- 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.
Turnbull himself avoids all anthropological jargon, but, in a very off-beat fashion, The Human Cycle is an example of a genre that is currently highly fashionable in the United States, where it goes by the name of ‘reflexive anthropology’. The general idea runs something like this. Anthropologists have long argued that they study other cultures and other societies in order to understand their own. In the participant observation of anthropological field research the observer sees himself/herself as in a mirror. But if we accept that metaphor we must recognise that the mirror is not neutral: ethnographic monographs do not record ‘traditional customs’ which have survived from antiquity, they record the present situation as directly observed, and the ethnographer is part of that situation. The reporting of anthropological fieldwork therefore calls for a self-conscious awareness on the part of the fieldworker of just how his/her prejudices, assumptions, cultural background, personal attachments etc influence the reportage. In the past, the typical ethnographic monograph has tended to exclude the ethnographer. The emphasis in ‘reflexive anthropology’ is just the other way round. The ethnographer is the interface, at the centre, the translator of a text in a hitherto unknown language. We need to be able to assess the ethnographer’s qualities and feelings before we can make any judgment about the reliability of his translation.
This is certainly a part of Turnbull’s argument. He presents himself as an interface between our own Western Culture, as represented by his own upbringing, and two alternatives: on the one hand, the traditional culture of the Mbuti Pygmies; on the other, the mysticism of Tibetan Buddhism and of ashram-style modernised Hinduism. But he does not fulfil the prescription provided by the doctrine of the reflexive anthropologists: at a number of points he goes out of his way to befog rather than elucidate his own role as participant observer.
The Mbuti are offered as a representative example of ‘small-scale tribal societies’, and everything about their society is idealised beyond all belief. The picture that comes through is of Diderot’s 18th-century Noble Savage without any blemishes at all. It is displayed for our admiration in such a way that the uncritical reader might suppose that Turnbull is saying that in every dimension of personal development the way things are done in ‘small-scale societies’ is enormously superior to the contrasted practice of ‘our own Western, industrialised, highly complex national society’. I do not think that this is quite what Turnbull really wants us to understand, but he argues that this kind of idealised presentation offers the reader an insight into the anthropologists’ reflexivity. ‘We anthropologists are frequently described as romantics because of a tendency to stress the good qualities to be found in other cultures, but this tendency may well reflect our recognition of some new potential for good discovered in our own society.’ He does not explain the criteria by which the ‘qualities’ to be found either in our own or other cultures might be evaluated as good or bad, but it is hardly surprising that for the purposes of this kind of argument he should have found it necessary to eliminate from the discussion all reference to his horrible experiences among the demoralised Ik!
The sequence of the book follows the general cycle of human development. There are chapters on each of the five ages of man: childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, old age, with the addition of an introduction and a postscript entitled ‘The Art of Living’. Van Gennep, off-stage, provides a leitmotif, since each of these stages is (up to a point) presented as a rite of passage from the previous stage to the next. This is not an original idea.
In Chapters One and Two an idealised ethnographic account of childhood and adolescence among the Mbuti is followed by a patchwork of personal reminiscence about Turnbull’s own, far from happy childhood in an Anglo-Scots Presbyterian middle-class family and of life at Westminster School. We are expected to infer that the socialisation of the Mbuti child is consistently coherent, integrative, loving, inducive of co-operation, while that of the Western child is disjointed, inconsistent, imbued with hatred and personal rivalry. In real time, Turnbull seems to have left Westminster at the age of 17 to spend a preliminary year in Oxford before getting called up for war service in the Navy (?1943). On completion of his National Service he took his degree at Oxford and then went to India. Accordingly, in Chapter Three, the Mbuti recede into the background and the main comparison is between Banaras (as university and as ashram) and Oxford as instruments for bridging the gap between adolescence and adulthood. This time Oxford gets a few good marks, but not many.
