This is a blog about my reads as well as everything related to them.
My taste is for good quality literature - old and new. Some of it I review here or on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany.
Confronted with other cultures or just life-styles we all tend to be rather judgemental classifying the one as primitive, the other as aggressive, yet another (usually our own) as civilised, and so forth. Moreover, we use to think in the categories of good and evil like we who were born into an environment marked by Christian-European customs and values have been taught from early childhood. However, what seems perfectly normal behaviour to us may look completely absurd or even immoral in the eyes of a person socialised in a different culture... and vice versa. For many centuries Westerners – almost as a rule – looked down on other cultures. Not even scientists exploring all corners of the world were free of this arrogance. It is thanks to anthropologists like Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and her likes that today we seek a wider and less biased picture. In her 1934 book Patterns of Culture she brought the then relatively new approach to the attention of the public.
Considering that we have entered the second millennium already more than a decade and a half ago, it may seem strange to read an anthropology book first published in 1934. On the other hand, in everyday life there can’t be much left today of the cultures of the Pueblos of New Mexico, notably the Zuñi, the Dobu of eastern New Guinea, and the peoples of the American North-West Coast, above all the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (now known as the Kwakwaka’wakwa) that Ruth Benedict presented in her book. Already when she did her research, much of their cultural heritage had been lost in the process of continuing evangelisation and assimilation to a western life-style. Also for another reason Patterns of Culture keeps being a relevant work of cultural anthropology. Using the societies of Zuñi, Dobu and Kwakwaka’wakwa as extreme examples and pointing out the huge differences to each other as well as to European civilization, the author succeeded in showing how wide the range of culture actually is. She certainly made a good choice to demonstrate that no culture is better or worse than another, just different because the society came to attach value and importance to different things. Or to put it in Ruth Benedict’s own words:
“The three cultures of Zuñi, of Dobu, and of the Kwakiutl are not merely heterogeneous assortments of acts and beliefs. They have each certain goals toward which their behaviour is directed and which their institutions further. They differ from one another not only because one trait is present here and absent there, and because another trait is found in two regions in two different forms. They differ still more because they are oriented as wholes in different directions. They are travelling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensurable.”
As proves this quote, the language of Ruth Benedict is strikingly modern and accessible for that of a scholar. In fact, her descriptions are so rich in powerful, sometimes even poetic images that it’s almost a literary pleasure. I enjoyed reading Patterns of Culture very much and already put another one of her anthropological works, namely The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture from 1946, i.e. from right after World War II, on my list of books to read. I wish that more would read her books to widen their horizons and to discard their arrogance toward other cultures.