Monday, December 06, 2004

Wild Archives

An interesting book that I might never read: Michael W. Young’s biography of pioneering ethnologist Bronislaw Malinowski (Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist, 1884-1920), a man who established and standardized the practices of the anthropologist in the field, but who was also a romantic figure of the anthropologist who makes himself at home with the natives. Malinowski’s legacy and his penchant to become involved (or affected by) his subjects brought about contradictory reactions when his work was rediscovered in the 1970s. On the one hand he was a defense of anthropology against positive science; on the other he was another type of hero.

As a European, Malinowski was an interesting man: he, like his fellow Austrians, was ambivalent about the Habsburg empire but enamored with the British. He socialized with interesting artists, and his ideas (along with Frazer’s) influence a play by Stas Witkiewicz (Metaphysics of a Two-headed Calf).

The most interesting part of the book concern Malinowski’s relationships with his subjects. He personalized his work, using his methods to study himself as he studied the cultures of the South Pacific. The temptations of going native turned into an examination of his own desires and morality. Young connects these qualities to what contemporary anthropologists would come to believe about the illusion of barriers between the scholar and the subject:
He once noted that his diary was complementary to his ethnography, which was as close as he came to an admission ... that ethnography is implicitly informed by autobiography as much as it is by explicit theory and method. Reciprocally, Malinowski applied rudimentary functional analysis to the understanding of his own life ... .
Young notes Malinowski’s experiences in Vakuta:
[Malinowski wrote in his diary:] “A pretty, finely built girl walked ahead of me. I watched the muscles of her back, her figure, her legs, and the beauty of her body so hidden to us, whites, fascinated me. Probably even with my own wife I’ll never have the opportunity to observe the play of back muscles for as long as with this little animal. At moments I was sorry I was not a savage and could not possess this pretty girl.”

“Soon he was also ‘admiring the body of a very handsome boy’, and observed in his diary: ‘taking into account a certain residue of homosexuality in human nature the cult of beauty of the human body corresponds to the definition given by Stendhal.’ Beauty is the promise of bliss. In the village that evening he ‘pawed’ another pretty girl, a lapse for which he was punished by remorse that night. ‘That lousy girl ... everything fine, but I shouldn’t have pawed her .... Resolve: absolutely never to touch any Kiriwina whore. To be mentally incapable of possessing anyone except [my wife].’ ...

He visited George Auerbach one evening and danced to the gramophone with a local woman named Jabulano. He confessed to his diary that he had ‘pawed’ her. He felt suitably guilty afterwards, and attributed this lapse mainly to ‘a desire to impress the other fellows’. He wanted to show George in particular that he was attracted to women. The rumors that he fancied ‘boys’ had probably reached the Trobriands ..., and he might have felt some need to disprove it. His diary ... mentions several more lapses when he ‘pawed’ young women; but there is not a single reference to his having ‘pawed’ young men; and for every reference to male beauty there are a dozen that admire the female form. If he did show any homosexual inclination during his fieldwork it was weakly motivated and heavily outweighed by his unsatisfied longing for female flesh.
Malinowski would not be the first, or the last, to play with these boundaries. Gauguin and Riefenstahl are but two examples of the romanticization of the apparent sexual freedom of the natives. However, he also shares the preoccupations of many other men of his time, others who were not ethnologists. These were the characters of the plays of Schnitzler and the novels of Musil. These were the nudists who wanted to free their bodies of clothing but to constrain them to a sexless existence. These were the militia men, whom Theweleit studied, whose wave of destruction was the fulfillment and negation of their desires.

Other Malinowski sites: here, here, and here.

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