(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Exemplars is a work that leads out from points of anthropological theory, and anthropological history, to the most general issues of human existence. In its course, the author asks such questions as whether his own academic discipline really matters, whether there is anything fundamental in human nature, whether such familiar concepts as “incest” and “kinship,” or even “good” and “evil,” really exist. There is no doubt, therefore, that the book is intended to work above all provocatively.

Provocation is, moreover, redoubled by the fact that Rodney Needham has quite deliberately refused to set down his ideas in the normal academic linear-argumentative mode—presentation of a case, reasons for not accepting the case, presentation of an alternative case, and so on. Instead, he offers nine chapters, or “exemplars,” each centering on a particular person. It is true that the persons discussed all raise anthropological issues of one kind or another, and that Needham indicates the issues. He consciously refrains, however, from writing links, making comparisons, or drawing conclusions, all things which the reader must do for him- or herself. Deep in the core of Exemplars, it may be thought, lie two associated beliefs. One is that fullness in presenting particular examples has advantages lost in the standard academic process of abstraction and comparison. The other is that careful choice of examples may lead the skilled observer to what Needham labels at various times as archetypes, or primordial images, or paradigmatic scenes—features, anyway, which while remaining fully individual at the same time take on more than individual significance.

To attempt to trace themes or connections between the nine chapters of Exemplars is then in a sense to reverse the book’s essential mode of argument. Nevertheless, no reader can refrain from making the attempt (for to have the nine chapters within one set of covers implies some unifying principle), and in fact, surface connections are readily apparent. To choose the most obvious, Needham is clearly interested in anthropological fakes. His last chapter centers on the well-known sequence of books about Don Juan by Carlos Castañeda and puts forward a strong and convincing argument to the effect that these works derive in fact not from the oral teachings of an unknown mystic, but from two books written originally in German but then translated into English, Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens (1948; Zen in the Art of Archery, 1953) and Der Zen-weg (1958; The Method of Zen, 1960), both by Eugen Herrigel. Confusion is added, however, first by the fact that Herrigel’s books also claim to be derived from oral teaching and second by strong suspicions that Herrigel was another falsifier, who used printed sources and who never attained the command of Japanese that his long “verbal transcripts” so strongly imply. Issues that arise here include the value of fakes and the reason behind the modern appetite for mysticism. What concerns Needham most, though, is the question of how a multitude of details can be organized into an invented structure coherent enough to fool (as Castañeda did) even professional anthropologists. Is it individual genius? or a natural human propensity for inventing structures?

The same questions arise from Needham’s chapter 5, which deals with the case of one George Psalmanaazaar, a Frenchman (apparently) who deceived most of the learned world in the early eighteenth century with the fiction that he was in fact a native of Formosa, supplying them with fascinating (but totally concocted) accounts of Formosan culture, religion, and even language. Needham expresses something like awe at this achievement. Nevertheless, he sees that it may call the whole discipline of anthropology into question, for if one man can deceive a whole gallery of scholars, might it not be easier, in the normal anthropological situation, for a complete society of informants to impose what they like on a single observer? Needham says that he does not believe this ever happens—though it has been recently alleged in Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983), a book Needham does not mention—but he is quite prepared to believe that his colleagues frequently, or normally, deceive themselves.

One may still think that Needham is building too much on a single incident. Yet, his first chapter has, in a sense, presented exactly that challenge. This centers on Archilochus, Greek poet and mercenary soldier of the seventh century b.c.e., whose work survives only in fragments. One of these fragments, in a translation by Guy Davenport, asserts that Fortune, like a woman, carries fire in her right hand, water in her...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Times Literary Supplement. June 7, 1985, p. 634.