Category Archives: Anthropology

Skulls for sale

I mentioned in my last post that I had recently come across a story regarding the sale of  human remains. Well, at the start of this month, an auction was prevented from taking place in the US town of Hagerstown, Maryland, of the skull of a soldier killed in battle during the Civil War. This skull was uncovered on a farm in Gettysburg in 1949  and was thought to be the first sale of its kind, but was stopped after the hotel carrying out the auction received numerous complaints. Now, the skull has been ‘donated’ to the United States Parks Services in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who can provide a proper burial.

Now, I don’t really think that I need to explain why I take issue with the thought of selling human remains- the fact that this was a part of a deceased individual’s body make the whole concept of possession and ownership faintly ludicrous. I can’t just go and sell a person, or remove their limb and then sell it, so why should this be okay and permissible once they are dead? The same issue arises for me with human remains in anthropological and museum collections, and even more so with the sickeningly immoral practice of one Gunter Von Hagen, who sells jewellery and framed images containing thin slices of preserved corpses. No thank you. You do not buy or sell the dead. People are people, and people were people, not commodities. I could get into a whole new Anthropology debate here over consumerism and consumption, but I won’t.

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Damien Hirst and the ignorance of journalists: a Facebook rant from July 2013

This is a bit old but (I thought) worth sharing. As the title suggests, I posted this on Facebook almost a year ago, but the sentiments are the same now. Obviously, when I mention something is ‘current’, I mean current in July 2013.

Here is the original article that I refer to:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/jul/17/damien-hirst-photograph-severed-head-censorship

 

This article has irritated me somewhat. Firstly, I hate that the thumbnail for the article has that picture on, but I can’t really comment without putting the article on that I am moaning about, and the picture won’t disappear. I missed this story when it was first in the news, but picked up on it thanks to a cartoon in the current issue of ‘Private Eye.’ Basically, two archaeologists from Leicester Uni have objected to Damien Hirst exhibiting a photo that shows him at the age of 16 posing next to the severed head of a man who donated his body to science. Fine. The picture is in ridiculous bad taste, and they have a point about the family of the dead man and the fact that he probably didn’t give permission for photos to be taken of his corpse (which needs to be given when bodies are donated). But the article irritates me due to the complete ignorance that the writer has. Apparently, it is “academic pomposity” for archaeologists to speak out about something they believe is wrong if it impinges on others. Right. Hmm. Also, “archaeological ethics” needs to be put in quotation marks in the original article, as though it is some sort of alien or laughable concept. It is not. It is an integral part of the practicing of modern archaeology that needs to be taken into account at every turn when excavating and when presenting the past to the public. Next-“Only in dictatorial regimes do university professors decide what does and does not belong in an art gallery.” Erm….nope. Surely many art gallery curators are also able to be lecturers, and academic opinion coupled with the sensitivities of the public are always to be taken into account when presenting art and archaeology. But archaeologists cannot comment on art, can they? I’m sure the writer also thinks that anthropologists can’t, either. Then there’s this bit, which I will quote at length- “Leicester University’s experts say it contravenes guidelines on the ethical treatment of the dead: the poor man whose head is in the picture, they say, would have been recognisable to his relatives. He left his body to science and it was used in a jokey work of art. As archaeologists, they claim expertise in this strange field of postmortem ethics. Perhaps they got carried away by the sentimentality that surrounded Leicester’s rediscovery of the bones of Richard III.” Oh come on. Richard III is not quite the same. And then, the final flourish of ignorance- “Archaeology is the scientific study of the past, and it has no business pronouncing on the ethics of modern art.” Give me strength. Of course archaeology has the right and the position to comment on the present as much as any historian, author, artist or religious leader. It just annoys me that such a woefully ignorant person can comment upon a discipline that they clearly do not understand, and can therefore present it any way they like in the media, biasing those who do not know the subject to think that it is something that it isn’t. Okay. Rant over now.

Image: siliconangle.com

Image: siliconangle.com

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The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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A new low for TV and a slap in the face to proper archaeology

I’ve only heard about this programme recently, and so am aware that much has already been said about it, but National Geographic are planning on 13th May to air in the UK a ‘documentary’ entitled ‘Nazi War Diggers’. The clips of this show already released were quickly taken off the internet after the negative comments started, and to be honest, it is easy to see why. The programme sees a group of individuals (I can’t call them archaeologists, for the simple reason that they aren’t) digging up remains of fallen Second World War soldiers in Latvia, with the proposed intentions of  ‘sav[ing] this history from being looted or lost’.

