Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Google Searches, Malinowski, and Argonauts

I've read a couple interesting posts lately on what bizarre strings of words people searched to get to your blog. There are some funny mom-oriented ones at Real Talk about Motherhood (matronly breasts? crisco then and now?), and some really strange ones at Bootstrap Analysis ("Walt Whitman and the Pointer Sisters"? "What are the sharpest parts of a cat"? "farting treetop sounds"???).

I've had a couple pretty strange ones myself (notably "petticoated bad boy husband", I just knew mentioning petticoats would bring a hit from one of, interesting people with alternative fetishes), but I consistently get hits from people (anthropology students?) looking for information on Argonauts of the Western Pacific or Bronislaw Malinowski. The quote that named this blog came from this 1922 "classic monograph" of cultural and economic anthropology. No, I'm not going to do a book review of Argonauts, and I don't have that much desire to re-read the whole book again, though I did like the introduction and a few parts of the other endless chapters on the kula, canoes, yams, pigs, and conch shells. Obviously I liked the word "imponderabilia" enough to remember it for fifteen years after reading Argonauts, and I love the whole idea of participant observation. After all,

"certain subtle peculiarities, which make an impression as long as they are novel, cease to be noticed as soon as they become familiar. Others again can only be perceived with a better knowledge of the local conditions. An ethnographic diary, carried on systematically throughout the course of one's work in a district would be the ideal instrument for this sort of study. (p. 21, Argonauts).

Obviously my blog isn't particularly systematic, but then again I'm not getting funded by Wenner-Gren or the NSF. This blog is more like Malinowski's personal diary, which was written between 1914 and 1918, packed away in boxes after his death in 1942, and finally published in 1968: A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Since I actually wrote a short book review on this for after reading it last year, I thought I'd cut & paste a bit and put it here in my blog so that all those poor Malinowski google searchers get something for their efforts.

First, however, note that Amazon's "statistically improbable phrases" describe Malinowski's diary pretty well: lecherous thoughts, retrospective diary, walked around the village, felt rotten, gorged myself, resident magistrate, wrote diary. Lecherous thoughts! Just what every new anthropology student wants to know about how one of the "old white men" of anthropology really felt. Wow, it occurs 13 times in Malinowski's Diary. How interesting.

Anyway, here's my short review: It reads like a blog, and is surprisingly modern in most parts. Either Malinowski was a hypochrondriac, or he really suffered in the tropics....maybe both. He talks about injecting himself with arsenic fairly often.

He had lewd thoughts about many of the women (both native & colonial) he met during his fieldwork, but except for some "pawing" his lust remained unconsummated. He had some very snarky things to say about various people he encountered (one guy gave him "mental congestion"), and he went on endlessly about his true love, E.R.M., and his pure feelings for her, and how he really needed to make a clean break with N.

There are lots of descriptions of tropical sunsets, and of the famous anthropologist occasionally taking a shit in the mangroves and rowing his dinghy around the lagoon. Besides going on and on about his health, his depression about how much he was accomplishing, and his use of trashy novels to escape all of this, he also complains about his informants and how sick to death of all them he is....which is a pretty interesting contrast with the professional work (especially Argonauts of the Western Pacific).

One of the things Malinowski is best known for is being the first anthropologist to actually live in native villages, learn the language, and engage in everyday activities - now known as participant observation. It is rather fascinating to see how he actually felt about it at the time, and the old-style prose adds to your reading enjoyment. I think they should update the diary with lots of pictures of all the relevant people. Malinowski didn't go on to marry E.R.M. after all! I wonder if she dumped him or he found someone else.


Sandy said...

Anyone wanting a real review of Malinowski's diary should check out this blog reprint of Geertz's NYT book review:

Sandy said...

Oops. That's just the New York Review of Books.

Sandy D. said...

And now they've changed the link:

You can still read the first paragraphs, but the rest will cost you $3.

Hortense Powdermaker also wrote a rebuttal to Geertz's review, which is free. And I like her review better.

Aidan said...

Actually, Malinowski did marry ERM (Elsie Rosaline Masson) in 1919--they had several daughters and were married until Elsie's death in 1935, following a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Malinowski did remarry eventually, but that was some time later. He was only married to his second wife for two years, due to his untimely demise of a heart attack at the age of 58. His second wife eventually published his diary in 1976.

I thought you made some good points but wonder at the level of inquiry here, given that you completely missed the fact that Malinowski and Elsie did marry (incidentally, Nina Stirling became wise to Malinowski's intention to marry another and broke their enagement in the summer of 1918). Some basic research would have answered your questions here. Malinowski's daughter Helena went on to write an article on the influence of various women in his life.

Anonymous said...

As a matter of fact, the Diary was published in 1968, not 79

Sandy D. said...

Thanks for your corrections, Aidan and Anonymous. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.