In Chapter Four the ideal models for adult life are provided once more by the Mbuti but also by the mystical experience of Tibetan monks and ashram-focused Hindus. The hard physical work which goes with making a livelihood in any normal society is never mentioned. If one is interested in the details and chronology of Turnbull’s own experiences in the Navy at the end of the War, in Oxford to complete his degree, in India from 1949 to 1951, in Oxford again, this time as a graduate student in Social Anthropology (where he studied under Evans-Pritchard and Rodney Needham), in the Belgian Congo from 1957 to 1958, in Manhattan (where from 1960 he held a post in the American Museum of Natural History), one must look elsewhere, though from time to time the reader is given glimpses of each of these early phases of Turnbull’s personal life-cycle.
There is a good deal of moralising about the importance of culturally-determined attitudes towards sexual relationships, religious beliefs and internalised spiritual experiences, and we are given occasional hints about Turnbull’s own development in these areas of life but little more. A Mahayana style of Buddhist mysticism becomes increasingly the dominant tone of the book. It is implicit, though not stated, that Turnbull remains unmarried.
For Chapter Five on Old Age, personal experience is replaced by an assessment of parents and elderly kin which is, for the most part, unpleasant. Turnbull uses African notions to denounce his mother as a witch and seems to mean what he says, though in part his concern is reflexive: ‘There were quite a number of witches in my life ... and, properly, they all cast a spell on my adult life by nagging at me and tempting me to accuse them of being responsible for all the things that were really my fault.’ Earlier in the chapter, perhaps predictably, he argues that in an integrated small-scale social system the contemplative life of the inactive experienced elderly serves to balance the undisciplined energy of the inexperienced novice. The ideal models which are presented to the reader are wholly escapist. Turnball’s golden oldie is a celibate abbot schoolmaster in a Tibetan monastery. He ignores the fact that in such communities elderly women have no role at all except to act as domestic servants to their male superiors.
Let me go back to my comparison with Tristes Tropiques. In certain respects, the parallels are quite close. Turnbull’s Mbuti serve as substitute for Lévi-Strauss’s Nambikwara and hence as exemplars of the Noble Savage, though in fairness it should be said that where Turnbull seems to glorify the ‘state of Nature’ of the Mbuti for its own sake, Lévi-Strauss is always careful to invoke Rousseau rather than Diderot to justify his admiration for the Nambikwara. But Lévi-Strauss, like Turnbull, is much enamoured of Buddhist philosophy and in both books there is a similar rejection of the restraints on the imagination that are imposed by real-time chronology. Even the language overlaps.
In English translations of Lévi-Strauss’s texts including the author’s own (though not, as it happens, in Tristes Tropiques) it is repeatedly declared that the basic anthropological quest is to discover how ‘the Human Mind’ is manifested in the collective representations of Culture. I have always objected to this translation. I can attach meaning to the concept of ‘mind’ if it refers to the metaphysical operations of an individual physical brain: but ‘the Human Mind’ seems to have no physical location. But the French expression esprit humain might equally well be glossed as ‘Human Spirit’. In the coda to his book Turnbull rhapsodises about ‘Spirit’ in very much the same way as Lévi-Strauss has rhapsodised about ‘Human Mind’. Thus: ‘In taking a final look at the process of socialisation, which is the process by which we become whatever we are, an educational process, let us keep in mind the concept of Spirit. To keep it in mind is all we can attempt to do, for to attempt any definition would be to limit it, and Spirit is without limits. Just as we are what the system makes us to a large extent, so Spirit is what we make it to be ...’ I certainly have no desire to endorse this kind of rhetoric: but the mode of expression is very Lévi-Straussian.
In Turnbull’s hands, the rhetoric leads on to further rhetoric, and to the inference that the Mbuti way of dealing with the educational problems of childhood and adolescence is so enormously superior to that which is currently the normal practice in Western societies that we should consciously aim at a transformation which would restore to ‘our’ society the idealised pattern of cultural values and social practice characteristic of African tribal life and of the life of the orthodox Hindu.
The crux of this spiritual something which we are supposed to have lost lies in the concepts of self and society. We fragment, they combine: ‘it depends on whether or not we choose to work toward a society in which people want not only to co-operate with each other rather than compete with each other (either of which is an art we begin to learn in childhood), but also want a world in which each individual is a fully integrated whole, using his whole being in all that he does. The mind, body, heart and soul, or Spirit, should function simultaneously, not sequentially. Unless we bring them together at adolescence, if we allow them to develop as separate entities, then one or more parts of ourselves may all too easily become atrophied.’ And so on.
