Off the Verandah

Adam Kuper

  • Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist 1884-1920 by Michael Young
    Yale, 690 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 300 10294 1

Michael Young’s biography takes Bronislaw Malinowski to the age of 36, when the brilliant Polish anthropologist completed his field study of the Trobriand Islands, married, and prepared to make his career back in Europe. Young is a Melanesian ethnographer himself, and the book comes into its own when Malinowski arrives in Australia, on the eve of the Great War, and begins the expeditions to Papua that effectively marked the beginning of modern anthropology.

Malinowski revolutionised field methods. Asked once whether he had met any savages, J.G. Frazer was horrified: ‘But heaven forbid!’ His method was to despatch book-length questionnaires to ‘men in the field’, usually missionaries and colonial officials. They would then summon native experts to their verandahs and take them through a check-list of queries about food taboos, ghosts and witches, funeral customs, or ideas about conception, as required. Unlike Frazer, who was a classicist, Malinowski was a trained scientist, as were the new generation of English specialists on the peoples of Oceania: A.C. Haddon, W.H.R. Rivers and ‘Sligs’ Seligman. They went into the field themselves, although they seldom spent more than a few days or weeks in any one place, and for most of their information still relied on native experts, whom they questioned with the help of translators.

Malinowski had no faith in this. Getting the rules from some expert did not tell you how the game was played. Witch doctors disagreed among themselves, like medical doctors. And people tend to say one thing but do another: ‘Whenever the native can evade his obligations without the loss of prestige, or without the prospective loss of gain, he does so, exactly as a civilised businessman would do.’ To understand what was really going on, the ethnographer ‘must relinquish his comfortable position on the verandah’. He should pitch his tent in the village, cultivate a garden, exchange gifts, listen in to conversations, flirt, argue and generally hang about. Intimate personal histories, neighbourhood feuds, the tug of a man’s emotional loyalties against his legal obligations, all this was accessible only to an observer who immersed himself in the everyday life of the village. In a letter to his fiancée, Elsie Masson, Malinowski described his delight at going fishing with ‘real Naturmenschen’ and remarked:

It was another cardinal error in my previous work that I talked too much in proportion to what I saw. This one expedition . . . has given me a better idea of Kiriwinian fishing than all the talk I heard about it before. It was also a more fascinating though not necessarily an easier method of working. But, it is the method.

Lévi-Strauss has described this immersion in the field as a technique for deracination. The ethnographer is a displaced person, a professional émigré – a role to which Malinowski was born. He once wrote that his family belonged ‘to the dispossessed, impoverished small Polish nobility, shading into the inteligencja’. He grew up in Kraków, the capital of a cosmopolitan province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and studied at the Jagiellonian University in the city, where his father was professor of philology. He won the Imperial Prize for his doctoral thesis, and like his father went on to the University of Leipzig. But educated Poles were at best ambivalent in their attitudes to Vienna and to German culture. Their allegiance was to a vanishing Poland, and they imagined that its authentic spirit might still be captured in isolated villages. The intellectuals of Kraków spent long summer holidays in the mountain resort of Zakopane, where they admired and imitated local crafts; Malinowski’s father collected folk-tales; some artists and writers married peasant women. As a sickly child, Malinowski was packed off to live with peasants in a reputedly healthy but remote Carpathian village.

By the time I was eight I had lived in two fully distinct cultural worlds, speaking two languages, eating two different kinds of food, using two sets of table manners, observing two sets of reticencies and delicacies, enjoying two sets of amusements. I also learned two sets of religious views, beliefs and practices, and was exposed to two sets of morality and sexual mores.

Malinowski and his closest friend, the painter and writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz, mixed in Young Poland circles when they were students, but neither became an orthodox Polish nationalist. Malinowski turned down the chance of a chair at the Jagiellonian University in order to take up a permanent position at the LSE in 1923, and confessed to ‘a mystic cult of British culture’. He would be the Conrad of anthropology, he boasted, while Rivers, who represented the old school of Pacific ethnography, would be the Rider Haggard.

