Edmund Leach

Edmund Leach books include Culture and Communication and Genesis as Myth.

Sudden Losses of Complexity

Edmund Leach, 10 November 1988

The main text of this book takes up only 215 pages. It tends to be repetitive and includes a number of not very well designed diagrams and maps. To that is added a list of about 630 references and an index which does not include all the references. Furthermore the references are so constructed that the reader is left unsure about whether the author has really consulted his source or why. For example, Paul Valéry died in 1945 at the age of 74. He had been elected a member of the Académie Française in 1925 and is primarily renowned as a poet. But Tainter brands him as the ‘noted French social philosopher’, with the suggestion that he was still alive in 1962. From time to time he asks his readers to consider the implications of his story for the world that we now live in, but he would certainly argue that his story is an archaeological story. And that, too, raises problems.

Word of Mouth

Edmund Leach, 3 March 1988

Jack Goody took early retirement from the prestigious post of William Wise Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and is now in a highly productive phase of his career. Indeed, if Cambridge University Press had not put many of his recent writings into a single series, it would be hard to keep track of all the things he has been up to. ‘Studies in Literacy, Family, Culture and the State’ so far contains eight titles, and in every case Jack Goody is author or editor. In four of these works the discussion focuses almost entirely on the problem of how ‘literacy’ affects the structure of a previously ‘non-literate’ society.

Aryan Warlords in their Chariots

Edmund Leach, 2 April 1987

I attended English boarding-schools from 1919 to 1928, aged eight to 18. I there learned that, despite the slaughterhouse of the 1914-1918 War, European civilisation was without any question the greatest that had ever existed. It derived from the Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome, but it was not to be thought of as, in any significant sense, a Mediterranean civilisation: it had been the creation of fair-skinned Europeans who spoke a variety of Indo-European languages akin to Persian and Sanskrit. It was recognised that there had been earlier ‘archaic’ civilisations based in Egypt and the Levant and Mesopotamia, but that was something quite other. A sort of Mason-Dixon line was believed to run from Tunis (Carthage) in the west to Rhodes in the east, skirting round to the south of Crete. Everything to the north was European and White; everything to the south was Black or Semitic. Since the first millennium BC everything that had ever come out of Egypt or Palestine or Arabia was utterly contemptible. That was what we learned on weekdays: on Sundays Palestine became the Holy Land and St Paul’s misadventures in Asia Minor and Italy were given great prominence. But the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew or that St Augustine might well have looked like Colonel Gadaffi was carefully concealed.


Edmund Leach, 23 October 1986

As the bombs go off in Belfast, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, New Delhi, Beirut or wherever and the police start shooting ordinary citizens in order to preserve the peace, the television watcher develops a clear visual impression of what the word ‘violence’ signifies in contemporary English. To apply the same term to the ritual obscenities of bottle-throwing soccer fans somehow seems misplaced. David Riches is aware of this incongruity. His symposium contains 11 papers by 11 different authors drawn from the Proceedings of an ESRC-funded conference held at St Andrews University in January 1985. The violence under discussion is not a concept which readily translates from one cultural milieu to another. The English of the present day take it for granted that violence is a ‘bad thing’, a characteristic of law-breakers and terrorists: policemen and soldiers who may appear to be acting in much the same way are seldom described as violent. But at other times in our history and in other countries at the present day violent action has been differently assessed. Montaigne in his celebrated essay on cannibalism noted that the procedures for extracting confessions in 16th-century France seemed every bit as barbarous as those reported of the Tupi-speaking cannibals of coastal Brazil. Despite Riches’s valiant attempt to pull it all together, the range of themes covered in these essays, which include circumcision among the Gisu of Uganda, cannibalism by dead ancestors as a cause of death among the Piaroa of Venezuela, bull-fighting in contemporary Spain, shoot-ups in Northern Ireland, erotic films in Japan, and much else, is altogether too wide. A narrower view of what violence is about is to be preferred.

Naming of Dogs

Edmund Leach, 20 March 1986

In their French editions the titles and covers of Lévi-Strauss’s books are often designed to tease as well as to inform. They deserve attention. Tristes Tropiques is about tropes as well as tropics; Mythologiques is about odd kinds of logic as well as mythology; La Pensée Sauvage carried on its cover a picture of a wild pansy which should have warned the English publisher that The Savage Mind was hardly an adequate translation even if the author chose the latter title himself.

