Almost fifty years ago the French ethnologist Gontran de Poncins published his international best-seller Kabloona, an account of his year-long stay with the Netsilikmuit, the Seal Eskimos of Canada's central Arctic. Early in the book he described a haunting scene. Wrapped warmly in a sleeping-bag, he had fallen asleep in an igloo that three Eskimo hunters were generously sharing with him. He awoke to see the hunters on their knees, weirdly illuminated by an oil lamp and casting grotesque shadows on the icy walls. After a few moments of nightmare between wake and sleep he remembered where he was, then he realised that they were gorging on seal meat: 'The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping. From where I lay their faces appeared to me in profile glistening with fat and running with blood; and with their flattened crania, their hair covering their foreheads, their moustaches hanging low over their mouths, their enormous jaws, they inspired in me so ineradicable a notion of the stone age that I think always of this scene when I read or hear of pre-historic man.' Such a passage obviously could not be written today. We are far too self-conscious and guilty about our ethnocentrism ever to admit to such a reaction even if we had it. The word 'savage' alone would be beyond the pale, more embarrassing than any four-letter word. Under the severe tutelage of anthropologists and in the long shadow of Claude LÚvi-Strauss, we are losing our cultural arrogance - or, perhaps the same thing, our cultural innocence. A good thing, too: the main point of innocence is to lose it, and this particular innocence deserves to be lost. Ethnocentrism has taken excessively disagreeable and destructive forms.
LRB 2 June 1988 | PDF Download