Malinowski was an outsider many times over in Australia and New Guinea. He had gone to Australia in 1914 to attend a grand imperial meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Trapped by the outbreak of war, he found himself an enemy alien. The Australian authorities allowed him to carry out his research as planned in their colonial territory of Papua, and even helped to finance his work, but although he talked of his ‘voluntary captivity’ he was under continual surveillance. The colonial boss of Papua remarked that there was ‘something wrong about him’. Local gossip reported that he was a spy, a seducer and a pederast. His future father-in-law, a distinguished Australian professor, was set against what he called ‘mixed marriages’.

Malinowski never tried to go native. In London he liked to play the part of the Central European intellectual. In Melbourne, his closest friends were fellow exiles. In the Trobriand Islands, he spent more time with white traders than he later admitted. Escaping from a ‘surfeit of niggs’, he lodged for weeks at a time in the rowdy compound of the pearl trader Billy Hancock. Hancock’s wife was the daughter of another trader, Mick George, and his Trobriand wife. Malinowski’s closest friends were Raphael Brudo and his wife: French-speaking Levantine Jews, in whose house he would eat French food, listen to readings from Racine, Hugo and Chateaubriand, and daydream over back numbers of La Vie parisienne. He read a lot of novels, and sent Elsie a copy of Zola’s La Terre, which he had been reading in the field, suggesting that it was ‘somewhat akin in its tendency to my Kiriwinian efforts’. Young estimates that ‘his tent was folded for almost half his time in Kiriwina’ (the largest and most important of the Trobriand Islands, where Malinowski was based for 13 months). Even when he found himself at last in the middle of a kula trading expedition, he broke off to spend an afternoon with a Finnish trader, who played Harry Lauder and Viennese waltzes on a portable gramophone.

Malinowski was liable to sudden shifts of mood, guilty about being so far away while his mother and his friends suffered in Poland. But there is a scientific case for maintaining an outsider’s point of view. Modern ethnography is the product of a movement backwards and forwards between the field and various explicit and implicit sources of comparison. The observer himself is a key point of reference, and Malinowski believed that an ethnographer should interrogate himself as carefully as he studied his subjects. He had kept a diary intermittently for years, since first reading Nietzsche as a teenager. Now it became an instrument of research, as he monitored his physical and spiritual condition and urged himself to work harder. ‘Main thing to do,’ one note reads, ‘is to reflect on the two branches: my ethnological work and my diary. They are well-nigh as complementary as complementary can be.’

Malinowski’s field notes are largely in English, although he jotted down increasingly long passages in Kiriwinian, as his command of the language improved; but the private diary was written in Polish. Like his letters to Elsie Masson, it is punctuated with outbursts of irritation, even rage, against the Trobrianders:

I had a row with some of the niggs – they crowd round the tent: to ask them to get away is of no avail, to swear at them in fury or to hit them is dangerous, because they’ll swear back or even hit back & as you have more to lose by loss of prestige than they have, you are the weaker in the contest. No, Elsie, I see no way out of this problem – it is either slavery for them or for us & out of the two, I prefer slavery for them.

Malinowski could be equally scathing about everyone else. One colonial administrator was ‘a low brute’; a missionary was ‘a petty greengrocer’. Baldwin Spencer, the leading Australian anthropologist, was ‘unscrupulous’ and ‘a dirty adversary’. The other professors and administrators he had to deal with in Australia were insufferable. ‘I am evolving an intense hatred for the type of middle-class sufficiency, as represented by Stirling, Orme, Spencer, Hunt – with its cult of established fact, established values & established calumnies.’ He didn’t spare himself. ‘I know my character is not very deep,’ he wrote to Elsie. ‘Small ambitions & vanities & a sense for intrigue & spite are more rampant there than the real, true feelings.’ Witkiewicz accused him of cynicism – ‘a total lack of faith in any noble impulses whatsoever . . . and the conviction that at bottom human motives are always petty and mean’. Malinowski did not dissent, or doubt that the Trobrianders were much like everyone else. Self-reflection and observation fed off each other, yielding not only aversion and self-disgust but also new insights. ‘What is the deepest essence of my investigations? To discover what are [the native’s] main passions, the motives of his conduct, his aims? . . . His essential, deepest way of thinking. At this point we are confronted with our own problems: What is essential in ourselves?’

