Benedict is a writer, storyteller and ideologue of uncommon clarity.
In this work she illustrates how three different cultures shape and filter
broad human experience -- birth and death, marriage and divorce, alliance
and betrayal, membership and exclusion-- in incredibly different ways.
She shows that that individuals are unconsciously shaped by the cultures
they live in; that cultures seek to orient individuals towards socially
approved norms; that cultures can and do choose very different methods
to reach integration; and that social configurations permit and promote
individual behavior incomprehensible to other cultures.
Cultures and societies are different in their solutions, but similar in their struggle for integration.
All the miscellaneous behaviour directed toward getting a living, mating, warring, and worshipping the gods, is made over into one consistent pattern in accordance with the unconscious canons of choice that develop within the culture. Some cultures, like some periods of art, fail of such integration, and about many others we know too little to understand the motives that actuate them. But cultures at every level of complexity, even the simplest, have achieved it. Such cultures are more or less successful attainments of integrated behaviour, and the marvel is that there can be so many of these possible configurations. (48)Although all societies struggle for integration, Benedict rejects the notion that all societies share one evolutionay trajectory. She underscores the difficulties in comparison thus: Societies "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." (223). Her effort, then, is to describe the dominant cultural configuration of a particular society, apart from the constraints of time and space. Politically, Benedict urged tolerance toward people and behaviors which her 1934 American society did not condone. She took this role up again after World War II, when she wrote a ethnographic study of the Japanese, in order to guide Americans involved in the rebuilding of that country.
Benedict briefly offers the salient features of three very different cultures. The Pueblo Indians, or Zuni, were bounded and governed by religious ceremony and social fraternities. There were numerous societies into which a Zuni might enter. Three features that would have seemed particularly strange to Benedict's readers were the lack of emphasis on personal gain, the maternal control of what wealth there was, and the relative open-endedness of marriage. The Zuni, as Benedict captures them, are Apollonian, seeking balance, harmony and proportion in all situations. Frenzy, drunkennes, and transcendental experience through extremes are given no space in the Zuni experience. Dobu society was also agricultural, also maternal, and also focused on magical ceremony, but there the comparisons stop. Dobu culture was bound by a wide trading circle; a win-lose game going on year after year with objects of ceremonial significance and quotidian use passing from partner to partner on different islands. At home, yam gardens were grown in secrecy, with struggles between neighbors to magically "steal" each others' yams overnight. Marriages were apparently an affair of grudge and resentment as much as attraction, as couples alternated yearly between each one's home villages and friends. Fostering venues for personal ascendancy through trade, witchcraft and treachery were apparently societal goals. Resentment, grudges, and creating venues for a display of overweening individualism were also part of the Kwakiutl society. By contrast the the Zuni, the Kwakiutl permitted and encouraged transcendental experiences through excess. Engaging in horrorifying cannibalistic practice -- a horror which they themselves felt -- was necessary to attain high-level religious status. There were, as with the Zuni, many fraternal religious societies, but there were also valuable individually-owned dances and songs. Their society used the potlach, the ability to give away and destroy valuable goods, as a means of expressing wealth and social status. Even valuable copper pieces attained a kind of anthropomorphic social status. As a side note, one of the funniest remarks Benedict offers highlights the intolerance of one culture for another: "Lewis and Clark complained when they crossed the western plains in the early days that no night was fit for sleeping; some old man was always rousing to beat on his drum and ceremonially rehearse the dream he had just had." (83)
Her summaries of the three cultures -- Zuni, Dobu, Kwakiutl --
have the flavor of story told by a sparkling raconteur -- fascinating,
eclectic, and probably a little biased. I have no real reason not to believe
her summaries: I simply wonder if even little cultures and little
bands are quite as narrowly focused as all that. Could a whole culture
be focused around calmness, or around treachery, or around display? She
advances one comparative framework -- the Dionysian culture versus the
Apollonian culture -- which makes for interesting analysis. In pursuit
of tolerance, she offers an unforgettable image: the kindly Dobu.
Here is an individual, inexplicably friendly and unsuspicious, crushed
into a culture with no scope, no toleration, no understanding and no reward
for his mild and genial nature. Another misfit she sketches is a
scornful and charismatic Zuni who suffers in a society that rewards the
friendly and easy-going, rather than the domineering. She cites the tormented
modern-day homosexual and the hapless institutionalized cataleptic
as examples of people who would perfectly well find scope and affirmation
of their personal talents if placed in other contexts. (Living and traveling
abroad, I have also had the impression "here is a misplaced person.")
Although she makes a strong plea for non-judgmental comparative anthropology,
and along the way categorically denies racial purity, Benedict is not a
believer in tabula rosa. Wherever human beings may have picked up
these innate qualities, she argues that they carry these qualities into
the oceans of culture they are born into, and float or sink accordingly.
Benedict argues for experiences that are essential to all cultures, and
personalities that are shaped, but somehow separate, from culture.
Certainly Shanks and Tilley would take issue with both ideas. They
would, however, appreciate the role of personal and social contradiction
as a motive force for change.