As I have indicated, if Turnbull had chosen to present himself as a contemplative Buddha, sitting among his Mbuti under a Bo Tree in the middle of the Ituri Forest, he would have been following a distinguished precedent, but that a professor of Anthropology should cast himself in the role of Old Testament prophet calling his fellow sinners to repentance is more than I can take. I find it quite extraordinary that anyone should believe that there could be anything in the data of ethnographic field-work which could possibly be held to justify the moral principles that are here invoked.
But what about the two more general issues: first the reflexive claim that the anthropologist studies other societies in order that he should understand his own, and second the developmental cycle argument, that all individual human beings are at all times caught up in a socialising process, betwixt and between what they have been in the past and what they may become in the future? This second proposition seems to me self-evidently true. I also take it for granted that in any fieldwork situation the decipherment of this life-long socialisation process constitutes an important part of the anthropologist’s task. What Turnbull says on these matters is not original but it is worth saying again. As to the matter of reflexivity, although I totally reject Turnbull-style moralising and although I will readily agree that the anthropologist as ‘mirror for man’ must always distort what he/she perceives to be the case, I would not want to reject the metaphor of the interface simply on that account. But an interface between what and what?
In my view, there is a quite fundamental fallacy at the very root of Turnbull’s exercise: namely, his belief that it makes sense to contrast ‘the two major forms of society that we have looked at: our own Western, industrialised, highly complex national society and the small-scale societies of the Ituri Forest, which represent, for our purposes, all the thousands of others that we frequently classify as “primitive” societies’. Even if we leave aside the fact that the reader has not been invited to ‘look at’ Western society at all, but only at a dimly lighted, very disjointed image of Turnbull’s personal life experiences, the dichotomy is quite misconceived. The word ‘society’ is being used in two totally different senses: it is as if one were to contrast a battle tank with a pram because both are ‘vehicles’.
The anthropologist does not (and usually cannot) contrast whole cultures or whole societies: he works with cultural situations. And this is what Turnbull himself has done. For example, he has contrasted the cultural situation of his own childhood with what he offers as the cultural situation of a ‘typical’ Mbuti childhood. But here the fallacy immediately becomes obvious. Perhaps it makes sense to talk of a typical Mbuti childhood, and perhaps Turnbull has given us a good account of such an abstraction, but it could not make any sense at all to talk about a ‘typical’ childhood in ‘Western society’ or even a typical childhood in any major segment of such a macro social system. But even if Turnbull were to be pinned down and forced to admit that what he was really talking about was not Western society but a small segment of rather well-to-do, middle-class, Anglo-Scottish society in the period between the First and Second World Wars, there would still be no case for arguing that Turnbull’s experiences, as here described, were ‘typical’ of anything at all. The deficiencies of his upbringing, if there were any, are not illuminated either by the idealised ethnography of the Mbuti or by the snapshots of Turnbull’s personal unhappiness. There is no moral or religious implication which can be derived from what we are told.
What the anthropologist may learn from a self-reflexive study of ‘the others’, whoever the others may be, is something altogether different. The essence of it is tolerance of diversity. The cultural environment of childhood, any childhood, is always conservative. The child learns from its elders a complex set of moral values. These values are always taught as if they were absolutes: what we do is right, what they do is wrong. Those people who live down the street and who have cultural values just slightly different from ours are the worst of all. Intolerance of cultural otherness is taught in every home everywhere right from the start.
The point about social anthropology as an academic discipline is that it makes cultural otherness interesting. Instead of being something which is evil by definition, it becomes a field of investigation. And once I, as anthropologist, have got that far, once I have come to realise that the categorical values which were taught to me in childhood are open to question, that the others can do things differently yet not be wrong by definition, then I am beginning to understand the nature of intolerance and can begin to appreciate better just how the complexities of we/they distinctions operate within the system to which I myself belong. But that is not what Turnbull’s book is all about.