Well, sex was certainly essential, and then there were the taboos associated with it, though these might vary, and the rules for breaking the rules, which are more commonly shared. In Kraków, the bohemian Witkiewicz had shared several girlfriends with Malinowski, some of them married, and there was probably a brief homosexual encounter between the two. The Trobrianders were equally broadminded. ‘In Kiriwina the unmarried girls from six upwards are generally supposed to practise licence well-nigh every night,’ Malinowski wrote in an early paper (though Seligman censored the passage for publication). ‘It is immaterial whether this is so or not; it matters only that for the natives of Kiriwina sexual intercourse is almost as common an occurrence as eating, drinking or sleeping.’ There were limits, to be sure. It was supposed to be a heinous crime to sleep with a clan sister, but Malinowski remarked that this only added spice to the sex – much, he thought, like adultery in Europe. But transgressions could have serious consequences, in the Trobriand Islands as in Europe. One of Witkiewicz’s mistresses had killed herself, leaving him guilt-ridden and suicidal. When the two friends were travelling to Australia, Witkiewicz wrote several suicide notes, which he addressed to Malinowski; and when war broke out he joined the Russian army, hoping for a redemptive death in battle. He survived the war, but committed suicide in 1919.

A few weeks after Malinowski’s arrival at Kiriwina, a young man called Kimai fell from a coconut tree, dying instantly. Still in the early stages of learning the language, Malinowski described the mourning (the men ‘sobbing and slobbering; women keening and wailing’) but did not find out for some months that Kimai had committed suicide. Accused of making love with a distant cousin who was classified as a ‘sister’, Kimai had put on his finest clothes and decorations, climbed a tall palm, and publicly denounced his accuser to the crowd that had gathered below before jumping to his death. The disgrace lay in being found out. But suicide was never the end of the story. Kimai’s accuser, a rival for the girl’s affections, had to leave the village in fear of the vengeance of Kimai’s kin.

Malinowski once wrote of ‘the ethnographer’s magic, by which he is able to evoke the real spirit of the natives, the true picture of tribal life’. If not magic, it was certainly an art, but one that had to be grounded in empirical research. As an undergraduate studying physics and chemistry, Malinowski had specialised in the philosophy of science. He wrote a thesis on Mach’s positivism, though he ended up with a more permissive empiricist doctrine: ‘nothing without experience.’ ‘The main principle of my work in the field: avoid artificial simplifications. To this end, collect as concrete materials as possible: note every informant; work with children, outsiders, and specialists. Take side lights and opinions.’ Working in the Trobriands, however, he sometimes felt himself ‘almost swamped by detail’. Experience had to be shaped; theory must come before description. ‘Every precise description of facts requires precise concepts,’ he had written in 1911, ‘and these can be provided only by theory.’ Before going to the islands he had done a short apprentice field study on mainland New Guinea. Writing it up, he had organised his material to fit the standard format of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s checklist for fieldworkers, Notes and Queries in Anthropology, the successor to Frazer’s questionnaires. This mechanical listing of customs and beliefs facilitated cross-cultural comparisons, but it obscured the connections between different activities and institutions. The trick was to tease out the various strands – magic, economics, kinship, politics – that were woven together in even the most ordinary activities, such as house building, sailing or gardening. The atmosphere – what Malinowski called the Stimmung – had to be rendered, too, in the artistic pursuit of realism.

