Those three questions formed the title of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting, which he finished while living on a South Pacific Island. It is Gauguin’s vision of paradise. That vision of Eden shaped the attitudes and beliefs of many generations. Ever since there have been painters, writers, explorers, adventurers, there have been individuals seeking to discover an earthly paradise. There is a deep longing to believe that given the right circumstances, we are kind, compassionate, forsake violence, jealousy, hatred and rivalry.
But deep longing doesn’t make such a belief true. At best, we are left with false hope in a belief that occupies the realm of the supernatural, fantasy, and folktale.
In Demonic Males, Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson examine the legacy of Gauguin, Herman Melville and Margaret Mead who inspired many generations to believe that despite our common history of warfare and violence, there were societies which escaped such terrors.
Gauguin would likely be locked up in the modern world for his preoccupation with preadolescent girls. Young eves populated in idealized Garden of Eden. Animals and humans co-existed in peace and tranquility. He lived a life isolated from others, living out his days in a stone hut on Marquesas Islands. His life’s work revolved many paintings that featured nubile young women.
In contrast, Melville and Mead made a temporary voyage of discovery during their youth to the same general area of Gauguin, and then returned to their homeland to write their accounts. In Melville’s case the book was Typee and in Mead’s case it was Coming of Age in Samoa; a Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation.
At least Paul Gauguin asked the right series of questions. Questions that all fiction authors should ask themselves as they set out to write about another culture, history and people. It is one thing to ask the right questions, it is another matter to go about finding the answers in a systematic way that doesn’t cut corners.
In the case of Mead, nine months spent in Samoa doesn’t make for life-long expertise about the culture. In the case of Melville, a couple of months on a South Pacific island are long enough to reinforce cultural prejudices but not long enough to challenge them.
Both Melville and Mead’s works fudge the cultural details to suit in the case of Meville an adventure story (passed off as non-fiction)—making him an early example of contemporary authors like James Frey—and Mead to parlay a book into acquiring a position as one of the world’s leading anthropologists. The problem is that both writers made sweeping claims that clearly over-stretched their personal knowledge, research, and expertise and entered the realm of make-believe.
Mead had an axe to grind and Samoa was the stone she used to sharpen the blade, concluding after her brief stay the locals were had no room for guilt. She painted a paradise without neuroses, jealousy, rape, parental repression and the like. What she painted, though, was as stylized and remote from reality as was Gauguin’s paints.
It is hard to disagree with Wrangham and Peterson’s conclusion: “Mead’s generalizations about the peacefulness of Samoan society—no war gods, no wars, little serious contention or hatred or violence, and so on—are all, according to a wealth of historical, anthropological, and contemporary information, wrong.”
There are lessons to be learnt in the case study of these three explorers of other cultures. The first lesson is that in the case of Melville and Mead, their actual exposure to the places they claimed expertise about was limited in time—6 weeks for Melville and about 9 months for Mead. In the case of Mead, she spent most of her time living and working out of a naval officer’s house. Neither Melville nor Mead acquired anything approaching fluency in the native language. Although, their exposure to native populations was to isolated individuals from which they drew broad generalizations about culture, habits, rituals, and violence.
The second lesson is, in the past, readers without access to information from remote corners of the globe, had no body of knowledge to check the accuracy of the author’s claims. Vast numbers of readers, including policy makers, decision makers, and academics accepted Mead’s generalizations. With the advent of globalization, Google, Wikipedia, and the like it is more difficult for an author to pull the wool over the eyes of many readers. But it still happens.
I have read books set in Thailand, which clearly were written by authors with only the most Mead-like shaky foundation of knowledge about Thailand yet they were published and reviewed with some critical acclaim. That suggests a disconnect between the resources available to check the accuracy of books or suggests that many publishers, editors, readers and critics simply don’t care if the details are right or wrong so long as the story moves along at a cracking rate.
The third lesson is that a writer’s political agenda may colour his or her view of another culture to the point that everything is filtered through a rigid set of values or beliefs. Those aspects of what supports and affirms the ideology are emphasized and those that contradict the ideology are ignored or soft-pedaled. Or the author may have no agenda other than making money or a reputation—nothing wrong with either goal, but when the short-cuts are taken, the rewards yielded are a kind of literary theft.
The fourth lesson is that life is short. There is not enough time to read all the good books let alone the middling, average ones. If we want to address Gauguin’s questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Then, we need to start with books that are honest in the picture that they paint. Authors still are explorers into the human condition and as such have an obligation to be faithful in the claims they record about other cultures. There is no paradise—sexual, financial, no fountain of youth, no forgotten paradise. We are one species that shares the same biological imprint, DNA, and capacities; and along the way, our culture and environment helped shape the expression of the human potential in each of us. What is of value is the insight into those cultural and historical difference that, in the end, show not how different we are but how much alike we all are.