Although I had previously read two Lily King novels and found them both very well told stories, I was really not prepared for the depth and profundity of her 2014 novel, Euphoria.
Based loosely on incidents in the life of Margaret Mead when she was in the territory of New Guinea in 1933, this short novel has much to say about anthropology and the arrogance of the western world and of power relationships between men and women—both those of the three anthropologists in the story (two men and one woman), and of the so-called primitive cultures that they studied.
Nell Stone is the character King builds from her meticulous research into the lives of Margaret Mead, her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and her second husband, an Australian social scientist. Andrew Bankson, the character King creates in the likeness of Bateson, has been alone in the field for many months, and he is lonely and depressed to the point of being suicidal when he first meets Nell and her husband Fen. Nell and Fen have recently fled from their study of a violent tribe, and with Bankson’s help are relocated with a people called the Tam, much more artistic and peace-loving than the culture they have fled.
King begins her novel with two short quotes, one from Mead and the other from the wonderful anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Mead: “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world.” Benedict: “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.”
As you read this excellent, fast-paced little novel, you will come to understand the relevance of both quotes, Nell and Fen settle into their study of the Tam while Bankson returns to his own tribe several canoe-hours upstream.
Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.
Certainly, Mead was a central figure in that early progress away from the rigidity of western views. As Nell argues with Bankson in an early chapter of the book, there is no such thing as a purely objective view, subjectivity will enter, but we can at least try to step back, try to get a different, a larger, perspective on what we are viewing.
She told me I sounded as skeptical as my father. She said no one had more than one perspective, not even in the so-called hard sciences. We’re always, in everything we do in this world, she said, limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl. Look at Malinowski, she said. Look at Boas. They defined their cultures as they saw them, as they understood the natives’ point of view. The key is, she said, to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is “natural.”
While most reviewers understood the historical importance of this novel, they also had much to say about the love-triangle that develops between the three anthropologists. Nell is not allowed into the mens’ lodges, so she cannot observe or question/listen as she can among the women and children. Fen, is more interested in weaponry and machinery than in the social relations of the culture, and is jealous of the success of a book Nell has published to great acclaim. Mead, like Nell, published a book that became very famous, Coming of Age in Samoa. Bankson is more interested in Nell’s daily work with the women and families than is Fen, and adapts more easily to her constantly working lifestyle. While Fen says the constant click-clack from her typewriter is driving him crazy, and actually slams and then tosses the typewriter, Bankson insists that the background typewriting noises make it easier for him to think. Their work-habits are congruous, and from the start, Bankson has had a tremendous sexual attraction for this fiercely active and engaged woman. While I found the blooming love-affair between Nell and Bankson more sweet than steamy, no doubt the ménage a trois aspect of the novel accounts at least partly for its fame.
King takes the love-triangle aspect of her story in quite a different direction than Mead’s and Bateson’s own lives, and unlike the real-life events, perhaps ties her story up a little too neatly, but the tale she tells has a charm to it quite aside from the Mead/Bateson story.
One thing this book did for me is make me more interested in Mead and her views of anthropology, as well as her views on relationships. I will close with a longish quote from Nell reflecting on her ongoing study of male-female relations, and her mounting disagreements with her husband, Fen.
In her grant proposal, she claimed that she would continue her inquiry of child-rearing in primitive cultures, but the Tam were tempting her with something even more enticing. At first she dared not hope, but the data kept coming: taboo reversals, sisters-in-law on friendly terms, emphasis on female sexual gratification. Yesterday Chanta explained to her that he could not go to visit his sick nephew in the far hamlet because his wife’s vulva would go wandering if he did. They were grand on the world ‘vulva’. When Nell asked if an elderly widow would ever marry again, several people said at the same time ‘Has she not a vulva?’ Girls themselves decided whom they would marry and when. Fen disagreed with every conclusion she drew on this topic. He said she was blinded by her desire to see them this way, and when she laid out her evidence he said whatever power the women had was temporary, situational…Whatever she saw was a temporary aberration.
This is a fascinating novel both in the story it tells, and for its many layers of speculation on the nature of anthropology and the possibility of objectivity in and science, especially the social sciences.