoa's forehead swells up.
Everybody leaves the temple.
In the anteroom: a complicated cross from Johnsons babypowder on the floor.
About 50 candles are stuck in the powder marks.
Crucifixes, glasses of water, images of Christ, pictures of saints.
Yanio shouts:
-The Lonely Wandering Soul has come.
Everybody hurries past me back into the temple.
It is half past eleven at night. [Fichte 1980:103f1

New paragraph. One sentence only. What a relief!

So trance is a reaction-like fever. [Fichte 1980:104]

Explanation at last.

There would have been no point in him being initiated, since that would have
meant that he could no longer write about practices he observed. Why this urge
to write, to write in order to publish? Why this urge to share his sensations with
others? He certainly has no missionary zeal to influence his audience. Nor did he
seem to hope that his writings would make much difference to what he wrote
about. To some extent, he had to write in order to survive and finance his travels.
But the pieces he wrote to make money were basically short feature articles or
scripts for radio programs. He did not make money by writing 403 pages of Pe-
tersilie or 352 pages of Xango. Something I find hard to understand. I guess that
three issues could be involved here. He might have wanted to rid himself of what
he experienced by sharing the experiences with an imaginary audience.

Exhibitionist streaks: he longed for a reversal of his role as an outcast and

outsider, as a gay man who was forced into a semi-illegal and clandestine niche.

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When in 1966 he was asked to read from a manuscript he was working on (Die
Palette, which was published two years later), he agreed under the condition that
the venue be the Star-Club. In the 1960s, the Star-Club in Hamburg was a temple
of the Beat Generation. It was here that the Beatles took the first steps to fame.
At the age of 31, labeled a talented young author, Fichte insisted on having more
than the handful of listeners who would attend a reading in a bookshop. Mega-
lomania? Rather a defiant insistence on making himself heard. Twelve hundred
came. A few hundred had to be turned away (Zimmer 1985). (But there is con-
tradiction: he never agreed to prostitute himself on TV.)

The third issue involved here concerns Fichte's ambivalent attitude toward
the production of knowledge.

I recognise it in Herodotus-the contradiction between knowledge and action, love

and recognition, enlightenment and magic. [Fichte 1987:3831

In many ways Fichte was committed to ideas of the Enlightenment. He felt com-
pelled to report what had not yet been reported, to write about something others
considered not worth writing about. An enlightened chronicler, who did not want
to expose or analyze, but to make known.

There has been no careful research done into the fraying and reconsolidation of Cuban
rituals in Miami.
Probably that has to do with an old-fashioned understanding of the science of human-
What is genuine, old and original is valued more than what is blended, ephemeral,
distorted. [Fichte 1985:285]

Enter Hubert Fichte, saving the ephemeral from anonymity. Repeatedly he com-
plains that too little is known because anthropologists had not been interested in
the subject. He points out topics for all those students not knowing what to write
about in their dissertations. In a way he seems to have considered it his duty to
report both Afro-American syncretism and the world of dropouts and gay men.
But Fichte is not only the experimental subject but also the anthropologist he
knows best. In denouncing anthropology, he might well have had Hubert Fichte,
the ethnographer, in mind. He might have had in mind a Western legacy that pro-
vided compelling reasons for him to write about Afro-American culture.

The discontent in culture creates the confession, the show trial, psychoanalysis, the
interview and anthropological research. [Fichte 1989b: 17]

Why was Fichte interested in Afro-American syncretism? He was fascinated

by the healing powers of Afro-American religions, but not because he wanted to
heal himself, or to recommend their culture as a remedy for the West. What cap-
tivated him was the autonomy of Afro-American cultural forms, the fact that vic-
tims of history develop efficient means to cope with their situation. Means that

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denounce colonial order, imperialism and all the other isms that produce victors
and victims. He was captivated by a gracious dignity.

Like Alejo Carpentier (in his foreword to El reino de este mundo) before him,
Fichte finds that European surrealism was but a poor copy of the handling of real-
ity practiced in the Vaudou.

