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New at IWP Books: Bernard Berenson (1952) Rumour and Reflection. On April 19, 1944:

London and New York send missionaries to China, to Africa, to the remotest and wildest parts of the earth, to inculcate the Gospel by the example of their own standard of life. Likewise we send expeditions to study the manners, customs, folkways of Trobriand, Easter Islands and other fashionable haunts of over-excited anthropological curiosity.

Many, myself included, question whether missionaries are not wasting our money, and their energies not doing the objects of their zeal more harm than good. We believe there are no end of Trobrianders, Easter Islanders and other neolithics, not to speak of palaeolithics, in our midst: in our slums as well as in every grade of society, the fashionable not least. We should prefer our missionaries to sacrifice themselves rather in humanizing these savages or barbarians, these fetish worshippers in our own ranks.

Anthropology should begin at home.

By anthropology I mean the study of usages, practices, manners, customs, beliefs, superstitions, etc., etc., that do not readily submit to rational treatment but remain as they are, mobile or fixed, and find brilliant defenders armed with all the learning that up-to-date research can apply.

I could wish that our anthropologists grew serious, and forgoing aquatic picnics among Pacific Islands would devote laborious years to the study of all that is naively taken for granted and no less tenaciously than irrationally held, by the average matron, the average business man, the average cleric, the average lawyer, the average soldier, sailor, administrator, butcher, baker, etc., etc., in our own societies, high and low, low and high.

Something of this kind must have been in the mind of the late Prof. Sumner of Yale with his sociological investigation and publications. Far from being a Philistine as Van Wyck Brooks designated him, we should honour him as the great scholar and pioneer that he was. What he meant to initiate was an inquiry as to what in our own people was too fixed, too immovable to yield to immediate philanthropic effort or legislative decree. What among “the heirs of all the ages in the foremost ranks of time” remains as little subject to persuasion and even to force as any other irrational energy, say a certain volume of water in motion or turning to steam.

You know enough about the nature of water not to argue with it, preach to it, or appeal to its better instincts. You let it alone; or if you must deal with it and want it to take a more convenient turn, you provide ample space for its career by canals, sluices, safety-valves and other devices.

Human nature in a given moment, at a given place is scarcely more subject to reason or persuasion.

From Jacques Barzun, “Berenson and the Boot” (The Griffin, 1952, @ IWP Articles).

The title, which appears perfect as one looks back on it, does not disclose ahead of time the character of the work. It is a diary kept in wartime, yet it is by no means a war diary. It is a journal in the grand manner of Gide — full of observations of men, art, and society; yet it is not simply a stream of thought accompanying work in progress. No life goes on in it but that of rumor and reflection, linked with the hope of survival. The sequence of intermittent jottings does show a dramatic shape, but this comes from the time and the events. We meet the author in January 1941 and he drops us in November 1944, immediately after we have endured with him the suspense of liberation under bombs and gunfire and the marauding acts of a retreating army. We pass, in short, from peace to war and reach as a climax the chaos that precedes the return of peace.

Except toward the end of the book, it is not our feelings that are harrowed but our minds that are engaged, for Mr. Berenson is a reflector in the active and the passive senses of the word, and the interlude in his career which the present pages record finds him fully and uncommonly equipped to sort out impressions and attach meanings to the madness around him.