Invisibilia: A Man Finds An Explosive Emotion Locked In A Word
Welcome to Invisibilia Season 3! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior, and we here at Shots are joining in to probe the often tenuous line between perception and reality. Here's an excerpt from Episode 1.
In 1967, anthropologists Renato Rosaldo and his wife, Shelly, went to live with the llongot, an isolated tribe that lived in the rain forest in the Philippines. It wasn't exactly an accident that this tribe was unstudied — it was known for beheading people.
But Renato and Shelly were undeterred. As they immersed themselves in llongot culture, they began to learn the language. Simple words at first, then more nuanced ones that encompassed such things as love and anger. To Renato, all of the words were familiar except one.
At first, he thought this word meant "energetic" or "productive." But then liget exploded out of that definition into an emotional landscape he had never before encountered.
One evening, members of the tribe asked Renato if they could hear tape recordings of his conversations with the people he studied. The voice of a deeply loved and respected man who had recently died began to play.
The room fell silent. The men's eyes narrowed and their lips curled, their faces turned into masks of rage.
They told Renato that hearing the tape made their hearts feel liget. It makes us want to take a head, they told him, over and over. It makes us want to take a man's head and throw it.
Renato didn't understand the world of chaos and violence that the llongot people connected to this word. Why did it drive men to kill? He tried to gain a deeper understanding, but defining liget was like trying to describe the color blue without ever seeing it.
Fourteen years later, Renato and Shelly, along with their two young sons, went to live with the Ifugao, another tribe of the Philippine rain forest. While on a hike to a different village, Shelly fell off a 65-foot cliff to her death. That day, crouching next to Shelly's body on the riverbank, Renato felt the seed of an alien emotion he had never experienced begin to grow inside him.
Back in America, after the funeral and the resettling into daily life, this feeling continued to grow. But Renato did not know how to express it, how to define it. And then one afternoon, as he was driving down a sunny street in Palo Alto, Calif., he couldn't bear it any longer. He pulled to the side of the road, and a howl came roaring out of him.
And then he knew: This was liget.
The English words that best describe liget might be "high voltage": a powerful energy running through and out of the body. Renato had no control over when this feeling would come or how long it would stay. There was nothing within the American palette of emotions or in mainstream books about death that helped him. He just knew he had to howl. And because Renato could now grasp the force and meaning of the word liget, he was able to make some sense out of the chaos. He was able to give his emotions form, and let them pass through his body.
He could begin to heal.
Renato documented his journeys, both physical and emotional, through photographs and poetry. These poems are excerpted from his book The Day of Shelly's Death (copyright Duke University Press, 2013).
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