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Configurations, Volume 22, Number 1, Winter 2014, pp. 29-55 (Article)

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DOI: 10.1353/con.2014.0008

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Crucible or Centrifuge?
Bronislaw Malinowskis A Diary
in the Strict Sense of the Term
Richard Lansdown
James Cook University

ABSTRACT: This essay seeks to read Bronislaw Malinowskis A Diary


in the Strict Sense of the Term in literary-critical terms, broadly understood. As such, it supplements the psychological, epistemological,
and cultural readings already available from historians and theorists
like George W. Stocking, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, and Christina Thompson. The essay considers the diary as a genre, but also as
a variety of moral imposition that extracts patterns from experience
by virtue of its unique form. As examples, it considers the patterns in
Malinowskis response to landscape and to the literature he read during the Diarys composition, and how these underpinned his epistemological, ethnographic thinking during the period.
Man has the choice of stooping in science beneath himself, and
striving in science beyond himself; and the Know Thyself is, for
him, not a law to which he must in peace submit; but a precept
which of all others is the most painful to understand, and the most
difficult to fulfil.
John Ruskin, The Eagles Nest 1

The restraints we place on imaginative writersas opposed to discursive ones, in the professionsare essentially few, since freedom
of expression is in the nature of their pursuit and of their value
to society. Tolstoy, for example, argued only that authors should
1. John Ruskin, The Eagles Nest: Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art,
Given before the University of Oxford, in Lent Term, 1872 (London: George Allen, 1900).
Configurations, 2014, 22:2955 2014 by Johns Hopkins University Press
and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.

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choose a subject important to the life of mankind, be sincere in


their treatment of it, and write well. Private forms of literary expression like letters and diaries may or may not run up against those expectations, but they also involve ethical obligations of a more direct
nature. Partners in a correspondence undertake to reply to the communications they receive; if the exchange of letters breaks down,
one of them is at fault. In diaries, writers give undertakings to themselves alone. As most diaries are confidential, such promises are easy
to break; but precisely because they are promises diary-keepers make
to themselves, breaking them can present a peculiarly intimate sense
of defection. So diary writing has a particular place in the spectrum
of authorshipan undertaking both light and imposing.
This paradoxical sense of responsibility has been noted by diarists
themselves. A man cannot know himself better, Boswell wrote on
the first page of his Journal,
than by attending to the feelings of his heart and to his external actions. . . . I
have therefore determined to keep a daily journal in which I shall set down
my various sentiments and my various conduct, which will be not only useful
but very agreeable. It will give me a habit of application and improve me in
expression; and know that I am to record my transactions will make me more
careful to do well. Or if I should go wrong, it will assist me in resolutions of
doing better.2

Taking care to do well and resolving to do better are moral pledges,


but so is the very act of determining to keep a daily journal. The
habit of application is an end in itself. Pepys also recognized the
disciplinary value of keeping a diary, and keeping it regularly. Late
at the office, entering my Journall for eight days past, he wrote on
16 October 1665, the greatness of my business hindering me of late
to put it down daily; but I have done it now very true and particularly, and hereafter will, I hope, be able to fall into my old way of
doing it daily.3
A diary is a form of moral constraint, therefore; but it is also a
source of aesthetic freedom: If you are making daily entries, you
have no time to think, you do not want to think, you want to remember, you cannot consciously adopt any particular artifice; you
jot down the days doings either briefly or burst out impulsively here
and there into detail; and without being conscious of it, you your2. Frederick Pottle, ed., Boswells London Journal, 17621763 (London: Heinemann,
1950), p. 39.
3. Robert Latham and William Matthews, eds., The Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol. 1 (London: G. Bell, 1970), p. 544.

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31

self emerge and appear out of the sum total of those jottings, however brief they may be.4
By repressing self-consciousness, diaries liberate their authors
from literary artifice. Just as the imaginary presence of a correspondent exercises a restraint on the author and produces a certain sort
of self-consciousness which may be entirely absent from the pages
of a diary,5 so diaries undergo a somewhat disconcerting metamorphosis should they be consciously composed as art.6 As selfdelineations, Robert Fothergill argues, diaries deal directly with
people and events which in the novel are subjected to the stresses
and conventions of art and design. And in many ways they are the
most natural and instinctive product of the art of writingcorallike aggregates of minimal deposits, in fact.7
Clearly, this is an ideal conception. No piece of writing is actually
constructed like coral, instinctively, and artifice is involved with every act of enunciation. But the diary does remain a less teleological
enterprise than either biography or fiction. As the diarist does not
know the future, Anas Nin suggests, he reaches no conclusion,
no synthesis, which is an artificial product of the intellect. The diary is true to becoming and continuum.8 A diary is only secondarily
a text or a literary genre. Like correspondence, the diary is first and
foremost an activity. Keeping a diary is a way of living before it is
a way of writing.9 By being a peculiarly open aesthetic structure,
short of both hindsight and foresight in narrative terms, the keeping of a diary does become a particular kind of experience: a new
stage in self-knowledge and new formulation of responsibility to the
self; an unusually definite image of oneself generated out of the
flux of impressions that compose the consciousness, and therefore
nothing less, perhaps, than a clue to self-mastery.10 From the
4. Arthur Ponsonby, English Diaries: A Review of English Diaries from the Sixteenth to the
Twentieth Century (London: Methuen, 1923), p. 5.
5. Ibid., p. 2.
6. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (London: Routledge / Kegan Paul,
1960), p. 3.
7. Robert Fothergill, Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 8.
8. Anas Nin, The Novel of the Future (London: Peter Owen, 1969), p. 153 (emphasis in
original).
9. Philippe Lejeune, On Diary, ed. Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), p. 153.
10. Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (above, n. 6), p. 183; Fothergill, Private
Chronicles (above, n. 7), pp. 64, 68.

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wretched compromise of being too literary [to be true] yet not literary enough [to be aesthetically compelling], the diary becomes the
reconciler between incompatibles, literary enough [to be engaging]
yet not too literary [to stifle spontaneity]. Thus it poses a vital
problem of consciousnesswhat to do with the human capacity to
apprehend aesthetic patterns in experience.11
***
Bronislaw Malinowskis A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term presents these issues in an especially vivid form. It was written in two
bouts, between September 1914 and March 1915, and October 1917
and July 1918the first and last of three pioneering anthropological trips to New Guinea undertaken while the author (a Pole, and
therefore nominally a citizen of Austria-Hungary) was a wartime enemy alien in Australia, the local imperial power. Existentially, the
diary is an intense one, but it is also unusual because of its professional and intellectual circumstance. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the
Term was translated and published in 1967, twenty-five years after
its authors death, and was received by most Anglo-American anthropologists with feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, and
dismay12especially when it was revealed that this founding father of cultural anthropology habitually referred to his Trobriander
subjects as niggers.13 Malinowski also agonized at length about
his romantic attachments to the daughters of two Australian professors (Nina Stirling, whom he had practically affianced himself to,
11. Fothergill, Private Chronicles (above, n. 7), p. 50.
12. Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz, The Ethnographer and His Savages: An Intellectual History of Malinowskis Diary, Polish Review 27:12 (1982), pp. 9298, quote
on p. 94.
13. See Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, 2nd ed., trans.
Norbert Guterman (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), pp. 162, 188, 264,
273, for example. Malinowskis stated attitudes on this score are sometimes more distressing when direct terms of racial abuse are not employed. For example, I see the life
of the natives as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from
me as the life of a dog; or I understand all the German and Belgian colonial atrocities
(pp. 167, 279; italics indicate Malinowskis use of languages other than Polish in the
original). At other times, language that to modern eyes is powerfully abusive seems
almost affectionate. After I came here, Malinowski wrote to Elsie Masson, his future
wife, on 7 June 1918 when returning to Omakarana, a village in the Trobriands, I went
round the village and it was real fun to see the old niggers again. You know how little
sentiment I put into my relations with the niggs and with regard to my whole life here.
But coming here . . . was so intensely reminiscent of my time here three years ago that
it gave and gives me a thrill. See Helena Wayne, ed., The Story of a Marriage: The Letters
of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1995), 1:151.