However, the only ‘looting’ that seems to be taking place is that by the presenters of this programme. I have seen several television documentaries where battlefield archaeologists excavate French trenches and battlefields from WWI in order to return the bodies of loved ones to their families for proper reinterment. These excavations are carried out with sensitivity, for a legitimate reason, and by professionally trained archaeologists and osteologists using correct archaeological excavation procedures. I do not have an issue with this, and if this is what ‘Nazi War Diggers’ was about, then there would be no issue. The footage, however, that was released and the images abounding on the ‘net that have been taken from the programme or used to publicise it show a group of inept amateurs digging away with no regard for archaeological techniques or contexts (for example, using sharp tools close to bones, not recording the material found in any way, and pulling bones out of the ground using brute force, rather than carefully and slowly excavating around them), and much less regard for the individuals whose remains they are removing.

Dr Tony Pollard, the Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, has said this about the programme:

I’m appalled that a major broadcaster has sunk to the levels of exploitation television. I’ve been at the forefront of battlefield archaeology for fifteen years, and I have spent much time getting the subject taken seriously.

This just looks like they’ve gone around digging up bodies, because TV likes a dead body.

This shows no evidence of even the most basic archaeological principles – this is treasure hunting not archaeology.

I have seen human remains brandished like trophies before but in dodgy YouTube videos. The fact that this comes from a commissioned TV series is quite beyond belief.

The trailer on the internet was absolutely shocking, and very damaging for National Geographic.

Whether these bodies are those of Allied soldiers, German soldiers, or soldiers of any other nation, they should not be handled and removed in such a way that shows such basic disregard for common decency, human morality, the ethics of the past, or for people who were someone’s son, friend, father or brother. A pile of human bones is not just a collection of objects (it is indeed that, but not just that)- it is the physical presence of a person who is no longer alive and who is no longer in the world to defend and protect themself. There is no reason why these remains should be treated with any less respect than those buried in cemeteries or those held in museums, and the trivialisation of their removal and handling is lamentable. Not only do the diggers (I can’t call them excavators, because this suggests some sort of archaeological methodology has been adhered to) pull bones out of the ground, but they blatantly show scant knowledge of osteology or human anatomy, and worryingly little evidence of what they do with the bodies once they have removed them.

Not only is this programme a new low for television and its need to broadcast crap catering to the lowest common denominator, but it is also a shot in the foot for the once-respectable National Geographic, and a body-blow to the good name of archaeology, and battlefield archaeology in particular (which has a bad enough time of it as it is, with many people against such excavation, and which often finds itself having to defend itself way too much). I shall not be watching this programme for fear of throwing something through my screen whilst it is on, and have decided against posting any images to illustrate this rant, as I do not want to condone what those idiots have done in any way. As an archaeologist, I see the historic, scientific, practical and moral need to excavate human remains, and in recent years massive steps have been made in this field when it comes to repatriation of bones and body parts to those of other cultures, and in the general handling and study of such material. This, though, does not mean that I condone the gratuitous unearthing of individuals when there is no motive other than selfish self-publicity and the need to increase television viewing figures. Will the production team carry out tests on the bodies in order to return them to the families for reburial? Will they rebury them in a manner befitting a dead soldier? I think not, and it is truly shameful.

One last thought: I wonder if such a programme would be permissable were it Allied soldiers being excavated in France or Belgium in such a way? Is it because these individuals were ‘Nazis’ that such ill treatment is possible? Are we still to retain such pointless and ridiculous prejudices?

 

 

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The first new books of 2014

I had a rather lucky weekend in terms of books. Let’s just say that all of the books in this photo here…

WP_20140112_002

…came to £3. They were ALL 25p each, which is not at all bad.

  • R.A. Sydie –  Natural Women/Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory
  • Richard Fortey –  Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
  • William Shakespeare –  The Tempest
  • William Shakespeare –  King Lear
  • Ben Jonson –  Volpone
  • Erskine Childers –  The Riddle of the Sands
  • Julian Barnes –  The Sense of an Ending
  • Erich Maria Remarque –  All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Jane Austen –  Sense and Sensibility
  • Edgar Allan Poe –  The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • Toni Morrison –  The Bluest Eye
  • Kate Chopin –  The Awakening and other stories
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A small victory for anthropology: the return of sacred Hopi masks

Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

There are some stories in the news that irritate me to Hell, and then there are others that make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. This post involves one of each, and they are both connected.

