“Always giving…always. What a beautiful realm was ours, where man lavished his gifts, like the earth, and we sang all year long” So Vaitua told Gauguin, as he notes in Noa Noa (1). It is impossibile to imagine a more perfect icon of exoticism than this encounter between the princess and the French painter who, far from the debts and the travails left behind in his homeland, responded: “Civilization is slipping away from me”.
But, while paintings of exotic subjects made the painter a fortune (alas, posthumously), exoticism itself has never been considered respectable. While Chinese lacquer-paneled sitting-rooms in aristocratic palazzos and Japanese prints in middle-class houses were the furnishings most in vogue during the Belle Epoque, and Madame Butterfly’s hopeful anticipation of the appearance of a “thread of smoke” on the horizon which moved opera houses audiences, chinoiseries and japonaiseries were never recognized as anything other than an ephemeral and superficial fashion; to say nothing of literature à la Pierre Loti.
Then, beginning with Edward Said, Orientalism – for the most part Arab-esque –obtained a strong negative stigma, with an indication of how it should be considered in an intellectually correct way: as a form of cultural colonialism, an unjust imposition of the Western way of seeing things on other civilizations and their expressions. One of the arguments adopted to demonstrate the existence of a form of unilateral imposition was that, on the part of other civilizations, an analogous “Westernism” did not develop.
We can concede that those pallid, long-nosed figures who tell of the encounter, viewed from the other side, are only marginal representations, as are testimonials of the “flip side” of the American “Conquest”. But it is difficult to maintain that contemporary Westernsm – which is seen as globalization and a witty sociologist called Macdonaldization -, one of the most significant cultural phenomena in human history, is something from which the societies involved can declare themselves detached, affirming that it i san imposition from without which passes above their heads and which they passively abide. In reality, the Western model has been and continue sto be envied –perverse as it may seem to many-, and has created new myths, like the Cargo cults. And, wherever social organization has allowed it, the West and its forms have been meticulously studied and systematically imitated.
For every Gauguin who shed the accouterments of Western civilization, there have been millions, by now billions of men who sought to don those same garments.
The Japanese, eternally top-of-the-class, were the initiators, and we find them here in Italy already in 1585, as we can read in Gianbatista Vigilio’s Insalata, direct testimony of the visit to the court of the Gonzaga by the first official Japanese delegation in Europe, composed of four aristocrats and their retine (2). Portugal, Spain, and then Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice: the classical Tour, the same route taken today by the millions. We know that they were very impressed by their visits to the Italian cities: can we imagine that they did not wax enthousiastic in their descriptions once back home and with great accuracy, according with their way of seeing?
The Asia of today – the Orient – has been shaped based on the way in which those peoples, in their internal diversity and in the diversity of the more or less violent ways in which the encounters occurred, have elaborated their own conscious vision of the West. We cannot ignore these forms – to us foreign –of cultural contact, at the risk of perpetuating, paradoxically, our own colonialist vision, accordino to which everything originates in the West.
Beyond militare conquests, forced religious conversion and economic exploitation, a seductive exoticism was developing, on both sides, and while the Orient with its sensual pleasures seduced esthetes and adventurers frustrated by the puritanic mores of their homelands, the West offered far sweeter, more potent and poisonous gifts.
It is in this reciprocal and extensive form that the full importance of the circulation of gifts –of those gratuitous offerings and, inverely, of unexpected gratification – can be grasped; that is, its esential nature resides in being immeasurable, in having no value. The gift does not have, or loses, economic value for the giver, since at the moment in which it is given, it exits the spere of the utilitarian and becomes the vehicle of a positive and freely-given sentiment; it has no economic value for the receiver since it does not fill a need. The ideal gift is one which passes from one culture to another, when that which is given, being unknown until the moment in which it is received, cannot be understood and, thus, cannot be assigned a value.
Giving, always giving, as nature does. A real gift must be truly free, and therefore must not anticipate either immediate or deferred effects, must not demand reciprocità, must not create obligation. The only effect of the pure gift is a feeling of gratitude, the sensation of being enriched without the need for counter-exchange. What is brought about is not a passage from a giver to a receiver, but rather a surplus, something that was not there before, and for which credit is due in equal parts to both the one and the other. The value the gift did not have before the giver divested himself of it comes to be attributed to it when the receiver demonstrates appreciation for it.