The Vaudou is the early new, in fact the earliest new of the modern. All everyday life
is alienated, and any alienation is restored to bloody everyday life-in the days of
Strindberg, Haiti was already absurd, cruel, and poor theatre.
The surrealist revolution took place in 1804 on Haiti.
Freud, Strindberg, and Artaud dreamt of changing reality by means of association,
puns, dummy sacrifices, and A-effects.
This has been achieved on Haiti:
The physician, Roulx Leon, reports an operation of the testicles in Port-au-Prince.
The anaesthetics are insufficient.
The man screams with pain.
He begins singing Vaudou hymns.
He sings himself into a trance, and in being possessed he is overcome by the trance's
insensitivity to pain-the operation can be completed.
A lyrical sensitivity, which has been lacking in the West since the Merseburg spells.
[Fichte 1985:265]

The Merseburg spells: pagan, from 11 th-century Germany. In the Afro-American

religions, Fichte says, people practice what Artaud was preaching, namely that
the horrible representation of physical violence would liberate us from distress
and fear. In juxtaposing everyday aspects of Afro-American culture with extraor-
dinary rites, Fichte suggests connections between the blood bath of initiation cer-
emonies, and sensitivity and gentleness.

Afro-American culture, as understood in these studies, is not a matter of belief, of

ideas, of aesthetics etc. -Afro-American culture is practice. It is an attitude in every-
day life. It is most of all this graceful, sensitive avoidance of aggression, which finds
its way into the rites, and into the psychiatry of the Afro-American people. [Fichte

As in German, in English "knowledge" has two meanings. Or is it the same

Knowledge. Sex.
The desire to know.

More graceful than Freud, Herodotus's text suggests that, since one travels for sex,
travelling is a sexual need-writing and uncovering. [Fichte 1989b:384]

Scientific penetration.
Anthropology-the science of man.

All of Fichte's books are about knowledge and the many ways leading to
knowledge. In any conceivable meaning.

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"Acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation;

general erudition," explains my Macquarie dictionary of Australian English un-
der point 1, and nine points further down, it says: 10. [cautioning the user: "Law
or Archaic" ]: "sexual intercourse."
How points 1 and 10 can be each other's metaphors, how the meanings intermin-
gle, that is something I see when reading Hubert Fichte. As far as I know, Fichte
did not consider himself a feminists' brother in faith (he refers to Herodotus and
not to Luce Irigaray), although feminist theory, especially where it criticizes a
men's science of man, may not find it difficult to claim him.

Knowing. Caressing.
Fostering one's sensitivity.
But who is going to bear the pain?

-Don't you think that a gentle and irreversible subversion of the unconscious brings
about a more profound change? To be honest, I can imagine freedom only as a gigantic
worldwide coming-out, Jacki says. [Fichte 1979a:221]

When Fichte died, he had not finished his Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit,
history of sensitivity, a most ambitious project the core of which was to be a series
of novels about Jhcki's (and Jicki's and Irma's) attempts to find another way of
experiencing the world, another way of seeing it (for Irma, the photographer),
another language with which to write about it (for Jdcki, the writer). Sensitivity,
that is a key word to get to know Fichte. Empfindlichkeit or Empfindsamkeit, but
one dare not say Sensibilitit (sensibility), a word that has been corrupted, in Ger-
many at least, by becoming a trendy accessory of narcissists pretending to be con-
cerned about others. Sensitivity, that describes the painful open-mindedness and
vulnerability of the author, Fichte. It also describes an approach to reality Fichte
found in Afro-American religious ceremonies. Sensitivity is a state of being open
to magic, and open, too, to the liberating propensities of language.

If there were a language-I would try to use it.


Acknowledgments. Without Michael Taussig enticing me to New York, I would not have
written this. Peter Brower, Gillian Macdonald, Hank Nelson, and Kathleen Weekley
helped out with ideas when it came to translating Fichte. I would like to thank the two
volunteers and Michael Reilly who helped me to perform earlier versions of this paper at
Deutsches Haus (New York University) and at the Australian National University in Oc-
tober and November 1990. 1 am indebted to Sarah Williams for once eliciting and sharing
some of the convictions expressed in this article.

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References Cited

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