ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON started using the pseudonym Tusitala -a Samoan word
meaning, approximately, "the Story-Teller"-in the spring of 1892. A few
months earlier, his short story "The Bottle Imp," first issued in the Sunday
New York Herald from 8 February to 1 March 1891, had been translated into
Samoan and published in the missionary magazine O le sulu Samoa (The Samoan
Torch). This was the first instance of a published text in the Samoan
language. Stevenson had worked on the translation with A. E. Claxton, a
local missionary.

In December of 1892, in a letter addressed to Sidney Colvin, his long-time
friend and publisher, Stevenson wrote that "The Bottle Imp" should be seen
as "the centre piece" of his forthcoming collection Island Nights'
Entertainments. One year later, in another letter to Colvin, Stevenson
insisted: "You always had an idea that I depreciated the 'B[ottle]. I[mp]';
I can't think wherefore; I always particularly liked it-one of my best
works, and ill to equal."

In order to clarify some of the possible reasons for Stevenson's high
evaluation of "The Bottle Imp," it will be useful to reinsert this short
piece into a larger context.

Although "The Bottle Imp" is deservedly well-known, it will be useful to
start with a resume of its plot. A young sailor from Hawaii, named Keawe,
is taking a walk along the streets of San Francisco. He sees a beautiful
house and conceives a longing to own one like it. A sadlooking man, who
turns out to be the owner of the house, enters into conversation with Keawe
and soon informs him that his wishes will be fulfilled if only he buys
from him a marvelous bottle. Inside the bottle, he is told, is an imp
capable of granting the owner of the bottle his every request-except the
wish for a longer life. The bottle "cannot be sold at all, unless sold at a
loss," otherwise it will unfailingly be returned to the hands of he who
violates this rule. "If a man dies before he sells it, he must burn in hell
for ever. " Long ago the price of the bottle had been extremely high; it is
now being sold quite cheaply.

After some uncertainty Keawe pays all the money he has-fifty dollars -
and takes the bottle. Through a series of unforeseeable circumstances he
becomes the owner of a beautiful house in Hawaii. He gets rid of the bottle,
selling it to a friend for forty-nine dollars, and lives happily for some
time. Then he meets a girl, Kokua, and falls in love with her; he would
like to marry her, but discovers that he has contracted leprosy. In order
to recover his health Keawe tries to regain possession of the bottle. He
goes to Honolulu, follows the traces of "the gifts of the little imp, [and]
finds the latest owner." But in the meantime the price of the bottle has
fallen so precipitately that it costs only two cents. Keawe buys the bottle,
returns to Hawaii and marries Kokua. But his heart is broken, because he
knows that he will be damned. Kokua, however, is ready to fight: "What
is this you say about a cent? But all the world is not American. In England
they have a piece they call a farthing, which is about half a cent. Ah!
sorrow!" she cried "that makes it scarcely better, for the buyer must be
lost, and we shall find none so brave as my Keawe! But, then, there is
France: they have a small coin there which they call a centime, and these
go five to the cent, or thereabout. We could not do better. Come, Keawe,
let us go to the French islands; let us go to Tahiti, as fast as ships
can bear us. There we have four centimes, three centimes, two centimes,
one centime; four possible sales, to come and go on; and two of us to push
the bargain."

The last words anticipate the developments of the plot: since they are
unable to find other buyers, man and wife heroically deceive each other,
arranging transactions through two intermediaries, in order to rescue the
loved one from hell. But the last intermediary-a drunkard -decides to keep
the miraculous bottle for himself. He will burn in hell and the couple
will be happy.

When it first appeared in the Sunday New York Herald, "The Bottle Imp"
was introduced by the following note:

Any student of that very unliterary product, the English drama of the early
part of the century, will here recognise the name and the root idea of
a piece once rendered popular by the redoutable O. Smith. The root idea
is there, and identical, and yet I hope I have made it a new thing. And
the fact that the tale has been designed and written for a Polynesian
audience may send it some extraneous interest nearer home."