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33

and Elsie Masson, whom he would ultimately marry), complained


about his health ad nauseam, and confessed to long bouts of novelreading and a related indifference to the ethnological task in hand.
Before the Diary appeared, Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble had
paid homage to the Mosaic legend of the scientist who first set up
his tent in the native village: he was intensely curious; he could be
tender or nasty, according to his true feelings; he could penetrate
the disguised feelings of others; and he was always candid. These
traits, together with a sympathy that, as [anthropologist R. R.] Marett puts, it could find its way into the heart of the shyest savage,
played a large part in his legendary success as a field worker.14 The
Diary seemed to shatter this legend completely. Malinowski was candid, certainly; but it was his incuriosity that was most at issue in
the Diary, where his nastiness seemed practically triumphant, where
his own feelings preoccupied him more than almost anything else
at hand, where his powers of sympathy were almost completely in
abeyance, and where the question of an informants shyness hardly
arosebecause his or her very presence was odious enough.
But the Diary did more than damage Malinowskis reputation. In
George Stocking Jr.s words, it helped to precipitate the crisis of anthropology in the years that followed and became a central thread
in a continuing discussion of the ethnographic process by anthropologists and interested outsiders alike.15 Its reception, therefore,
was controversial. What does it tell us about the birth of fieldwork
or about Malinowski? Anthony Forge asked; In fact, very little of
either.16 Indeed, the volume holds no interest for anyone, Ian
Hogbin reported, be he anthropologist, psychologist, student of biography, or merely a gossip.17 I. M. Lewis offered a more balanced
appraisal, but even he conceded that [m]uch of this . . . makes monotonous and tedious reading.18 For Audrey Richards, although the
book contained poetic flashes, it would have been better kept

14. Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble, They Studied Man (1961; reprint, New York:
Mentor, 1963), pp. 140, 146.
15. George W. Stocking Jr., The Ethnographers Magic and Other Essays in the History of
Anthropology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), p. 15.
16. Anthony Forge, The Lonely Anthropologist, New Society, 18 August 1967, pp.
221223, quote on p. 221.
17. Ian Hogbin, Review of Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, American Anthropologist
70:3 (1968): 575.
18. I. M. Lewis, Review of Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Man 3:2 (1968): 348
349.

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as a quarry for a biography than published in its entirety.19 For


Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz also, the Diary was a rather
limited type of human document, a series of very private snapshots
of an extremely complex person, taken without his permission,
with limited value in terms of Malinowskis development as an
ethnographer and a theorist.20 Marvin Harris went much further,
calling Malinowski a hypochondriacal, puritanical, egotistical,
ethnographic snob.21 When Clifford Geertz called Malinowski a
crabbed, self-preoccupied, hypochondriacal narcissist, whose fellow
feeling for the people he lived with was limited in the extreme,
labeled the Diary itself gross and tiresome, and its authors example
embarrassing, Hortense Powdermaker could only concur, even as
she mounted a defense of her erstwhile teacher. The Diary, she admitted, was tedious in the extreme and a product of the current
expos-sensationalism in our cultureonly this expos happens
to be dull. Like others, the only point of substance she could raise
was that regrettable ephemera like these often accompanied bold
and innovative scientific work, and that fieldwork was psychologically demanding on those who undertook it.22 The scandal blew up
again on the pages of the newsletter of the Royal Anthropological
Institute (RAIN) from February to December 1980, in which Francis
Hsu and Edmund Leach were eventually joined by numerous other
commentators,23 and by 1990, Nigel Rapport could state that surely
everything has already been said about Malinowskis diary, before
adding further thoughts of his own to the effect that whereas the Diary was tedious and bitty and repetitive and hum-drum, it was
also a very human document and a necessary attempt to preserve the home life beyond the field as if in amber, ready to go back
to, and thus free Malinowski for those flights of fancy necessary for
launching into and apprehending the ethnographic situation.24
19. Audrey Richards, In Darkest Malinowski, Cambridge Review, 19 January 1968, pp.
186189.
20. Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz, Bronislaw Malinowski in the Light of His
Diary, Polish Review 12:3 (1967): 6772.
21. Marvin Harris, Review of Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Natural History 76
(1967): 7274.
22. Clifford Geertz, Under the Mosquito Net, New York Review, 14 September 1967,
pp. 1213; Hortense Powdermaker, An Agreeable Man, New York Review, 19 November 1967, pp. 3637.
23. See RAIN 36 (February 1980): 23; 39 (August 1980): 46; 40 (October 1980): 78;
41 (December 1980): 12.
24. Nigel Rapport, Surely Everything Has Already Been Said About Malinowskis Diary! Anthropology Today 6:1 (1990): 59.

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***
Out of the gun smoke of the reviews, there emerged three longerlasting positions on the Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Stocking
sought to explain it in terms of its psychological context: not so
much a chronicle of ethnographic work, he suggested, as an account of the central psychological drama of his life . . . a tale of oedipal conflict, of simultaneous erotic involvement with two women
. . . and of unresolved national identity, symbolized by his mother
back in Poland.25 The Diary did indeed affront the association we
have become accustomed to make between anthropology and tolerance, but it was best seen as part of Malinowskis need to create a kind of internal enclave of European culture, and must also
be interpreted in the light of his formal anthropological writings,
which clearly demonstrate an interaction [with Trobriander people] which, however emotionally complex, involved, with varying
degrees, tolerance, sympathy, empathy and even identification.26
Geertz had used the original publication of the Diary in 1967 as
an opportunityseized on by poststructuralist intellectuals in other
fields besides, not least in literary criticismOedipally to unseat one
of his disciplines progenitorsin effect, to deny the existence of
giants, while standing on their shoulders. But as time passed, he
broadened his assault by switching his attention to the dimly humanist and scientifically under-scrutinized notion of rapport,
sympathy, and empathy between fieldworker and subject, anthropologist and native, that Malinowski had often been taken to incarnate. The myth of the chameleon fieldworker, perfectly self-tuned
to his exotic surroundings, a walking miracle of empathy, tact, patience, and cosmopolitanism, Geertz wrote, was demolished [albeit unintentionally] by the man who had perhaps done most to
create it.27
Finally, James Clifford and Christina Thompson took more literarycritical or cultural approaches by analyzing what Malinowski wrote
in terms of what he read, and focusing on his relation to fellow25. Stocking, The Ethnographers Magic (above, n. 15), p. 251.
26. George W. Stocking Jr., Empathy and Antipathy in the Heart of Darkness, in Readings in the History of Anthropology, ed. Regna Darnell (New York: Harper & Row, 1974),
pp. 281287, quotes on pp. 281, 284, 286.
27. Clifford Geertz, From the Natives Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding, in Meaning in Anthropology, ed. Keith H. Basso and Henry A.
Selby (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), pp. 221237, quotes on
pp. 221222. For Geertz, therefore, the Diary ultimately revealed itself to be the backstage masterpiece of anthropology, our The Double Helix; see Geertz, Works and Lives:
The Anthropologist as Author (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988), p. 75.