The act of giving should play out its effect in the pleasure it causes one to give, and the only reciprocity it should establish lies in the correspondent pleasure it can – but does not necessarily – activate. This is what the princess Vaitua had in mind. Certainly, we can legitimately call gifts those objects that pass from hand toh and where he who pays is no the who obtains the good but he who offers it, as well as those acts or services that do not demand an immediate compensation. But to limit oneself to considering such actions, so frequent in all societies, as expressions of the act of giving, and to seek the nature of the act of giving in them, reveals one’s mercantilist character. It is not surprising that this sort of approach fails to allow for the existence of a pure, incommensurabile gift, especially if the giving occurs in a culture that is not one’s own, and present itself in incomprehensible forms.
Closed inside utilitarin mental cages, some offerigs are attributed other meanings. Here the gift comes to be defined as a transfer within a generalized system of exchanges, or even as the establishment of an obligation. This is what we read in the words of Marcel Mauss, who inserted the gift in what he called the “system of total service”. In this system, according to Mauss, giving and receiving are interwoven in a form of voluntary preferences with gifts and presents, even though they are, in fact, strictly obligatory, under penalty of private or public war. (3). It is the obligation to revanschieren, which Mauss takes from Thurnwald, the German ethnologist convinced to have found that burden, characteristic of bourgeois etiquette, even in the Salomon islands.
While Mauss generally referred to past and contemporary primitive economies, it is to Malinowski that we owe the exemplary description of th case that has become most classic, that of the “argonauts” of the Trobriand islands and the ideal ring, called the kula, that they have established among their islands. Despite the difficulties and dangers involved, the Trobrianders circulate several necklaces made of shells from island to island in a clockwise direction, and bracelets, also made of shells, counterclockwise. If these objects are not useful and can neither be exchanged for necessities, nor become part of the receivers’ personal wealth, since they must bifore long be ceded to others so that the circulation within the ring never stops, then why such effort? These are gifts becuse they are non-onerous – and therefore economically useless – objects of exchange, according to Malinowski, but they are culturally indispensabile, because these exchanges serve to bind together a society dispersed among islands, a function the “savages” themselves are not consciously aware of.
The oft-analyzed pages of the Argonauts can here lend themselves to another interpretation. After an accurate description of the kula, Malinowski writes: “Not even the most intelligent native has any clear idea of the kula as a big, organized social construction, and still less of its sociological function and implications.” (4) Thus inserted in a system of meaning comprehensible in the West beceuse it concerns rules of social behaviour, the kula can circulate externally as well, and has in fact become a central topos of anthropological thought. In comprehending – in our way – what the kula enacts, we also enter into it and, ideally, become part of it.
In this first level of interpretation, we see in action a gift given to us by the Trobrianders. The object given is, in this case, the idea of giving itself, which we have seen work in an exemplary way in these islands. Taking advantage of the extraordinary symbolic density of Manowski’s research, we can, by extension, consider the whole of anthropological thought as the enactment of a total kula which links the West to other cultures in a ring of meaning: a “total social fact” à la Mauss that unites not just the individual within a society but also the different societies themselves. To prime this circuation of meaning, a voluntary act was necessary, given that we cannot imagine that the Trobrianders had some reason in revealing to Malinowski – and to us, through him – their institution.
But there is a second level of interpretation which requires a deconstruction of the system elaborated by Malinowski in order to attribute to the kula a meaning that is comprehensible to him and to us. We can presume that, if the Trobrianders had a “clear idea” of what they were doing, the kula either would not exist or would be another thing. We can presume, that is, that the idea of a gift without ulterior motives is indispensabile because it can “work” (to use the term so dear to the functionalist Malinowski). The lesson we can derive from this second level of interpretation is this, the gift we receive in coming into contact with the kula is no so much the revelation of its latent mechanism , to which Malinowski has initiated us, but rather the awareness we gain of the need for a disinterested, asystematic behaviour that is not concerned with consequences. It can legitimately be suggested that it is not the logic of the system, but the ingenuousness of the participants, that makes the ring revolve.
