WOID XXII-12 DOESN'T GET IT

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At first the locals were happy to help the white guys bring the brazilwood down to the boats because they were all friends. Then, after all the trees close to the shore had been cut down, the white guys wanted the locals to help carry the trees from further inland, and the locals were confused because weren’t they all friends, so the white guys had to explain what a “job” is, at which point the locals lost interest and things got nasty.

I was sitting on the bed in a hotel in Washington, DC, and it was the week of the American Book Association, the big one where all the publishers have their setups and authors flog their books; my ratings on Amazon were crashing and I was thinking, maybe I should call Marketing in Chicago and suggest I come over and sign some books, but Marketing would just tell me to mind my own business. Maybe I should crash the conference with a pile of books. What would Marshall say?

Marshall Sahlins was my publisher. He was also the foremost authority on How Natives Think. The publishing industry would surely qualify, and Marshall was the detached observer of a particularly brutal ceremony who must pass judgement, and his judgement often cut against the economic grain, as with the best of publishers. It’s not often a publisher reads a review of yours that rips another one to someone he’s been publishing and writes to encourage you to write for him because he likes your style. In the downpour of White Guy Economics it always felt as if Marshall and his staff were dodging raindrops. Conversations about who owed whom after a lecture in São Paulo ended up as discussions about the exchange systems of the Kwakwakaʼwakw. Now that Marshall’s gone I expect those discussions will continue.

In the meantime, wouldn’t it be simpler to just get out of the rain? Being the savage and not the anthropologist, I took that option before things got nasty with the white guys. I’d already shown — not that we were friends, but that I could do it. I could write as close to a best-seller as I needed without waking up next to Jeffrey Epstein. Or Jason Epstein. I could go from being the childish wide-eyed savage to what I always wanted to be: someone who writes. Hey, I could be like Hermann Melville, who said he hoped some day to write the kind of book that fails, and magnificently succeeded. As Clifford Geertz would say, what the anthropologist thinks of what the savage does matters less than what the savage thinks he’s doing. Marshall was pretty good at that. He never told me to grow up and get a job, and he turned my life around.