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Pole Joseph Conrad in general, and Heart of Darkness in particular.


Malinowski admired and had met Conrad, and the Diary records
his reading Tales of Unrest; Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories
(in which Heart of Darkness appears); Romance; and The Secret Agent.
In later life, it seems, he announced that [W. H. R.] Rivers is the
Rider Haggard of anthropology; I shall be the Conrad,28 and if that
was not enough, he melodramatically identified himself with Conrads Kurtz during his first visit to New Guinea: On the whole my
feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to Exterminate the
brutes.29 For Clifford, [b]oth Conrad in the Congo and Malinowski
in the Trobriands were enmeshed in complex, contradictory subjective situations, articulated at the levels of language, desire, and
cultural affiliation. The Diary is an unstable confusion of other
voices and worlds, Malinowskis personal truths were to some degree fictions, and his fieldwork experience is filled with discrepant
inscriptions bearing comparison with those scraps of worlds we
call novels.30 Thus Conrad and Malinowski helped unveil the modern notion that subjectivity is not an epiphany of identity freely
chosen but a cultural artifact determined by historical contingency.31 Thompson, in parallel fashion, sought to assimilate the novelist
28. Raymond Firth, ed., Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski (London: Routledge / Kegan Paul, 1957), pp. 6. Whether Malinowski ever
made this remark, we shall never know. But he did write to the wife of his mentor
Charles Seligman, from the Trobriands in 1918 about Rivers and his History of Melanesian Society (1914): I see very clearly his limitations, and his mind is not really congenial to me. To draw a parallel: it reads like Rider Haggard rather than Joseph Conrad. It
is rather a pursuit of fact than of the philosophical importance of fact. See Michael Young,
Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004),
pp. 236237 (emphasis added).
29. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 69 (emphasis in
original; all subsequent emphases in quotes from the Diary are in the original).
30. James Clifford, On Ethnographic Self-Fashioning: Conrad and Malinowski, in
Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, ed.
Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellerby (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986), pp. 140162, quotes on pp. 150, 151, 157, 158. In certain respects,
Argonauts of the Western Pacific is a more Conradian book than the Diary: in particular,
the halo of romance that Malinowski ascribes to kula and the value he gives to watercraft in general: a craft, whether of bark or wood, iron or steel, lives in the life of its
sailors, and is more to the sailor than a mere bit of shaped matter. See Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge / Kegan Paul, 1922), pp.
86, 351, 105. Conrads ten-page Congo Diary of JuneAugust, 1890the only such
record we have from himis terse in the extreme.
31. Clifford, On Ethnographic Self-Fashioning (above, n. 30), p. 142. (Clifford is
quoting here from Stephen Greenblatts Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980], p. 256.) On postmodernist con-

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37

and the ethnographer and to illustrate the extent to which British


imperial adventure fiction . . . provided a charter for British social
anthropology in the early years of this [the twentieth] century.32 I
do not think Conrad can adequately be described as a purveyor of
imperial adventure fiction, nor should we say that the novels Malinowski read in New Guinea in each case reflected the realpolitik
of a world that was overwhelmingly pink, that reconfirmed the ideology of empire, that defined the white mans role.33 Rider Haggard
might have reconfirmed the ideology of empire in an adventure like
King Solomons Mines, but the reflections of imperialism we find
in books by Conrad (not to mention Stevenson and Kipling, whom
Malinowski also read in New Guinea) are far from nave: reflection
is not confirmation.
What I want to do here is to complement these three avenues
with a discussion that impinges on them all. My approach is not
strictly psychological (as Stockings is), neither is it strictly epistemological (as Geertzs is) nor strictly cultural (as Cliffords and Thompsons contributions are). It concerns the perception and integration
of patterns in experience as revealed by that blind watchmaker
among literary genres, the diary, at the mental borderland of the intellectual, cognitive, and sensuous. I agree with Malinowskis reviewers that the Diary tells us little about his development as an ethnographer and a theorist as such; but a vital issue in ethnographical
theory lay behind and impelled its composition: the urge, as Ernest
Gellner puts it, to transform ethnography from a time-machine
into a history-exterminator,34 and from a sub-Darwinist study of
primitive cultures as remote-time predecessors of European modernity, into a study of such cultures in their own right and in their
own terms. In shedding light on a new idea in ethnology, the Diary
cannot help shedding light on the advent of new ideas in general,
and the complex way in which they can be bound up with the environment and the emotional state of the thinker concerned. The
Diary was an attempt to deal with the intellectual pressures flowstructions of Malinowski, see Rene Sylvain, Malinowski the Modern Other: An Indirect Evaluation of Postmodernism, Anthropologica 38:1 (1996): 2145: it is often a
great deal easier to criticize ones intellectual heritage than to acknowledge ones inheritance (p. 41).
32. Christina Thompson, Anthropologys Conrad: Malinowski in the Tropics and
What He Read, Journal of Pacific History 20:1 (1995): 5375, quote on p. 54.
33. Ibid., p. 67.
34. Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg
Dilemma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 140.

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Configurations

ing from a particular disciplinary issue; but it illustrates, therefore, a


general theme of how individuals respond to intellectual pressures,
and in what contexts. It is with that theme in mind that I want to
reread the Diary, but also the books by authors other than Conrad
that Malinowski absorbed during its compositionand also, if possible, to illuminate his comment that my ethnological work & my
diary . . . are well-nigh as complementary as complementary can
be.35
***
A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term comes down to us in two unequal halves, from his first and third trips to New Guineain particular to Mailu and the Trobriand Islands. The two have so much
in common that to treat them as a single object is readily justifiable,
but it is the second diary that gives the book its title. On the inside
of his notebook Malinowski wrote, presumably around the time he
began the journal on the island of Samarai on October 10, 1917, A
Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, and went on: Day by day
without exception I shall record the events of my life in chronological order.Every day an account of the preceding day: a mirror
of the events, a moral evaluation, location of the mainsprings of
my life, a plan for the next day.36 This resolution takes us back to
the moral underpinnings of the diary form, as a mirror not just of
events, but of the mainsprings of my life, with what Malinowski
called the goal of adding depth to my life as well as to my work.37
But that resolution was also undertaken in response to the first
diary, which is far from strict and progresses, as often as not, in a
sequence of retrospects (generally a week to ten days in length) between its beginning on September 20, 1914 and its conclusion on
August 1, 1915. Malinowskis first entry, for example, looks back
from Port Moresby to the new epoch in my life, when on September 1st he had parted company with the 84th British Association
conference in Australia at Brisbane and started work on an expedition all on my own to the tropics.38 Ten days later, he had arrived
at New Guinea and the leitmotifs of the Diary arrive with him: he
records seasickness, the mistake of reading a Rider Haggard novel,
and feeling very empty and tired inside.39
35. See Young, Malinowski (above, n. 28), p. 416.
36. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 103.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid., p. 3.
39. Ibid., p. 7.

