Malinowski Bronislaw - The Sexual Life Of Savages

Author : Malinowski Bronislaw
Title : The Sexual Life Of Savages in North-Western Melanesia An ethnographic account of courtship, marriage and family life among the natives of the Trobriand islands, British new Guinea
Year : 1929

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PREFACE BY HAVELOCK ELLIS. THE sexual life of savages has long awaited its natural historian. Owing to sex taboos, that weigh at least as much on the civilized as on the savage mind, this subject has always been veiled in mystery. The mystery has been fascinating or sombre according to the general attitude to savagery that happened to prevail. In the eighteenth century it was fascinating. That century, especially in its French mode, virtually discovered what is loosely and incorrectly termed "Primitive Man," and found his finest embodiment in the new and Paradisiacal world of America and Oceania. These French voyagers and missionaries (though there were some notable but more sober-minded English and other sailors among them) were delighted and intoxicated as these strange manners and customs, often so gracious and fantastic, opened out before their astonished vision. They were incapable of understanding them, and they had no time to penetrate below the surface, but the enthusiastic impressions they honestly set down seemed a revelation to the Parisian world with its own widely unlike artificialities and conventions. Then was developed the conception of the "noble" savage of whom Tacitus had caught a glimpse in primeval German forests living in ((a state of Nature." The nineteenth century grew contemptuous of what seemed to it Rous seau's superficial and imaginative VISIOn o'f the natural man. But Rousseau had really been a careful student of the narratives of explorers in his time, as there is clear evidence to show. The conclusions he drew were not more extravagant than those at the opposite extreme drawn by later generations and sometimes still persisting to-day. Diderot, likewise, when he wrote his famous Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville, to exhibit to his fellow-countrymen the superior reasonableness in matters of sexual ethics of the Tahitian, brought forward various correct facts-already set down in the attractive narrative of the great French navigator-but misleadingly, because he was ignorant of the social framework to which they belonged. · In the nineteenth century the more sombre view prevailed. The explorers were now mainly English, and they carried with them the Anglo-Saxon Puritanism for which all sexual customs that are unfamiliar are either shocking or disgusting. "Obscene" was the word commonly used, and it was left to the reader's imagination to picture what that might mean. The sexual behaviour of savages seemed mostly unspeakable. The urethral sub_ incision practised by some Australian tribes was mysteriously named "the terrible rite." A similar mutilation of the nose or ear, or anywhere a little higher up or a little lower down, would not have seemed "terrible"; but a,t that particular spot it aroused a shuddering and shamefaced awe. In the twentieth century we have moved towards a parts of the world by such distinguished workers as Rivers and Seligman, may be regarded as a landmark. But we still pined in vain for a picture of the sexual life of any unspoilt people. One or two investigators, like Roth in Queensland, noted a few precise objective facts of the sex life, and more recently Felix Bryk, in his N eger-Eros, has produced a valuable study of the erotic life in Equatorial Africa, but it has not been easy to find any really comprehensive picture. Such a task needed, indeed, a rare combination of qualifications; not only a scientific equipment but a familiarity with various new fertilizing ideas, not always considered scientific, which have of late been thrown into the anthropological field; a long and intimate knowledge of the people to be investigated and of their language, for it is not only in Civilization that the sexual life tends to be shy and recessive; not least, there was required in the investigator a freedom alike from the traditions of AngloSaxon Puritanism, however estimable in their own place, and from the almost equally unfortunate reactions to which the revolt against those traditions may lead. All these qualifications are in a rare degree combined in Dr. Malinowski: the scientific outfit, the sensitive intelligence, the patience in observation, the sympathetic insight. He is known by numerous monographs on various sociological aspects of savage culture, mostly based on his research among the Trobriand Islanders off the east coast of New Guinea, among whom he lived in close touch for two years. His Argonauts of the Western Pacific-the original and elaborate analysis of the peculiar kula exchange system of the Trobriands-is recognized as a brilliant achievement of ethnographic research. It is, indeed, more than merely ethnographic, and as Sir J ames Frazer, who introduced the book, pointed out, it is characteristic of Dr. Malinowski's method that he takes full account of the complexity of human nature. An institution that, at ,the first glance, might seem to be merely economic, is found in his searching hands to be not merely commercial, but bound up with magic and ministering to the emotional and :!forts towards social reform. The Trobriand Islanders are a small community living in a confined space; they only supply one of the patterns of savage life, though it may well be a fairly typical pattern. When we study it we find not merely that in this field the savage man is very like the civilized man, with the like vices and virtues under different forms, but we may even find that in some respects the savage has here reached a finer degree of civilization than the civilized man. The comparisons we can thus make furnish suggestions ~ven for the critical study of our own social life. H. E. ...

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