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An Agreeable Man

In response to:

Under the Mosquito Net from the September 14, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

I am puzzled that the distinguished anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, misses or misinterprets a number of significant points of Malinowski’s A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Word in his review [NYR, Sept. 14].

I agree with the reviewer that the diary is tedious in the extreme, but not that it “destroyed one final idol, and one he [Malinowski] did much to create: that of the field worker with extraordinary empathy for the natives.” I find nothing in Malinowski’s writings on method (and remember none in his teachings) about this so-called “extraordinary empathy.” The image of the field worker created by Malinowski in the Introduction of his Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), the first long account of his work in the Trobriand Islands, emphasized the need to live in the native village, for constant observation, learning the native language, exact recording, separating inference from data, and so on about other techniques for collecting and handling data. It happens, although the reviewer does not mention it, that Malinowski was the first to make anthropology an observational science, to pitch his camp in a native village, and to be a partioipant-observer. Perhaps it was the very novelty of these procedures that led to the development by others of the myth of Malinowski’s “extraordinary empathy.” We might study the creation of myths in the anthropological clan!

Malinowski himself wrote quite differently: “for the native is not the natural companion for a white man, and after you have been working with him for several hours…you will hanker after the company of your own kind.” But, he adds, if you are alone, after a solitary walk you will seek out the natives’ company as a relief from loneliness (ibid., p. 7). In this way he became acquainted with much of the imponderabilia of native life. In the same Introduction he mentions periods of despondency, despair, boredom, and the reading of novels as an escape.

In all his writings Malinowski did stress the goal of understanding the native point of view, now generally accepted. Could the youngish American group of ethnographic semanticists who stress the same goal through linguistic techniques be regarded as having “extraordinary empathy?” Malinowski would have agreed completely with the reviewer’s point about the false and sentimental concept of “going native.” So do I and most all field workers.

I have the impression from the diary that what empathy Malinowski achieved with the Melanesians was due to seeing himself as a “savage,” mentioned a number of times. He emphasized knowing one’s self as a way of understanding others—their emotional as well as rational life. The similarities between tribal and modern man are now generally accepted, but this was not so at the time Malinowski wrote his diary.

It deals almost exclusively with a painful self-analysis in the life of a complex, sensitive, hypochondriac young Pole, isolated from loved ones and friends, doing field work under difficult conditions during World War I, among a Neolithic people in New Guinea. Malinowski had no one to talk to with understanding. In the diary he wrote his innermost feelings—fears, anxieties, guilt, loneliness, anger, love, sexual frustrations, and dreams—the kind of data given usually by a patient to a psychoanalyst. Malinowski was well aware of psychoanalytical theories and interprets some of his dreams in Freudian manner. He wrote in the diary that it was a form of psychological analysis. It is well known that this kind of writing may be a catharsis.

In his diary, Malinowski swears and curses the natives particularly when they were unreliable and lied to him. What, perhaps, Dr. Geertz did not know was that Malinowski used similar violent language about the “bloody English” and about many other people in his own society. I am told that the word “nigger,” which is in the translated diary, does not exist in the Polish language and that the word in the original text meant “blacks,” Moreover, Dr. Geertz notes only the instances of Malinowski’s frustrations and irritations with the Melanesians and not those times (admittedly less frequent) when he writes about natives who were his friends and whom he trusted.

Nor does the reviewer indicate the two quite different moods—from anguish to exultation—expressed in Doestoevskian fashion in the diary. True, the anguish predominates as one would expect in a diary of this type and in a man like Malinowski. But although he often longed to be away from the islands (as do most field workers in similar circumstances), other times he thought he wanted to live there forever. The diary reveals a man nakedly alive with his senses open to many forms of reality: to the great and almost indescribable beauty of the islands, to the beauty of a woman’s body, to the intricate design of a tortoise shell comb, as well as to himself—to his physical symptoms and his many personal problems, to the stench and smell of native life, to the lice and the interminable insects, and to almost every other facet of life.

But Dr. Geertz sees only “a disagreeable man,” “a crabbed, self-pre-occupied, hypochondriacal narcissist, whose fellow-feelings for the people he lived with were limited in the extreme.” The reviewer continues, “For more than three years, this ‘diary’ suggests, Malinowski worked with enormous industry in this [Melanesian] world, and lived with intense passion in another. The significance of this fact for anthropology’s image of itself is shattering….” But it is “shattering” only for those who do not understand the various levels of consciousness (as well as the unconscious) on which all human beings live, whether or not they are aware of them in the field as well as at home. Suppose spouses, lovers, friends, professors and their students daily revealed their innermost feelings (assuming they were aware of them) to each other and to the public!

Dr. Geertz continues, “What saved him [Malinowski] was an almost unbelievable capacity for work.” Certainly, hard work saved Malinowski (and most of us on difficult field trips). But talking to himself through a diary was probably also important in “saving” this troubled young man. The two may not be unrelated and it would not be the first time that a direct confrontation between the personal and the scientific resulted in bold and innovative scientific work. Obviously, it was the case with Freud (also a hypochondriac). This kind of confrontation is often a part of the creative process—similar in the arts and sciences.

The diary was not written for publication, but Dr. Geertz never raises the question of the propriety of that. Written in Polish, it was found among Malinowski’s papers after his death; no one had previously known of its existence. Malinowski was indeed unfortunate in his choice of a literary executor, his widow by a second and late marriage, who is a painter. Her decision to publish the diary was as if a psychoanalyst published notes on a patient after the latter’s death and without permission. However, granted that the private fantasies and intimate thoughts of a great anthropologist living in New Guinea under very primitive conditions more than fifty years ago might be data and have value, his literary executor could have made them available to scholars by depositing the diary in the University archives which house his field notes and other such data. (A grant for translation could have been secured from a Foundation.) An anthropologist interested in contemporary culture might note that Malinowski’s widow apparently chose to have the diary contribute to the current exposé-sensationalism of our culture, even though this exposé happens to be dull.

Hortense Powdermaker

Research Associate

University of California,

Berkeley

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