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39

If any particular psychological response emerges in the entries


that follow, it is precisely what we would expect: a pronounced degree of culture shock. He visited a village near Port Moresby in February 1915, for example:
At low tide, the houses stick up high on their pilings. Small openings, with a
high gutter, and something like strange snouts looking out from the furry
wrapping; this complete lack of an open inside creates a strange stimmung of
desertion, lifelessnesssomething of the melancholy of the Venetian lagoon
a mood of exile or imprisonment. In the dark openings bronze bodies appear,
the whites of eyes gleam in the shadow of the rooms, from time to time firm
breasts stick outmaire (crescent-shaped pearly shells). . . . I was frightfully
tired and had a fit of pointophobia (nervous aversion for pointed objects
stichophobia?).40

It is a typical (and moodily Conradian) passage: self-preoccupied


and hypochondriacal, certainlyalmost comically so (stichophobia?)but also uncannily evocative. Things stick up or stick out
in a random, yet purposeful way; strange snouts look out from the
furry wrapping of native huts as if they belonged to suspicious animals, yet the atmosphere is lugubriously Venetian; the residents are
broken up into eyes and breasts in a sinister (though spellbinding)
fashion; and there is a sense of dread surrounding these ambiguous
openings and invitations, drenched in silence. Similar phobias are
recorded in the second diary: strong nervous excitement and intellectual intensity on the surface, combined with inability to concentrate, superirritability and supersensitiveness of mental epidermis and
feeling of permanently being exposed in an uncomf. position to the eyes
of a crowded thoroughfare: an incapacity to achieve inner privacy;41 severe nervous tension; a feeling as if hundreds of arms were coming
out toward me from the mixed shadowsI felt that something was
about to touch me, jump at me out of the darkness. I tried to achieve
a mood of certainty, security, strength. I wanted to feel alone, and
impregnable.42
It is in this psychological context that he recorded a strange
dream a week after arriving in Port Moresby: homosex., with my
own double as partner. Strangely autoerotic feelings; the impression
that Id like to have a mouth just like mine to kiss, a neck that curves
just like mine, a forehead just like mine (seen from the side).43 The
40. Ibid., p. 87.
41. Ibid., p. 253.
42. Ibid., p. 284.
43. Ibid., p. 13.

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closing parenthetical remark might seem the last word in narcissism,


but it also has the effect of catching the diarist in mid-poseeven
while he poses as himself.
Being impregnable and finding a neck that curves just like mine
are impossibilities in anthropological fieldwork, and Malinowski
soon realized that his work would be difficult. He was not doing
enough with the savages on the spot and he needed to learn their
language. Buried in the Times, he ruefully admitted that nothing
whatever draws me to ethnogr. studies44 I have finally arrived at
Mailu, he noted, and I really do not know, or rather I do not see
clearly, what I am to do. Period of suspense. I came to a deserted
place with the feeling that soon Ill have to finish, but in the meantime I must begin a new existence.45 The sense of being forced to
finish before having time to start made his work something quite
other than a mere chore; it was both compellingly inescapable and
totally unapproachable. I feel capitis diminutio, he recorded, a
worthless man, of diminished value46
***
Under these circumstances, Malinowski turned his back, in the Diary at least, on his subjects and immersed himself in the landscape,
which became an objective correlative for the dire intellectual struggle by which he was faced. I was unable to concentrate amid this
landscape, he noted on his way from Port Moresby to Mailu in
October 1914:
Not at all like our Tatras mountains at Olcza, where youd like to lie down and
embrace the landscape physicallywhere every corner whispers with the
promise of some mysteriously experienced happiness. Out here the marvellous
abysses of verdure are inaccessible, hostile, alien to man. The incomparably
beautiful mangrove jungle is at close quarters an infernal, stinking, slippery
swamp, where it is impossible to walk three steps through the thick tangle of
roots and soft mud; where you cannot touch anything. The jungle is almost
inaccessible, full of all kinds of filth and reptiles; sultry, damp, tiringswarming with mosquitoes and other loathsome insects, toads, etc.47

This inaccessibility is as much cultural and intellectual as it is physical and sexual. The Tatras mountains whisper the promise of happiness because they are knowable and knownto a Pole. Landscape
44. Ibid., p. 42.
45. Ibid., p. 49.
46. Ibid., p. 29.
47. Ibid., p. 24.

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41

is an analogy to humanity. In the mangroves you cannot touch


anything or take so many as three steps. The people he has come
to study are transformed into filth and reptiles, mosquitoes and
other loathsome insects, toads, etc. Took a walk amid the sago
palms, he wrote two months later: Antediluvian forest: ruins of
an Egyptian temple: gigantic, or rather colossal, trunks covered with
geometric husks, mossy, enclasped in a tangle of various kinds of
bindweed and climbing plants, with short stubby arms of leaves
strength, obtuseness, geometric monstrosity.48 Like the mangroves,
these massive trees embody the integral and monolithic appearance
of a remote culture: physically blunt and mentally dull-witted, ungainly, entangled and plated in custom and taboo, and for this reason impassively self-reliant. No visitor could ever understand the
nature of such beings.
If the land and its products appeared inaccessible, the sea and sky
were constantly in flux; and surely what Richards had in mind when
she mentioned that the poetic flashes in the Diary are the numerous seascapes that punctuate it, reminiscent of Gauguins Polynesian pictures by virtue of their polychromatic quality. Soon after
his arrival in Port Moresby, Malinowski was referring conventionally enough to the lightly rippled sea shimmer[ing] in a thousand
tints caught briefly on its continuously moving surface.49 Within
a matter of days, he had developed a language completely free of
travelogue clich: the sea and the sky blazing with red reflections,
in the midst of sapphire shadows;50 Sky milky, murky, as though
filled with some dirty fluidthe pink strip of sunset gradually expanding, covering the sea with a moving blanket of rosy metal.51
The references to gemstones, metal, and dirty fluids are inherently
surrealistic, as are the arresting combinations of color: Wonderful
violet cloudlets in the pale sea-green sky; red sunset, under it glows
the narrow belt of the sea.52
The intensity of these responses is often striking. Marvellous
sunset. The whole world drenched in brick colorone could hear
and feel that color in the air,53 just as the sea manifests an intense, polished, tense blue (something that lies in wait, where you
48. Ibid., p. 53.
49. Ibid., p. 14.
50. Ibid., p. 22.
51. Ibid., p. 40.
52. Ibid., p. 82.
53. Ibid., p. 67.

42

Configurations

feel life, as in the eyes of a living person . . .).54 The theme comes
to a climax on a voyage to Woodlark Island in February 1915, when
Malinowskiblaming the uncreative demon of escape from realitycame on deck with Kiplings Plain Tales from the Hills in hand:
What was going on around was marvelous! Sea perfectly smooth, two abysses
of blueness on either side. To the right the indentations of Sariba, islands, islets, covered with tall trees. To the left, the shadows of distant mountainsthe
shores of Milne Bay. Farther, the shores move away on either side; to the left
only the high wall of East Cape, covered with clouds, forming the threatening
point of the horizon; to the right pale shapes loom up out of the eternity of
blueness, slowly turning into volcanic rocks, sharp, pyramid-shaped, or else
into flat coral islands: phantom forests floating in melting blue space. One
after the other comes into being and passes away. The space darkensbrickcolored spots on the cloudsto the east, a flat sheet of coral covered with gigantic trees over yellow sand in the cold bluenessstrangely reminds me of
the islets in the Vistula.55

The nostalgic note reminds us of other dangers in these interludes. Like sirens, they drew Malinowski from human reality into
reverie. Loss of subjectivism and deprivation of the will . . ., he
wrote, combined with living only by the five senses and the body
(through impressions) causes direct merging with surroundings.56
So it was that what he called the joie de vivre tropicale was at once
oppressive and stimulatingbroadens horizons and paralyzes you
utterly.57 The strong zodiacal light of the tropics58 produced a
false intellectual dawn in which responding attentively to light and
distance was a substitute for responding attentively to ethnogr.
studies. Such sea visions were evasive in a second sense also: evocative as they were, they grew toward writing consciously composed
as art, rather than the natural disorder and emphasis on which
authentic diary writing depends. They were a writerly addiction,
just as reading Kiplings stories was a readerly one.
Only on land could Malinowski escape the zodiacal light of aestheticism, or convert it into tactile intellectual value. Here and
there you can see the green slopes of the surrounding hills, he told
himself at the end of October 1914, but otherwise the thickets
cover everything:
54. Ibid., p. 71.
55. Ibid., p. 91.
56. Ibid., p. 33.
57. Ibid., p. 80.
58. Ibid., p. 71.

