Anthropology is the science of the sense of humour

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Bronislaw Malinowski. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.020


Anthropology is the science of the sense of humour

An introduction to Julius Lips’ The savage hits back, or the white man through native eyes



Anthropology is the science of the sense of humour.1 It can be thus defined without too much pretention or facetiousness. For to see ourselves as others see us is but the reverse and the counterpart of the gift to see others as they really are and as they want to be. And this is the métier of the anthropologist. He has to break down the barriers of race and cultural diversity; he has to find the human being in the savage; he has to discover the primitive in the highly sophisticated Westerner of today, and, perhaps, to see that the animal, and the divine as well, are to be found everywhere in man.

We are learning by the growing wisdom of the theoretician and by its complete dissociation from political affairs that the dividing line between savage and civilized is by no means easy to draw. Where can we find cruder magic than in the political propaganda of today? What type of witch-hunting or witch trial will not appear decent and reasonable in comparison with some of the forms of persecution of racial minorities in Central Europe? Cannibalism shocks us terribly. Yet I remember talking to an old cannibal who from missionary and administrator had heard news of the Great War raging then in Europe. What he was most curious to know was how we Europeans managed to eat such enormous quantities of human flesh, as the casualties of a battle seemed to imply. When I told him indignantly that Europeans do not eat their slain foes, he looked at me with real horror and asked me what sort of barbarians we were to kill without any real object. In such incidents [302]as these the anthropologist learns to appreciate that Socratic wisdom can be best reached by sympathetic insight into the lives and viewpoints of others.

If anthropology be defined as the art and craft in the sense of humour, then the present book [The savage hits back] is one of the first contributions to real anthropology—first in rank and first in priority of time. In it Professor [Julius] Lips works out one of the most fruitful approaches to anthropology. He inquires into the vision of white humanity as held by the native. The book is perhaps the first clearly planned, fully documented, and vigorously written analysis of the white man from the point of view of the coloured races. In this Professor Lips is a worthy successor of Montesquieu and Oliver Goldsmith, with this difference that, having at his disposal much fuller material, he does not romance, but lets sober truth, illustrated with a wealth of excellent pictures, speak for itself. The main interest of the book and its chief value will, of course, consist in the pictorial documents collected, classified, and annotated by the writer. In this Professor Lips shows himself a real scholar, and his analysis of painting, sketch, and carving will be of great value to all interested in primitive art.

Scientifically, however, this approach is yet more significant. Professor Lips presents us with the only objective, clear, and telling documentation of native opinion on Europeans, because it is in the plastic and decorative arts that man expresses himself fully, unambiguously, and in a manner which lasts and can be reproduced.

The writer in his interesting autobiographical introduction makes us well understand why he can sympathize with the native. He belongs to a minority, the minority of German refugees; and even to a minority within the minority, for he is a ’Nordic’ who has left the country because he could not stand the prevalence of Nordic brutalities.

The writer speaks out honestly and fearlessly in his book, as he has done in his line of conduct. Once more it is with real pleasure that one finds an anthropological work in which the writer is frankly the native’s spokesman, not only of the native point of view, but also of native interests and grievances. It has always appeared to me remarkable how little the trained anthropologist, with his highly perfected technique of fieldwork and his theoretical knowledge, has so far worked and fought side by side with those who are usually described as pro-native. Was it because science makes people too cautious and pedantry too timid? Or was it because the anthropologist, enamoured of the unspoiled primitive, lost all interest in the native enslaved, oppressed, or detribalized? However that might be, I for one believe in the anthropologist’s being not only the interpreter of the native but also his champion. From this point of view I can find no fault with the book. Take for instance the first chapter. It is more general than the others; it gives an excellent history of European colonization and the first contacts. It presents the facts succinctly, but with great outspokenness, and in excellent perspective.

When it comes to modern times, the writer’s strictures on German policy are interesting. “The return of the smallest fraction of Africa, even in the form of a mandate, to Hitler would inevitably bring shame on the whole white civilized world.” I am afraid Professor Lips is right. But I am even more afraid that the shameful catastrophe may occur. There is much talk in England now about the need of placating the ’have-nots’; so much generosity on the part of the ’haves’, and so much regarding of the Africans educated and tribal, Christian and heathen, as though they were [303]mere chattels whose lives, welfare, and happiness can be sold for some imaginary diplomatic advantage in Europe.

In Chapter II, we pass more definitely to pictorial art, and here the scholar will enjoy the clarity of the argument and the wealth of fact. But for the lay reader there is still the current of human interest running right throughout the book. It would be tedious as it would be unnecessary to summarize the details of the following chapters. As an ex-Melanesian I have found the chapter on ships perhaps the most fascinating. Many will be interested in that on European women.

The structure of the whole book shows a wise distribution of factual material. The Europeans are seen by the native in a professional capacity; as individuals and in mass-formation; as carriers of material culture, and as exponents of its spiritual worth. The chapter on missionaries in native art and ideology is of special value because it is an interesting contribution to the psychology of a new religion in process of being grafted on to a different culture. It is refreshing to find that the writer does not indulge in the cheap jokes against missionaries, so trite in ethnographic works. On the contrary, he shows that the Christian art of the savage ’primitive’ has a dignity, grace, and theological depth almost comparable with the art of the Italian Primitives of the Quattrocento.

It is no exaggeration to say that, in giving this beautifully illustrated and richly documented Corpus of tangible, plastic, and decorative expressions of native opinion on the white world, Professor Lips has laid the foundations of a new approach to the most vexed problem of culture change and diffusion.

April, 1937


1. Editors’ Note: This article is a reprint of Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1937. “Introduction.” In The savage hits back, or the white man through native eyes, by Julius E. Lips, vii–ix. London: Lovat Dickinson. We remind the reader that we retain the style of the original.