October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
Bronislaw Malinowski was arguably the most important anthropologist of the 20th century. Armed with a degree from the London School of Economics, he shipped himself off to the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia and stayed there for several years to study the indigenous culture. His path-breaking research from that period catapulted him into a position of pre-eminence in the field, and influenced generations of anthropologists on both sides of the Atlantic.
And yet, chances are, you haven’t heard of Malinowski. Why should you? we live in a world where all the information in the world is accessible at our fingertips, but the Malinowskis of the world remain hidden in plain sight, lost in a crowd of Kardashians.
I stumbled upon his work (and this important collection of essays) because of my appetite for material concerning world mythology. Reading books of mythology led to reading books on mythology, and then to the books on things that are associated most closely with mythology: literature, language, social history and finally anthropology. Greek mythology led me to Robert Graves, and his bibliographical notes pointed me to Erich Fromm; Fromm, in turn, led me to JJ Bachofen and his fascinating theories of mutter-recht, but there, in an introductory passage in the edition I have, written by Joseph Campbell, was a reference to Bronislaw Malinowski. Weeks later, my attention was arrested by a quote attributed to Malinowski in a different book; it was the work of a minute to seek and order the slim book of essays under review.
The discipline of anthropology has its origins in mid-19th century Europe, and was strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as by the colonial conquest of most of the rest of the world by European powers. Consequently, primitive cultures were studied, but from far above, as intellectual curiosities, like species of butterflies or finches.
Malinowski’s approach of staying for several years among the people of the culture he was ‘studying’ was therefore novel, and it yielded several interesting insights. I will mention only two.
The first relates to the nature of mythology. In Malinowski’s view, it is not, as the Nature mythology school believed, a set of contemplative reactions to natural phenomena (abstract art and science are not part of the stone age native’s mental makeup), or poetic symbology, or simply a set of stories that signify nothing. Myth is living, breathing reality for the Trobrianders, a functional, pragmatic embodiment of their beliefs, practices and morality. It is as true and tangible to them as any statement we hold to be self-evident and obvious today. It is what Thomas Kuhn would have called a paradigm.
The second relates to the nature of men. As was known by his time, the “savages” of Melanesia didn’t understand the concept of paternity. They attributed the conception of a child in a woman’s womb to the mischief of a ghostly spirit, and didn’t believe that a man had anything to contribute to that process. A modern man would scoff, and consider himself infinitely superior to them.
And yet, Malinowski shows, they had every bit as good a grasp on logic, and cause and effect, as the “civilized” people of the Earth: they simply didn’t know as much as we do, especially in abstract, theoretical subjects. They knew, for instance, when to plant which seed for best effect, or how to read the sky for clues to predict the weather, or where to fish at which time of the year. It is in fact this scientific (a word used advisedly) belief in cause and effect that led them astray: a Melanesian woman had an active sexual life practically every day from the day she stopped being a virgin, yet got pregnant just a few times in her entire life. The event of conception was possibly correlated closer with some food she ate, the phase of the moon, or the passing overhead of storks, than with the act of sex! If you didn’t know the things you know, how many of them would you figure out by yourself?
It is a sobering thought, that what separates me from a stone age tribesman, is not so much how smarter I am, man to man, (or nobler, or better read) but the accumulated body of knowledge and beliefs made available to the two of us by our respective societies: our mythologies, in other words.
Of course, this is not only true of Trobrianders and 20th century anthropologists, but of any two individuals anywhere, and forms the basis of modern liberal beliefs in nurture over nature. It also feeds the belief that there is one single human nature worldwide, and our differences have more to do with cultural reasons than anything innate.
This, to me and others who think like me, is kind of basic and obvious. Conservatives would call it a myth. And so it goes.
July 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
I have read a few short stories by James Thurber as a kid. A couple were autobiographical in style, and documented his experiences growing up in a chaotic family with loud incompetent uncles, eccentric sleepwalking cousins and long-suffering aunts. One was about a man, his wife and a unicorn in the garden. Another reimagined the historic meeting between the Generals Lee and Grant at Appomattox.