The Hopi, whose full name is Hopituh Shi-nu-mu (“The Peaceful People” or “Peaceful Little Ones”) are a native matrilineal tribe indigenous to the US state of Arizona, that live mainly on a reservation that is completely surrounded by the land of the Navajo. There were, according to the 2010 US census, 18,327 members of the Hopi, and many traditional crafts are carried out in order to make a living, such as high-quality pottery-making, the carving of Kachina dolls, and the making of silver jewellery. As with many tribes around the world, Christianity has been taken up by some Hopi, but traditional religious beliefs still dominate their culture, and it is to these beliefs that the news story in question relates. For the Hopi, ceremonial masks and head-dresses made by members of the tribe are seen as tombs, representing the spirits of the ancestors, and as such these items are treated as sacred and as living beings, being kept behind muslin screens so as they can ‘breathe’ when not in use, and being ritually fed corn pollen. However, despite such objects being protected in the US, with the sale of Native American items being outlawed in 1990, this rule does not extend to other countries. As such, on 9th December 2013, a sale of  27 Hopi masks and artifacts taken from Arizona in the early 20th century went ahead at an auction in Paris. The advocacy group, Survival International, tried unsuccessfully to challenge the auction in court on behalf of the Hopis, but at the sale the Annenberg Foundation stepped in, spending $530,000 (£325,732) on 24 objects with the sole aim of returning these items to the tribe. This is absolutely wonderful news both for the Hopi, indigenous peoples in general, and for anthropology, as it shows that there are people out there who are able to see the importance behind so-called ‘art’ objects and their relevance to the beliefs of others. 

Sadly, in April this year, another sale of 70 Hopi masks took place in Paris, with these items going to collectors for a combined sum of €930,000 (£787,107). These are some of the masks sold:

Image: Getty Images

Image: Getty Images

Acoma sacred mask. Image: AFP

Acoma sacred mask. Image: AFP

Heaume Korosto sacred mask. Image: AFP

Heaume Korosto sacred mask. Image: AFP

Hilili sacred mask. Image: AFP

Hilili sacred mask. Image: AFP

Ho-ote sacred mask. Image: AFP

Ho-ote sacred mask. Image: AFP

Wuyak-ku-ita sacred mask. Image: AFP

Wuyak-ku-ita sacred mask. Image: AFP

At the time of this latter sale back in April, I posted this on Facebook with a link to the BBC News article about the sale:

Seriously- I love the quote at the end: “I guess that museums will be obliged to give back their collections. It’s major. It would be terrible for the art market in general.” Erm….no. There is a difference between the ownership of tribal material by museums and the selling of these items on the open art market. Museums of ethnography such as our own Pitt Rivers work extensively with tribal peoples to gain understanding of customs and beliefs surrounding objects, and closer connections often allow for museums to retain these items but make them accessible to tribes for their own learning, study and occasional use for rituals. Some items are repatriated as they are seen to be important for the people who made them or who have descended from the original creators, and because it is often the moral thing to do, especially if they were taken under overly violent colonial methods, through false means or other illegal practice. To say that they should not be returned due to the loss to the “art market” is an insult to our western intelligence as people who can see objects as more than simply “art”, and is certainly an insult to the Hopi and any other tribal people. To them, these are more than “art” (if they even conceive of ‘art’ for its own sake) and should not be treated by those who feel they are better than indigenous populations as commodities. Items to be learnt from and studied, yes. In the right way this can be very productive for all involved. But not as a means of imposing superiority. And not as something that has nothing but monetary value.

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Four more books

P1000957

I managed to pick up four books today whilst shopping:

  • Harper Lee –  To Kill a Mockingbird     75p
  • Jean Rhys –  Wide Sargasso Sea     50p
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle –  A Study in Scarlet     50p
  • Edward W. Said –  Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient     50p

The last book is the first anthropological work that I have bought for quite a long time, and which should make for interesting reading. At the moment, I am reading Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, which I was very excited about starting, and which is proving very joyful so far- but thoughts to come in due course.

