Monday, April 4, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For!

In 1961 Michael Rockefeller went to a place called Asmat in what was then known as Netherlands New Guinea. His purpose was not just to collect what was then referred to as  “primitive art,” but to taste, touch, smell, and see that world for himself. In short, he wanted to free himself from the societal conventions of being a Rockefeller. Similarly, author Carl Hoffman retraces Rockefeller's steps with an admitted hunger "to see a humanity before the Bible, before the Koran, before Christian guilt and shame."

In spite of Rockefeller's aspirations to connect with what he may have thought of as a "pure" primitive world, there was nevertheless an aspect in which he was treating the art of the people purely on esthetic and formal grounds. He ignored what Paul Hiebert has elsewhere referred to as the "Flaw of the Excluded Middle": a complex spiritual world filled with dangerous rituals, anxieties, and reciprocal systems of checks and balances to which westerners are usually blind. Western sojourners, in the words of the author, have been "able to collect and photograph and dig into Asmat culture, to travel with the Asmat and be deep in their midst, without ever really understanding their world and the unseen dimensions of its reality."
Unfortunately, in spite of his laudable attempts, the author may have fallen into the same trap. The author is to be commended for striving to obtain a beginner/intermediate level of the Indonesian (not Asmat?) language, and understand some basics of the culture(s). He made a few short-term trips, more than he says the Rockefellers attempted to make. Yet I feel he too still only obtained a rudimentary and superficial grasp of the culture. Like others who went before him, he too was "blind, deaf, and dumb to the symbols and meanings of the cultures."
Since others have complained about reviews others have posted spoiling the book for them, I won't reveal much here other than to say Hoffman relates cover-ups from both the "uncivilized" and so-called modern "civilized" societies. Was Michael killed and consumed by head-hunting cannibals? At times Hoffman seems obligated to share every last detail of his investigative efforts. Yet, in his conclusions, there is still an element of speculation. And did Hoffman need to take 336 pages to present his narrative?
Another problem I have with the book: Why not just call "evil" (whether "primitive" or "civilized") evil? Hoffman writes: "It was an old story, the same in Asmat as in the Amazon or so many other places in the world—native people who were innocent about the world, who had few defenses against its encroachments. They are easily influenced by the outside, too easily." Really? Untarnished and innocent? I give Savage Harvest 3 out of 5 stars smile emoticon "liked it") for what was overall an engaging read, but at times meandering. In my opinion, it's falls a little short of being a "Best Book of the Year," as it was touted on a list or two.

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