Imaginary Tribes #7

The Taimyr Tlängit

Justin E. H. Smith

[Click on the numbers to read the earlier installations in the Imaginary Tribes series: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6.]

350px-Nenets_1860x_by_Denier Joan had her practical side. She warned me it's Indiana state law that you have to buy some kind of coffin or other, but she insisted under no circumstances should I buy one of those fancy models. It's going to be underground, anyway, she said, after just a few hours of display. They say the deluxe coffins are better at keeping out the elements, but so what? Who wants to stew in their own gasses for the next hundred years? I want the elements to rush in and I want to rot a.s.a.p., she said. I want to rot right back to the point where my body and the elements are the same thing. So get the cardboard.

She could also be horrifyingly cold, like when we moved down to Evansville to get away from the frat houses and the dumpy townies. She had just been promoted to regional director of Planned Parenthood for all of Southwestern Indiana, and I had only eight years left before moving to half-time teaching at Oahu, so we agreed that I'd be the one to make the hour commute, and we'd find the nice big house of our dreams in that modest metropolis on the Ohio River. We looked at some enormous Victorians across the river in Henderson, but Joan spent the whole day cringing. “I didn't work this hard just to get an address in Kentucky,” she exclaimed that evening as we strolled through the 'Fiesta' section of Tarzan and Cheetah's Global Grocery. Just like that.

Now here I am alone, Ken thought as he flipped through the latest issue of Jet, bought on a whim late last night during an antacid run to CVS, in our modest-sized but respectable brick two-story in Evansville. What did she mean, 'worked so hard'? Was she in it for the money? Was my castle built on the rotting bones of a million dead fetuses? Half of it, maybe. We always went fifty-fifty on everything. I paid half with my anthropologist's salary, and she paid half with her family-planner's salary. It's not much of a castle anyway, and family-planning is about a lot more than abortions. It's about education.

By the time Ken had worked his way to the ads for hair-straightening products it was 11 in the morning. His heartburn was debilitating as usual, but the house felt empty and haunted, so he decided to make the drive into Oahu and check the mail. Oahu U. They claim it was named after an Indian tribe that used to inhabit Southwestern Indiana, but no one Ken knew could ever say concretely who the Oahu Indians really were. Ken had long suspected that the name was the result an ill-advised attempt to entice Midwestern high-school kids with fantasies of palm-lined beaches. How embarrassing. Ken spent his whole career avoiding the question of institutional affiliation whenever he went to conferences. Forty years later, he still trembled with shame and ressentiment whenever he recalled his single meeting with Claude Lévi-Strauss, who, upon hearing the phrase 'Oahu University of Indiana', took no time at all to produce his comeback: “What is then next? The Tahiti University of Paris?”

Barb greeted Ken as he entered the department office. As usual, she had a grocery-bag-sized McDonald's bag on the floor next to her desk. Over the course of the day, like every day, she would work her way through its contents: various combinations of corn and soy by-products, prefixed with 'Mc', some purporting to be breakfast items, some lunch. Ken had always thought of this as 'Barb's feedbag', though of course he would never say such a thing. Barb, Ken thought to himself. Barb, you Midwestern madonna. Where is this secret sorority of secretaries and dental hygienists that teaches you to be how you are? Where does it meet? The sweaters with the teddy-bear motif and the socks with the geese with the ribbons round their necks. The Lite FM with Kool & the Gang, Phil Collins, the Pointer Sisters, Chicago, at an audible yet work-friendly volume. The desk plaque depicting a cat hanging from a branch with the censored words 'Oh Sh…!'. The photos of Midwestern kids dressed up to play softball. This could have been my life too, Ken thought for a nanosecond.

“You got a call from Montreal today,” Barb said, interrupting his reverie. “It was some blogger or professor or something. He says he's a philosopher there. But he also has a blog. I couldn't figure it out.”

“A professor of philosophy in Montreal? From the good university?”

“No,” Barb said. “The other one. The Catholic-sounding one.”

“Oh. What does he want?”

“Here, I wrote it down. He said his name was Jason. Or maybe it was Josh or Jared, I don't remember. It was like a student name, not a professor name. He says he called because you never answer your e-mail, and he has something very important to tell you. It's something about the meaning of nak, you know, that thing you talk about at conferences? That thing that doesn't actually mean anything?”

“Yes, nâk.”

“Right, well he says he found a book about this one famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Is that it? Do you say it like kohnt or like can't? Anyway he says the book explains this whole nak thing.”