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43

We crossed a muddy little river. A garden on one slope. I stopped to rest when
we came to a little burned patch. It was hot and very humid, I felt fairly well.
I began to climb up through the overgrown garden and impassable paths.
Slowly a vista opened up: a flood of green; a steep ravine overgrown with
jungle; a rather narrow view on the sea. I asked about the division of land. It
would have been useful to find out about the old [precolonial?] system of division and study todays as a form of adaptation. I was very tired, but my heart
was all right and I was not short of breath.59

The thickets slowly give way to a vista, a flood of green and a


narrow view, which prompt genuine ethnographic inquiries. Malinowskis seascapes are overwhelmingly visual spectacles, but the
jungle requires a synaesthetic response. I am beginning to concentrate and to relax! he wrote triumphantly in February 1915:
Plans for the future. . . . As I walked I threw enormous shadows on the palms
and mimosas by the road; the smell of the jungle creates a characteristic
moodthe subtle, exquisite fragrance of the green keroro flower, lewd swelling
of the burgeoning, fertilizing vegetation; frangipania smell as heavy as incense, with elegant, sharply drawn profilea tree with an elegant silhouette,
its green bouquet with blossoms carved in alabaster, smiling with golden pollen. Rotting trees, occasionally smelling like dirty socks or menstruation, occasionally intoxicating like a barrel of wine in fermentation. I am trying to
sketch a synthesis: the open, joyous, bright mood of the seathe emerald
water over the reef, the blueness of the sky with tiny clouds like snowflakes.
The atmosphere of the jungle is sultry, and saturated with a specific smell
which penetrates and drenches you like music.60

Only a day or two before, he had played with what he called literary conceptions: in the beauty of a landscape I rediscover womans
beauty or I look for it.61 But this passage forgoes that kind of aesthetic self-indulgence and yokes a genuine realism to a diary-style
presentation. His plans are accompanied by an olfactory, visual, and
ultimately auditory sequence that is realistic rather than zodiacal.
The subtle and the exquisite are penetrated by the lewd: blossoms
carved in alabaster are smiling with golden pollen in a bucolic
idyll; dirty socks and menstruation give way to wine in ferment; and
everything is intellectually in ferment also, so that the ethnographer can imagine a burgeoning and fertile synthesis of sea-values
(joyous and bright; visual) with jungle-values (sultry and drench59. Ibid., p. 32.
60. Ibid., p. 85.
61. Ibid., p. 83.

44

Configurations

ing; musical) that would be lasting and real: filled with the bliss of
direct contact and a genuineness of the mood.62
The last entry in the first diary was written amid the Whitsunday
Islands, halfway between Cairns and Brisbane on the Queensland
coast. It recuperates New Guinean themes, and it poetically infuses
the vision from on board the ship with an intellectual vision of
progress and (limited) achievement, requiring further immersion in
reality:
Should like to make a synthesis of this voyage. Actually the marvelous sights
filled me with noncreative delight. As I gazed, everything echoed inside me, as
when listening to music. Moreover I was full of plans for the future.The sea
is blue, absorbing everything, fused with the sky. At moments, the pink silhouettes of the mountains appear through the mist, like phantoms of reality
in the flood of blue, like the unfinished ideas of some youthful creative force.
You can just make out the shapes of the islands scattered here and thereas
though headed for some unknown destination, mysterious in their isolation,
beautiful with the beauty of perfectionself-sufficient.63

Malinowski would require two more terms of fieldwork to chasten


such visions of self-sufficiency.
***
Painterly escapes into the zodiacal light of the visual were one distraction in New Guinea; another was the reading of novels, an activity that Malinowski regarded with deep opprobrium but could not
resist. A week after arriving in Mailu in late October 1914, he confessed he had spent the time badly: I was much too disorganized. I
finished Vanity Fair, and read the whole of Romance. I couldnt tear
myself away; it was as though I had been drugged; Life amid palm
groves might appear a perpetual holiday, yet only a few days of
it and I was escaping from it to the company of Thackerays London snobs, following them eagerly around the streets of the big city.
. . . I am incapable of burying myself in my work.64 (The contrast
between escape and burial speaks for itself.) The work I am doing is
a kind of opiate rather than a creative expression, he told himself
some days later; I am not trying to link it to deeper sources. To
organize it. Reading novels is simply disastrous. Went to bed and
thought about other things in an impure way.65 Bogged down
62. Ibid., p. 85.
63. Ibid., p. 98.
64. Ibid., p. 16.
65. Ibid., p. 31.

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45

in The Count of Monte Christo, I could not manage to come back to


reality.66
Malinowskis reading, across the two diaries, is both broad
(given the circumstances in which he was living) and compressed
(in terms of genre). Most of what he read was fiction, and in the
first diary, he records reading Vanity Fair, stories by Gautier (I felt
their hollowness67) and Maupassant, Victor Cherbuliez romance
Laventure de Ladislas Bolski, The Count of Monte Christo (Dumas, say
what you will, has a certain fascination68), Kiplings Kim and Plain
Tales from the Hills (A fine artist [naturally not if compared with
Conrad]69), James Fenimore Coopers The Pathfinder, Shakespeare
(leafed through), the poems of Laurence Hope (decidedly they
are first-class), W. W. Jacobss stories, H. G. Wellss New Machiavelli,
George Bernard Shaw, and George Moores Evelyn Innesthe kinds
of books one might expect to find lying around in colonial New
Guinea. For nonfiction, we find Jacobus de Voragines thirteenthcentury hagiography The Golden Legend, Norman Angells The Great
Illusion, Edmund Candlers Indian travelogue The Mantle of the East,
Ernest Renan (presumably the Vie de Jesus, but Malinowski is not
specific), and William Prescotts History of the Conquest of Mexico.
In the second diary, there is more of what might be called trash:
Bulwer-Lytton and Arthur Conan-Doyle, possibly; certainly, Maud
Diver, George Barr McCutcheons Brewsters Millions, Max Pembertons Wheels of Anarchy, William Lockes Faraway Stories, The Glory of
Clementina Wing, and The Wonderful Year (Locke was clearly appreciated by somebody in the Trobriands), Joseph Hockings All for a Scrap
of Paper, Walter Lionel Georges The Making of an Englishman (which
Malinowski calls after its French hero, Cadoresse), Beatrice Grimshaws When the Red Gods Call, and Rolf Bennetts Captain Calamity
(Revolt against the Fates and The Pokers Thumb seem to have disappeared from literary history). But Kipling was still there, as was Wells
(Kipps and Tono-Bungay), Robert Louis Stevenson (Vailima Papers and
Vailima Letters), and George Meredith; so also were Swinburne and
Charlotte Bront, Ford Madox Fords fantasy Zeppelin Nights, Goldsmiths The Vicar of Wakefield, Hardys Tess of the DUrbervilles (which
left a strong, though unpleasant impression70), and a suite of
66. Ibid., p. 35.
67. Ibid., p. 59.
68. Ibid., p. 62.
69. Ibid., pp. 4041 (the bracketed phrase is Malinowskis).
70. Ibid., p. 190.

