Edmund Leach

Edmund Leach books include Culture and Communication and Genesis as Myth.

Sudden Losses of Complexity

Edmund Leach, 10 November 1988

The main text of this book takes up only 215 pages. It tends to be repetitive and includes a number of not very well designed diagrams and maps. To that is added a list of about 630 references and an index which does not include all the references. Furthermore the references are so constructed that the reader is left unsure about whether the author has really consulted his source or why. For example, Paul Valéry died in 1945 at the age of 74. He had been elected a member of the Académie Française in 1925 and is primarily renowned as a poet. But Tainter brands him as the ‘noted French social philosopher’, with the suggestion that he was still alive in 1962. From time to time he asks his readers to consider the implications of his story for the world that we now live in, but he would certainly argue that his story is an archaeological story. And that, too, raises problems.

Word of Mouth

Edmund Leach, 3 March 1988

Jack Goody took early retirement from the prestigious post of William Wise Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and is now in a highly productive phase of his career. Indeed, if Cambridge University Press had not put many of his recent writings into a single series, it would be hard to keep track of all the things he has been up to. ‘Studies in Literacy, Family, Culture and the State’ so far contains eight titles, and in every case Jack Goody is author or editor. In four of these works the discussion focuses almost entirely on the problem of how ‘literacy’ affects the structure of a previously ‘non-literate’ society.

Aryan Warlords in their Chariots

Edmund Leach, 2 April 1987

I attended English boarding-schools from 1919 to 1928, aged eight to 18. I there learned that, despite the slaughterhouse of the 1914-1918 War, European civilisation was without any question the greatest that had ever existed. It derived from the Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome, but it was not to be thought of as, in any significant sense, a Mediterranean civilisation: it had been the creation of fair-skinned Europeans who spoke a variety of Indo-European languages akin to Persian and Sanskrit. It was recognised that there had been earlier ‘archaic’ civilisations based in Egypt and the Levant and Mesopotamia, but that was something quite other. A sort of Mason-Dixon line was believed to run from Tunis (Carthage) in the west to Rhodes in the east, skirting round to the south of Crete. Everything to the north was European and White; everything to the south was Black or Semitic. Since the first millennium BC everything that had ever come out of Egypt or Palestine or Arabia was utterly contemptible. That was what we learned on weekdays: on Sundays Palestine became the Holy Land and St Paul’s misadventures in Asia Minor and Italy were given great prominence. But the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew or that St Augustine might well have looked like Colonel Gadaffi was carefully concealed.


Edmund Leach, 23 October 1986

As the bombs go off in Belfast, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, New Delhi, Beirut or wherever and the police start shooting ordinary citizens in order to preserve the peace, the television watcher develops a clear visual impression of what the word ‘violence’ signifies in contemporary English. To apply the same term to the ritual obscenities of bottle-throwing soccer fans somehow seems misplaced. David Riches is aware of this incongruity. His symposium contains 11 papers by 11 different authors drawn from the Proceedings of an ESRC-funded conference held at St Andrews University in January 1985. The violence under discussion is not a concept which readily translates from one cultural milieu to another. The English of the present day take it for granted that violence is a ‘bad thing’, a characteristic of law-breakers and terrorists: policemen and soldiers who may appear to be acting in much the same way are seldom described as violent. But at other times in our history and in other countries at the present day violent action has been differently assessed. Montaigne in his celebrated essay on cannibalism noted that the procedures for extracting confessions in 16th-century France seemed every bit as barbarous as those reported of the Tupi-speaking cannibals of coastal Brazil. Despite Riches’s valiant attempt to pull it all together, the range of themes covered in these essays, which include circumcision among the Gisu of Uganda, cannibalism by dead ancestors as a cause of death among the Piaroa of Venezuela, bull-fighting in contemporary Spain, shoot-ups in Northern Ireland, erotic films in Japan, and much else, is altogether too wide. A narrower view of what violence is about is to be preferred.

Naming of Dogs

Edmund Leach, 20 March 1986

In their French editions the titles and covers of Lévi-Strauss’s books are often designed to tease as well as to inform. They deserve attention. Tristes Tropiques is about tropes as well as tropics; Mythologiques is about odd kinds of logic as well as mythology; La Pensée Sauvage carried on its cover a picture of a wild pansy which should have warned the English publisher that The Savage Mind was hardly an adequate translation even if the author chose the latter title himself.


Frank Kermode, 2 February 1984

For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the question of canons is at present much discussed by literary critics. Their canons are of course so called only by loose analogy with the Biblical...

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Facts of Life

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 July 1982

Textbook writers set examinations. The rationale is clear, the interest transparent. In what in the United States is called ‘behavioural science’, such people have a standard first...

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