“That doesn't make any sense. What does Immanuel Kant have to do with nâk?”

“He sent me all the information about the book when I promised I'd give it to you. I printed out the important part.”

Barb handed Ken the bibliographical reference.

Klopp, Benno. Die geheime Sumatrareise des Immanuel Kant, Dorpat, 1873.

“He's trying to tell me that someone named Benno Klopp published a book in 1873 about Immanuel Kant's secret journey to Sumatra? Something doesn't seem right here.”

“I don't know,” Barb replied, reaching into the sack for her twelve-o'clock hash browns. “I'm just telling you what he told me.”

Ken did not remember much from his undergraduate philosophy course at Michigan in the early '60s, but one thing that had stuck in his mind was that Kant had spent his entire life within the city limits of Königsberg, at the time a major Prussian port city on the Baltic Sea. How many middling philosophy professors had by now attempted to contrast the provincialism of Kant's actual life with the cosmopolitan pretenses of his philosophy? Even Ken remembered this bit of trivia, though he had no recollection of the professor who taught the intro philosophy course at Michigan. But how could anyone claim that Kant left the city, not just to visit Berlin, say, or Riga, but to sail all the way to Sumatra? Something doesn't add up.

KanteurasiaVonderwelt did what everyone does these days in moments of uncertainty: he repaired straightaway to Google. He found nothing on 'Benno Klopp' or on 'Klopp Kant' or 'Kant Klopp', nothing of interest on 'Sumatra Kant', 'Asia Kant', or 'Indonesia Kant'. He tried 'Dorpat', the book's place of publication, and discovered that this was in fact the archaic German name for Tartu, Estonia's second largest city and the home of its most distinguished university. This gave him an idea. Ken's linguistic skills had improved dramatically since the invention of Wikipedia, and he often found himself reading entries in languages he had never studied: Català, Polski, Nynorsk. Why not Eesti, too?

His instinct served him well: the Estonian entry on Kant featured an illustration purporting to show the itinerary of the philosopher's journey eastward along the northern coast of Siberia, then down to Japan (where he apparently spent a year, though nothing is known of this period), then, on a different ship, from Japan to Sumatra.

However much Ken hated professors with student names, his curiosity was piqued and he simply could not resist the temptation to contact this Jason or Josh or Jared. In a giddy phone conversation, the professor/blogger from Montreal told Ken of his exciting discovery of a rare edition of Klopp's forgotten work in the library of the University of Tartu. Jared was so impressed by Klopp's work that it convinced him to abandon his entire research program (something having to do with Hempel's raft, whatever that is), in order to vindicate Klopp's claim that the famous 'critical turn' in Kant's philosophy came not as a result of reading David Hume, but from an altogether different and hidden source. This Jeff was a likeable enough if slightly unbalanced man, Ken found, who was for some reason exceedingly eager to convince him, Ken Vonderwelt, of the importance of Klopp's work. Within seconds of getting off the phone, Ken received by e-mail a scanned pdf file of the Geheime Sumatrareise.

According to Klopp, Kant's ship, while travelling to Sumatra, suffered heavy damages in a storm in the South China Sea, and was permitted to stay in harbor by the gracious Sultan of Aceh for a period of several months. While the captain and his crew saw to the ship's repair, the on-board philosopher was permitted to travel inland and to learn a bit about local customs. “Just make sure you don't stay in the sun too long,” the deckhands told him as he set off. “You'll come back a-jumping and a-quaking with lâtah, you will.”

Klopp maintains that it was the natives of the Sumatran highlands, in 1777, who explained to the great German philosopher that the highest aim of lajbâh, or contemplation, is not to seek after truth in the study of the bûjnah (or the natural world), but rather to investigate the bâjnyat (a priori categories) of the gajbyuh (understanding), which determine the boundaries and the character of our luhteh (experience). The Critique of Pure Reason, claims Klopp, first published in Riga in 1781, is not a work of transcendental philosophy at all, but rather a compilation of ethnographic field notes. Kant understood that to reveal the trues source of his 'Copernican revolution' in philosophy would be to undermine his own claim to authority, and so he pretended that he had spent his legendary silent years holed up in Königsberg, coming to terms with the skeptical aporiae of the philosophy of David Hume, when in fact he had departed from Rotterdam on a ship bound for Kamchatka, via the famous Northeast passage, in May of 1773.

