150 Notable Books: Getting Acquainted with Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols

I suspect that many avid readers have a special book that becomes inseparable from themselves, part of their existence. Without this special book, what I call a “soul book,” a fulfilling life would be difficult. There are also books that are like family or friends—dependable, loving, present when you need them, always willing to provide help and support, but not necessarily consulted regularly or assimilated into one’s existential core. And then there are books that are acquaintances, that surface periodically at points in a reader’s life, often to exert a surprising force or influence that belies the infrequency of one’s association with them. For me, Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols has been an acquaintance, as I have had only three interactions with the book, each separated by a number of years. With its inclusion on CUP’s anniversary list of 150 notable publications,  I have the opportunity to remember these meetings and renew my acquaintance.

First was a dark, dreary winter in a dark, dreary New England boarding school and I, at age fourteen, was lonely, homesick, and seeking escape. I wanted to be part of a world completely different from the one in which I was trapped. In the anthropology section of the library, I pulled out a text at random from the shelf. It was Turner’s ethnography. I was immediately struck by the cover—a photo of three youths, probably about my age, their bodies and faces splotched by white paint arranged in intricate patterns. Here was a world far removed from my own. Eagerly, I opened the book and was immediately flummoxed by all the stuff about ritual, structure, and meaning. I was about to quit but decided that the lengthy essay, “Mukanda: The Rite of Circumcision” might be more comprehensible as well as having some prurient or gross-out appeal. My adolescent self was not disappointed about the “gross-outs” (hard to not feel the pain of the boy novices!), but I was also entranced by Turner’s powers of observation and description.

I was transported. Another life was possible. I could explore other worlds. I wanted to go to Africa and I had romantic visions of being an intrepid anthropologist observing primitive rites.

turner.forestYears later, at a graduate seminar in a sunshine-filled Bay Area university classroom, each student took turns pretentiously criticizing The Forest of Symbols as an example of colonial anthropology with its neglect of the asymmetries of power and its quest for a pristine, unspoiled, timeless, African culture. Then too, the apparent absence of any substantive discussion of political economy, of gender, of history! Turner seemed to depict a static world of ritual and structure even as he acknowledged paradoxically that this world was changing as a result of the intrusive White Man and his ways. And he seemed somewhat glib about we called his “positionality.” We admitted that Turner’s book was full of incredible ethnographic detail, but his work struck us as dated, an example of an archaic methodology. The truth is, I was again flummoxed by The Forest of Symbols and, unlike my prep school self who recognized that I did not understand the book at all, as a grad student I felt that I understood it only too well and would be sure not to replicate what I believed to be the arrogance and intrusions of Turner’s research.

Nevertheless, in spite of my reservations about Turner’s positionality, when I went into the field in Northern Ghana to observe indigenous dispute mechanisms and legal fora with all the attendant rituals and array of actors, I strove to emulate his powers of observation and description.

Finally, my acquaintance with this book has been renewed during my time at Cornell University Press as an anthropology editor. It has been about twenty years since my last interaction with The Forest of Symbols. After years away from the field and from teaching, I read the book for enjoyment and I did not care a whit how much I remained perplexed by it. Instead I thought about why this book is considered a classic and why it remains perhaps the most important anthropology book published by Cornell (to date!). I am taken by the respect Turner shows for his readers and his assumptions about their cultural literacy (The Forest of Symbols is peppered with allusions to Shakespeare, for example). Equally, and fittingly so in our fractious and divisive contemporary era, I am also taken by how effectively and movingly Turner writes about conflict, about discord, and about the ways Ndembu social actors sought, and often achieved, conflict resolution.

Why is The Forest of Symbols a classic? In my case, Turner’s book has resonated in at least three of my own Shakespearean ages: schoolboy, young, and middle-aged man.

True, I remain flummoxed by much that is in this book, but I also see how it has enriched my life at each encounter. The book remains the same but it easily accommodated and challenged and excited this reader at various stages of my life. While the world Turner describes no longer exists (indeed may not have existed at all), The Forest of Symbols is a perennial invitation for the reader to ponder what it means to be human. And, I would like to add, this book may soon become more than an acquaintance, joining Lord Jim, Middlemarch, and Moby Dick as my soul books.


Jim Lance is Senior Editor in Anthropology and Social Sciences at Cornell University Press. He’s been with the press since 2015.

150 Notable Books: Getting Acquainted with Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols

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