“The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
I remember fondly now the early days of my anthropology studies as an undergrad, talking bones in class, smoking bones after. Studying cultures, living it. Talking with my professor about Julian Jaynes’s crazy theory that human consciousness originated in “the breakdown of the bicameral mind.” And philosophy classes. Foucault, Sanity and Madness, the Narrenschiffen seaside asylums. Dancing in a tie-dyed tee after Mandela’s release from the apart-hate system. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness (talk about mind fucks). Global Marley, white blues Dylan, we were changing the world one tune at a time, in our minds.
Two of the most-enduring cultural scenarios offered up in my studies prior to changing my major to philosophy, anthropology’s old stomping ground, were the matriarchal community at Catal Huyuk and the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest. The former offered up a vision of a benign matriarchal world that was said to have existed long before, as Lennon put it, women became “the nigger of the world,” and the latter seemed to depict a human world among the elephants that was truly communistic, without Marx, and the need for imported white intellectuals to translate ‘dialectical materialism’ to the jungle hoi polloi. It just worked.
But that was long ago, before the Internet came along, and made writers of us all, with sometimes out-of-control avatar egos requiring management by unknown moderators who, for all we know, are trolls in their full time day jobs. (Or work for intelligence hunters-and-gatherers who find such behavior valuable and ‘play’able.) Everybody’s clickety-clacketing; each of us knows how to solve the World puzzle. Everybody’s talking at me — and you — and we can’t understand what anyone is saying over our typing.
Out of all the din of such being, it brings to mind the ‘father’ of American anthropology (a German named Franz Boas) who wrote an essay, “On Alternating Sounds,” which describes our inability to understand the tones of others; we have sound-blindnesses we need to overcome. Mark Twain expressed the problem best: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Tone-deafness abounds today, blind-sounds leading blind-sounds. Why, it’s almost a postmodern Tower of Babel.
Not hearing, seeing, or understanding each other properly is the major concern of Charles King’s new book, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. The main title comes from a line out of Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks On A Road. And the book describes the career of Franz Boas, who, as a migrant from Germany, became the founder of the American anthropological movement, based at Columbia University. There he attracted the minds and likes of such intrepid spirits as Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria, who spread out, social scientists intent on letting living data drive them to the reality of Man.
The conclusions these American anthropologists came to believe and disseminate, alone and together as a Circle, are now well-known, though then radical, and can be summed up in an expression: Cultural Relativism. Instead of mocking the perceived differences between cultures from a ‘privileged’ position, we should be celebrating the variety of Man and revelling in our e pluribus unum. The more steps you took in another culture’s moccasins the more the sweat of their soles seeped into your blood until, with enough mileage, you came to an understanding of two cultures — the foot’s and the moccasin’s — by osmosis.
At the time, this conclusion flew in the face of the prevailing conceit summed up in the popular book, The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916). Grant expounds on the need for a eugenics (weeding the DNA) that would return us to the glory days of Nordic superiority. Hitler called this stuff his “Bible,” and married it to his Kampf, Wagner’s Siegfried, and the weak-minded gullibility of the Good German. This “scientific racism” (which showed how racist science could be, if given half a chance) eventually got adopted and incorporated as the modus o. of American Exceptionalism.
Charles King’s strategy throughout the book is to show how the adventures and expeditions of these anthropologists are entangled with the personal puzzles each explorer is trying to resolve. It’s a quest not only for the answers to the nature of humankind, but a method of psychodramatically playing-out the kinks and knots of their own private foibles and flaws — including questions of race, sexuality and gender. It all makes for rich characterization as you, the reader, play it out on the stage of your mind.
King begins by bringing us through the museum of Boas’s memories, past stuffed archetypes, reified racial postures, and cobwebs of neural connections past their prime. We come to understand how his early experiences, education and family background led him, almost inevitably, toward a life devoted to finding out what made People tick — How are we different from each other, and the same? Is the observer superior to the observed? Do we live lives of one-way mirrors on each other? King describes Boas’s upbringing in a fully assimilated Jewish family comfortable in German culture – “being Bürgerlich—urban, educated, freethinking, bourgeois—was as much a defining feature of life as being members of a minority faith.” Boas could afford to explore — and he did.
Franz Boas, writes King, was a product of Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment, a reader of noisy newspapers, knockin’ on Heaven’s door by way of Luther, a believer in the categorical imperative of Kant (the rich man’s golden rule). He was influenced by the vision of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who observed, “Human civilization was a jigsaw puzzle of these distinct ways of being, each adding its own piece, some more rough edged than others, to the grand picture of human achievement.” Boas got his first serious taste of jigsaw pie, when he went as a young man to frozen Boffin Island, fifth largest island in the world, where he lived among the Inuits, observing, laying down data-driven Krackelfüsse (chicken scratches) in his journal.
