Saturday, January 17, 2009

Black hair / white hair

We've been talking in class about the dichotomies of living / dead, human / animal, and upper / lower, and we noted that in Ohnuki-Tierney's account, this gets supplemented by another dichotomy--male / female. In the Japanese context, it's also possible to think about that male / female, living / dead dichotomy in terms of the colours white and black.

In one case that I'm aware of, the hair of a dead person is considered to become 'white' once a certain period of time has elapsed. This means that the hair is no longer a source of impurity, and can safely be transported beyond the border that marks a separation between the sacred realm of the dead and the ordinary world of the living. This is a border that women aren't allowed to cross while alive, but their hair can make that journey once it has become white. In this context, 'white' is obviously given a positive value--in some sense it indicates exactly that the hair is now thoroughly removed from the process of decay, and so wonderfully, inertly pure.

It's also the case however, that in some communities it is understood that a female shaman's powers of transgression, which allow her to negotiate the worlds of the living and the dead, are localized in her long, unbound hair. In this case, the blacker the hair, the better--'black' is afforded an ambiguous value but that ambiguity is desirable somehow. I was thinking about this in light of what we were talking about in class--it seems to me that hair must fall in the same category of materials--old blood, human excreta, trash--that Ohnuki-Tierney identifies as polluting, and yet, it seems to have yet another level of ambiguity in that it is ambiguous even in its ambiguity. What do you guys think?

(The image above is from the NYPL Digital Gallery)