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Configurations

French classics borrowed from a local resident: Montesquieu, Hugo,


Chateaubriand, de Lamartine, and Prevost. So also, finally, was The
Brothers Karamazov.
It is not accurate, then, to conclude that Malinowskis novels
. . . are decidedly a middle-class-to-mass lot: bestsellers . . . and, in
general, materials that a figure like Malinowski classified as trashy
novel[s].71 There are many random items, but there is also a group
of books relating directly to the ongoing war, to which Malinowskis
mother and homeland were directly exposed and in which his fiances first lover had been killed, at Gallipoli. Angells The Great
Illusion, for example, was an idealistic theory on the unnecessary
connection between militarism and economic growth, which predicted (in 1911) that physical force is a constantly diminishing factor in human affairs.72 Zeppelin Nights is a Boccaccian cycle of historical stories told during an air raid; All for a Scrap of Paper rotates
around a Quaker pacifist (A very inferior novel but the patriotic
tone moved me73). The title of a collection of poems, Memorial for
Fallen Soldiers, tells its own tale; and Kiplings A Diversity of Creatures
contains his most powerful war stories: Mary Postgate and Swept
and Garnished. The kula cycle might have seemed a long way away
from such concerns; but then, perhaps, such primitive cultural
arrangements prevented warfare and militarism was (pace Angell) a
peculiarly modern cursehardly matters of indifference to an ethnologist.74
More broadly, many of the books that Malinowski read concern
the nature of society, its impermeability to change, and its relation
to the individual. It is true that a Romantic historian like Prescott
showed little interest in Mesoamerican culture as such (which he
refers to in lofty terms as domestic manners), but that indifference
might itself be a stimulus to an ethnographer who would later say
71. Scott Michaelson and David E. Johnson, Anthropologys Wake: Attending to the End of
Culture (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 14.
72. Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study in the Relation of Military Power in Nations
to Their Economic and Social Advantage, 3rd ed. (London: Heinemann, 1911), p. 144.
73. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 209.
74. Malinowskis second publication on the Trobriands (1920) was War and Weapons, and his next article on war (in the New Leader in 1924) was a polemical tilt against
militarism. He subsequently published on war in 1936, then every year from 1938
until his death. Freedom and Civilization, his last book, was mainly about the need to
fight World War II. In short, Malinowski wrote far more about warfare than any other
anthropologist of his time (Michael Young, personal communication [e-mail] with
author, October 20, 2012).

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47

that history explains nothing.75 But other writers, particularly of


fiction, were fascinated by society and its discontents. Malinowski
read novels, for example, about heroes and heroines transforming
themselves into social successesor failing to do so. The hero of
Brewsters Millions has to make that transition on unexpectedly coming into a fortune, and the same fate descends on the heroes of Kipps
and Tono-Bungay and the heroine of Jane Eyre. The Making of an Englishman involves a Frenchman aspiring to make that transition. In
Vanity Fair and Tess of the DUrbervilles also, two heroines lift themselves, or are lifted, from their humble stations in life as governess and milkmaidfor better or worse. Moores Evelyn Innes, about
a successful though unhappy opera singer who abandons adultery
for her native Catholicism, also meditates on the place of an individual in society. Evelyn was weary of living in the inhospitable
regions outside of prejudice and authority, Moore tells us. She felt
it was prejudice and authority that gave a meaning, or a sufficient
semblance of a meaning, to life as it was; she was a helpless atom
tossed hither and thither by every gust of passion as a leaf in the
whirlwind, and she longed to understand herself and her mission in
life.76 No wonder the novel left a strong impression77 on an ethnologist for whom prejudice and authority were mysteries he was
seeking to penetrate. Bronts Villette (in which Malinowski found
the same feminine tact, intuition, grasp of inwardness of things and
longing for life that he associated with Pride and Prejudice78) is also
a meditation on inhospitable regions and the heros inability as a
Catholic to overcome his anti-Protestant superstition: What limits
are there, Heger asks Lucy Snowe, to the wild, careless daring of
your country and sect?79 Between them, these novels suggest that
social communities are the most complex objects that individuals
can encounter, and that outsiders run grave risks in seeking to acquaint themselves with societies into which they are not born or in
leaving those in which they have been raised.
Montesquieus Lettres persanes and the more lowly Letters of a
Chinaman (To English Readers on the English and Chinese Superstitions and the Mischief of Missionaries) by Ah Sin highlighted
cultural differences, as did Candlers Mantle of the East, the final
75. See Young, Malinowski (above, n. 28), p. 558.
76. George Moore, Evelyn Innes (1898; reprint, London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 208.
77. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 99.
78. Ibid., p. 200.
79. Charlotte Bront, Villette, ed. Tim Dolin and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 418.

48

Configurations

chapter of which (London) concerns the inability of an expatriate to resettle in what had once been his home. And many of the
novels that Malinowski read have an almost manifestly ethnographic quality, from Fenimore Coopers Great Lakes to Thackerays London, and Hardys Wessex to Dostoevskys Novgorod. From
his correspondence with his future wife, we know that Malinowski
noted a rather weak story of KiplingRegulus: A Stalky Tale
which, all the same, is right in showing the necessity of a humanistic education. (Balance, proportion, perspectivelife, Kiplings
Latin master lectures a chemistry teacher: Your scientific man is the
unrelated animalthe beast without background. Havent you ever
realized that in your atmosphere of stinks?)80 Kim appears to have
made a stronger impression: a very interesting novel, gives a great
deal of information about India (p. 41)as well it might, given
that a central character in the novel is both an ethnologist and a
spy. No beast is without a background in Kim, and the texture of the
book exists at a border between fiction and a form of Anglo-Indian
ethnography:
They were sons of subordinate officials in the Railway, Telegraph, and Canal
Services; of warrant-officers, sometimes retired and sometimes acting as commanders-in-chief to a feudatory Rajahs army; of captains in the Indian Marine, Government pensioners, planters, Presidency shopkeepers, and missionaries. A few were cadets of the old Eurasian houses that have taken strong root
in DhurrumtollahPereiras, De Souzas, and DSilvas. Their parents could well
have educated them in England, but they loved the school that had served
their own youth, and generation followed sallow-hued generation at St Xaviers. Their homes ranged from Howrah of the railway people to abandoned
cantonments like Monghyr and Chunar; lost tea-gardens Shillong-way; villages where their fathers were large landholders in Oudh or the Deccan;
Mission-stations a week from the nearest railway line; seaports a thousand
miles south, facing the brazen Indian surf; and cinchona-plantations south of
all. The mere story of their adventures, which to them were no adventures, on
their road to and from school would have crisped a Western boys hair.81

In 1917, Malinowski sent Elsie a copy of Zolas La terre, which


is even more ethnographically explicit. Youre a breed that has
reached the end of its tether, the schoolmaster, Aristide Lequeu,
tells his village audience in the public house:
80. Wayne, ed., The Story of a Marriage (above, n. 13), 1:135; and Rudyard Kipling, A
Diversity of Creatures, ed. Paul Driver (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 221.
81. Rudyard Kipling, Kim, ed. Edward W. Said (London: Penguin, 1987), pp. 171172.

