Friday, February 01, 2013

Will Self: the joy of armchair anthropology

Claude Levi-Strauss in Amazonia
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in Amazonia in the 1930s. Photograph: Apic/Getty

In Barry Lopez's haunting, poetic book about the hyperborean realms, Arctic Dreams, there's a magnificent story about an Inuit family who are washed out to the seas on a calved iceberg. Nothing is heard of them for about 30 years, until one day they rejoin the rest of their tribal group. The reason for their prolonged absence is this: it has taken them this long, on the deserted island where they fetched up, to hunt the seals, narwhals, whales and assorted other fauna, required to provide the skins, the baleen stretchers, the bone needles and the sinewy thread with which to construct a seagoing boat – as soon as it was done they headed home.
There's something about this tale that represents, for me, the quintessence of what I imagine to be the relationship between traditional hunter-gatherer peoples and their world. The Inuit family are simultaneously at the mercy of their environment, and its masters; their capacity to instinctively utilise every available resource is seamlessly united with high levels of forward planning, so that in a situation that would cost anyone not so attuned their lives, they instead go – literally as well as metaphorically – with the flow.

I probably reread Lopez's book about every couple of years. Arctic Dreams is a more or less perfect example of a tendency in my reading towards what can only be described as "comfort savagery". Lying abed, in the heart of a great, pulsing, auto-cannibalising conurbation, the supply chain of which girdles the earth like the monstrous tail of some effluent-belching comet, I find descriptions of how I myself might have lived before the great grainy surplus of the agricultural revolution curiously heartening. After all, what does any kind of reading provide for us if not the opportunity to exercise imaginative sympathy? Others may prefer to will themselves into James Bond's dinner jacket and Aston Martin DB4, but I'd rather slip into a !Kung hunter's penis sheath and heft his hunting spear.

There have been all sorts of comfort reading in my life. (And even more comfy rereading, which is the literary equivalent of slipping on a pair of battered old slippers.) For many years I liked nothing better than to lie down – preferably in low-lying country such as East Anglia – and lose myself in the halting, pained progress of mountain climbers being winched ever-upwards by their own deranged romanticism. This broadened out into an enthusiasm for accounts of polar exploration: what could be finer than being snugly tucked up in the present while a sad bunch of imperialists were getting bitterly fucked-up in the past? They were compelled out for a short walk, while I had voluntarily opted for a long lie-in. But in fact there was an element of my polar flippancy that mingled with more militant reading tendencies.
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