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The Way of the Masks Paperback – May 1, 1988
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From Publishers Weekly
"This exploration of what the author perceives as the collective mind will appeal to students of both art and anthropology," wrote PW of Levi-Strauss's study of the colorful Swaihwe tribal masks and their societal and cross-cultural significance to the natives of British Columbia. Photos.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Whatever the reason, she added an optional portion of her tour to the vast first floor exhibits -- now seriously in need of rehabilitation -- devoted to the Native Americans of the Northwest. The museum strongly recommended that she study this incredibly rich and dense description of those tribes, and I have been learning with her about the complexities of the different cultures, and there similarities and differences.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and learned a great deal about the Native Americans of the East, the Plains and the Southwest but almost nothing about those of the Pacific Northwest. This book has been a wonderful introduction to the area both for her and for me. I enjoy reading a couple of chapters and then spending an hour at the museum seeing first hand examples of the materials described in those chapters.
For anyone with an interest in these peoples, this book is essential.
Robert C. Ross
Written in 1975, this book follows the usual pattern of structuralism--to gather every scrap of information, and then attempt to melt it down and recast it as a unified theory of the collective mind. The aim was to establish a harmonic synthesis between disparate tribes and traditions and, by extension, all of mankind. Here, not surprisingly, myths, rituals, arts, and societal traits are found to be similar enough to posit a shared consciousness. That's fine with me. What was bothersome, in this book at least, was the way that a slender hypothesis often suddenly became a solid fact, and then how these facts rapidly accrued into an anthropological truth.
A case in point was his conjecture that the Swaihwe masks of the Salish tribes are the contradictory aspect of the D'zonokwa masks of the Kwakiutl groups, and thus address the universal need for complementary opposites. He speculated that the two masks together fulfill one cross-cultural function, but that each mask was a somewhat weak prop without the other. Because the Swaihwe masks are largely white and the D'zonokwa masks are largely dark, because one has bulging eyes and one has hollow eyes, etc. doesn't necessarily mean that they're ritualistically related, let alone that they're the essential opposites of each other. Yet he asserts that this polar opposition plays a significant role between the two tribes, ceremonially and artistically.
It may be true. How can anyone know at this point? But if you missed the sentence where the hypothesis was put forth as just that, you arrive, forty pages later, at a personal opinion that has become a tribal reality. His deductive conjectures about the two masks then become the basis of a sweeping structural analysis of complex Northwest cultures, and he quickly begins to draw other objects into the relational symbiosis. And it's not limited to the Northwest Coast-- soon Chinese earthquakes and Japanese catfish are tied in with the magic powers of the local hog-fennel root.
To his credit, he often catches his breath, realizing that he has over-extended himself, but in the next breath he's off again. One must accept his uncontainable enthusiasm and note that it was a pure admiration that propelled it. In 1943 when he first saw the Northwest Coast exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, he was awed by the fine craftsmanship of the masks, the carved poles, painted bentwood boxes. This awe fueled his imagination and his determination to bring this great art to wider exposure, and to give the people who created it a fuller understanding.
The book fulfills that function well. The unembellished details are fascinating, and they're remarkable enough on their own--they don't really demand the degree of structural coherence he imposes upon them. I read it with due appreciation, trying to bear in mind that persuasive interpretations weren't facts. Levi-Strauss was one of the great anthropologists of his time, and I'm glad to have finally discovered why that was.