In the global circulation of ideas we can then immagine a comparison and a disinterested exchange between a local vision and a Western vision of human behaviour. Anthropology-s contribution, in this scenario, would no longer be that of bringing us closer to ‘others’ by utilizing our own instruments of knowledge but that of allowing us to dialogue with them.
Here a fundamental problem arises, and anthropology has thus sought aid, as in other instances, from philosophy. What instrumentes of thought do we have to interpret as expressions that are linguistically, culturally alien to us? Can the hermeneutics scholar, accomplished in the interpretation of ancient codes, help us to transfer instruments of textual analysis to the ‘text’ of a culture? In one of his writings, Martin Heidegger, master of hermeneutics, stages an encounter between himself and a Japanese, teacher of German literature, who has come to visit him. The discussion turn sto the problem of passages from one linguistic and cultural system to another, and of the difficulties such passages present. The root of the problem, for the philosopher, lies in the process he calls “the complete Europeanization of the Earth and of man”, a “binding” that would destroy “at the source all that which is essential”. Recalling his famous definition of language as the dwelling place of Being, Heidegger goes on to affirm that “if man inhabits the domain of Being thanks to his language, we must suppose that we Europeans inhabit a dwelling place that is completely different from that of Easter man (5).
Gianni Vattimo echoes his thought i one of his writings, expressing his fear of the danger of a “reduction” of hermeneutics to anthropology. “The idea of anthropology as a discipline that provides for dialogue with other cultures in their otherness” would for him be nothing but “an ideological fiction, created to balance a situation in which otherness in reality tends to be dissolved by the growing Wsternization of the world”. On the other hand, believing that “the beginning of a dialogue presupposes a preliminary unity between the partners”, there would seem to be no way out since “ any relation with another culture presupposes a given context” (6). And who, if not the Western interlocutor, would define the context and set the rules of of the dialogue?
To break out of what appears to us to be more a vicious circle than a hermeneutis circle rooted in the Western thought, it seems necessary to open ourselves to receive a gift that is unilateral and disinterested without entering in the mercantilist scenaio of exchange, nor feeling the functionalist obligation of balanced reciprocity; allowing there to be freedom of giving as in receiving the gift of an encounter with the other.
Let us leave for a moment the main sectors of those Western thought which, in anthropology and in other human sciences, have examined the possibilities of an intercultural dialogue. Let us ideally follow the route of the return home frem the South Seas taken by Victor Segalen, exegete and sole convinced theorist ox exoticism. An imaginative character, Segalen for years during his voyages took down notes for ar essay on exoticism that he ended up never writing, being always torn between the will to remain anchored to what he caled the Real and the temptation to take refuge in the Imaginary. A vital restlessness, and the very incompleteness of the work are in any case perfectly suited both to the authot and to the subject he held so dear. A colonial doctor, he decided at the end of one of his “campaigns” in the Pacific to pay a visit to one of the myths of his youth, Gauguin.
He traveled to Tahiti, to discover that the painter had moved to the Marquesas Islands. But, when he reached the Marquesas, it was too late: Gauguin had been dead for a few months.
From that first missed encounter Segalen garnered many impressions, including he testimonials of those who had been close to the painter, and a few objects from the cabin where he had lived. The last, disinterested gifts of an artist.
Although the ship on which he re-embarked had its prow pointed toward Europe, the incurable exoticist decided to pay another, posthumous visit, to the second of the wyths of his youth, Rimbaud, and disembarked in Djibuti. Here, Segalen intended to explore not a territory, but rather the mystery of a mind, that of the “two-sided Rimbaud” (7). Evidently, he was not satisfied wih the accepted version of Rimbaud’s life that we all know: sublime poet with an unexplicable perfection of the word in the adolescence, at the age of nineteen he silences himself, forever, and sets off to travel, disappearing in the Orient, from where he will re-appear, gravely ill, only to return to die in the bosom of his family. But he had not been attracted to the Orient for its exotic esthetic fascination; rather he was drawn to condeuct nefarious commerce in arms and perhaps slaves. First a delicate poet, then a cynical adventurer, seduced by the dark allure, if anything, of the exotic. This was the “two-sided Rimbaud” of the commonlt accepted version, at once disenchanted and decadent.
