For fun, I’ve been reading bits and pieces about the life of Bronislaw Malinowski, often described as one of the most important anthropologists of the early twentieth century for his contributions to ethnography. I’m not an ethnographer or a cultural anthropologist, but I stumbled across an essay by Michael Young about Malinowski’s life, as revealed by his own diary, which then led me to Young’s larger, book-length work (2004).
It is admittedly voyeuristic to look into the private thoughts of another person through their diaries. But it’s also a reminder about how complex we all are (some more so than others). For all his flaws, I find Malinowski to be a sympathetic figure. Maybe it’s because of his flaws. Young described him as “moody, irritable, sentimental, and melancholic” who made enemies as easily as friends. “But he could also be gregarious, emotionally generous, deeply courteous and scintillatingly eloquent. He was a demonically hard worker whose zeal galvanized those around him” (p. xxv). Again, he was complex.
The recurrent theme was that Malinowski was preoccupied with introspection in order to reform and improve himself. This seems rather commonplace, but his unique motivation was the desire to ‘integrate’ himself, by which he meant creating a coherent whole:
“(Malinowski’s) ideal was a healthy body subservient to an alert, concentrated mind, perfectly attuned to its environment. There was a moral dimension to his instrumentality too: ‘The fact that, in order to attain magical efficacy, we must pay undivided attention to our spiritual communion, demands what every theologian as well as the anthropologist or the man in the street would call a “clean heart.”’ As he reminded himself in his diary, he was ‘perfectly capable of an all but ascetic life’ (desirable for a clean heart). Sensual enjoyment was acceptable in its place but it was important ‘not to let it interfere with essential things.’ Among the most essential things, in his view, were the striving for integration, the ‘deepening’ of his subjective life, the mind’s triumph through the economy of thought to theoretical clarity, and ultimately the ‘smile of the Buddha’ and a nirvana-like contentment.
Towards the perfection of the performer he deployed his diary as a monitoring device. The purpose of keeping a diary ‘must be to consolidate life, to integrate one’s thinking, to avoid fragmenting themes.’ The chief instrument of investigation was his own observing, analytical self. Some components of this human apparatus he knew to be faulty. His physical body was recalcitrant, too often sluggish and distracted by wayward emotions. His health, the most fundamental aptitude, could not be guaranteed… His linguistic facility fell short of what was needed. His mental attitude – another vital component of the research apparatus – was sometimes ‘wrong’, his motivation fickle.” (Young 2004: page 511)
This struck me as reminiscent about an essay I once wrote about the biology of our cacophonous selves, about how we have an assortment of (sometimes conflicted) motivations. Even our genes may be in conflict with themselves, serving one beneficial function at one point of the life cycle, and another harmful one at a different point. There’s more to it than that, but basically I kind of pity Malinowski, or anyone, for not allowing for some internal conflict. ‘Integration’ seems like an impossible goal. The pursuit of being absolutely single-minded, in the sense of the archetypal ascetic monk, athlete, or academic (pre-tenure) probably can never hold, at least not for real human beings. Ultimately, Malinowski declared himself a failure at that task. Young wrote:
His closing sentence, then, is a moral judgment upon himself that can be explicated in these terms: ‘I have failed to integrate myself, to create a unitary self with a solid, dependable core. I am an assortment of conflicting needs, a multitude of opposing selves, an aggregation of wants and desires, some sordid, some sublime, but none constant or true. After all, I am only human.’
Young MW. 2004. Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist, 1884–1920. Yale University Press. Link