Common Ground

Edmund Leach, 19 September 1985

All three of these books exemplify a convergence of interest between certain brands of academic historian and certain brands of academic social anthropologist. For a social anthropologist of my age and background this is a surprising development, though the trend has been under way for some time. It is surprising because, although social anthropology, under the influence of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, first developed as a kind of grand-scale, synthetic history in which the data of ethnography were used as illustrations of a priori theories of social evolution or historical diffusion, it later developed into a self-consciously non-historical field of study. The basis for this reversal was the argument that the intimate face-to-face, day-to-day interactions of the individuals living together in a local community which provide the basic subject-matter of social anthropological fieldwork acquire meaningful significance only when they are observed in great detail and analysed as a single synchronous set of data in their original context. While it was recognised that some of the documents available to historians – such as letters, journals, parish registers, court records – may contain bits and pieces of detailed material of this sort, they can never be fitted together into a single coherent whole. And it is no use guessing on the basis of analogy from present to past. ‘Conjectural history’ is a waste of time.’

Middle American

Edmund Leach, 7 March 1985

Both these books are, in part, by-products of the furore that was generated in 1983 by the publication of Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth and I had better declare where I stand. I have known Derek Freeman for nearly forty years. I consider that his criticism of the work of the youthful Margaret Mead was Justified but academically unnecessary. I met Margaret Mead on only four occasions and very briefly; I did not find her sympatica. Reo Fortune, Mead’s second husband, was my faculty colleague in Cambridge for many years. Her third husband, Gregory Bateson, for whose intellectual originality I have an enormous respect, was a personal friend.


Edmund Leach, 2 August 1984

Khazanov’s global comparative study of pastoral nomadism is unique. The level of erudition may be indicated by the bare statistic that the bibliography runs to 48 closely printed pages of which 23 refer exclusively to works in Russian. For those who are not specialists in the field at this level of intensity, and perhaps even for those who are, the 16 pages of Ernest Gellner’s ‘Foreword’ provide essential reading. Khazanov’s book takes for granted a general framework of Russian Marxist ideas which will be unfamiliar to most English readers. Within that framework it makes a contribution to a long-standing theoretical debate about whether or not Pastoral Nomadism rates as a form of Feudalism, or of the Asiatic Mode of Production, or of something quite other. Gellner explains all this with great skill and warns the reader of some of the pitfalls that may be encountered in Khazanov’s terminology. Gellner himself steers clear of the controversy but is an interested party since he claims that Khazanov, and more particularly his older colleague G.E. Markov, have arrived independently at a view of nomadism which is closely related to that of Gellner’s own sociological hero, Ibn Khaldun.


Edmund Leach, 3 May 1984

This book needs to be handled with care. It may be other than it seems. Possibly the publishers were uncertain about what they had got; so am I. The author is well-known: ‘Colin Turnbull is Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University in Washington DC. He has lived and worked in India and central and eastern Africa. His experiences are reflected in his well-known anthropological works, The Mountain People and The Forest People.’ All quite true, but misleading. The book which established Turnbull’s status as a fully professional anthropologist was Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies (1965). It is a monograph of the very highest quality; by comparison, The Forest People (1961), though also concerned with the Mbuti Pygmies, and likewise the work of a trained anthropologist, is only a journalistic exercise. The Mountain People (1972), which is the principal source of Turnbull’s celebrity, is a sensational horror story about his experiences among the Ik: I find it plausible even though its authenticity has been challenged by other qualified anthropologists. In The Human Cycle, which is largely autobiographical, the Ik are never mentioned at all.

Jesus and Cain

Edmund Leach, 2 December 1982

I must declare an interest. Since Hyam Maccoby makes no attempt to disguise his prejudices, I will start by declaring my own. The first is respectable. I dislike phoney scholarship.


Edmund Leach, 15 July 1982

Apart from the fact that they are products of the same international publishing enterprise, and that they are both translations from the French, there is not much that these two books have in common, so my comments will be seriatim. The earliest of the essays in the Gordon collection, which is by Gernet, who died in 1962 at the age of 80, first appeared as long ago as 1948; the remainder at various dates since 1968. Of the latter, three are by Vernant, five by Vidal-Naquet, three by Detienne. The fact that the Gernet item (‘ “Value” in Greek Myth’) bears a clear family resemblance to the rest is of special interest since it shows that the structuralism of the French classicist ‘School of Vernet’ has other roots besides Lévi-Strauss’s ‘The Structural Study of Myth’, which dates only from 1955. English versions of five of these essays have been published previously but the editor is personally responsible for what is printed here. The resulting English text, by several hands, is consistently lucid and readable. To an outsider such as myself the scholarship appears dazzling.

Quality Distinctions

Edmund Leach, 17 December 1981

Just why the publication of this expensive book should have merited a subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council is not obvious. Much of the text has the disjointed irrelevance of the Walrus talking about why the sea is boiling hot or whether pigs have wings, though, since Martin is a University Lecturer in French, a better parallel might be Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s satire on the indiscriminate accumulation of half-digested knowledge. The blurb endorses such comment: ‘Graham Martin trespasses widely into linguistics, psychology, sociology and philosophy – areas where he has (as a teacher of literature) no permit to go and poach on other scholar’s game.’ But it is not only his professional competence that is in doubt: it is his intention.

