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The Power of the BetweenAn Anthropological Odyssey$

Paul Stoller

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780226775340

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226775364.001.0001

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(p.165) 23 Imagination
The Power of the Between
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter details the author's meeting with anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch, where they talk about imagination. Imagination, in all of its artistic permutations, enables us to approach the world afresh. Inspired by the imagination, art enables us to weave the world, to design a new blanket. As Jean Rouch would say, the imagination enables us to tell stories, which give birth to new stories, which generate, in their turn, more stories. In the end, the imagination always brings us back to the story.

Keywords:   Jean Rouch, imagination, filmmaker, art

In March 1990 I arranged to meet Jean Rouch for breakfast at 8:30 at a small café close to his apartment. Even though Rouch, in his own words, was a person who was always “punctually late” (punctualement en retard), I arrived on time at the L̓Observatoire, one of Rouch's favorite cafés, which is situated on the corner of the boulevard Montparnasse and rue de L̓Observatoire in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. I was pleasantly surprised when he showed up just a few minutes late. As always, he was dressed in blue: a dark blue blazer, a baby-blue dress shirt, and a blue silk ascot, all of which complemented his khaki trousers.

We greeted one another. Jean smiled and slapped me on the shoulder. “The croissants at this café are special,” he said. “This is one of two cafés in Paris in which croissants are not shaped like crescents. Let's order some and you can tell me whether or not they are indeed the best you have ever tasted.”

We ordered a basket of non-crescent-shaped croissants and two café au laits, which turned out to be two bowls of steamed milk flavored with dark-roast coffee. As we began to eat, a tall, slender young woman whose skin was the same color as café au lait, approached our table, clutching to her chest what appeared to be a manuscript.

Looking at Rouch, she said: “You are Monsieur Rouch?”


“We have an 8:30 appointment.”

Rouch hit his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Indeed,” he said looking at me.

(p.166) “I've come all the way from Martinique to meet with you about my doctoral thesis,” she said, looking at Rouch.

“I've made two appointments for the same time,” Rouch said. “Where are you sitting, Madame?”

She pointed to the other side of the café. “Paul, enjoy the croissants. I̓ll be back soon and we can begin our conversation.”

Forty-five minutes later, Rouch returned to our table. “That charming woman is a teacher in Martinique and she's written a very good thesis.”

“She came a long way to see you, Jean.”

He winked at me. Looking at his cold bowl of coffee and the empty basket of croissants, he said: “Let's order more café au lait and croissants.

When the café au lait and new basket of croissants arrived, I asked Rouch if he would talk to me about his early days in Wanzerbé, the famous village of Songhay sorcerers. I told him that I was writing a biography of him, called The Cinematic Griot, and I needed background information on his early film, Les magiciens de Wanzerbé.

“What do you want to know about?”

“I want to know about the time you went there with the French administrators who wanted to verify if the sorcerers of Wanzerbé actually carried small metal chains in their stomachs.” In the film, there is a scene of a sorcerer who, in trance, brings up one such chain, which dangles for a few moments between his lips.

“Oh, the French administrators who wanted to uncover the secrets of Wanzerbé.”

“Yes. Can you tell me about that?”

Rouch sipped his coffee and buttered a croissant. “Get your taperecorder ready. We must make sure you get down all the details.”

Just then a young man, also holding a manuscript, approached the table.

“Monsieur Rouch,” he announced, “we have an appointment for 10:00 a.m., do we not?”

“You are?”

The man, a German doctoral student living in Paris, had written a dissertation on ethnographic film practice and wanted to give his thesis to Rouch.

Rouch stood up and winked at me. “He's worked very hard on this, Paul. I'll be back soon.”

He returned to our table around noon, looking a bit tired. “Shall we see what's for lunch?”

“That's a good idea.” Having known Rouch for many years, I realized (p.167) that this was his way. I always appreciated the time he gave me even if we had to endure many interruptions.

We ordered blanquet de veau, one of the best dishes at the café, and after lunch Rouch talked to me about sorcery in Wanzerbé.

That afternoon we talked a great deal about one of his early films, Les magiciens de Wanzerbé. When people saw the incredible footage of a sorcerer throwing up a small metal chain, which in non-trance states resided in the sorcerer's stomach, several French administrators wanted to learn more about the secrets of Wanzerbé. In the first case, the French administrator for Tera, the district in western Niger in which Wanzerbé is situated, traveled to Wanzerbé to learn about sorcery. Stepping across the threshold of a world beyond his comprehension, he suffered a mental breakdown soon after his arrival. French doctors evacuated him to a hospital in Niamey, Niger's capital city, where Rouch saw him in “a state of disorientation.” He was soon taken back to France and by the time he set foot on French soil, he had regained his lucidity. He did not return to Niger.1

The administrator's replacement also wanted to “master” Wanzerbé. He invited Rouch to participate in an experiment. Like most people with scant experience in West Africa, he did not believe it possible for a person to live with a metal chain in her or his stomach. One way to test the veracity of this sorcerous claim would be, he reasoned, to X-ray one of the old sorcerers. Traveling with a portable X-ray machine and a generator, Rouch and the man arrived in Wanzerbé late one afternoon. They set up camp in Zongo, the neighborhood of strangers—anyone not born in the village. As dusk settled over the village, they sat in canvas director's chairs and sipped whiskey. In the distance, Djajé, the chief sorcerer of Wanzerbé, looked at them as he strolled by. Just thereafter the French administrator fainted. Like the first administrator, he, too, was evacuated. He did not return to Wanzerbé. No one returned to conduct a similar experiment.

