Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: 

Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. 

MARSHALL SAHLINS. ASAO Special Publications 1. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981. ix + 84 pp., notes, references, $ 5.95 (paper).


(book review by) CLIFFORD GEERTZ 
Institute for Advanced Study


Levi-Strauss once invoked a French quip to the effect that history was an excellent profession so long as one eventually got out of it. By now this seems on the way to becoming applicable to structuralism. And what structuralists are getting into, as Marshall Sahlins's new essay on the strange entanglement of Captain Cook and Hawaiian culture demonstrates, is history.


The essay is actually a sort of trailer for a forthcoming three-volume work on "the history of the Sandwich Islands as culture," to be called The Dying God, and has the characteristics of most trailers: a sampling of the best bits cleverly intercut so as to make one anxious to see how the progress from one to the next is going to be managed and how, in the end, it is all going to come out. Will Praxis Triumph? Can Structuralism Survive? Why Did Cook Die?


The bits are very good indeed. The first, presented under the Braudellian echo "Reproduction, Structures of the Long Run," is a recounting of Cook's death (he was knifed in a crowd in Kealekekua, a landing in Hawaii proper, in 1779) as an incident of Hawaiian legend. "The historical image of a mythical theory" (p. 17), Cook was seen, Sahlins argues, as a figuration of Lono, a Hawaiian god whose annual return to the Islands, circuit through them, and ritual death and departure renewed their fertility. Through an ingenious correlation of Cook's historical itinerary and Lono's mythical one--a correlation "not perfect ... but ... sufficiently remarkable" (p. 20)--he shows that the English navigator's activities between November 1778, when he appeared off Maui, and February 1779, when he set sail from Hawaii, falls into the Hawaiians' ritual sequence with an almost preternatural ease. Cook was hand-fed in Lono's temples, paralleled Lono's perambulation (and in the right direction!), and, as he prepared to depart, contributed a seaman of his who had died aboard ship for burial in the Great Temple.


What he did not count on was dying himself. But a couple days out, his ship sprung a mast and he was forced to return to the port he had just left, a god forgotten (at least for the year), but unfortunately not gone. He was now, Sahlins says, hors categorie, a structural anomaly awaiting a structuralist fate. "Lono had come ... bestowed his riches ... departed, presumably to return again a year later with the Pleiades. [His] abrupt reappearance ... was a contradiction to all that had gone before." (p. 22-23). The Hawaiians grew "unamiable," stealing from the British and beating them up; the British, as British will, blockaded the bay, and when Cook went ashore he was forced to fire at a man coming after him with a knife, after which a crowd gathered and he fell to the blow of another knife. "It was a ritual murder .. collectively administered: upwards of a hundred Hawaiians rushed upon the fallen god to have a part in his death ... [His killing] was not premeditated. But neither was it an accident, structurally speaking." (p. 23-24).


Nothing ever is, structurally speaking. In the second stretch of narrative, set out, in another bow toward Paris, as "Transformation, Structure and Practice," Sahlins attempts to show how the same entanglement of the British and the Hawaiians led not (or, anyway, not just) to "cultural reproduction" but, through a sort of cunning of chance, to systematic changes in traditional Hawaiian relationships so far-reaching as to alter their meaning. "Relationships generated in practical action, though motivated by the traditional self-conceptions of the actors, may in fact functionally revalue those conceptions" (p. 35). What Sahlins wants (alas) to call "the structure of the conjuncture"--the way in which the logic of a culture is revised when people go so far as to act in terms of it--is the moving force in change. "Practice ... has its own dynamics" (p. 35). "Continuity of a system [never] occurs without its alteration, or alteration without continuity" (p. 67). "The dialectics of history ... are structural throughout" (p. 72).


Here, a number of events are recounted, each intended to demonstrate how the central "categorial distinctions [of Hawaiian culture] proved vulnerable to pragmatic revaluation" (p. 37). A tragi-comic encounter between a tabu-soaked Hawaiian chief and a no-nonsense British sea captain, which ended up with both demeaned; the determined effort of Hawaiian women to give themselves to British seamen, whom they took for gods and who took them for whores; the expansion of commoner market trade at the expense of chiefly gift exchange, which the chiefs tried vainly to contain by encasing it in an expanding maze of tabu; the turn of cadet--line chiefs toward Western ways and Christianity to offset the tradition-based powers of paramountline ones--"Thus, kin and affines, men and women, foreign and indigenous, tabu and noa all exchanged their places." (p. 66).


No matter that the motivation for the differential responses of men and women, or commoners and chiefs to the foreigners was altogether Hawaiian. The content picked up in the experience meant that the relationships between them would never again be the same. Returning from ship to shore, especially from trade to consumption - in short from practice to structure - the effects become systemic. An alteration in the relationships between given categories affects their possible relationships to other categories. The structure, as a set of relationships among relationships, is transformed. (p. 37)


The brilliance of all this is only slightly marred by Sahlins's need to work himself out of a technical jargon he might better have not worked himself into in the first place. The introduction and conclusion, both mercifully brief, are occupied with what seem to be mostly self-directed mutterings about the dialectical relationship of structure and praxis, sense and interest, referential and instrumental processes, conventional and intentional values, and with dark sayings ("[The] historical process unfolds as a continuous and reciprocal movement between the practice of the structure and the structure of the practice" (p. 72), "[Action] begins in the projects of people as social beings [and ends] by absorption of the effects in a cultural practico-inert" (p. 72), all of which suggest nothing so much as someone trying to escape a cave of academical shadows and find his way back to the common light of day. On the evidence of this fascinating bande de lancement, he is well along toward doing so, and to producing not so much a "New, Improved Structuralism (With TIME)" but one of the most original ethno-historical studies in modern anthropology. Coming soon (one hopes) to a bookshop near you.


Book Review, in: American Ethnologist, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Aug., 1982), pp. 583-584.


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