In preparing for publication his collection entitled Island Nights'
Entertainments, Stevenson asked Sidney Colvin to get rid of this note and
set in its place a subtitle: "The Bottle Imp: A Cue from an Old Melodrama."
Colvin suppressed the subtitle and kept the note. In some recent editions
the note has disappeared. But long ago erudites succeeded in identifying
the sources of Stevenson's story. Ultimately, the plot goes back to two
motifs from German folklore: one is the "Galgenmannlein," or little man
born from the sperm of a hanged person, and the other is the magic bottle
which can be sold only at a lower price. Both motifs had already been
combined in Grimmelshausen's Trutz Simplex, published in 1670, which also
included the search for a less valuable coin in another land. Through a
series of literary intermediaries the plot came to England. The "old
melodrama" mentioned by Stevenson has been identified as The Bottle Imp. A
Melo-dramatic Romance in Two Acts, written by R. B. Peake, produced at the
Theatre Royal, English Opera House in July of 1828; it was printed from a
stage copy. I have consulted an edition published ten years later. The play
involved a series of colorful characters, including a Jew named Shadrack,
provided with "broad trimmed Jew's hat with red crown, brown jacket and
tranks, black stockings." In the last scene Nicola, the hero, screams: "I
can again sell thee, fiend!" The curtain falls down as the Imp inexorably
responds: "No, the coin with which thou have repurchased me is of the
lowest value in the world."

Stevenson's "redoutable O. Smith" who used to play the Imp, was in fact
the actor Richard John Smith, who died in 1855. Stevenson was then five
years old. According to a contemporary description, Smith wore a
"tightly-fitting skin dress of a sea green, horns on the head, and demon's
face, from the wrist to the hips a wide-spreading wing, extending or
folding at pleasure." The germ of Stevenson's "Bottle Imp" may well have
been a childhood recollection.

During the last decades "that very unliterary product, the English drama
of the early part of the century," has become at last a region of literary
history unto itself. In a remarkable book Peter Brooks explored the impact
of French melodrama and "the mode of excess" upon Balzac and Henry James.
The English melodrama, which addressed itself to a more popular audience,
could also, as Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp" shows, produce sophisticated
literary offspring. Stevenson claimed to have transformed the "Bottle Imp
root idea" into "a new thing . . . designed and written for a Polynesian
audience." The transformations required by this new audience were not too
extensive, since the original story turned around the magical helper: a
very widespread -in fact, transcultural-motif, with which we are familiar
thanks to Vladimir Propp's great book, Morphology of the Folk-Tale.

In a footnote to his essay on the sources of "The Bottle Imp," J. W. Beach
mentioned Cazotte's Diable boiteux, Balzac's Peau de Chagrin, and the
imprisoned djinn of the Arabian Nights, concluding that "these do not take
us far." I will argue, on the contrary, that a comparison with Balzac's
Peau de Chagrin may throw some interesting light on Stevenson's short

La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin) was first published in 1831.
Goethe, then in his eighties, read it with admiration - a feeling not
devoid of narcissism, since Balzac's novel had clearly been inspired by
Faust. But both devil and damnation are absent from the plot of La Peau de
Chagrin. The novel's hero, Raphael de Valentin, obtains unlimited power
through the wild ass's skin, but the price he has to pay is his life, not
his soul. In France, Goethe's Faust had been transformed first into a
pantomime, then into a melodrama: Balzac's reworking of the Faust motif was
consistent with the spirit of the latter, a genre in which supernatural
elements were framed by a secular context. This contrast is a major theme
in Balzac's novel. When Raphael comes across a mysterious old man, who is
the previous owner of the wild ass's skin, the narrator remarks: "This
scene took place in Paris, on the Quai Voltaire, in the nineteenth century,
at a time and place which should surely rule out the possibility of magic."

The allusion to Voltaire's house-"the house in which the apostle of French
scepticism had breathed his last"-is immediately contrasted with the symbol
of the present age: Raphael feels "perturbed by the inexplicable feeling
of being confronted by some strange power, an emotion similar to that we
have all felt in the presence of Napoleon." Later, faced with the magical
shrinking of the wild ass's skin, which announces the shrinking of his
remaining time among the living, Raphael shouts in indignation:

What! . . .In a century of enlightenment during which we have learned that
diamonds are carbon crystals, in an age when there is an explanation for
everything, when the police would haul a new Messiah before the courts
and refer his miracles to the Academy of Sciences, at a time when we require
a notary's initials before trusting anything, why should I alone believe
in a sort of Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin?. . . Let us consult the scientists.