By the time of the Critique of Judgment of 1790, Kant is much less careful to conceal the riches of his circumnavigation of Eurasia. Thus he relates a joke that he heard in an inn in Surat (§53, 5: 333); he describes the tattoos on the faces of Maori sailors (§16, 5: 230); and he recalls with disdain the rudimentary social organization of the 'New Hollanders', a generic name used to describe both the Australian aborigenes as well as those we would today call 'New Guinean' (§67, 5: 378). Significantly, when Kant mentions the Iroquois, whom he would not have met on this voyage, he draws on Rousseau as the authority, yet when speaking of various Asian, Polynesian, and Melanesian peoples, he feels no such need to rely on other authors. Why is this? According to Klopp, it is remarkable, given all of this first-hand reportage, that the Third Critique is not read as a straightforward travelogue.

But what does Klopp's account of Kant's voyage to Southeast Asia have to do with nâk? After all, Ken thought, I'm an Aral-Ultaicist, not an Austronesianist. Well, Klopp explains that en route to Kamchatka, the ship on which Kant sailed also made a six-month stop at the Taimyr Peninsula of Arctic Russia (this stop also comes up in the Third Critique, where Kant reveals his deep familiarity with Samoyed reindeer-herding practices (§ 63, 5:369)). The purpose of the stop, imperial documents show, was to collect samples of “plants pressed in books, animals stuffed with straw, transcriptions of the 'Our Father' in each of the local languages encountered, and, if possible, for each of the languages, a sample of the chin hairs of the people who speak them.” Unfortunately, by the time the ship arrived in Taimyr, the frigid winter weather had already set in. Snow and ice had long since hidden all of the plants from view, and even the ocean waters were predicted to freeze over within the next few weeks.

The second chapter of Klopp's work is entitled “Kants Tajmyraufenthalt in seinem Zusammenhang mit der Entstehung der Antinomie der reinen Vernunft,” or, “Kant's sejour on the Taimyr Peninsula in connection with the development of the antinomy of pure reason.” Klopp writes that Kant spent the long and harsh winter of 1773-74, waiting with captain and crew for the ice along the Northeast passage to melt, among the Taimyr Tlängit. The Tlängit had been a small group of Paleo-Siberian reindeer herders who, according to Russian imperial sources, were completely exterminated by their Funno-Igric neighbors, the Samoyed, by sometime in the mid-19th century. Today, the Samoyed are called by the ethnonym 'Nenets', meaning 'the people', since their preferred self-description, 'Saamid', had been corrupted into Russian as 'Samoyed', and 'Samoyed', by some awful coincidence, just happens to mean, in Russian, 'self-eater'.

But unlike their Samoyed neighbors, the Tlängit really did eat themselves. In fact, prior to their obliteration, the Tlängit provided some of the best documented instances of autocannibalism in the ethnographic record. In every conceivable way, the Tlängit seemed absolutely determined to do everything that the European traveller of the Enlightenment could not help but associate with brutishness: the consumption of raw meat, the drinking of reindeer blood, the use of the bare feet and toes for grasping and throwing small objects (and even for popping pellets of reindeer dung into one's mouth for a little mid-day snack), incest, infanticide up to the age of seven, domestic violence (even the marriage ceremony starts off with a ritual beating of the bride), recreational murder, chronic nakedness, ignorance of the very existence of cutlery, and, of course, the bread and butter of the savage habitus: anthropophagy.

Why eat yourself, though, when there are so many other creatures out there, both human and ungulate? According to Ya. K. Tolstykh's report, issuing from Nicholas I's 1833 survey of the empire, the Tlängit elders explained that, in times of bounty, their principal source of nutrition comes from a mixture of reindeer milk and blood, swirled together into a pure pink juice. But in difficult times it is far from easy to find a nursing doe with milk to spare, and in very hard times one cannot even find a reindeer healthy enough to part with a cupful of its blood. But the Tlängit crave it desperately, and often attempt to use their own blood as a replacement. In the early contact period, Tolstykh reports, shamans are said to have survived their entire adult lives consuming nothing but their own blood. When the famous explorer Stepan Krasheninnikov noticed this remarkable phenomenon during his visit to Taimyr in 1733, he wrote in his journal: “Yea, I have found that machine of perpetual motion, that true perpetuum mobile, whose possibility even the great Leibnitz denied! The savage priest lives only upon himself, without need for fuel from outside of him.”

Kant left no notes from the Taimyr period, but according to Klopp, Vyacheslav Korg, the ship's botanist, kept extensive records of his conversations with the great Prussian philosopher. Korg noted that within days of their arrival in the Tlängit settlement, to which harsh winter weather would confine them for the next several months, Kant had begun to inquire into the most fundamental elements of the Tlängit belief system.


