A prophet on the verandah

June 25, 2004

Nigel Barley is overwhelmed by the work, dreams, erotic impulses and bowel movements of an anthropological hero.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) - although Polish - was the doyen of British anthropology during those crucial years after the First World War when it was still struggling for institutional recognition. He fought decisive engagements in all its border wars with psychology, history, sociology and folklore to define its space and scope. He formulated its essential "Britishness" in opposition to continental and American definitions of the subject, and he formed crucial alliances with the powers of industry and empire that would allow it not merely to survive but to flourish and grow fat. Before him, anthropology was evolutionist and antiquarian. After him, it was scientistic and modernist, seeing culture not as a product of history but a functional response to human needs. The changes he wrought were of both substance and image, academic and popularist - for he was a dedicated and narcissistic self-publicist. Were he alive today, he would never be off our screens, flashing his thick professorial glasses at us on everything from Horizon to Richard and Judy .

Michael Young's biography deals with the formative years of his childhood, the intellectual Bildungsjahre , the move from Poland to England and the fieldwork that led up to his seminal and epoch-making classic Argonauts of the Western Pacific , his ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders that set a new standard for empiricism and depth of documentation. No longer could anthropologists muse over "primitives" while comfortably seated in their armchairs at home. The new anthropologist was to be a hero, to boldly go, to demean himself in Christ-like humility among the downtrodden, to suffer disease, privation and loneliness to gain knowledge for all mankind. And Malinowski was his prophet.

The central event in the origin myth of anthropology is still Malinowski's fieldwork, beginning in 1915, in the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea, administered at the time by Australia. This part of Malinowski's life has already been comprehensively debunked in the controversy following the publication of the field diaries for this period as A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term . When it first appeared in 1967, this material sent a deep shock through anthropology. Instead of the ethnographer's Arcadian experience with an alien people as taught for years to new students, based on the dedicated search for objective truth by cool science, here was hysterical detestation for "niggers", sexual frustration and contempt for local culture. "Exterminate the brutes", Malinowski quoted approvingly from Conrad. It has taken years to heal the wounds to anthropology's self-regard as new epistemologies and the emotional detachment of the postmodernist stance have absorbed and defused that first bombshell.

Young is an anthropologist who has worked in the same area of the Pacific as Malinowski and is able to bring a sense of location to the fieldnotes and diaries. He has also not skimped on effort, walking the ground - variously Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Polish - of Malinowski's early youth and working through Polish-language sources as thoroughly as those in Kriwinian (Trobriands). Above all, he has benefited from the full cooperation of the family and has used that material without letting it cramp his approach. It is a common difficulty of biographers that they fall somewhat in love with their subjects and lose their critical cutting edge, casting all their failings as merely disguised virtues. This is not a problem here. For the early Malinowski is deeply dislikeable and, while Young is scrupulously - almost ethnographically - determined not to judge him, the reader, unless aware of his later importance, may well ask himself why he should be concerned at all with the fate of someone so unappealing.

After the death of his father, Malinowski became the focus of a female world and was totally spoilt by a doting mother. He was a demanding and self-centred swot who grew into the teenager from hell. For the rest of his life, he would seek selfless mother replacements who would put up with his relentless emotional tyranny.

Young is particularly good on Malinowski's intellectual roots. Wundt and Nietzsche have long been seen as part of his European intellectual background, but Young convincingly argues that the philosophical underpinnings of Malinowskian social science owe most to the positivism of Ernst Mach, with its insistence on knowledge as a means of meeting human needs. Throughout, Young is keen to point to the emerging of such themes that will come into their own in Malinowski's later work.