Of these, only the last named features in this large 500+ page tome, which consists of four collections of Thurber’s pieces – some short stories but mainly essays. The most powerful ones were about marriage, which Thurber mostly projects as unhappy but entertaining chess games between mean husbands and bitter wives, or vice versa. His portrayal of between-wars America is infinitely more vivid than anything a history book could accomplish, and he has an uncanny ability to take a small, commonplace situation and riff off a rambling stream-of-consciousness string of funny thoughts.
For instance, surveying the 1930’s Manhattan skyline, James Thurber sees between 8th street and 6th avenue, amongst the indistinguishable roofs, a sign for an upholstery shop, that said, in four-foot long neon letters, “O Charles Meyer”. Thurber promptly dashes off a brilliant essay, speculating, among other things, about O Charles Meyer’s personality, his business, his offspring: their number, gender and names (youngest son O Henry Meyer, if you please) and about what would happen if he himself were to attempt to meet Mr. Meyer.
I do not, of course, know O Charles Meyer in the flesh, but I have a certainty of what he is like, large heavy man, elderly and kindly, with the peering eyes of a person who has spent his life puttering with the upholstery of chairs of sofas. In the old chairs and sofas that have been brought to him for reupholstering he has found scissors and penknives and necklaces and unopened letters and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills which little old women have hidden away. If this is not true, I don’t want to be told so.
Well, I have developed a certainty of what Thurber must have been like: thin, neurotic, baldish, nervous-looking, jumpy, with permanently etched worry-creases on his forehead and eyebrows raised in doubt and skepticism, talking nonstop out of the side of his mouth, to nobody in particular, complete nonsense of course, but brilliant nonsense, with a very straight face, ignored by most people except those who find everything he says hilarious. Maybe I am thinking of a distant uncle at a family reunion long ago. Hold on – surely I am thinking of Woody Allen. Equally, maybe Woody Allen is thinking of James Thurber when he is being Woody Allen. But if my description of Thurber is not true, I don’t want to be told so.
Thurber is an American legend who has probably influenced generations of humorists and brought a smile to millions of readers around the world. But the truth is, 92 funny stories written in the same style, one after another, can be a bit of a drag, and I recommend Thurber in small doses, possibly sandwiched refreshingly for best effect between chapters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka. (Actually, this could also be a recommendation for how to read Dostoyevsky and Kafka)
June 25, 2016 § Leave a comment
What can I say about Peter Thiel that the internet doesn’t know already? He founded PayPal, sold it to eBay, founded Palantir, invested in Facebook, funded SpaceX and LinkedIn, helped Hulk Hogan sue Gawker; he is the lawyer who emerged victorious from the ashes of the Dot Com Bust and showed us all – techies, investment bankers, media pundits, management gurus and lay public – how to run a successful tech start up, or to spot an idea that can eventually become successful. Here he is, giving us the benefit of his wisdom in this book: How to Make Millions from your Start Up in Seven Easy Steps, or words to that effect.
Thiel generally makes sense, and writes well. He even has some really epigrammatic lines in there: ‘All Rhodes scholars had a great future in their past,’ being the most memorable. He has many good suggestions, heuristics and useful thumb rules: start with a good team that gels together, plan well, have something unique that can be defended, focus on a small market to dominate before moving on to bigger things, and a few others. He also quotes from or refers to Anna Karenina, Francis Bacon, Jose Casablanca, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Engels, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Lady Gaga, Georg Hegel, Oedipus, Vilfredo Pareto, John Rawls, and the Unabomber: erudite man. So, a very readable book, all told.
Trouble is, Thiel’s conception of success, as is evident from his title, is binary. Facebook, Paypal, Apple, Google, Tesla: these are his success stories. And of course they are. But if success in business – particularly that kind of success, in conceiving an innovative, differentiated, paradigm-changing, industry-creating idea and executing it to commercial success – were as easy as following a few steps from a book, we would all be billionaires. As Thiel’s Preface begins, ‘Every moment in business happens only once…if you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.’ Should we learn from Thiel, then?
June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment
Hinduism has three hundred and thirty million divinities, or so the cliché goes. I do not believe anyone has actually counted and confirmed this number, but if they did, I am confident that at least half the total would turn out to be female. We Hindus may not all be feminists, but we certainly are Equal Opportunity worshippers.
