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Love Making and the Psychology of Erotic Life

In the course of this inquiry we have been gradually approaching our main interest, and taking an increasingly detailed view of native love making. At first we merely made a general survey of the social organization and economic activities of the natives, in so far as they affect the relative positions of man and woman in the community. We studied their associations and their diversions, in private and in public, at work and at play, in magical and religious pursuits, as well as in everyday life.

Then coming nearer to our special subject we followed the typical progress of courtship, and found it leading to marriage and parenthood. It will be necessary to observe the dalliance of lovers at still closer quarters. We have to learn the nature of their love interest and of the bonds which unite them.

As we proceed now to the study of more intimate behaviour, the elasticity of the rules becomes greater, and it grows more imperative to give a dynamic description of how a rule or an institution works, rather than how, in native theory, law and morality is supposed or desired to work.

In general, as the ethnographer moves away from the big fundamental, well-defined institutions - such as family, marriage, kinship organization, the clan, exogamy, the rules of courtship - towards the manifold details of personal life, his methods of observation most become more complex and his results less reliable This cannot be remedied and, for our comfort, it may be remembered that, even in the most exact fields of human thought and experience, a theoretical result can only be verified within certain limits. The most exact of human observations is only approximate, and all that even the chemist or physicist can do is to state the limits within which his error is encompassed. When investigating integral institutions, such as marriage or the family, the ethnographer should, if he be doing competent and intensive field-work, rely on observation rather than on what the native informants tell him. But when dealing with the subtler phases of behaviour, this rule cannot, unfortunately, always be followed. In the study of sexual attraction and the growth of a passion, direct observation is always difficult, and at times impossible, and a great deal of information has to be collected from confidences and gossip.

The ethnographer must be alert to all that happens round him. He must patiently win his way into village life and make such personal friendships as encourage spontaneous confidences and the repetition of intimate gossip. He must check ad hoc statements by remarks dropped in more unguarded moments, explicating the implied and estimating the importance of reservations and reticences. For these are everywhere apt to be more illuminating than direct affirmations, and are especially so among these natives, whose keen sense of delicacy makes the roundabout and allusive way the natural approach to such subjects. It is possible to force them into speaking directly, but this always produces an artificial and false mental attitude, and exclusive reliance on such a method would lead to results which lack entirely the colour of real life.

Thus in the most delicate subjects the ethnographer is bound to a large extent to depend on hearsay. Yet if he resides for a long time among the natives, speaks their language and makes close personal acquaintances, he will be provided with sufficiently better than if it had been obtained through the mechanical pumping of informants by the question-and-answer method at so many sticks of tobacco and labour. 

Love is a passion to the Melanesian as to the European, and torments mind and body to a greater or lesser extent; it leads to many an impasse, scandal, or tragedy; more rarely, it illuminates life and makes the heart expand and overflow with joy. "Out of a full heart the mouth speaketh," and the cold ethnographer must industriously jot down confidences poured out under the stress of strong personal emotion. Also the gossip of those not directly affected by the event, yet sufficiently interested it to talk, especially if it be untoward - puisqu'il y a quelque chose dans les malheurs de nos amis qui ne nous deplait pas - is scarcely less valuable material for the investigator.

Spontaneous outpourings and village gossip dictated by genuine interest, records of past tragedies, and stories of erotic adventure, have yielded most of the raw material on the psychology of erotic life of the Trobrianders. Let us look at a Trobriand village and approach a group of young people playing in the moonlight, in festive mood and dress; let us try to see them as they see each other; follow up their attraction and repulsions. Now we will try and reconstruct the history of a personal intrigue, to understand the first impressions made by beauty and charm and to follow the development of a passion to its end.

Erotic Attraction

What is it that makes the boys look with entranced attention at one among a group of girls, moving rhythmically in a game or carrying baskets at harvest; or that fascinates the girls in one of the dancers who lead the ring of swift runners in a kaydebu dance? Is it possible for us to find out why a member of either sex is almost universally rejected and why another is sought after. Why one category is labelled as plain or unattractive and the other as fascinating and beautiful. The European observer soon finds that his standard of personal charm does not essentially differ from that of the natives, when he has once become accustomed to the physical type and to the mannerisms of the Melanesians. Thus, for instance, the girl on plate 66 is universally regarded as a beauty, the one on plate 67 as a plain woman; and with this opinion the reader will not disagree. And yet the latter is a well-built woman and of a pronounced Melanesian type. But it would be perhaps difficult and certainly useless to convey native standards of beauty by means of European phrases and comparisons. Fortunately there are a number of native expressions, descriptions and categories which furnish some sort of objective material, and together with the ethnographer's commentary, may convey a fairly adequate idea of the Trobriander's ideal of beauty.

It must be understood that the problem of erotic charm with which we are now engaged, is different from that concerned with the motive which leads a Trobriand man or woman to enter upon matrimony. In this connection, we found that personal preference, though a powerful inducement of marriage, was only one among others, some social, some economic and some domestic. And even in the matter of personal preference, the erotic motive is not exclusive. A man or woman of mature age will choose a domestic partner quite different from the paramour who occupied the best part of his or her youth. Marriage is often determined by the attraction of character and personality rather than by sexual adaptation or erotic seduction.

When treating of love in fiction or anthropology, it is easier and more pleasant to imagine objects really worth of admiration. In the Trobriands it would not be difficult to find them, even for one equipped with European taste and Nordic race prejudices; for, within a considerable variety of types, there are to be found men and women with regular delicate features, well-built lithe bodies, clear skins, and that personal charm which predisposes us towards a man, a nationality, or a race.

Verbal descriptions of a racial type are always weak and unconvincing. They may be couched in anthropometric terms and backed by numerical data, but these give little help to the imagination and could only stimulate a physical anthropologist. It is better for the reader to look at pictures where and in other works where the Trobrianders have been described, and to hear what the natives themselves have to say on the subject of beauty and its opposite.

The natives are never at a loss when asked what elements to the making of personal beauty in man or woman. The subject is not only interesting to them as to all other human beings, but is surrounded by a rich folklore and therefore commands an extensive vocabulary. Many of their legends and songs have been specially composed to exalt some famous dancer or singer, and in such texts there are descriptions of ornament and dress, and expressive phrases referring to personal appearance. The charms used in beauty magic give instructive indications of the Trobriader's desires and ideals as do also the laments for the dead, and descriptions of the blissful life in Tuma, the land of the departed.

 But although the renown and tradition of famous beauties is handed down for generations with rich descriptive details, it is difficult for the ethnographer to find a living model for his inquiry. Whenever asking any of the old, and therefore expert, connoisseurs of beauty where any living woman could match the radiant divinities drawn from their own and their father's memories, the answer was always in the negative. The Golden Age of real beauty seems to be quite over!

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