Lily King’s excellent new novel Euphoria derives from an incident in Margaret Mead’s life. Margaret Mead achieved fame as a young woman with her 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa. Usually, scholarly works do not attract mass audiences but the good bits of Mead’s book read like soft-core porn and introduced the radical idea that sexual behavior in adolescence may have strong cultural overtones. Nowadays we lump such deep revelations in the “No Shit Sherlock” category!
Some of this is brilliantly alluded to in Euphoria. The strong female character (Nell) had written a popular book that her husband (Fen) envied and peers deprecated. The three main characters, Nell, Fen and Bankson, are social anthropologists doing field research in New Guinea in the 1930s. All three have serious doubts about what they are doing. They obliquely acknowledge the sheer conceit of foreign neophytes descending on an unfamiliar culture and, without speaking the language, being familiar with the environment, or knowing jack shit about the local economy, “decode a people,” in a few short months.
Early social anthropologists liked to cast themselves as “anti-missionaries.” Euphoria echoes this sentiment in a few passages. Anthropologists were there to learn about a culture not obliterate it with Christian sky fairy fantasies. The admirable agnosticism of social anthropologists, you cannot take one myth seriously when you have studied hundreds, is still blunted by an infantile dedication to the absolute primacy of culture. We are not animals but Rousseauian “blank sheets” that our culture scribbles on. Many contemporary social scientists of the left, “Are there any other kind?” bitterly dismiss criticism of this ludicrous axiom as “White Privilege.” The social anthropologists of Mead’s day may have been a bit delusional and naïve, but they didn’t create utter bullshit like Critical Race Theory or, I kid you freaking not, Microaggression Theory.
My only complaint about Euphoria is that it romanticizes a “soft pseudo-science.” Anthropology has two major branches: physical and social. Physical anthropology deals with things like comparative anatomy, radioisotope dating, geological layering, and DNA; it is very much a real science! Social anthropology is all squishy, personal, and non-verifiable; it is not a real science. It’s not even, to use Rutherford’s exquisite burn, “stamp collecting.” Euphoria makes this all clear to scientifically literate readers. In many ways, Euphoria is a better introduction to Mead than Mead herself: recommended.