Underlying his methods was a radically new conception of his subjects. Malinowski was the first ethnographer to represent ‘savages’ as rational actors. According to his account, the Trobrianders used myths to make property claims, rituals to extend their power, marriages to gain influence. Yet his descriptions ignored one vital dimension: the colonial context. Papua was effectively ruled by a proconsul, Hubert Murray (brother of the classicist Gilbert). In the opinion of Lord Hailey, Murray’s system amounted ‘to no more than a well-regulated and benevolent type of police rule’. Murray himself spoke of ‘administration by bluff’, and insisted on the importance of keeping up appearances. ‘Discarding one’s socks leads to the beach and the loin cloth.’ Any officer who had affairs with local women was immediately dismissed. But there can be no doubt that Murray and his small team transformed the conditions of everyday life in Papua.

The Trobriand Islands, with a population of 8500, were administered by an English doctor, Raynor Bellamy, who combined the posts of assistant resident magistrate and medical officer. He jailed any villagers who ignored his laws (at least half the convictions were for breaches of his Village Cleaning Regulation). And he employed prison labour to make the islands the healthiest and probably the most efficiently governed province in Papua. He also fostered economic development. One of his initiatives promoted the commercial planting of coconut trees. In 1912, he tabooed the eating of coconuts and instituted inter-village competitions for planting trees, rewarding the winners with tobacco and sending recalcitrant villagers to prison (200 in 1913-14 alone). The result was a viable new cash crop. An indirect consequence was to undermine the prestige of the chiefs, who had previously monopolised coconut production.

There were also nine white traders and four missionaries in the Trobriands, and a sprinkling of Papuan teachers. The traders had changed the conditions of life there at least as much as Bellamy. They paid good money to local men to dive for pearls. They sold pigs to villagers, so breaking another economic monopoly of the chiefs. (Bellamy had noted that a chief’s authority extends ‘as far as he would send pigs to’.) Money penetrated the old economy. When the war disrupted the market for pearls, it became much harder to exchange pigs, as Malinowski noted. Traders financed traditional ceremonies in order to gain prestige, while missionaries introduced new rituals and beliefs, and built schools. They even taught the islanders cricket, though the locals transformed the game into a flamboyant festival of song, dance and sexual display.

Little of this made its way into Malinowski’s books and articles. The Government Officer, the Missionary and the Trader appear as shadowy stereotypes in his academic texts. His diaries ‘permit a better view of the colonial context of his fieldwork than do any of his monographs’, Young remarks. In a confessional appendix to his final Trobriand monograph, published in 1935, Malinowski wrote: ‘The empirical facts which the ethnographer has before him in the Trobriands nowadays are not natives unaffected by European influences but natives to a considerable extent transformed by these influences.’ His neglect of the colonial reality was, he admitted, ‘perhaps the most serious shortcoming of my whole anthropological research in Melanesia’. At the LSE in the 1930s, he promoted a new brand of anthropology, which he called ‘the anthropology of the changing native’.

Yet the ethnographies retain their power because the cosmopolitan Malinowski regarded the Trobriander as being essentially rather like himself. And the ethnographer, anywhere, was very like any immigrant – a young Polish intellectual, for example, making his way in London. In a letter to Frazer, written from the islands in 1917, Malinowski remarked that a foreigner coming to England would need to understand the language, grasp the temperament, become familiar with current ideas, tastes and fads, learn to enjoy native sports and amusements: in short, he had to make himself at home if he was ‘to penetrate into the depths of the British mentality’. ‘The same refers,’ he said, in his fractured English, ‘mutatis mutandis, to native society, as far as I can see.’

If the ethnographer in Papua and the immigrant in London were similarly placed, it was because all societies had a great deal in common. When he started as an anthropologist, Malinowski once remarked, the emphasis had been on the differences between peoples. ‘I recognised their study as important, but underlying sameness I thought of greater importance & rather neglected. I still believe that the fundamental is more important than the freakish.’