A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term
Coral Gardens and their Magic: I: Soil Tilling and Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands II: The Language of Magic and Gardening
Ten years ago several eminent anthropologists, linguists, and sociologists who had, in one way or another, been students of Malinowski decided that he had been unjustly neglected since his death in 1942 and put together a collection of essays, each of which was devoted to a particular aspect of his work.* But, as the writers were frank and competent, the result did rather more to justify the neglect than to end it. Meyer Fortes of Cambridge decided that although Malinowski wrote about Kinship incessantly, he really didn’t understand it. S. F. Nadel indicted his religious studies as a simplistic “theology of optimism.” J. R. Firth, though sympathetic to his aims, regarded his technical linguistic contribution as consisting of “sporadic comments immersed and perhaps lost in what is properly called his ethnographic analysis.” Edmund Leach thought his theoretical writings “not merely dated [but] dead”; Talcott Parsons that he misinterpreted both Durkheim and Freud and had hardly heard of anyone else; Raymond Firth that he failed to grasp economic reasoning; Isaac Schapera that he was unwilling or unable to distinguish law from custom. Only on one point was there unanimous and quite unqualified praise: Malinowski was an incomparable fieldworker. Possessed, in Audrey Richard’s words, of “unusual linguistic gifts, lively powers of personal contact and terrific energy,” he “achieved a great measure of personal identification with the people he lived with.” Pretentious, platitudinous, unsystematic, simple-minded, long-winded, intellectually provincial, and perhaps even somewhat dishonest, he had, somehow, a way with the natives.
Well now we have more direct evidence of just what sort of man this consummate fieldworker was. It takes the form of a very curious document, which its editors have decided to call A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, apparently in an effort to communicate that it is a diary in a queer sense of the term. Written, in Polish, during 1914-1915, when he was in New Guinea for his first expedition, and in 1917-1918, when he was finishing up his famous Trobriand research, the diary consists, for the most part, neither of a description of his daily activities nor a record of the personal impact those activities had upon him. Rather it depicts a sort of mental tableau whose stereotyped figures—his mother, a boyhood friend with whom he has quarreled, a woman he has loved and wishes to discard, another he is now in love with and wishes to marry—are all thousands of miles away, frozen in timeless attitudes which, in anxious self-contempt, he obsessively contemplates. For this man of “lively powers of personal contact,” everything local and immediate in the South Seas seems to have been emotionally offstage, a profitable object of observation or a petty source of irritation. For more than three years, this “diary” suggests, Malinowski worked, with enormous industry, in one world, and lived, with intense passion, in another.
The significance of this fact for…
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