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Thoughts on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

HofD

At the age of 11, I was quite an avid stamp collector, and through the beneficence of several family friends, I was able to amass a fairly sizable collection. I was particularly proud of a medium-sized green album that I put together of stamps from the British Empire, representing countries such as Tanganyika, Rhodesia, and the Malay States that no longer exist. This interest in the might of British Imperial power made me see the time of the Raj in India and the years up to the 1960s through somewhat tinted lenses, and it was only by studying anthropology at university that I saw that my previous adoration had perhaps been somewhat misplaced. Now, I can see that the British Empire had detrimental effects on almost all of the nations that it subsumed, and that these effects are being felt even now across the world. By imposing our way of life onto other cultures, we successfully eradicated much indigenous culture and society, cloaking it and choking it in the smog of so-called ‘modernity’ and suggesting that the British people were a chosen people placed on the highest level of the Chain of Being above all others. It was with this personal and intellectual background that I approached Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

I will begin by saying that I disagree somewhat with Chinua Achebe’s view that ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a racist text that portrays the people of Africa as savages, and the continent itself as one of uncivilised, brutish violence. I don’t want to play the cultural-relativist card, as this seems a clichéd and somewhat lame excuse, and also because I think that Conrad’s text is much more than that. It is true that his use of the word “nigger” sits uncomfortably with today’s readers, and this is perhaps a sign of the times in which it was written and nothing more. However, I think that Achebe misses the central crux of the tale that Marlow tells, as rather than promoting imperialism, the subjugation of the African individual and Africa as a continent, and extolling the virtues of romantic exploration- as personified in Henry Morton Stanley and his search for Dr Livingstone- he presents the stark reality of attempting to voyage into the heart of a continent that is ‘dark’ not due to the colour of its inhabitants or the nature of their un-Christian souls, but simply because it represents a void in the knowledge of the rest of the world. The ‘darkness’ is present in the fear that the unknown presented to the people of the late 19th century, and is therefore only culturally relative in as much as the text documents the beliefs and thoughts of people at a given period in history; it does not hide behind this as a justification for the thoughts. 

The theme of ‘darkness’ is perhaps an obvious one in the text due to the clue given in the title, but I was genuinely surprised by just how many times the word ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’ is actually employed within the text. (Upon a further reading, I may endeavour to note each of these occasions, but it will come as a shock that I haven’t yet attempted this.) Not only is it used to describe the physical appearance of the Congo jungle, but also the Thames on which the story is narrated, and the character of the enigmatic Kurtz. In doing this, Conrad manages to make a connection between the unknown and unexplored, potentially dangerous African continent and the lifeblood of the English capital, suggesting a similar unfamiliar side to the river and at a further level the country as a whole. Due to the manner of its colonising, Britain could be said to have had a ‘Heart of Darkness’, and as such be just as dangerous and savage as the unexplored land is perceived to be. Similarly, the ‘darkness’ of Kurtz is suggested firstly in the way that he too- like the interior of Africa- is unknown and a mystery to Marlow (he is literally in the dark about the character, piecing together his own ideas about the man from the scraps he is told), and also in the way that Kurtz recognises his own ‘darkness’ and through his exploitation of the native people, and the ‘darkness’ of his actions as a part of the colonial machine in his final words: “The horror! The horror!” Kurtz further represents a ‘darkness’ in the way that he takes advantage of the veneration shown to him by the locals due to his position as an outsider, and highlights the ‘darkness’ that these people were in when it came to the Europeans; they were ‘in the dark’ about the true intent of many colonisers, and were unaware of the way in which they were having their way of life slowly removed (or at least altered).

Upon reading ‘Heart of Darkness’, I was struck by Conrad’s exquisite prose, and pleasantly surprised at just how many passages gave me cause to refer to a dictionary. For a writer who was writing in his third language, I think that the text is a stupendous achievement, and am enamoured by it also due to its dual nature as a piece of fiction but also as an anthropological text, revealing much to us about the colonial apparatus and the way in which such explorations effected all parties concerned. Often, this is overlooked in even the best ethnographies. For example, Mead excludes mention of the US influence upon those she studied in Samoa, as well as the bias behind her research, and Evans-Pritchard in his three celebrated studies of the Sudanese Nuer fails to mention the fact that he was employed as an anthropologist by the British to report on these communities could best be brought under colonial control, and also fails to show the ways in which the British-imposed culture had manages to impact upon their laws, economy, religion and general way of life. Instead, we are presented with a false image of the Nuer as a people untouched by the ‘modern’ world, when in actuality, the ‘facts’ recorded are all as they stand post-contact.

I believe that ‘Heart of Darkness’ should be read by anthropologists as well as lovers of fine literature, and would recommend it as essential reading for everyone. The technique of a ‘story-in-a-story’ narration is slightly jarring (as I found it to also be in ‘Frankenstein’) in the way that one character recounts a book-long story recounted by another character, but i was not put off by this and hope to revisit the text again, armed on this occasion with a pencil ready to annotate and to count up the repetition. And when it comes to the stamp collection, I think that it will provide me with a fresh perspective on this too.

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