But even the scientists-a zoologist, a physicist, a chemistprove incapable
of preventing the shrinking of the wild ass's skin. Their defeat has a
larger, symbolic meaning. In a letter to Charles de Montalembert, the
Catholic writer, Balzac wrote that The Wild Ass's Skin was "the formula of
human life, if one disregards all individual features [. . .] there all is
myth and figure" ("tout y est mythe et figure"). The novel is introduced by
the sign traced in the air by Tristram Shandy's Corporal Trim, chosen by
Balzac as a motto to signify "les ondulations bizarres de la destinee"
("destiny's bizarre vicissitudes") and was meant to emphasize the power of
irrational forces upon individuals and society-a point which was at the
core of the Comedie Humaine as a whole. "How can one traverse such a
fresco," Balzac once wrote, "without the resources of the Arabian tale,
without the aid of buried titans? In the tempest that has raged for half a
century, controlling the waves there are giants hidden under the boards of
the social third underground." In order to provide an adequate description
of the forces at work in modern society one has to tap, according to Balzac,
"the resources of the Arabian tale," using "myths" and "figures" like the
wild ass's skin.

As is well known, both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were great admirers
of Balzac. According to Paul Lafargue, his son-in law, Marx even planned
to write a book on Balzac, which he was postponing until after the (never
achieved) completion of Capital. On several occasions Marx and Engels
praised Balzac's extraordinary gift for social observation. But Marx also
responded to the visionary side of Balzac's oeuvre. In a famous sentence
from The Eighteenth Brumaire, "The tradition of all generations weighs like
a nightmare ("ein Alp") on the brain of the living," S. Petrey has
perceptively detected the echo of a passage from Balzac's Colonel Chabert:
"The social and judicial world weighed on his breast like a nightmare."
Balzac's powerful metaphor of the wild ass's skin might have contributed to
Capital's chapter on "The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret," which
stresses the mystical side of commodities "with its metaphysical subtleties
and theological niceties," as well as, more generally, the role of
irrational elements in capitalist society.

Stevenson presumably never read Marx; but he did read Balzac. In his early
twenties he sent to his friend Charles Baxter an imitation of Balzac's
Contes Drolatiques. A writer's parody of another writer is always
instructive, as Marcel Proust's different versions of L'affaire Lemoine (an
admittedly special case) show. Stevenson's complex attitude towards Balzac
emerges from a splendid letter addressed in 1883 to Bob Stevenson, his

Were you to re-read some Balzac, as I have been doing, it would greatly
help to clear your eyes. He was a man who never found his method. An
inarticulate Shakespeare, smothered under forcible feeble detail. It is
astounding, to the riper mind, how bad he is, how feeble, how untrue, how
tedious; and of course, when he surrendered to his temperament, how good
and powerful. He could not consent to the dull, and so he became so. He
would leave nothing undeveloped, and thus drowned out of sight of land amid
the multitude of crying and incongruous details. Jesus, there is but one
art: to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge. A
man who knew how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of II gattopardo (The Leopard),
used to deliver to a circle of friends informal lectures on French and
English literature; a collection of them was published after his death.
Lampedusa half-jokingly referred to an opposition he was particularly fond
of, between "fat" and "thin" writers-in a stylistic sense. In the case
of Balzac and Stevenson the opposition was stylistic and corporeal as well.
Balzac's luxuriant abundance of details taught Stevenson to find his own
literary identity, by learning how "to omit."

Let me give two examples of Stevenson's art of omitting, both taken from
"The Bottle Imp." Keawe, the hero, before selling the bottle to his friend
Lopaka, says: "I have a curiosity myself. So come, let us have one look
at you, Mr. Imp."

