The love poems in an oral culture of Melanesia: mental and sonorous stratagems to chant a 'loving image' denied by the exogamic rules within a matrilineal society

Giancarlo Scoditti

In classical ethnography studies, it is assumed that even in following the exogamy customs a matrilineal society must act within a rigid network of behavioural rules which would not allow its members to disclose their own ‘images of love’ with signs, whether verbal or non-verbal.

Over and above discussion of the validity of such an assumption, it seems to me quite interesting to enquire as to whether this network of behavioural rules affords a glimpse of the mental stratagems that allow for violation of these rules without, at the same time, involving a penalty for the ‘violator’. One example of such mental stratagems is the composition, performance and memorisation of love poems on Kitawa, one of the islands involved in the ritual Kula (Malinowski 1922). In fact, all the Kitawans’ forms of expression are perceived according to Nowau cognitive philosophy as ‘products’ of the mind – the ‘faculty princeps’, that is, of a Kitawa man. This faculty is conceived as completely abstract, but its forms of expression – both verbal and non-verbal – are made ‘concrete’ in figures (visual images) and sounds (sound images). For example, a poem that 'sings' a loving-mental image, even if performed by the voice, is nevertheless perceived as a 'product’' of the functions of the Nowau mind. This, it may therefore reasonably be hypothesized, means that, being a product of the mental functions, the poem cannot be sanctioned for the purpose it pursues – to turn a loving feeling into song – because the object of its expression-form (the loved person who belongs to the same lineage as the singer chanting the poem) has already been 'intellectualized' (that is ‘made abstract’) within the poetic texture when the poet composed it!

To demonstrate my hypothesis, I shall examine some love-poems composed and performed by the last poet of Kitawa, Ipaïya Mokuïyaraga.