The Arctic, from Stones to Man

By Elnadi, Bahgat; Rifaat, Adel | UNESCO Courier, April 1994 | Go to article overview

The Arctic, from Stones to Man

Elnadi, Bahgat, Rifaat, Adel, UNESCO Courier

In 1948, twenty-six-year-old Jean Malaurie embarked on his first polar expedition, to the west coast of Greenland. Two years later he spent a winter with the Inuit, learning their language and hunting techniques and sharing their everyday experiences. On his return to France, he initiated with the Paris publishing house of Plon a series entitled "Terre humaine" with the publication of Les derniers rois de Thule (The Last Kings of Thule, Jonathan Cape, 1983), his account of his experiences among the Inuit, which has since been translated into twenty-two languages. He holds the only chair in France in polar geography (at EHESS, the Ecole des Hautes etudes en sciences sociales) and was the founder, with the historian Fernand Braudel, of EHESS's Centre of Arctic Studies. As well as pursuing an academic career, he has continued to carry out research in the field--over thirty one-man expeditions have taken him from Greenland to Alaska and northeast Siberia. Specialists from all over the world contributed to a work published in his honour in 1990: Pour Jean Malaurie, 102 temoignages en hommage a quarante ans d'etudes arctiques (Plon publishers, Paris).

* Not the least of your many claims to fame is to bare initiated an important series of ethnographic publications, "Terre humaine:

--"Terre humaine" is the embodiment of a current of ideas, a growing awareness of "transdisciplinarity", the overstepping of the boundaries of academic disciplines. Like the UNESCO Courier, it is devoted to the idea of getting to know one another. Under the influence of Marxism, interest has in our times focused on systems, tending to leave individuals out of the picture. Structures and economic and social forces do, of course, exist, but there is also an unpredictable player on the stage of history--the human being. That was why I thought it essential to create a current of ideas that would reintroduce the personal element and put into perspective what we academics call anthropology, sociology or ethnology--the observation of other people, in short.

Its other concern is to let people speak for themselves. In the West, who writes? The writer. But tape recorders now enable us to take down the remarks of people who have never held a book in their hands. My aim in this collection, which began in 1955 with my own book Les derniers rois de Thule (The Last Kings of Thule) and now comprises over seventy volumes, was to abolish the class struggle--one far more insidious than that denounced by Karl Marx--between intellectuals on the one hand and the meek and lowly on the other. I have on occasion recorded the words of convicts, even of some awaiting execution on death row in one of the toughest jails in Texas. In another book, to be published shortly, an Indian woman, a pariah from southern Madras, tells her life story. What these men and women have to say is irreplaceable.

"Terre humaine" also serves as a reminder that the social sciences are not alone in studying humanity, and that the Bible, the Qur'an, the Vedas and the great works of literature throw a necessary light on our societies' problems. I have therefore sought out unpublished material by great authors. Who would have thought anything remained unpublished of the works of Zola, one of the world's most translated authors? And yet 800 pages of notes, tied together with string, had been lying around for eighty-three years in France's Bibliotheque nationale until I published them under the title Carnets d'enquetes en France, une ethnographie inedite. This document is a real lesson in modern journalism, written in the manner of Truman Capote, a style that was new for its time. I also published Les Immemoriaux by Victor Segalen, which was gathering dust in the Plon publishing house. Written by a Breton Catholic, it is a remarkably outspoken piece of work, describing the effects of the introduction of Christianity in a traditional society, that of Tahiti, which lost its balance and its joie de vivre as a result, and discussing the whole question of this interference in other peoples' lives, with the backing of the colonial power, from the right to conquer their territory to the right to subjugate their souls. …

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