Now as soon as that was said, the imp looked out of the bottle, and in
again, swift as a lizard; and there sat Keawe and Lopaka turned to stone.
The night had quite come, before either found a thought to say or voice
to say it with; and then Lopaka pushed the money over and took the bottle.

The other example occurs a little later. Keawe has received the imps gift,
his beautiful house. He is happy; he asks his Chinese servant to prepare
him a bath:

So the Chinaman had word, and he must rise from sleep, and light the
furnaces; and as he walked below, beside the boilers, he heard his master
singing and rejoicing above him in the lighted chambers. When the water
began to be hot the Chinaman cried to his master: and Keawe went into the
bathroom; and the Chinaman heard him sing as he filled the marble basin;
and heard him sing, and the singing broken, as he undressed; until of a
sudden, the song ceased. The Chinaman listened, and listened; he called up
the house to Keawe to ask if all were well, and Keawe answered him "Yes,"
and bade him go to bed; but there was no more singing in the Bright House;
and all night long the Chinaman heard his master's feet go round and round
the balconies without repose.

Both passages are beautifully done-although in the latter a fussy reader
might perhaps wish for one more little omission, the words "as he
undressed," which spoil, with their visual associations, the coherence of
the strictly aural point of view of the description. Furthermore, this
slight infelicity is magnified unwillingly by the repetition of the same
words in the next sentence:

Now, the truth of it was this: as Keawe undressed for his bath, he spied
upon his flesh a patch like a patch of lichen on a rock, and it was then
that he stopped singing. For he knew the likeness of that patch, and knew
that he was fallen in the Chinese Evil [leprosy].

One can easily imagine the flow of emotional utterances which, in a Balzac
novel, would have been generated by, respectively, the appearance of the
imp and the discovery of the hero's leprosy. But because Stevenson's
literary imperative was restraint, he regarded Balzac as a challenge. "The
Bottle Imp" shares a starting point with The Wild Ass's Skin-the magical
helper motif-although its decor and plot are utterly different. Stevenson's
imagination, I would argue, had been sparked by a specific passage in
Balzac's novel, the moment when the mysterious old man gives the wild ass's
skin to Raphael:

Then he began again thus: "Without forcing you to beg, without causing
you to blush, without giving you a French centime, a Levantine para, a
German heller, a Russian kopek, a Scottish farthing, a single sestertium
or obol of the ancient world or a piastre of the new world, without offering
you anything whatsoever in gold, silver, bullion, banknotes or letter of
credit, I will make you richer, more powerful and more respected than a
king can be-in a constitutional monarchy."

This cumulative list-a device Balzac was particularly fond ofmeans that
the old man is not asking for money, not even the smallest coin in the
world. But the mention of the German heller and the Scottish farthing must
have brought back to Stevenson's mind the story of the "Bottle Imp." The
hero of one of its versions, the one published in Popular Tales and Romances
of the Northern Nations (London, 1823), pays a heller for the bottle: then
"the thing of the utmost consequence for him now to do, was to enquire
every where for some coin of less value than a heller; therefore he was
nicknamed `crazy Half-heller."' In "The Mandrake," another version of the
same story included in the anthology The German Novelists, Reichard, the
hero, finally succeeds in selling the imp for one "base farthing."
Stevenson, who in his own retelling of the story mentioned both farthing
and centime, omitted the Faust motif, which was conspicuously present in
most "Bottle Imp" versions, including the one performed by the "redoutable
O. Smith." Stevenson pushed to the forefront instead the idea that the
magical object had to be exchanged along a monetary-although
antiprofitcircuit, stretched along an enormous sea distance: from San
Francisco, to the Hawaiian Islands, to Tahiti.

Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp" was first issued in 1891. Twenty-five years
later and several thousands miles westward, Bronislaw Malinowski, a
Polish-born anthropologist based in England, although still a subject of
the Austro-Hungarian empire, started his fieldwork in the Trobriand
Islands. This stage of Malinowski's life, momentous both for him and for
the discipline he helped to transform, can be followed nearly day by
day-some long interruptions notwithstandingthrough a double lens: his
diaries and his correspondence with Elsie Masson, then his fiancee, later
his wife. The former source is highly controversial, on many levels.
Malinowski's diaries, published in 1967 under the editorial title of A
Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, were never intended for publication.
Most commentators reacted with shock and dismay to Malinowski's blatantly
racist attitude towards the Trobriand natives. One reviewer, I. M. Lewis,
noticed with some surprise that in the diaries there is "little theorising
about field data or techniques [. . .] there are highly condensed and
elliptical theoretical and methodological points noted from time to time,
but these are normally so cryptic, that they are difficult to follow, let
alone evaluate." My inquiry will focus precisely on some of those cryptic

The diaries cover two distinct periods of Malinowski's fieldwork: the first,
between early September 1914 and early August 1915, on Mailu; the second,
between the end of October 1917 and mid-July 1918, first on Samarai, then
in the Trobriands. Only one entry, a few lines long, is related to his
first trip to the Trobriands. The tone of the two diaries is markedly
different. The first is filled with lyrical descriptions of landscapes into
which Malinowski projected different feelings - from sexual desire to
metaphysical reflections. At the end of the sea journey from Mailu, his
first fieldwork experience, Malinowski wrote under the date 4 March 1914
(he was then entering his thirtieth year) the following remarks:

Should like to make a synthesis of this voyage. Actually the marvelous
sights filled me with a noncreative delight. As I gazed, everything echoed
inside me, as when listening to music. Moreover I was full of plans for
the future-The sea is blue, absorbing everything, fused with the sky. At
moments, the pink silhouettes of the mountains appear through the mist,
like phantoms of reality in the flood of blue, like the unfinished ideas
of some youthful creative force.

This is the voice of a young man, on the brink of his shadow line (the
reference to Conrad is, for many reasons, unavoidable). In the second diary
the landscape descriptions are more laconic; the tone is often
matter-of-fact; the "unfinished ideas" are now pretty focused; the
"youthful creative force" has acquired a definite direction. Malinowski is
intensely working on his ethnographic project, which had crystallized
around a topic: the Kula. In a preliminary article, published in Man in
July 192o, Malinowski defined the Kula as a special trading system,
stretched over an enormous geographical area-which he labeled "the Kula
ring"-based on "two articles of high value, but of no real use. . armshells
. and necklets of red shell-discs" and involving a series of highly
complex rituals. Kula: A Tale of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the
South Seas, one of the titles suggested by Malinowski, ultimately became,
in 1922, Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Before Malinowski, the Kula had barely been mentioned in the anthropological
literature. It is unclear when he came to realize the importance of his
discovery. As he recalled in his book, Malinowski had first witnessed a
Kula transaction, without realizing what was going on, in February of 1915
on his way back to Australia, at the end of his first expedition to New
Guinea. During the full year he spent in the Trobriand Islands, between
May 1915 and May 1916, Malinowski collected evidence about the Kula and
planned to write an article on it. But a letter he wrote to Elsie from
Samarai on io November 1917 reveals a depressed mood, as if he were still
looking for a way through: "I expect the kula article will remain unfinished
till I return.... Moreover, it seems so absurd to write things about the
kula, when any nigger walking about the street in a dirty Lavalava might
know much more about it than I do!"

On this point Malinowski completely changed his mind. Let me quote an
eloquent passage from Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which sounds like a
theoretical manifesto:

The Kula is thus an extremely big and complex institution, both in its
geographical extent, and in the manifoldness of its component pursuits....
Yet it must be remembered that what appears to us as an extensive,
complicated, and yet well ordered institution is the outcome of ever so
many doings and pursuits, carried on by savages, who have no laws or aims
or charters definitely laid down. They have no knowledge of the total
outline of any of their social structure... . Not even the most intelligent
native has any clear idea of the Kula as a big, organized social
construction, still less of its sociological function and implications. If
you were to ask him what the Kula is, he would answer by giving a few
details, most likely by giving his personal experiences and subjective
views of the Kula, but nothing approaching the definition just given here
... For the integral picture does not exist in his mind; he is in it, and
cannot see the whole from the outside. The integration of all the details
observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis, of all the various,
relevant symptoms is the task of the Ethnographer. First of all, he has to
find out that certain activities, which at first sight might appear
incoherent and not correlated, have a meaning.... The Ethnographer has to
construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist
constructs his theory from the experimental data, which always have been
within reach of everybody; but which needed a consistent interpretation.

