The Sadness of the Anthropologist
[Extract from the personal diary]
You would think that after so much time in the tropics there would be very little that could truly scare me. In fact, the human mind works quite differently. At the age of twenty-five I devoured every exotic “delicacy,” participated in every ceremony and camped out in every jungle without the slightest concern for my own life. And I might be the same today had I not begun traveling with older anthropologists. I learned many invaluable things at their side, but I also learned two very destructive things: fear and sadness.
The fear I learned first of all by example, by watching the old men toss fitfully in their sleep as they recalled the horrors they’d been through, or jump at every loud noise. I knew one man, Gerkin, who actually slept with a revolver under his pillow, until it went off one night as he slept. The bullet missed him, but he did go deaf in the left ear.
There’s a certain way of picking up your fork when you believe it may be the last time. A certain way of shaking hands when you expect to be the victim of an ambush. A certain lack of conviction to a laugh when you wonder if there is anything to the world apart from misery. Whenever I cough, I check to see if there’s blood in the saliva. Every scab I locate is likely to be the onset of some venereal disease. I have inherited all these manias from watching the behavior of my elders, even though their paranoia initially appalled me. I even sleep with a gun under my pillow, and knowing what happened to Gerkin doubles my insanity.
The other way I have learned to fear is by watching horrible things happen. My address book is a cemetery. That horrible wail as Clinbourne’s mule lost its footing on a cliff road. The smile on Brothers’s face as he handled the poisonous frog that killed him. The messenger dryly reporting that Greenblatt had been viciously attacked by the natives who had theretofore been his generous hosts. Stories like Greenblatt’s are the most terrible, and the worst for one’s state of mind. All feelings of trust and security become utterly provisional.
Then there’s the sadness I mentioned. No less infectious. The sadness of the anthropologist is a complex one, a mixture of sadness for oneself, for one’s privations and sufferings, for the rotten and ravaged state of the present-day wilderness, for the paling of reality before one’s youthful dreams, for the slow demise of one’s ideals and the grim recognition that one is becoming coarse and intolerant, for the fact that the only people one relates to are corrupted to the very same degree as oneself, and are consequently unable to lend a sympathetic ear, if such an ear really exists at all, for the fact that simplicity is not, can not be beautiful any longer, in both life and culture because simplicity requires something like honesty, and as I mentioned, there is no one that can be trusted.
Actually, I omitted my greatest fear from the above. The fear that the present notes could be found after my death and read as some sort of comedy.
I am not writing to amuse.
Nor to instruct.
I would simply like to be taken on the same grounds as one might take a stranger in a cafe or at a bus-stop. That much civility would do. As though there were nothing absurd about a ghost – I will someday be a ghost – speaking his thoughts aloud in a private text, addressed to no one in particular. Forget for a moment, I beg of you, that this is private. Pretend we are meeting on equal terms. I will bring my delusions and prejudices and you will bring yours. And for a brief moment, you might forget who’s listening.