In mid-January, 1774, the ship's crew was ordered to begin sleeping on shore so that the vessel could undergo structural repairs to the hull. They were placed in makeshift reindeer-hide tents just next to the Tlängit's winter settlement, and Kant and Korg were ordered to share. In early February, Korg notes in his journal, Kant returned of an evening, after a day spent with the Tlängit, and announced that he had 'the most remarkable antinomy' to relate to his new tent-mate. Now decades earlier Korg had studied the chemical arts in the circle of Yakov Brius, and at first he thought that the philosopher was trying to tell him that he had discovered antimony, which, given the fact that they were separated from all of the earth's elements by several feet of ice, the botanist doubted greatly.

“How, Immanuel, could you have come across antimony in your idle conversations with the savages?”, Korg asked. “Do they gnaw upon it for an afternoon collation, perhaps? Do they use molten antimony as a soup base?”

“Not antimony, Slava. Antinomy. Antimony is a silvery fusible metal. Antinomy is where you've got two things that have to be true, but that can't both be true together. I've happened upon a new antinomy. Do you want to hear it?”

Korg had no idea what Kant was talking about, but didn't have anything else to talk about either. “Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.”

Thesis: No body can remain forever different in its internal character from the bodies that surround it.

Antithesis: I've been freezing my hindquarters off for the past two months, yet here I am, calorifacient as ever

“That's a good one,” Korg laughed. “I like these antimonies.”

“Antinomies,” Kant said. “Here's another.”

Thesis: Every living body is nourished by sundry things, all of which are themselves obtained from living nature.

Antithesis: I've been eating nothing but dethawed cod ever since we arrived in this frozen wasteland.

Korg let go a full belly laugh at that one. “But what about the Tlängit,” he asked, rubbing tears from his eyes. “Did you learn any antimonies from them?”

“Antinomies,” Kant corrected him again. “As a matter of fact I did. Are you ready?”

Nu davai,” Korg said in Russian, the language of his childhood, to which he reverted when he was happy. “Go ahead.”

Thesis: There are in the world causes through turguk.

Antithesis: There is no turguk, but all is näk.

What the hell does that mean?, Ken wondered. He flipped to Klopp's endnotes and found a brief explanation of this pair of terms. 'Turguk', according to Klopp, was the Tlängit word for human agency, while 'näk' meant for them something like 'nature', or perhaps 'fate' or, in certain contexts, 'weather'. This antinomy, then, was nothing less than the Tlängit version of the belief that human freedom is strictly incompatible with the determinism of nature. Klopp writes that, according to Korg's account in his journal, the Tlängit would spend cold winter nights around the fire, as the elders debated the respective reasons for holding one or the other of these opposing views, and the young men listened and learned while the women pretended not to understand. Klopp speculates that it was in listening to these freewheeling fireside disputationes –which always ended with a ritualistic declaration by the eldest shaman of the words “Who cares?!”, after which the entire community took part in a massive, all-night wife-swap– that Kant first saw a glimpse of a possible critical overcoming of the dogmatic dead-ends of the philosophical tradition.

But why the umlauts and not the circumflex? Jason or whatever his name is explained on the phone that this was probably just a different spelling, more typical of the way 19th-century German scholars sought to render the pronunciation of foreign words. He added that to this day, in Naryan-Mar, the Arctic capital of Russian Nenetsia, the Nenets inhabitants often use the Tlängit word 'няк' [nyak] in response to a wide variety of misfortunes. When the weather takes a turn for the worse, they say, “Well, isn't that just the няк?” Or when a hapless husband accidentally chops off his thumb or dies of cirrhosis, his wife will mutter to her friends: “That's няк for you.”

Could this няк be the same as my nâk?, Vonderwelt wondered. He sprang up from his desk and walked excitedly towards the secretary's office. “Barb,” he called out as he approached her door, “call Kiki at the travel agency. Tell her I need a ticket to Naryan-Mar.” 

“Do you really think Kiki's gonna know where that is? That's not really like Cancun or Orlando or something, is it?”

Barb was right. Kiki didn't know a goddamned thing about the world. Travel agent my ass,
 Ken thought. I'll have to make my own way to Nenetsia. Why not? Joan is dead and gone. She's the one who wanted the cardboard coffin. There's nothing left of her by now. I could pass through Moscow and see Tanya one last time. I've got nothing here. Barb's got her feedbag. Maybe Klopp was onto something.There's only one way to find out…

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