The Euphoria of Anthropology

euphoriaThis is a long overdue review of Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, a novel based on the life and loves of Margaret Mead and her two anthropologist husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. It is also a life-lesson for me: don’t leave it too long before you review a book you liked, just because you think you’ll be able to write something wiser, wittier, more in-depth about it.

You won’t. And you’ll have forgotten most of the reasons why you loved it in the first place.

Margaret Mead’s autobiography ‘Blackberry Winter’ is one of the reasons I decided to become an anthropologist. She was one of the superstars of anthropology and, no matter how much subsequent debate there has been about her conclusions, no one doubts her passion and unabashed curiosity for other people and cultures.  Outspoken and candid in most personal matters, she is nevertheless coy about the few months she spent in what must have been a tense relationship triangle with Bateson and Fortune in 1933 in New Guinea. I was somewhat worried that Lily King would romanticise and sensationalise the situation to the detriment of the real people and the anthropology. Would I love a book that reimagined my childhood heroes beyond all recognition?

But love it I did, although I struggled to find my bearings in the opening chapter. Who is doing the observing and the talking? The woman is not named at first, and there are two other women to add to the confusion. Are these characters heading out or coming back? Perhaps this is a deliberate construct, to give the reader an example of what it is like for an anthropologist going into an unknown culture, where none of the usual rules or landmarks make sense.

After that, however, the narrative settled down, and the action is perceived largely through the eyes of Andrew Bankson (the Bateson character), including what he imagines Nell Stone’s (the Margaret Mead character) life in the field to be like, interspersed with extracts from her diary. The rather repulsive husband Fen (the Fortune character) is only ever described by these two main protagonists, so does not get his say. He appears to be struggling to make a lasting impression in anthropology, is envious of his wife’s fame and constantly belittles her work ethic. ‘Got your Novel Prize yet, Nellie?’ he asks whenever she receives her long-delayed mail, and hurts her in rather symbolic ways (damaging her glasses, her typewriter, her body).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.
Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.

Atlhough the author imagines a completely different resolution to the story of this explosive trio, I was surprised how closely she stuck to some of the biographical elements. The characteristics of the tribes they visited are accurately described; the Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas mentor characters reappear as Helen and  himself respectively. Bateson was indeed as much affected by the death of his two older brothers as the fictional Bankson is in the book.

The four-fold scheme of cultural ‘temperaments’ were indeed formulated by Margaret and Bateson at the time, based on the manuscript of Benedict’s work ‘Patterns of Culture’, which they received in the field. Although this theoretical model has since been discredited (partly because of the misuse the Nazis made of such models), King does a great job of describing the excitement, the beauty of frenzy, which overcomes researchers when they think they might be on the brink of a great discovery. This is the ‘euphoria’ of the title, although it is also described elsewhere in the book as the moment, typically two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense.

It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Another aspect of the novel which I enjoyed was the implied contemporary reassessment of the way anthropology was conducted back in the 1930s. Although they mean well, there is an unspoken ‘white man’ arrogance about the way in which the researchers descend upon a village with all of their belongings, rope people into building a treehouse for them, attempt to impose a schedule on them for interviews and observations etc.

The balance between love affair and professional fulfillment is just about right. The author manages to make anthropology – or perhaps just intellectual quest for excellence and meaning – sexy, despite the flies, the malaria, the self-doubts and the lack of plumbing.

lilykingThe ending, however, diverges sharply from the real life stories – and the love story between Nell and Andrew is perhaps all the more beautiful for it. Back in the real world, Bateson married his princess, and they did do some successful fieldwork together in Bali and they had a daughter (who also became an anthropologist). However, they got divorced ten years later and their grand unifying construct of cultural patterns amounted to nothing.

Fiction! It trumps reality every single time.

 

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14 thoughts on “The Euphoria of Anthropology”

  1. That sounds like a fascinating book, Marina Sofia! I’m also fascinated by the character of Margaret Mead, and I can see why she inspired you. Interesting too to see how the views of anthropology have changed over the decades. And yes, fiction sometimes tells much better stories than real life does…

    1. Interestingly enough, all of this author’s previous books are very diverse, with different settings, but they all seem to be love stories of some description. I may not have tried her if it hadn’t been for the anthropology angle, but her writing is really good.

    1. Thank you so much for the tip – that looks very interesting indeed!
      For a scientific approach to the similarities and differences between fiction and anthropology, being both witness and participant, there is Ruth Behar’s work ‘The Vulnerable Observer’ – again, not sure how easy it is to find!

  2. An anthropologist’ s perspective! Your review is unique and I have wanted to read more about Mead since I favored this fiction ‘re-imagining’ of King’ s. Any biographies you recommend? I’ll definitely pick up BlackBerry Winter.

    1. Lily King has a great reading list at the back of the book, and I think Jane Howard’s biography is one of the best known, but I’m not sure which to recommend. I have seen that there is a selection of Mead’s letters from the field available now ‘To Cherish the Life of the World’ – I’d be very interested in reading those. Personally, I found a biography of Ruth Benedict, Mead’s friend and mentor, very illuminating: ‘Patterns of a Life’ by Judith Schachter Modell. Sadly, it seems to be out of print now.

      1. I found the Ruth Benedict Biography for 1.00 in Hardbook at Powell’s. We’ll see if it is in readable shape, lol. I think the letters look fascinating and added it to my lust list. I also picked up BlackBerry Winter. THANKS!

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