Just as personal contradictions would torment members of his Circle later, Boas, too, had ritualistic hang-ups he couldn’t deny. For instance, he had the need to posture, early on, demonstrating his mensch-hood by engaging in glove-slap fisticuffs. Boas was at home playing piano once when a neighbor shouted to keep it down, and Boas got out there, “escalated the confrontation into … a duel,” during which each received a sword tick or two, they proudly called, Schmiss, or duelling scars.
Looking at Boas later in life, you would have drawn the conclusion that he had a lot of need, as the scars left him “scrimshawed like an old walrus tusk, with Schmisse on his forehead, nose, and cheek, a jagged line running from mouth to ear.” Anthropologists have gone to dark and exotic places to note and analyze the schmisses of others. Maybe that occurred to him as chair of the anthropology department at Columbia.
Early in his tenure at Columbia he was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation. But as King notes, “The deeper concern was how to distinguish advanced, healthy, and vigorous northern Europeans from the lesser subraces now stumbling over one another on the streets and alleyways of the Lower East Side.” Nibelungen everywhere.
Inspired by the “scientific racism” found in such popular reads as The Passing of the Great Races, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy, the government was looking to avoid a cultural dilution to America’s Way of Life. But Boas and his anthropologists had some bad news for the blue bloods. These groups easily assimilated. And may, in fact, have displayed all the virtues of the American Way — especially multiculturalism. Boas’s data disputed government assumptions; it revealed fascistic prejudices simmering just beneath the surface of public policy. The reader can imagine how a different set of data might have led to purges. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America comes to mind. No wonder Hitler winked.
For Boas, notes King, “No one should be creating broad theories of human difference until more data had been collected.” Franz Boas’s most famous anthropologist was Margaret Mead. Intellectually informed by von Herder’s Sturm und Drang literary movement (itself a Goethe-Werther nod), Boas had put Mead to work on the Cause by suggesting that she complete her doctoral dissertation by considering the question: “Was the transition from childhood to adulthood, with young women and men rebelling against their stultifying parents, the product of a purely biological change, the onset of puberty?”
He arranged for her to go to America Samoa to find an answer. When she got there — Pago Pago — she found “the largest naval deployment since Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet around the world as a display of American sea power.” Her thoughts were constantly plagued by some ship in the fleet playing “ragtime.” She wrote to Boas, “The only sizable villages were ‘over-run with missionaries, stores, and various intrusive influences,’ … and were much corrupted by the influence of the Americans.” Writes King, “This was no way to study primitive tribes [and] she vowed to get as far away from Pago Pago as possible.”
She sailed from Pago Pago to T’ua, hundreds of miles away, where she lived with an American couple. Even there, she was unsure of how she would proceed, when a fortuitous hurricane suddenly changed the course of her study. King paraphrases her thinking,
What if the real way to understand people wasn’t to gawk at their ceremonies or even to share in their most important work, as Malinowski had done, but to be beside them in their most unguarded moments—sweeping up debris, rebuilding a house, reweaving a damaged mat, comforting a wailing child?
She went to work, fitting in and taking copious notes.
In her Samoan field work, and later working with children on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, she came to some startling data-driven conclusions about the transition from childhood to adult. Unlike in America or Germany, or any other number of Western countries, the children didn’t carry their ‘magical thinking’ over into adulthood, and there was no real ‘sturm und drang.’
The Western presumption was that the transition, for boys and girls, was a natural by-product of growing up – “rebellion against authority, philosophical perplexities, the flowering of idealism, conflict and struggle – [were] ascribed to a period of physical development,” Mead found. At the end, as at the beginning, she asked herself the Question: “Were these difficulties due to being adolescent or due to being adolescents in America?” She went with the latter. It’s all culturally relative.
Out of all this came Coming of Age in Samoa, which became very popular in academia and helped give wings to the growth in the Humanities, which saw its heyday in the late 60s and 70s. Mead’s book quickly found itself listed by conservatives in “10 Books That Screwed Up the World,” joining favorite hates like, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, and Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. It was a badge of honor for Mead.
