Monday, May 21, 2012

Reading :: A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term

A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term
By Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski was a Polish ethnographer who visited New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands in 1914-1915 and 1917-1918, writing several classics, such as the fascinating Argonauts of the Western Pacific. In my review of that book, I praised Argonauts for being even-handed, generally examining the islanders' customs without condemnation or condescension.

During these trips, Malinowski kept a polyglot diary, mostly in Polish, in which he recorded his doubts, obsessions, hypochondria, paranoia, and bigotry. This diary was meant to be private, but when Malinowski died of a heart attack in 1942, his private papers were gathered and sent to his widow Valetta.  She discovered the diaries in 1949, discussed publication in 1960, and finally had it published in 1966.

How to put this? The diary underlines how large an accomplishment Malinowski's even-handedness actually was. Malinowski describes his hatred and contempt for the islanders, repeatedly using a racial slur that we in the 21st century find painful to read. Early on, he tells his diary, "On the whole my feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to 'Exterminate the brutes'" (p.69), and these feelings are repeated throughout the rest of the diary. Malinowski's hatred and contempt are contradicted—or, perhaps, exacerbated—by his shameful lust for the native women. Not that Malinowski's lust is discriminate: he obsessively details it and its many objects.

Malinowski also details his own obsessive suspicions of others. He suspects many of his native informants of lying; he alternately adores, then reviles other ethnographers; he excoriates the missionaries.

When I began noticing these patterns, I thought, perhaps this is just the result of a very young man making his way through the world. But then I checked the dates: At the beginning of the diary, Malinowski is 30!

This obsessive hypochondriac, pouring his bigotry and shame onto the page of his private diary, was able to work through these issues to produce a sympathetic and evenhanded portrayal of the Trobriand Islanders. Remarkable!

If you're interested in the inner life of ethnographers, I'm not sure I would recommend this book first; perhaps Rabinow would be a better place to start. But if you want to learn more about Malinowski in particular, this diary is an interesting read.

1 comment:

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