These remarks are hardly compatible with the old stereotype, according
to which Malinowski would have been a keen observer and collector of data,
which he then framed in a rather rigid functionalist theory. It seems that
the very experience of writing a diary helped him to realize the role played
by theory in making sense of scattered data, in transforming them into
meaningful facts. On 13 November 1917, Malinowski wrote in his diary:

Thoughts: writing of retrospective diary suggests many reflections: a diary
is a "history" of events which are entirely accessible to the observer,
and yet writing a diary requires profound knowledge and thorough training;
change from theoretical point of view; experience in writing leads to
entirely different results even if the observer remains the same-let alone
if there are different observers! Consequently, we cannot speak of
objectively existing facts: theory creates facts. Consequently there is no
such thing as "history" as an independent science. History is observation
of facts in keeping with a certain theory; an application of this theory to
the facts as time gives birth to them.

This passage reminds us not only of Malinowski's youthful essays on,
respectively, Nietzsche and Mach, but more generally of the Polish
intellectual tradition known above all through the belated impact of Ludwik
Fleck's book about the Wassermann reaction, Genesis and Development of a
Scientific Fact, on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
published twenty-five years later. The title of Fleck's book is in itself
significant. "Theory creates facts"; the ethnographer has to construct the
Kula "very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the
experimental data," as Malinowski wrote in his diary and in his book. How
did he succeed in constructing a theory which put the scattered data he had
collected about the Kula into a meaningful configuration?

On 26 October 1917 Elsie Masson wrote to her fiance:

I shall get you Stevenson's letters to dabble into. His type of thought
may strike you as childish, but I think you cannot fail to like his
personality. He was so un-wowserish, so genuine, weak in many ways but so
likeable, and then you must be interested in his struggle with ill-health.

Malinowski received Stevenson's letters-they must have been the Vailima
Letters, edited by Sidney Colvin-two months later, in mid-December. Elsie's
guesses about her fiance's reactions were not off-the-mark. On 23 December
1917 Malinowski wrote to her:

I have read a good deal of Stevenson's letters. You were quite right, I
am quite fascinated by them, at least partially. Stevenson's egotistic
interest in his health and his work is, alas, so damnably like my own case
that I cannot help finding passages which I almost have said myself....
R. L. S' s egotism strikes even me as too Slavonic and too effeminate at
times. But I am afraid my letters would show exactly the same note. I was
very much struck by a passage in which he sings the praise of his enduring,
patient heroism in the continuous struggle with ill health and his striving
to do the work in spite of sickness and depression and failing forces.
I felt like that myself so often and indeed had I not felt this note of
heroism in this ignoble battle, when the weapons are a syringe. . . tabloids
and solutions, it would have been impossible to go on .... There may be
spontaneous virtue and an easy flow of creative power, coming from a
super-abundance of strength. But the tragic case of an ambitious and gifted
man, who has got his invaluable burden to carry and to lay down at a
certain spot, and who lacks the brute physical force to do it, is as worthy
of regard as the other, and I am afraid it leads invariably to this keen
interest in oneself, to this extreme self consciousness in appreciating
every achievement and the tendency to dwell on it and to tell it to all
one's friends .... It was funny to read here, on the shores of the lagoon
and under the coconuts, Ss descriptions of Samoa and Honolulu and his
intense and selfconscious appreciation of the exotic strangeness of his new
existence in the light of the literary milieu of civilized London, in which
Colvin was living. I also very keenly and self-consciously feel this
contrast and strangeness.