There are two kinds of goddesses in Hindu tradition, as AK Ramanujam has pointed out (“Two Realms of Kannada Folklore”): “breast” mothers and “tooth” mothers. The former are married to other gods and subservient to their spouses, are largely benevolent and invoked for blessings at auspicious times, worshipped with offerings of incense, flowers and fruits, in temples built in their honor inside towns and villages, with well-crafted idols with beautiful smiling faces. The mothers of the tooth variety are diametrically different: they are not subservient to any males, and indeed are often fatal to any males associated with them. They are deities of dread invoked at times of crisis, like plagues or famine, and the devotees don’t pray for blessings, they plead for mercy. They are propitiated with blood sacrifices, not floral tributes. Their temples are typically situated outside the village, and the idols are usually either faceless or terrible to behold. These temples can be spotted by the wayside all over rural India, especially outside the Gangetic heartlands, but they are not the subject of either mainstream mythology or popular worship. We in the cities have forgotten them, even though our cities have now expanded so much that these temples, once outside village limits, now languish unnoticed at the curbs of busy thoroughfares.
In the book under review, Anamika Roy documents temples to such mysterious ‘tantric’ goddesses in the tribal belts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps eerily and perhaps naturally, they follow the identical patterns described by DD Kosambi in Maharashtra and Ramanujam in South India. They are called Sitala, Jogubai, Tulaja, Mhalsa in Maharashtra, Bhagawati or Pattini in Kerala, Kuravai, Ananku, or Tunankai in Tamil Nadu. The Yoginis described by Roy have equally fearsome names: Kankalini Mata, Sat Bahinia, Danteswari, Raksasi, Hunkari, Vadavamukhi, Mahakrura, Krodhana, Tarala, Meghanada, Pisaci, Vikrta, Durjaya, Bhayankari, Pralaya, Vakranasa, Yamajihva, Pretaksi, Putana, Nisacari, Durmukhi, VIsalanguli, Yamaduti, Asura, Vikatalocana, Lalajihva, Kapalahasta, Pracanda, Sisughni, Rudhirapayini, Garbha-bhaksa, Sava-hasta, Antra-malini, Sosani-drsti, Kataputana, Attahasa. They have beautiful bodies but fierce faces: most have protruding eyes and teeth, or an extra eye, or their tongue out, others have the face of an animal, others still have no face at all. Some of them stand on corpses or brandish severed heads in their hands. Admittedly, one of them is pictured holding a baby (awww!) but then she looks fierce and holds a sword in her other hand, so we can’t be sure what exactly is going on.
Kali by Raja Ravi Verma (courtesy Wikipedia): the best known of the Other Mothers
May 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
The year 69 AD was a particularly turbulent year in the history of the Roman empire. Few of the people who lived under its aegis would have counted that year among the best days of their lives, as armies crisscrossed the land with fire and sword in an orgy of violence, and civil war rent the fragile fabric of the Pax Romana. No fewer than four men declared themselves Imperator that year; no fewer than three of them met grievous and gory ends before the year was done.
Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had committed suicide in June 68 AD. Fiddler or not (opinions vary) he had provided the empire with a stable central authority, and his sudden death sent shock waves in all directions. The dour septuagenarian Servius Galba, military governor of the Hispanic province, moved quickly into the void, but made no attempts to win over the army and aristocracy, and by the 15th of January, he was dead, murdered as part of a palace coup, and an old Nero favorite, Otho, seized the reins of empire. But Aulus Vitellius, commander of the powerful German legions, had already begun mobilizing, and Flavius Vespasian, master of the rich Roman possessions in the East, lay in wait with designs of his own. Vitellius’ battle-seasoned troops crossed the Alps and met the imperial armies at Cremona, where after a spirited engagement, the Vitellian Fifth and Twenty-first legions put the Othonian First and Thirteenth to flight. Two days later, on 16 April, Emperor Otho bid an affectionate farewell to his staff, destroyed a few documents, spoke calmly and softly to his brother’s son, had a good night’s sleep, woke up at dawn, presumably said oh well, let’s get this over with, then, and fell on his own dagger.