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49

Youve been eaten up by your idiotic love of the land, that miserable bit of
land which has got you by the short hair, which prevents you from seeing any
further than your noses, which youd commit murder for! Youve been wedded to the land for centuries and shes made you into cuckolds. Look at America, the farmer is master of his land there. Theres nothing to attach him to it,
no family link, no memories. As soon as his field is exhausted, he moves on.
If he hears that five hundred miles away theyve discovered more fertile plains,
he ups and settles there. Hes free and hes making a lot of money, whereas
youre just poverty-stricken prisoners.

I wonder whether you will see, Malinowski wrote to Elsie about


Zolas novel, why it strikes me as somewhat akin in its tendency to
my Kiriwinian efforts.82
The most forthright of these novelists as regards a quasi-ethnographical vision is H. G. Wells and his anatomizing of the English
class system. Kipps and Tono-Bungay both involve lower-middleclass heroes suddenly thrust into society, the one by inheritance,
the other by the profits from a bogus panacea. Both Kipps and Ponderevo are as sexually undecided as Malinowski himself, pursuing
women of different class backgrounds within and outside marriage.
In both novels, furthermore, Wells offers up some panaceas of his
own. The fact is, the socialist Masterman tells Kipps, society is
one body, and it is either well or ill. Thats the law. This society we
live in is ill. Its a fractious, feverish invalid, gouty, greedy, ill-nourished. The great house, the church, the village and the labourers
and the servants in their stations and degrees, Ponderevo tells us
in his opening chapter, seemed to me . . . to be a closed and complete social system. . . . That all this fine appearance was already
sapped, that there were forces at work that might presently carry
this elaborate social system . . . to Limbo, had scarcely dawned upon
me even by the time that Tono-Bungay was fairly launched upon
the world.83
But it was Wellss The New Machiavelli that had the profoundest
impact on Malinowski, since its hero was a fully blown intellectual
rather than a helpless atom like Evelyn Innes. Many statements
impressed me extraordinarily, Malinowski recorded; moreover, he
is very like me in many respects. An Englishman with an entirely
82. mile Zola, The Earth, trans. Douglas Parme (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1980),
p. 455; Wayne, ed., The Story of a Marriage (above, n. 13), 1:13. See also Young, Malinowski (above, n. 28), p. 469.
83. H. G. Wells, Kipps, ed. Simon J. James (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 230; and TonoBungay, ed. Patrick Parrinder (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 15.

50

Configurations

European mentality and European problems.84 The New Machiavelli


has not aged well; nowadays, it looks like a latter-day Disraelian fantasy in which English social ills can or should be corrected by an
intellectual elite that masters what Wells imaginatively calls constructive statecraft. We imaginative people, his narrator Richard
Remington points out, are base enough, heaven knows, but it is
only in rare moods of bitter penetration that we pierce down to
the baser lusts, the viler shames, the everlasting lying and muddleheaded self-justification of the dull.85 The tough-minded Remington has emerged into the new Nominalism and plans to show a
contemporary man in relation to the state and social usage, and the
social organism in relation to that man, just as Malinowski sought
to realise the vision of the world, as it is reflected in the minds of
the natives.86 The post-Fabian fantasy was perhaps something Malinowski could take or leave; the desire thoroughly to know a society
and see through it to what he called (with Tono-Bungay in mind)
the socio-psychological correspondences87 underpinning it that was
an intellectual intoxicant.88
***
The features of the Diary I have described thus far are common to
both installments of it. There are fewer seascapes in the second diary,
it is true, but they are just as intense. And it is in the second journal
that he describes fiction as a window open on life.89 But two developments bring the second journal to an unprecedented pitch. The
first was his liaisons with Elsie and Nina. (He compared both to Tess
Durbeyfield: Nina as Hardys maiden; Elsie as the maiden no more
to whom, like Angel Clare, he was betrothed.90) The second development was the undertaking, made in its first entry, of 10 November
84. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 78.
85. H. G. Wells, The New Machiavelli, ed. Simon J. James (London: Penguin, 2005), pp.
291, 249.
86. Ibid., p. 316, and Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (above, n. 30), p. 298.
87. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 286.
88. Later in life, Malinowski wrote to his wife: I went in the evening to the Realist annual dinner, sat next to Rebecca West, with Arnold Bennett on her other side, and Julian Huxley opposite, and was very bored; see Wayne, The Story of a Marriage, (above,
n. 13), 2:142. There would only have been one of these dinners, as this British rationalist monthly, to which Wells contributed, closed less than a year after its first issue in
March 1929.
89. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (above, n. 13), p. 278.
90. Ibid., pp. 189, 14950.

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51

1917, to start keeping the diary with real determination91which


proved mostly well-founded. There would be few more interruptions and retrospects, and to miss an entry even for a day merited
the rebuke very bad!92
The strictness of the diarist revealed the delinquency of the ethnographer, however. At the hospital in Samarai, he recorded that
mentally I caressed the matron, who seems an attractive dish. . . .
I fondled her and undressed her in my mind, and I calculated how
long it would take me to get her to bed. . . . In short, I betrayed [Elsie] in my mind.93 Fantasies of Elsie in propria persona did nothing
to counteract these specular temptations. I wanted to have her near
me again. Visions of her with her hair down. Does intense longing
always lead to extremes? Perhaps only under mosquito netting.
Woke up a night, full of lecherous thoughts about, of all the people
imaginable, my landlords wife! This must stop! The farcical quality
of the situation is punctuated by chat the following day about a
neighbouring trader: Ted had gone to Gilmour [the local Methodist missionary] and told him, I have the clap. What is clap? Bloody
pocks. . . . Ted has pustules on his penis.94 Such momentary moral
disorders95 produced what Malinowski later called a strong aversion to sloshing in the mud (onanism, whoring, etc.)96although
such aversions were themselves short-lived: Resistance to lecherous
thoughts weaker.97
Intermittently and with the passage of time all these elements
landscape, literature, sex, and morality, not to mention his health
began to intermingle and become attached to his recurrent need for
intellectual clarification: to see deeper into the life going on around
him, and to understand in particular the Trobianders main passions,
the motives for his conduct, his aims. (At this point we are confronted with our own problems: What is essential in ourselves?)98
The ethnologist would not see in the same way as Hardy, Conrad,
or Zola, but he might hope to see as deeply. Clarity of vision, putting recreational literature in its rightful place, seeing life with El91. Ibid., p. 110.
92. Ibid., p. 129.
93. Ibid., p. 109.
94. Ibid., p. 165.
95. Ibid., p. 110.
96. Ibid., p. 181.
97. Ibid., p. 131.
98. Ibid., p. 119.