Malinowski's striking self-identification has been overshadowed by the
now famous remark he made a few years later in a letter to Brenda Seligman:
"[W.H.R.] Rivers is the Rider Haggard of anthropology; I shall be the
Conrad." Malinowski was obviously deeply impressed by Conrad's work,
although he wrote in his diary that he had finished The Secret Agent "with
a feeling of disgust." But on a personal level, through his health problems
(and his health obsessions as well), Malinowski felt much closer to
Stevenson's egotism: a closeness paradoxically emphasized by the label "too
Slavonic and too effeminate." In Stevenson's Vailima Letters Malinowski
found a mirror image of his own situation: a highly civilized individual
being confronted with "the exotic strangeness of his new existence." Some
glimpses of the latter, such as a ceremonial distribution of food gifts,
which Stevenson described with a great abundance of ethnographic detail,
must have deeply intrigued Malinowski, who was then trying to make sense of
the role of gifts in the Trobriand islands. In leafing through the Vailima
Letters Malinowski may have also come across the letter in which Stevenson
informed Colvin of the forthcoming translation of "The Bottle Imp" into
Samoan. Was Malinowski already familiar with Stevenson's short story? And
if not, did he try to satisfy a curiosity likely to be piqued by a piece
which, as Colvin noticed in a footnote, had been read "with wonder and
delight" by many Samoan readers?

These questions are not preposterous, since Malinowski, an incredibly
voracious reader, had brought from Melbourne a considerable provision of
books, occasionally supplemented by his European acquaintances living in
the Trobriand Islands. In the years covered by his diaries Malinowski read
Machiavelli and the Golden Legend, Racine and Kipling, George Meredith and
Victor Hugo, and so forthplus a lot of trashy novels, which he used to
devour with a great deal of guilt (in his diaries he repeatedly mentioned
lecherous thoughts and trashy novels as temptations from which he should
absolutely refrain). Reading "The Bottle Imp" afresh or recalling its plot
to mind, Malinowski would have been confronted with a fictional
representation focusing on a monetary, antiprofit exchange, connected to
some definite symbolic constraints, allowing the circulation of a highly
valued object through a series of islands stretched over a vast expanse of
ocean. There is no need to emphasize the analogy between this
representation and the ethnographer's global image of the Kula, so
different from the partial perception shared by the native actors involved
in it. Stevenson's short story would have given Malinowski not the actual
content of his discovery, of course, but the ability to see it, through a
leap of imagination, as a whole, as a Gestalt - to construct it, as he
wrote later, "very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the
experimental data."

I am obliged to use the subjunctive mood since I have no evidence that
Malinowski read "The Bottle Imp." I can only stress the fact that on 21
December 1917, five days after the arrival of Stevenson's letters,
Malinowski wrote in his diary the following entry:

Woke up around 4 very tired. I thought of a passage from [R. L.] Stevenson's
letters in which he speaks of a heroic struggle against illness and
exhaustion.... All that day longing for civilization. I thought about
friends in Melbourne. At night in the dinghy, pleasantly ambitious
thoughts: I'll surely be an "eminent Polish scholar." This will be my last
ethnological escapade. After that, I'll devote myself to constructive
sociology: methodology, political economy etc., and in Poland I can realize
my ambitions better than anywhere else.-Strong contrast between my dreams
of a civilized life and my life with the savages. I resolve to eliminate
the elements (components) of laziness and sloth from my present life. Don't
read novels unless this is necessary. Try not to forget creative ideas.

What strikes me in this passage is not so much Malinowski's fantasy
involving recognition as a scholar (he had dreamed about this before) as
his allusion, unprecedented in the diaries, to "creative ideas" which were
just beginning to emerge. (Needless to say, the novels not to be read were
the trashy novels of which Malinowski was so fond.) A few months later
these ideas had apparently taken a more definite form. In an entry dated 6
March 1918, Malinowski asked himself whether his hypotheses might affect
his collecting of ethnographic data -an issue which, significantly, he had
never mentioned before: "New theoretical point. (1) Definition of a given
ceremony, spontaneously formulated by the Negroes. (2) Definition arrived
at after they have been 'pumped' by leading questions. (3) Definition
arrived at by interpretation of concrete data."