Lacan’s Mirrors

Edmund Leach, 2 July 1981

It is possible that I am asked to comment on this expensive and largely unreadable volume only because its editor has achieved national celebrity by seeming to figure as a sacrificial victim in the recent extraordinary fracas in the Cambridge English Faculty. Sacrifices, as the word indicates, are procedures for improving the ritual status of the victim-donor, and it is entirely appropriate that Dr MacCabe should, in the outcome, have become a full professor (at the University of Strathclyde). But all that has nothing whatever to do with this book.

Incidence of Incest

Edmund Leach, 19 February 1981

A part from the flaming scarlet with which the word ‘Incest’ is picked out on the covers of both these books, they do not have much in common, but the theme has a perennial fascination and they will doubtless both sell well. I am personally more attracted by Susan Forward’s modestly presented case-histories than by Robin Fox’s pretentious fantasies, but there is more meat for discussion in the latter’s argument, so let us start there.

Love, Peace and Horror

Edmund Leach, 22 January 1981

Grand-scale massacres and mass suicide performed as a climax to religious observances were a feature of nearly all the ancient civilisations. The descriptions of such happenings, when reported in accounts of archaeological excavation, arouse astonishment but little else. We cannot share in the religious awe evoked by the original event; the mutilated skeletons generate no emotion; they could as well be logs of wood. And even in the last century, when the news of distant colonial disasters could take months or even years to filter back to the metropolis, the excitement which was sometimes generated by sacrificial forms of sudden death was more likely to be the result of political contrivance than a spontaneous response to shock. But what was formerly too remote is now all too close. When events of this sort occur in our own age, even in the most remote places, it is only a matter of hours before a lurid rehash of the story appears on the telly. Our sensibilities are then so numbed by horror (which is exacerbated by the current fashions of journalism) that most of us lose all sympathy with the human problems of the participants.

Cairo Essays

Edmund Leach, 4 December 1980

Fontana Modern Mastership has by now become so diffuse that the editorial problem may well have shifted from choosing a master who deserves the accolade to finding a biographer to bestow it. Why else should Malinowski still be left off the list but Evans-Pritchard (E-P to all who knew him but not in this book), Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1946-1970, gain the crown? But if E-P be held to deserve apotheosis then Mary Douglas seems, on the face of it, a very appropriate hagiographer, for she is a noted anthropologist in her own right, was once a pupil of E-P, and, like E-P himself in his later years, is an exceptionally devoted member of the Roman Catholic Church. But, unlike E-P, Douglas lacks a sense of history, and the outcome is perverse.

Tarot Triumph

Edmund Leach, 4 September 1980

During recent decades a variety of very distinguished academics have taken time off from their learned pursuits to write imitation Agatha Christie detective stories, so when I first learned that Michael Dummett, widely regarded as the most formidable philosopher of his generation, was about to publish a book about Tarot cards, I rather naturally assumed that it must be an exercise of this same recreational sort. In a certain very off-centre sense, my assumption was correct. The Preface to The Game of Tarot explains the origins of Dummett’s project roughly as follows.

Goldthorpe, Halsey and Social Class

Edmund Leach, 20 March 1980

I refer to the first of these items as ‘Goldthorpe’ and to the second as ‘Halsey’. Both are productions of the Oxford (Social) Mobility Project, a large collaborative exercise which has operated from a base in Nuffield College since 1969. For a long while, politicians and other interested parties are likely to cite them as authoritative sources, but in order to evaluate what is being said, the reader must penetrate a thick layer of mind-boggling numerical tabulations and pseudo-vector diagrams to the egalitarian value schema which lies beneath.


Jesus and Cain

2 December 1982

SIR: I only wish to make three comments on Mr Maccoby’s angry letter (Letters, 10 January).Because Hebrew originally survived only as a written language, the modern pronunciation being reconstructed according to decidedly arbitrary phonological equations – as is the case with the modern pronunciation of other classical languages – Maccoby, like many Hebrew scholars, makes the curious...

Quality Distinctions

17 December 1981

Edmund Leach writes: Since I inadvertently initiated this bizarre correspondence, perhaps I may close it down by invoking my favourite 18th-century author in support of Robin Kinross. Vico maintained (contra Descartes and the majority of contemporary natural scientists) that only God can be expected to understand the natural world because God made it. On the other hand, Men can reasonably expect to...


Frank Kermode, 2 February 1984

For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the question of canons is at present much discussed by literary critics. Their canons are of course so called only by loose analogy with the Biblical...

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Facts of Life

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 July 1982

Textbook writers set examinations. The rationale is clear, the interest transparent. In what in the United States is called ‘behavioural science’, such people have a standard first...

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