52

Configurations

sie as commensurate with life in this rotten hole,99 and having


the personal discipline to abjure telesentimental monomania100
and to integrate all those needs in a deeper understanding of both
himself and the Islanders: these aims gradually became centripetal
rather than centrifugal. This morning, he told himself in January
1918, it occurred to me that the purpose in keeping a diary and
trying to control ones life and thoughts at every moment must be
to consolidate life, to integrate ones thinking, to avoid fragmenting
themes.101 He could betray himself into irrelevancies on this matter, blaming Elsies reluctance to keep a diary herself on the lack of
stratification in the lives of English people: They lack reflection,
continuous systematization.102 Or he deluded himself that such a
document could only work if it itself was systematized and broken up into external impressions, dominant feelings in respect
to myself, to my beloved, to friends, to things, forms of thought,
and dynamic states of the organismas if he was back studying
physics at the University of Cracow. (He tried one entry along such
lines, and never repeated the experiment.103) But gradually, even if
the forces of intellectual chaos grew little weaker, the forces of intellectual clarification grew more potent.
Thus in March 1918, he started a sequence of entries in which
Elsie was no longer held off in opposition to the work he was doing,
but was identified with it: How wonderful it would be to have her
here104not for the purpose of self-gratification, but in order that
she might see what he was doing: Thought about E.R.M. and referred material to her.105 By December 1917, he was already paving
the way toward his anti-historical, cultural point of view: Under
the mosquito net I thought about relation between the historical
point of view (. . . causality as in respect of extraordinary, singular
things) and the sociological point of view (in respect of normal
course of things, the sociological law in the sense of the laws of physics, chemistry). Historicists la Rivers = investigate geology and
geological history, ignoring the laws of physics and chemistry.106
99. Ibid., p. 201.
100. Ibid., p. 181.
101. Ibid., p. 175.
102. Ibid., p. 126.
103. Ibid., pp. 247248.
104. Ibid., p. 214.
105. Ibid., p. 217.
106. Ibid., p. 161.

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53

Yesterday, he wrote on March 21, 1918, I understood the charm


of survey study la Rivers, the encompassing of broad areas as a single whole. But this projection of space onto time (two-dimensional
or rather multi-dimensional entity) is very dangerous.107 Arguably,
history tends to record what gets laid down in time, stratigraphically, rather than what the layers are made of. Some days later came
a longer passage that is clearly climactic, oceanic in its clarity, but
this time no longer a painterly end in itself: Distinct feeling that
next to this actual ocean, different every day, covered with clouds,
rain, wind, like a changing soul is covered with moodsthat beyond it
there is an Absolute Ocean, which is more or less correctly marked
on the map but which exists outside all maps and outside the reality
accessible to [observation].108
This sounds like Platonism, and Malinowski wonders briefly
whether he is contemplating the emotional origin of that system
of thought, before coming back to reality in a way that the diary
format compels:
Came back, sat on the beach. Moonlit night. White sand, over it dark shapes
squat, in the distance, the sea and the profiles of mountains. Combination of
moods: Baia di Napoli and Gumawana from inside. Thought about how to
describe all this for E.R.M. The moon, the sea, the mood. The moon induces a
specific, clearly defined mood, I hum [Laraisebrue], and then there was Suzanna, pretty, pale, and virtuous. Expression of feelings, complementary social milieu, imaginary. Suddenly I tumble back into the real milieu with which
I am also in contact. Then again suddenly they stop existing in their inner reality. I see them as an incongruous yet artistic and [savage], exotic = unreal, intangible, floating on the surface of reality, like a multicoloured picture on the face of a
solid but drab wall.109

This is a remarkable revelation. The Trobrianders squat, like sago


palms, strong and obtuse, but their black shapes complement the
white sand and blend with the timeless profiles of the mountains
behind them. The Bay of Naples and the tropical village combine,
and both are worthy of the ethnologists wife-to-be. The reverie,
instinct with European cultural archetypes (pretty, pale, and virtuous) gives way to reality with which the ethnologist is, triumphantly, also in contact. Then the villagers float off again from
his concentration, but the effect is not as damaging as it seems: they
constitute a multicolored picture, unreal and intangible, certainly
107. Ibid., pp. 229230.
108. Ibid., pp. 234235.
109. Ibid.

54

Configurations

but so do we all; none of us is anything other than a projection


on the face of that solid but drab wall of socio-psychological correspondences that we inscribe and which inscribes us. All we can
say is that perhaps Malinowski got his emphasis wrong: that wall
is drab but solid, not solid but drab. Back in 1914, the image had
been that of shadows cast on the screen of the fog110 or, in 1915,
shadows of reality projected on the screen of appearances.111 Even
a few months earlier, he had compared the reflection of fleeting
shimmering gleams on the rippling changing surface to what he
called the immense smile of the depths.112 In March, the shadows are thrown onto something more substantial and less vertiginous; the underlying reality is no longer an invisible, unattainable
Platonic ideal, but a manmade structureutilitarian and obtuse no
doubt, but solid and dependable. Earlier, Malinowski had recorded,
alongside his tendency to read rubbish, that his thoughts pull
me down to the surface of the world;113 now, the surface of the
world is comprehended in much richer terms, whereas the principles
of association by space, time, similarity are just the most external categories, which give hardly any clue at all.114
***
The deaths of two people usher in the resolution of this puzzle and
the end of the Diary. On January 24, 1918, Inekoya, the wife of a
local informant, died a drawn-out and painful death, probably from
tuberculosis, on the very day that Malinowskis mother died in Poland. Malinowski prevaricated, emotionally, in response to Inekoyas
demise, noting first that all my despair, after those killed in the
war, hangs over this miserable Melanesian hut, before confessing
that he only pretended to weep in visiting her husband.115 But Inekoyas death coincided with a period of depression, illness, and decision about Elsie and the sickly Nina (whom he identified with the
dead villager) that also coincided with the kula season. Five months
later, on June 11th, already assailed by metaphysical feeling[s] of
precariousness of things,116 he received news of his mothers death,
110. Ibid., p. 38.
111. Ibid., p. 90.
112. Ibid., p. 186.
113. Ibid., p. 131.
114. Ibid., p. 236.
115. Ibid., p. 196.
116. Ibid., p. 283.

Lansdown/Malinowskis A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term

55

which reconfirmed the terrible mystery that surrounds the death of


someone dear, close to you.117 The diary broke up by the beginning
of July, but not before Malinowski recorded finding himself at a new
plane of mental understanding: Now I often have the feeling of
being at the bottom of consciousnessthe feeling of the physical
foundation of mental life, the latters dependence on the body, so
that every thought that flows effortlessly in some psychic medium
has been laboriously formed inside the organism. . . . I went for a
walk; it was drizzling, night was falling, the damp road glistened in
the twilight.118 The realization here is a complete one, even if for
Malinowski it remains only a feeling: that every thought that flows
effortlessly in some psychic medium has been laboriously formed
inside the organism.119 That is true not only of Trobriand islanders in their dealings with the world, but of anthropologists, and A
Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term is the exhaustive, occasionally
exhausting, but intense record not only of that realization, but also
of its own laborious formation amid the patterns of experience it
transcribes.

117. Ibid., p. 293.


118. Ibid., p. 294.
119. Ibid., p. 294. The entire discussion presented here has implications, I think, for the
case repeatedly made by Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973) that [c]ulture is public because meaning is (p. 12), that all experience is construed experience (p. 405), and that [h]uman thought is consummately
social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its forms, social in its applications (p. 360). Diaries in general and Malinowskis experience in particular suggest that the processes of thought, to say the very least, can indeed take place in what
Gilbert Ryle dismissively called a secret ghetto in the head (qtd. on p. 362).