Malinowski always found himself endlessly fascinating and expected others to feel the same, so that he documented himself in diaries and letters in a way that is both a biographer's dream and his worst nightmare. Nothing is too trivial to be pored over: dreams, bowel movements, erotic impulses. The reading of Nietzsche seems to have furnished the urge to chart his own moral and aesthetic development through all the angst of early manhood and endless sexual affairs. However promisingly these start, he always manages to convert them into intolerable and agonising love triangles. And he is just as demanding and uncompromising in his friendships, notably in that with Stanislaw Witkiewicz (Stas), who would go on to pursue a brilliant artistic career. Their relationship builds into an exhausting mix of affection, rivalry, intellectual excitement and homo-erotic impulses that climax in Stas's tragi-comic determination to accompany Malinowski on his Trobriands fieldwork although in a state of suicidal depression over the death of a lover. As Malinowski journeys ever closer to his encounter with ethnographic destiny, Stas scans the environment for convenient means of sudden death, only renouncing the attempt when the eruption of war gives him a reason to live by providing a cause to die for.

A mystery that remains is Malinowski's sudden conversion from natural to social science. There is no eureka moment recorded, although it seems to have everything to do with his thoroughly domestic affair with Annie Brunton, a South African widow ten years his senior, who brings him to London. There, the audacious and opportunistic Malinowski swiftly runs rings around the elephantine British representatives of the academic establishment, charming, impressing and fawning where necessary.

As for the classic Trobriands fieldwork, Young is able to bring new insight to it both from his own fieldwork experience and by the restoration of passages censored by Malinowski's widow in the published diary. Since then, many ethnographers have "come out" and a confessional edge to ethnography is now de rigueur . It no longer amazes to read that Malinowski regretted that he could not send his "boy" to the district officer for a good flogging or that he fiddled the figures to make it look as though he spent longer in the field than was the case, or that the Trobriands had already been transformed by Western contacts and government that Malinowski kept doggedly out of shot. He may famously have urged scholars to get down from the mission verandah but was himself very snug on that of the local trader who was already busy subverting and re-applying the kula system of traditional exchange that Malinowski would set at the core of his view of "primitive man".

The origin myth has it that Malinowski suffered in Australia from being classed as an "enemy alien" but was sensibly allowed to do fieldwork as an alternative to internment. The facts, as revealed by Young, are much stranger, almost surreal. Although Malinowski records the odd homosexual fumbling, including an encounter with a Melanesian "local", there can be no doubt of his fundamental heterosexuality, amounting at times almost to satyriasis. Yet, curiously, word got around in the Trobriands and spread from there to Australia and then to London that young Malinowski was enthusiastically addicted to "unnatural vice". The basis for this, allegedly, was an ill-judged remark (joke?) that was misunderstood and nearly led to the withdrawal of his permit and funding. Contemporary Trobriand islanders, in their turn, have rehabilitated Malinowski in legend as a vigorous heterosexual who paid for sex in the appropriate local manner.

In his Australian period, bracketing the Trobriands work, Malinowski was still a pain to most around him but comes across as a much more human figure, transformed perhaps by his love for a good woman, Elsie Masson, whom he eventually married after a sidestep into a typically Malinowskian love triangle. They triumphed over influenza, war, xenophobia and the vagiaries of research funding, so that all world events tended finally towards the successful writing of Argonauts of the Western Pacific .

One question remains. Young engages in a good deal of close textual analysis and makes much of Malinowski's sometimes quixotic English. How much of Malinowski's corpus was written by him? I recall, at a seminar in the 1990s, a Malinowski daughter remarking that her father would tell her mother what it was he wanted to say and then her mother would put it in writing. A study of Malinowski's marriage has already been written by his daughter Helena Wayne, but more remains to be said on the subject of his authorship. Perhaps it will be resolved in volume two of this biography.

Certainly, the subject cannot be left to rest in 1920. The initial liberating effect of Malinowskian anthropology rapidly became a constraining doctrinaire corset, and much of this was due to Malinowski's astringent personality and professional paranoia. The period of his dominance in the subject was notorious for a provincial anti-intellectualism and a determined resistance to change. A former colleague of his once declared to me in all seriousness that Malinowski lived in terror of witches and kept a loaded revolver, with silver bullets, in the drawer of his desk in the London School of Economics so that he could deal with any such mystical attack, which he expected daily from his enemies. As he himself would have said, it does not really matter whether this was true or not. The important thing is that the natives believed it.

Nigel Barley is an anthropologist and writer, formerly at the British Museum.

Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist 1884-1920

Author - Michael W. Young
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 690
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 300 10294 1

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