A third administrator in Tera, a judge, also traveled to Wanzerbé to learn about sorcery. When he began to interfere in village politics, he became paralyzed from the waist down. The judge was evacuated to Niamey, where physicians treated him. His condition did not improve. Colonial officials ordered the judge's evacuation to France. When he reached France, he regained the ability to walk. He did not return to Niger.2

(p.168) “Sorcery,” Rouch went on, “is no game, is it?”

“If you've been to Wanzerbé, you know it's no game,” I stated in agreement.

“It is an extraordinary place,” Rouch admitted.

Our conversation continued on through the afternoon. We drank white wine spritzers and discussed Marcel Griaule, Lévi-Strauss, Luc de Heursch, Jean Cocteau, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—people that Rouch knew well. Rouch also recounted his adventures with his longstanding African friends and collaborators, Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim, and Tallou Mouzourane. Toward dusk, Rouch looked at the fading light outside.

“I would love to have dinner, Paul,” he said, “but I̓ve already missed several appointments and, as it is, I̓ll be late for another meeting.”

“I understand,” I said. “It has been a lovely day.”

Rouch smiled. “It has been a good one. There's one thing I need to say.”

“Yes?” I wondered what he was going say.

“Those men who went to Wanzerbé, they all lacked imagination,” Rouch said. “Their vision was closed to the world. You need to be open to the world, Paul,” he said. “Play with your imagination.”

In Jean Rouch's universe there were few if any limits placed upon the imagination. In Rouch's world of “deep play” dreams became films; films became dreams. Feeling was fused with thought and action. Fusing poetry and science, Jean Rouch guided us into a wondrous world of the imagination, where we not only openly link ourselves to others but also experience the deep connection between outer self and inner being.

At that moment, Rouch, of course, used the complex notion of imagination as a gloss for (artistic) creativity. Philosophers have long contested the whys and wherefores of imagination. In his de Anima, Aristotle likened the imagination to something that we would today call a mental image. He and his followers considered it from what we would today call a cognitive perspective. With the rise of British empiricism in the seventeenth century, imagination was seen in terms of common sense. The creative associations of imagination, like those articulated by Jean Rouch, had their origins in eighteenth-century Romanticism. In the twentieth century, some philosophers, especially those of the analytic persuasion, wondered if human beings did, in fact, possess an imagination. More recently, philosophers have pondered the relation of imagination to subjectivity and, of course, the link between image and imagination.3

Here is not the place to delve into the details of this contested arena of (p.169) philosophical debate. Getting back to Jean Rouch's view on imagination, what role does the imagination play in the creative arts? N. J. T. Thomas suggests that

the principal reason that imagination is thought to be particularly relevant to the arts arises from the ability of artists to see and to induce the rest of us to see aspects of reality differently or more fully than is ordinary—to see things as—we otherwise might not.4

From this vantage imagination leads us to religious sensibilities, to an appreciation of what William James called “radical empiricism,” to the apprehension of the unseen. Referring to the centrality of the imagination in religious thought, William C. Chittick wrote, “In putting complete faith in reason, the West forgot that imagination opens the soul to certain possibilities of perceiving and understanding not available to the rational mind.”5 In Islam, Chittick argues, the imagination is particularly important. “By granting an independent ontological status to imagination and seeing the visionary realm as the self-revelation of God, Islamic philosophy has gone against the mainstream of Western thought.”6 These notions once again lead us back to the ideas of Ibn al-̒Arabi and his notion of the barzakh—as imagination. Following this path, Vincent Crapanzano says that

[i]f we take the imagination, as Sartre and in his own way Ibn al-̒Arabi do, as presenting that which is absent or nonexistent, we have to conclude that it is through an activity, which rests on the nonbeing of its object—the image—that we uncover those gaps, those disjunctive moments of nonbeing, that punctuate our social and cultural life. The imagination also provides us with the glosses, the rhetorical devices, the narrative maneuvers, and the ritual strategies to conceal those gaps. We uncover, as it were, nonbeing through an act that postulates nonbeing, as we conceal that nonbeing through a nonbeing we declare, in ritual at least, to have full being—plenitude. What is more “real” than objects of ritual? … Is it this paradox that leads to the continual (if repetitive) elaborations in ritual and drama, in literature and art, especially and most purely in music, of the asymptotic moment of crossing, that renders imaginative frontiers so menacing as they fascinate and enchant us? Such subterfuge, if one may call it so, is a source of our unending social and cultural creativity—or its cessation—through repetition and the declaration of that repetition as ultimate truth.7

In other words, the imagination, in all of its artistic permutations, enables us to approach the world afresh. Inspired by the imagination, art enables (p.170) us to weave the world, to design a new blanket. As Jean Rouch would say, the imagination enables us to tell stories, which give birth to new stories, which generate, in their turn, more stories. In the end, the imagination always brings us back to the story.


(1) . Interview with Jean Rouch, 7 March 1990, Paris.

(2) . See Stoller (1992), 112.

(p.190) (3) . See Thomas (1999).

(4) . “See” is used here, in a quite conventionally metaphorical way, to mean ‘perceive’ in its broadest sense. Ibid., 109.

(5) . Chittick (1989), ix.

(6) . Ibid., x.

(7) . Crapanzano (2003), 64–65.