A "stratified palimpsest of confusion and self-contradiction", and a "manual of sophistical and historiographical fallacies" are just two of Marshall Sahlins's characterisations of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook by Princeton anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere. The latter's work was a critique of Sahlins's earlier thesis that Captain Cook was greeted by the Hawaiians as a "figuration" of their god Lono. Cook's arrival off the Hawaiian Islands in November 1778 and landing at Kealakekua in January 1779 had coincided with the Makahiki festival during which the Pleiades, and then the exiled god, reappear; his departure coincided with the end of this festival of cosmic renewal. However, forced to return a few days later because of storm damage to a mast, Cook found himself out of phase with the local ritual cycle and was soon engulfed in a deadly mythopolitical crisis.
As a Sri Lankan, Obeyesekere could see the absurdity of many of Sahlins's hypotheses concerning Hawaiian thought. He argued that myth-making is not the sole preserve of non-westerners and the origins of the myth of Cook as Lono could be found not in Hawaii, but in London where Imperial charters of Europeans as gods were quickly forged. Furthermore, in a discussion of the murder of a friend in Sri Lanka, Obeyesekere included Sahlins' account of Cook in a triangulation of violence, colonialism and the academy which raised the personal stakes for both authors. Three years after the Apotheosis, Sahlins has issued his rebuttal.
Stephen Greenblatt's description of this contest as a struggle for the soul of anthropology is hyperbole but there are still crucial issues at stake. Foremost is the paradoxical resistance among many cultural commentators to any possibility of heterology; putative otherness is condemned as a form of orientalism and the world is suddenly invaded by a curiously familiar "practical rationality". Obeyesekere appeals to his intuition as a source of that practical rationality against which late 18th-century Hawaiian actions can be judged. Accordingly, Sahlins's claim that the return of Cook's ship entailed a disruption of Hawaiian mythopraxis is dismissed on the grounds that since the Hawaiians were experienced navigators it is "hard to believe" they would not understand the practical reasons which forced the ship to return for repairs. Such literalist appeals to practical rationality deserve the historicising critique they receive from Sahlins, although it is fair to point out that the Apotheosis rehearses the absurd fringe of a more tenable stance outlined in greater detail in Obeyesekere's The Work of Cuture.
Sahlins powerfully condemns the appeal to what is, ironically, a western sense of reality for its exclusion of those Hawaiian voices and cosmology that Obeyesekere continually interprets as the interpolations of western myth-makers. Obeyesekere dissolves Hawaiian ethno-graphy and testimony in "the acid bath of western common sense realism" that substitutes savage thought with a bourgeois thought whose foundation is Locke and Hobbes. Obeyesekere's attack on what he perceives as western myth-making, through his appeals to a south Asian identity, thus have the paradoxical effect of taking him further away from Hawaiian cosmology and closer to western folklore about the relationship between the divine and the human.
As befits an author who professes to use neither a typewriter nor a computer, this book is an 18th-century pamphlet grown too big. Despite this, and the frequent repetition, Sahlins is brilliantly witty, mixing insight with venom in equal measure.
Those unable to wait for Obeyesekere's reactions can anticipate some of them in his already published responses to others' critiques of his work in Social Analysis (1993) and Oceania (1995).
Arjun Appadurai once described ethnography as a form of "double-ventriloquism" - the anthropologist makes a people articulate his concerns, while simultaneously becoming a spokesperson for that group. The Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate adds to our understanding of the complexity of this relationship and its value is that, although Sahlins's latest contribution is persuasive, the complexity and importance of the issues precludes a final victory. Obeyesekere may have misapplied his complex ire but the wider questions he raises remain as urgent and engrossing as ever.
Christopher Pinney is lecturer in south Asian anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
How: About Captain Cook, For Example
Author - Marshall Sahlins
ISBN - 0 226 73368 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 318