BOOKS

A scholar of a dark art

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW By Wade Davis

DON CUMMING January 20 1986
BOOKS

A scholar of a dark art

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW By Wade Davis

DON CUMMING January 20 1986

A scholar of a dark art

BOOKS

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW

By Wade Davis

(Stoddart, 297 pages, $22.95)

Psychopharmacologists study the effect of drugs on the mind. And apparently, they talk like this: “We understand. . .that you are attracted to unusual places. We propose to send you to the frontier of death.” That melodramatic challenge was issued to author and scientist Wade Davis by the mysterious Dr. Nathan S. Kline, a New York-based psychiatrist and pioneer in psychopharmacology. Kline was drawing Davis’s attention to Haiti, land of secret societies, sorcerers and zombies—the legendary living dead. Convinced that the zombie phenomenon was chemically induced, Kline speculated that if the poison— which he described as inducing a state of artificial hibernation—could be analysed and reproduced, it might be the right stuff for astronauts on long space voyages. Davis went to Haiti, and his escapades, described in The Serpent and the Rainbow, are being compared by his book’s publicists to those of Indiana Jones, the scientistadventurer of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, Davis notes fraternally, Raiders was playing in Haiti at the time.

Davis, 32, is real enough, and his credentials are impressive. A native of British Columbia, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology from Harvard and is pursuing his doctorate in

ethnobotany, which he describes as “somewhere between an anthropologist and a biologist. We try to find new medicine from plants.” He is also something of a mystic with a romantic prose style suited to his bizarre tale. In April, 1982, Davis set out to investigate the case of Clairvius Narcisse, who had been pronounced dead in 1962 but 18 years later suddenly reappeared in his village in the Artibonite Valley. Narcisse said that a voodoo society had buried him alive. He told Davis that he had been fully aware of what was happening to him but, because of the effects of “zombie poison,” could not move or speak. According to Narcisse, cult members dug him up again after about three days and submitted him to a ritual to make him a zombie. He was set free only after the sorcerer who had enslaved him was killed.

At first, Davis said he believed that the answer to the mystery lay in a mysterious brown powder, the “zombie poison.” He obtained an inferior sample of it from a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary crew which had preceded him to Narcisse’s hut. Tracking down the genuine powder, Davis became so immersed in local culture that he accompanied a grave-robbing party to obtain a key ingredient of the substance—pulverized human bones. If he felt any ethical qualms at the graveside he does not record them, but he does report that afterward he had “an irresistible desire to bathe.”

To understand the cultural context, Davis studied Haitian history. He learned that 18th-century runaway slaves founded the secret societies which now effectively rule the rural areas, where 80 per cent of the people live. Davis concludes that Narcisse’s “zombification” resulted from his having offended community standards in his treatment of women and greed for his brother’s land. Voodoo seems to be a potent means of social control: Narcisse has not given anybody any trouble since 1962.

Davis appears to have made some useful, if modest contributions to the literature of anthropology and toxicology. As a yarn-spinner he leaves something to be desired. Almost to the last page he seems to be promising to explain the voodoo mysteries. But he ends the book suddenly, as if he had lost interest, or his nerve.

What he failed to document was how the spirit was separated from the living but unconscious body of the poisoned victim. Davis had won the confidence of a sorcerer; he could have observed the graveside rites by joining one of the secret societies, but feared that he might then be subject to its control. So he decided against it, noting, “The chances of success were slim, the risks were great.” It was a reasonable conclusion for a responsible scientist to reach. But it was also less than heroic and, given the earnest bravado with which his book began, a letdown. Indiana Jones would have persisted.

-DON CUMMING