Jan Mrázek: Primeval Forest, Homeland, Catastrophe Travels in Malaya and “Modern Ethnology” with Pavel Šebesta / Paul Schebesta


The SVD ethnologist/ethnographer mostly known as Paul Schebesta (1887-1967) was often introduced in Czechoslovakia as “our Czech” Pavel Šebesta. Querying origins, selves and homelands, his own and in his writings (ethnography/travelogues/fiction on “dwarfs” in the “primeval forest”), this essay traces the multiplicity/borderlands/nomadism of Schebesta/Šebesta, also in his relation to the “Other,” a concept/distinction/border that is thus destabilized or blurred. Interweaving apparently separate questions about his life and scholarship, the essay finds continuities and mirroring across distance and otherness. Following-mirroring Šebesta/Schebesta, we recognize the familiar in the strange, Silesia/Moravia in Malaya, the contemporary in the primeval, the native in the ethnologist, the head-hunter in the biological anthropologist. The essay’s motley style mirrors what has been described as his “jumbled” writing, “highly coloured … scarcely in consonance with the scientific material”; it reflects his nomadism, emphasis on “experiencing together,” and the conflict that he sensed between “theories” and “life, rhythm, poetry.”

[Paul Schebesta, Wilhelm Schmidt, Johannes Fabian, Silesia, Malaysia, orang asli, fieldwork, travel writing, rainforest, borderlands]