THE BLOG
12/12/2012 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Haitian Vodou's Bad Boy: The Exhibition

2012-12-11-andreeugenesmallversion.jpgI recently wrote on The Huffington Post about how I was finally able to get some clarity about my younger self's weak immune response to the bad boy syndrome (repeated attraction to bad boys, deleterious effects, included). Judging from the sighs that arrived in my inbox, I can only surmise that I was not alone in my befuddlement over that strange behavior pattern. Plus, it is clear that plenty of women old enough to know better still fall prey to the dreaded 'disorder.' But, in writing about it, I was given an unexpected clarity bonus on another subject: the Baron Samedi, Haiti's Lord of Death and Sexuality.

Given that the Baron co-narrates my most recent novel, Saturday Comes, A Novel of Love and Vodou, and that I know quite a bit about him, and that, like many Haitians, I am strangely drawn to him, the Fowler Museum at UCLA asked me to speak about him as part of the related programming around their current exhibition, In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art.* They wanted me to focus on why he is so important to Haitians when, clearly, it seems they should be more preoccupied with life -- their difficult lives and, given recent events, staying among the living.

So, I talked about how he is the gatekeeper of the death and life cycle, the one who welcomes the dying into the afterworld and ushers newborns into the world of the living (my talk was last week -- sorry, you missed it!). I mentioned how, although many try to compare Mexico's Day of the Dead ethos with Haiti's reverence for the Spirit of the Dead, the two, while sharing similarities, couldn't be more different. In fact, Baron Samedi is closer to San Simon, a womanizing, partying folk saint rooted in the ancient Mayan religion of Guatemala. They both dress in black, wear a black hat and black sunglasses; they both like to smoke cigars, drink rum, and they love to dance. But while San Simon is known to communicate with the spirits of the dead, the Baron is the spirit of death. And the Baron may be fun in lewd and lascivious ways, but he is also pretty frightening and sinister. This is the guy who kills, who decides when you die, and who controls the zombies -- a fate worse than death in Haiti. Plus, he looks and sounds scary with his slow, drawn-out, nasal speech pattern. He can be downright spine-chilling. You do not want to cross him.

So why do Haitians love him so? For one thing, he also doles out hope. And although he is forbidding, he is fair. There is even a series of paintings and objects in the exhibition, which depict the Baron holding the scales of justice. Here in the States, if you want justice, even if you are poor, you go to an attorney, an arbitrator, the court system; in Haiti you go looking for the Spirit of Death. What can I say? We're different!

During my talk, I also reminded people that the Baron isn't just the Spirit of Death. As many of the numerous works featuring larger-than-life phalli imply, he is also the Spirit of Sexuality, the extension of which is life. The Baron is death in charge of life; he is a guide and source of comfort during difficult times, and the one who takes life away. He may be unpredictable but he is God's ultimate helper.

As the one who oversees the circle of life and death, which has no beginning and no end, in essence, the Baron represents and is the manifestation of immortality. If you are poor and you do not have immortality, then all you have is your mortality. And for the destitute this mortality is usually rough, often brief and not so inspiring. The Baron offers the promise of a new beginning.

But, to my epiphany about the bad boy syndrome and how it relates to the Baron: In my last post on the subject, I'd written about a study whose results showed that people prefer their pleasure (i.e., as in relationships) served up in patterns that are random and irregular, as opposed to stable and logical. Something about the wiring in our brains.

Well, consider this: Bad boys are usually hot and sexy and fun to be with, and they make you feel so good that you can't get enough of them -- except that you can't count on them to show up. They are usually wild cards with extreme personalities and fickle habits. The passionate love you feel for them sits side by side with the fear that they will leave you. Their behavior is so arbitrary that when they do give you the love and attention you seek, the pleasure you feel is made all the more palpable by the unexpected relief that accompanies it.

You see, the unpredictable Baron is all these things, and Haitians love him because they can't help themselves. They are hopelessly attracted to him because they're wired that way. He is Vodou's ultimate bad boy.

*To get a real taste of the Baron, I highly recommend this wonderful and exciting exhibition. Runs through Jan. 20, 2013 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, "Military Glory" * mixed media by Andre Eugene (b. 1959, Haiti) * H: 183 cm * collection of the artist

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