King also explores and describes in some detail all the sexual tension implicit (and sometimes explicit) in Mead’s many love entanglements. She was a kind of proto-feminist. She wouldn’t marry the linguist, Edward Sapir, who, feeling somehow ‘betrayed’, turned on her later and was a harsh critic of her work. She married three other men — Luther Cressman, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, who she referred to as “a William Blake in safari cottons.” And she left Ruth Benedict unrequited and standing at the altar of love. Naturally, this all informed her anthropology somehow.
Another free spirit attracted to Boas’s world was the novelist — and anthropologist — Zora Neale Hurston, the so-called Queen of the Harlem Renaissance, and tightly connected to Langston Hughes. The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the first novel written that made Black vernacular the star of the show and inspired writers like Toni Morrison later. Urged on by Boas, she sought to develop an ethnographic history of residents of Eatonville, the first self-governing all-black municipality in the United States, and of South Florida in general. King explains, “Between 1890 and 1930, Florida had, per capita, more public lynchings than any other state in the country, almost exclusively of African Americans—twice the number in Mississippi and Georgia, three times that in Alabama.”
Out of her field experience she produced Mules and Men. Rich in folktales, it delved into the Black experience like never before, and revealed previously unknown secret pagan doings. Hurston wrote, “Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has thousands of secret adherents…The way we tell it, hoodoo started way back before everything.” (Suddenly, I had a new understanding of the CCR song “Born on the Bayou,” wherein hoodoos are chased by hound dogs.)
With a Guggenheim scholarship, Hurston continued here explorations of Black living by trekking to the Caribbean for “a study of magic practices among Negroes of the West Indies,” focussing on the ex-slave colonies Jamaica and Haiti. As King describes her experience there, King writes that Hurston saw that “Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals…It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”
To get a better feel for the living Black spirit in Jamaica, Hurston drove to St. Mary’s parish in the Blue Mountains and came across “a country wedding” with music, dancing and cake (think: “Sweet and Dandy”). From there she joined the Maroons in “a boar hunt that stretched over several days, traipsing up and down the mountain slopes, slogging along in her riding boots, the hunters’ dogs yelping when they got too close to the boar’s razor-sharp tusks.” From there she went to another parish where she attended a nine-day “wake” at which the corpse was “nailed tight to the interior of the coffin” so that its “duppy” spirit, “the dark matter inside any person” couldn’t “take flight” and fuck with the community.
From Jamaica, Hurston sailed to Haiti, where she uncovered the Home of Hoodoo-Voodoo and was introduced to a zombie by the name of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a product of local voodoo practices. Dumped by her husband, and suffering ‘a total eclipse of the heart’, King describes Hurston’s situation: “[M]edical records showed that [Felicia] had died in 1907…[Hurston’s account] remains the first known depiction of a person whom her Haitian neighbors knew as a zombie.
As Hurston poignantly adds though,
That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
(Eventually, we got around to creating a Netflix series, The Walking Dead.) Hurston wrote a whole book on the subject, Tell My Horse. She describes ceremonies involving bocors (dark magicians) and instances where loa inhabit the body of local believers and “ride” them. An enactment of such a ritual involving such horse-riding is depicted in the Papa Legba scene of David Byrnes’s film True Stories.
Like Mead, Hurston, too, showed signs of free-lovin’. While she was still at graduate school, and married, she fell in love with a fellow student there by the name of Percival Punter. With him she “sputtered and sizzled” and had to be with him. She said of this affair, writes King, “I did not just fall in love,” she recalled. “I made a parachute jump.”
One final member of the Boas Circle who King provides details for is Ella Cara Deloria, who grew up on a Sioux reservation on South Dakota. Enrolled at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, she was “summoned” one day to meet with Franz Boas, who wanted to use her a translator for Native American projects he had going. She was a highly regarded liaison and ethnologist.
In the Preface to her novel, Waterlily, which tried to bring to life in fiction the Dakota people, as Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had done for Blacks, the publisher writes, “Deloria was an ideal intermediary between the predominant American traditional Dakota cultures, and she took that role seriously.” In the Boas tradition, Deloria believed that “To write properly about Indians, you had to stop using the past tense.” She lived with her people, while she wrote about them, and made sure her accounts came from authentic voices.
Early in Gods of the Upper Air, King identified its purpose: “This book is about the women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing.” They were up against social Darwinists and scientific racism. The Boas Circle, with their studies in Cultural Relativism, celebrated the diversity of multiculturalism and its consequent public policies, which over the years have resulted in a righteous vilification of racism, sexism, and gender-bound roles.
As for the greater realization of a common humanity, it’s a tough sell these days in an era of catastrophic Climate Change, rising global authoritarianism, and looming pandemics of body and mind.
But at least they tried.