Edmund Leach

  • The Human Cycle by Colin Turnbull
    Cape, 283 pp, £9.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 224 02173 7

This book needs to be handled with care. It may be other than it seems. Possibly the publishers were uncertain about what they had got; so am I. The author is well-known: ‘Colin Turnbull is Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University in Washington DC. He has lived and worked in India and central and eastern Africa. His experiences are reflected in his well-known anthropological works, The Mountain People and The Forest People.’ All quite true, but misleading. The book which established Turnbull’s status as a fully professional anthropologist was Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies (1965). It is a monograph of the very highest quality; by comparison, The Forest People (1961), though also concerned with the Mbuti Pygmies, and likewise the work of a trained anthropologist, is only a journalistic exercise. The Mountain People (1972), which is the principal source of Turnbull’s celebrity, is a sensational horror story about his experiences among the Ik: I find it plausible even though its authenticity has been challenged by other qualified anthropologists. In The Human Cycle, which is largely autobiographical, the Ik are never mentioned at all.

The new book has no index, no pictures, no scholarly apparatus of any kind; it contains only one explicit date; the more factual parts of the autobiography are not presented in chronological order. Indeed it is a moot point whether they are really intended to be factual at all. We learn at page 131 that in 1949, after taking a degree in Modern Greats at Oxford, Turnbull arrived in India to conduct postgraduate research in Indian social philosophy. In the course of the next two years he sat in on discussions at Banaras Hindu University, and at several religious ashram, including that of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry. He also resided for a period in an unspecified Lamaistic Monastery, located presumably in Ladakh. That much seems to be fact, but, since the annexation of independent Tibet by the Chinese Communist forces began in 1950, it is hard to square with the apparently categorical assertion (page 187) that Turnbull visited Lhasa during the pre-Communist era. The resulting mystification must be calculated rather than accidental, but why? The evasiveness of the author throughout this largely autobiographical book is both paradoxical and irritating.

The publishers present the book as ‘Anthropology’ and in his Introduction the author addresses himself to professional colleagues, most of whom will surely be shocked by his impressionistic generalisations. On the other hand, the modest pricing seems to anticipate that there might also be a broader-based, non-academic readership. That is certainly a possibility, but what is the non-academic reader going to make of the dedication: ‘For Arnold L. van Gennep whose admirable work on rites of passage has helped so many of us’?

I am reminded of the fate of A World on the Wane (1961), which was remaindered after only a few months. It was the first English translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques (1955), which had been a best-seller in France and was already recognised as a highly original masterpiece by many professional Anglophone anthropologists. One reason for the failure of A World on the Wane was that four chapters of the original, which might have seemed rather dull to the English general reader, had been omitted. It is just possible, though unlikely, that some of the oddities of Turnbull’s text are due to comparable misguided intervention by the publishers; there are also a number of features of The Human Cycle which remind me of Lévi-Strauss’s classic. It seems wholly improbable that Turnbull’s book could manage to survive its present throwaway format, but it is a possibility that needs to be considered.

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