Segalen ingenious intuition led him to attempt to see more clearly in what he had in a first hypotesis taken for a case of “Bovarism”, that Rimbaud had taken himself for something he was not and identified with that second nature. Stepping into the shoes of an investigator, Segalen frequented the cafés of Djibuti, questioning those who had known the poet and perhaps boasted of a past friendship with him. A pathetic picture of the second Rimbaud came to light. He was subject to frequent sonstroke due to a brash desire to be seen bare-headed and bare-chested, but sober, solitary, incapable of living with a woman (except for a brief period with an Abissinian). In reality, he appeared to be obsessed with one thing only: his incapacity to make money with his commercial activities (nothing illegal, nothing adventurous), “par manque de capitaux”. Never writing, never reading, never interested in relations with France, apart fr a continuous correspondence with his mother nd sister. Until finally, weakened and sick, he asked for assistance in returning home, to be taken care of by his sister. Segalen went to visit the sister, to cull her memories of the poetìs last days, his horror for poetry, and the request to send a bit of money to his friensa left in Africa.
Like th toys his sister had kept for him and which he found upon his return home,poems were for Rimbaud, Segalen says, his childish bibelots. Later- Segalen writes, speaking of Rimbaud – “you fought for the Real. You took it on in hand-to-hand combat”. But to no avail, remaining a poet to the end, even against his will. In the end, it is the letters writen to his middle-class mother that reveal his character. The Real, according to the bourgeois mentality embodied by his mother and which Rimbaud, having left behind his bibelots , wanted more than anything else to uphold, meant having success in business, making money. Though physically far removed, Rimbaud never managed to distance himself from that mentality. To occupy oneself with anything else “c’est mal”, as he once said about literature, and we can extend the sentiment to every other intellectual curiosity that is an end in itself.
In order to satisfy his mother and the world she represented, Rimbaud denied himself the possiility of receiving both the gifts his interior talent had provided him, and those of the external world could have offered him – perhaps in the form of an “esthetic of the different”, as the poetics of exoticism dear to Segalen suggested – and which Gauguin hadbeen able to reap, melding the interior with the exterior so as to then, in turn, offer immeasurable gifts to the world.
While less poetic, less visionary than adventurous exoticist curiosity, anthropological thought is fed by an alalogous faith; the faith in the potential to break out the cages with which the West has excluded himself from a dialogue with the outside, afraid to lose control of its own instruments of knowledge. If anthropological research also possesses something of the adventurous, it is not so much due to the urge to travel, but to the will to communicate daring difficult linguistic and cultural translations, and to interpret the often obscure signs of other ways of living and thinking. Those messages, those signs are the gifts the anthropologist receives from men far away from him, and which he in turn will try to give to his neighbourgs in the great global kula of relations among peoples. They are gifts because they are free offerings which he – a visitor alien to that society and lacking the rights and duties he would derive from belonging to it – receives. They are gifts also because through these contacts, the anthropologist comes to acquire thingshe would be unable to approach if he used only his instruments of knowledge and remained locked within his own hermeneutical context. In this, anthropological thought simply recalls itself to the primary meaning of hermeneutics, which is that – represented by the god Hermes – of bearing messages.
1. P. Gauguin, L’isola dell’anima. Gli antichi culti maori e i diari di viaggio a Noa Noa ilustrati dall’autore, Como, Red edizioni, 1987.
2. C. Berselli, “Principi giapponesi a Mantova nel 1585”, in Civiltà mantovana, III, n. 14, Marzo-Aprile 1968, pp. 73-83.
3. M. Mauss, Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange, in Archaic Societies, New York, Norton&Co. , 1990.
4. B. Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, IL. Waveland Press, 1984 (reprint).
5. M. Heidegger, On the Way to Language, San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1971.
6. G. Vattimo, “Difference and Interference. On the reduction of hermeneutics to anthropology”, Res, n. 4, 1982, pp. 85-91.
7. V. Segalen, “Le double Rimbaud”, in Oeuvres complètes, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1994, pp. 481-511.