A few weeks later a breakthrough occurred. Later still, on 19 April,
Malinowski was to refer retrospectively to it, speaking of his "joy at
Nu'agasi, when suddenly the veil was rent." The entry dated 25 March
conveys the event's immediacy: "Came back at 12:30-the Nu'agasi were just
leaving-I could not even photograph them. Fatigue. Lay down-closed my mind,
and at this moment revelations: spiritual purity." A passage follows, which
has been printed in italics, between inverted commas, possibly because it
was in English in the original (the published edition of Malinowski's
diaries is unfortunately very unsatisfactory):

"Heed kindly other people's souls, but don't bury yourself in them. If
they are pure, they will reflect the world's everlasting Beauty, and then
why look at the mirrored picture if you can see the thing itself face to
face? Or else they are full of the tangled [woof] of petty intrigue and
of that it is better not to know nothing."

This apparent quotation, which I have been thus far unable to identify,
brings to the surface the religious connotations of Malinowski's
"revelations," wrapping them in a mixture of Plato (the everlasting Beauty)
and Saint Paul ( 1 Corinthians, 13, 12). The diary entry continues by
recounting how Malinowski took his dinghy and rowed around the promontory.
At that very moment, we read in the Argonauts, Malinowski realized the
weight of ritual surrounding the Kula:

In the evening, after a busy day, as it was a full-moon night, I went for
a long pull in a dinghey. Although in the Trobriands I had had accounts
of the custom of the first halt, yet it gave me a surprise when on rounding
a rocky point I came upon the whole crowd of Gumasila natives, who had
departed on the Kula that morning, sitting in full-moon light on a beach,
only a few miles from the village which they had left with so much to-do
some ten hours before.

The account recorded in Malinowski's diary was at the same time more elusive
and more emotional:

Then I rowed around the promontory, the moon hidden behind lacy
clouds....Distinct feeling that next to this actual ocean, different every
day, covered with clouds, rain, wind, like a changing soul is covered with
moods-that beyond it there is an Absolute Ocean, which is more or less
correctly marked on the map but which exists outside all maps and outside
the reality accessible to [observation]-Emotional origin of Platonic Ideas.

In a well-known essay Ernest Gellner labeled Malinowski "Zeno from Cracow."
On the basis of the crucial passage I have just read (one surprisingly
overlooked, if I am not mistaken, by all interpreters), I would speak
instead of "Plato from Cracow" (a side of himself which Malinowski
carefully concealed). What Malinowski saw during that momentous night was
something above reality: the Platonic idea of Kula, a reflex of "the
world's everlasting Beauty."

"Suddenly," Malinowski wrote in his diary, "I tumble back into the real
milieu with which I am also in contact. Then again suddenly they [the
natives] stop existing in their inner reality. I see them as an
incongruous, yet artistic and [savage], exotic=unreal, intangible,floating
on the surface of reality, like a multicolored picture on the face of a
solid but drab wall." A work of pure fiction like Stevenson's "The Bottle
Imp" may have provided access to this "solid but drab wall."

It is worthy to recall that in reassessing the Kula sixty years after
Malinowski, Edmund Leach rejected the Kula ring concept, claiming that,
since it is beyond the actors's perception, "it contains a large part of
fiction." Leach urged "Melanasian specialists" to be "more functionalist in
a Malinowskian sense. There is no such thing as THE KULA." Malinowski, the
disguised Platonist, would have not agreed.

The Kula, wrote Malinowski in his Argonauts, refuted the then current
assumption about primitive man as "a rational being who wants nothing but
to satisfy his simplest needs and does it according to the economic
principle of least effort." An additional target was the "socalled
materialistic conception of history"-Malinowski was apparently unaware that
Karl Marx was on his side. But the implications of Malinowski's discovery
went much beyond the so-called "primitive economy," as its belated
offsprings show-from Marcel Mauss's essay on "The Gift," to Karl Polanyi's
Great Transformation, to (more indirectly) E. P. Thompson's essay on moral
economy. What was really at stake was the notion of Homo economicus, which
is still very much around. But as both Stevenson's and Malinowski's
archipelagos remind us, no man is an island, no island is an island.



©Copyright.Carlo Ginzburg

Volume: 18
Issue: 3
Pagination: 84-102
ISSN: 02751607