Farewell notes for lithophone professor

The manner of ‘having a drink’ that is general in the Central Highlands. Photo: Tran Tan Vinh

Vietnam Heritage, August-September 2011 -- Professor Georges Condominas, who died on 17 July, was a world great of anthropology whom I am sure would have been farewelled in one of the deepest, remotest areas of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in the tiny village Sar Luk, in a ceremony of a very small ethnic group, the Mnong Gar.
More than 30 years ago a motorbike stopped at my house bearing Georges Condominas, a teacher of several generations on five continents. Almost half a day was devoted to a talk about the Highlands. After that, every time he visited Vietnam we went to the Highlands together. Each time, he told me he always longed get back there, a place where, he said, he learned to become a person.
An exhibition called Nous Avons Mangé la Forêt [We have eaten the forest]: Georges Condominas at Sar Luk, on display in Paris in 2006 and in Hanoi in December 2007,  about his life and work, included a banner memorialising one of his sentences, perhaps the motto of his existence: ‘L’ethnographie est un genre de vie.’ ‘Anthropology is a genre of life’ or ‘Anthropology is a way of life’. I would like to interpret it in the sense of a ‘type of plant or a type of animal’.
Condominas was formed by those people who are not only great anthropologists and ethnographers but also great and very special personalities, truly belonging to a particular type, such as Marcel Mauss, Paul Mus, Claude and Paul Levi-Strauss, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Andre-Georges Haudricourt, Pierre Edouard Mestre, Maurice Leenhardt, Georges Balandier, Jean Guiart and Paul Mercier. Anthropology as life and life as anthropology; you suffer the same fate and same destiny.
Anthropology is first of all a product of Europe, of colonialism. It was born when European colonialism was on its conquest and reported on the ‘backward’ peoples. An ethnographer in most cases came from a self-styled superior culture to observe and research a so-called inferior culture, looking in from the outside and looking down from above.
In 1948 the young, newly graduated Condominas came to Indochina and went to the Highlands in Central Vietnam to study the way of life of the ethnic minority Mnong Gar in the desolate village of Sar Luk. Condo entered the village and asked for permission to build a cottage in the midst of it, and it became a household among many others. At first, for a short period, he required the help of an interpreter; but he learned fast and became so fluent in the Mnong Gar language that he dreamed in it.
An ethnographer might try to forget himself so that the village could forget his presence,  at the same time keeping the quality of an ethnographer – always aware and observant. Is there a contradiction? When I raised the question with Condominas, surprisingly, he was greatly surprised by it and said he had paid no attention to it.
One night, in 1949, in the village of Sar Luk, after a day of living and working with the aboriginal people, Condo sat on the floor of the stilt longhouse, sipping rice wine from a pottery jar with a reed and smoking tobacco in a pipe. He felt sleepy and had a nap. Then, another turn of drinking and smoking, but, suddenly, he registered a story from a young man who said he had discovered eleven long slabs of stone while repairing a road that day. The stones were in the village of Dnut Lieng Krak, about ten kilometres off. They were sent to the Musée de l'Homme (The Museum of Man), in Paris. They comprised almost two – with one slab missing – prehistoric lithophones, or lithic zylophones, dated to approximately three thousand years before the present time. The discovery was a world first.
From the village of Sar Luk, Georges Condominas brought to the world of science (and also of literature) the work Nous Avons Mangé la Foret, published in 1954 by Mercure de France, a house that published literary works  by greats, including Verlaine and Rimbaud.
Condominas’s book was immediately praised by the Claude Levi-Strauss as ‘marking the crowning in ethnographic literature of an altogether new genre, distinguished by its attachment to on-site reality and more profound than any other previous publications’.
Some time later came a book called L’Exotique est Quotidien (The Exotic is Everyday). This book is truly original. It is autobiographical, moving and learned and about his life and work in ‘anthropology as a type of living’.
Additional data** on Professor Condominas:
Born 29 June 1921 in Haiphong (Vietnam) of a French father and Portuguese-Chinese- Vietnamese mother. Childhood in France, Tunisia and Vietnam (where his father was a  non-commissioned officer then minor civil servant).
Secondary education at the Lycée Lakanal (Sceaux). Studies at the Ecole supérieure des Beaux Arts and at the Faculté de Droit [Law] in Hanoi (1943).
Law degree (Hanoi, 1943).
Arts degree (Paris, Sorbonne, 1947).
Graduate of the Centre de formation aux recherches ethnologiques (Paris, Musée de l’Homme/ORSTOM, 1948).
Graduate of EPHE 5th section (Paris, 1955).
Doctorate in human arts and sciences (Sorbonne, 1970).
In 1960, elected to the Ecole pratique des hautes études, 6th section (which was to become the EHESS in 1975), which created the post of director of studies on the ethnology and sociology of South-East Asia and the Insulindian world, which Condominas took up in 1962. He founded the Centre for Documentation and Research on this cultural area (CeDRASEMI).
From 1964 he was several times elected member of the Anthropology-Ethnology-Prehistory section of the Comité national de la recherche scientifique (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) and was president of the section from 1976 to 1980.
Between 1963 and 1969, Condominas was several times visiting professor at the Universities of Columbia and Yale, and Fellow of the Palo Alto Centre for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (1971) in the United States; he was also visiting professor at the AustralianNational University, Canberra, in 1987, and at Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan, in 1992.
In 1977, in collaboration with Simone Dreyfus-Gamelon, Professor Condominas organised the International Anthropological Colloquium in France, which achieved his goal of the creation of the Association française d’anthropologie (AFA).
The materials that Condominas collected during his research missions – in Vietnam, Togo, Madagascar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, etc. – have served as a source for countless books, articles, films and recordings.n

** Source: Virtual Collection of Masterpieces, a project of ASEMUS - the Asia Europe Museum

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