6 Degrees of Separation – September 2017

Kate has a talent for picking interesting books as a starting point for her Six Degrees of Separation meme and this month it’s Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I loved that book when I read it, as I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese culture and history.

 

 

So for my first link I will stay with China but move to crime fiction, with Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong, featuring the very likeable Chief Inspector Chen, a poet who has to navigate his way through the political shenanigans of 1990s Shanghai.

 

 

Another poet/policeman is of course PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh and in one of the books of the long-running series Original Sin he investigates the death of the managing director of one of London’s oldest publishing houses, the fictional Peverell Press.

 

 

Another book describing life in the publishing industry, with slightly less murder but considerably more satire, is Muriel Spark’s delightfully outrageous, darkly tongue-in-cheek A Far Cry from Kensington, where the sensible Mrs Hawkins can suddenly no longer bear the frightful prose and arrogant air of one of their authors.

 

 

I always associate Muriel Spark with Barbara Pym, especially with the latter’s novel Less Than Angels, which is equally merciless and satirical about anthropologists as Spark is about publishers. Perhaps I have a soft spot for this novel (which is not necessarily Pym’s best, although it is perhaps her most light-hearted one) because it reminds me of tea-time in the common room at the Anthropology Department in Cambridge and all the characters you might meet there.

 

Speaking of anthropologists, one of the founding mothers of anthropology was Margaret Mead and her memoir Blackberry Winter was one of the books which ignited my life-long love for the subject. Some of her findings have since been contested – which is as it should be, research (and our respect and understanding for other cultures) should progress constantly.

 

 

Another remarkable woman who has inspired me all my life is Marie Curie. I haven’t yet read the biography written by her daughter Ève Curie, but it would be interesting to see what this younger daughter, an artistic cuckoo in a nest of scientists, has to say about her driven mother. Apparently, she used to joke that she was the disappointment of the family: ‘There were five Nobel Prizes in my family, two for my mother, one for my father, one for [my] sister and brother-in-law and one for my husband. Only I was not successful…’

So from China to the UK, Samoa and Papua New Guinea to Poland and France, this has been a meandering sort of literary link… Where will your associations take you?

International Women’s Day: My Heroines

I used to think that International Women’s Day was a Communist invention, brough over by the Soviets, a sop to exhausted women doing double shifts in the workplace and at home to build the socialist dream. In fact, it predates the Russian Revolution by a good few years and I see it now as an opportunity to remember inspirational women of the past, and improve the situation of women everywhere now and in the future. So here are my personal heroines:

Marie Curie. From Royal Society of Chemistry website.
Marie Curie. From Royal Society of Chemistry website.

Marie Curie

The first woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, the only person to win it twice for two different sciences (physics and chemistry), the first woman professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to be entombed on her own merits (rather than as ‘wife of’) in the Pantheon… her list of achievements just goes on and on. She also managed to achieve all of this whilst being a single mother to her two daughters (her husband Pierre Curie died when the girls were just toddlers) and building her lab outside Paris. The quote below shows just how much this must have cost her – and how little things have changed since then.

I have often been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.

Virginia Woolf, from German Wikipedia site.
Virginia Woolf, from German Wikipedia site.

Virginia Woolf

Largely self-educated, despite her relatively privileged background, she overcame her fears, anxieties, insecurities, depressions and periods of insanity at least long enough to give us some of the sharpest critical thinking and most poetic prose in English literature. And she had the coolest group of friends (despite their little stabbings and rivalries), so she must have been a good friend.

 

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Sophie Scholl, from the German National Archives.
Sophie Scholl, from the German National Archives.

Sophie Scholl

German student who, together with her brother and a small band of friends, formed an anti-war resistance movement The White Rose, at the heart of Nazi Germany. She was found guilty of high treason and executed in 1943. Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag, who wrote a play about The White Rose, has been quoted as saying: ‘It is possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the twentieth century… The fact that five little kids, in the mouth of the wolf, where it really counted, had the tremendous courage to do what they did, is spectacular to me. I know that the world is better for them having been there…’

Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.

Martha Gellhorn, from The New Yorker.
Martha Gellhorn, from The New Yorker.

Martha Gellhorn

One of the foremost war correspondents of her generation and perhaps the whole twentieth century, she was smart, fearless, compassionate and deserves to be remembered as more than just ‘Ernest Hemingway’s third wife’. When he complained about her frequent work-related absences, saying: ‘Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?’, guess what her answer was? Yes, something along the lines: ‘These boots are made for walking…’

The only way I can pay back for what fate and society have handed me is to try, in minor totally useless ways, to make an angry sound against injustice.

Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Library of Congress.
Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Library of Congress.

Margaret Mead

American anthropologist, the first and perhaps only superstar of anthropology, who opened up minds and hearts to other cultures and other voices. Although some of her conclusions and findings have been contested since (which perhaps just goes to show that human societies evolve continuously), she is a model for courage to explore independently, learn new things constantly, fit in with others and go against the prevailing current. She was also a fantastic mother, whose daughter has followed in her footsteps.

 If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognise the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.

Happy International Women’s Day, to inspirational women everywhere and the friends and families who stand by their side!

 

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.