Kabloona Friday

Continuing a series of excerpts from Kabloona, an ethnography of the Eskimos published in 1941.

The homosexual Eskimo:

An apparition at the Post pulled me up one day with a shock of amazement. I am as well aware as the next man that sexual aberration knows no geography and no chronology, that inversion is a phenomenon observable in ancient as in modern times, in primitive as in civilized societies. Yet it was not in my thoughts that I should one day see a homosexual Eskimo; and if I put this man in my notebooks, and write about him now, it is not because of his aberration but because he was, in his repellant way, a singularly comic and glittering figure, at once loathsome and fascinating.

There was never such a master of pantomime as this infinitely strange, perpetually agitated, and yet extraordinarily self-possessed rogue who dropped in one afternoon from Back’s River and was off again the next day. He seemed to take it for granted that neither Gibson nor I would understand his speech, for immediately on coming in he began to display his talent as a mime, and he did it with obvious relish. He had no need of worse: face and hands sufficed him to paint for us his four days on the trail. He had run out of tea on the second day, and he wrote in sign language a poem of the brewing and drinking of his last cup. he had started with only a little coal-oil; and in a moment he was coxing the last drop of oil out of an invisible tin, aping marvelously–how he did it I do not know–the very tin itself, showing us with his hands what emptiness was. … Forgetting himself momentarily, he would speak rapid words, but his pantomime went faster than his words, and he would fasten his eyes on your face with the shrewdness and the childish self-satisfaction of an old actor, as if saying, “Don’t you admire the way I am doing this?”

Another thing: he looked exactly like portraits of Louis XIII’ and not only did I sketch him, but fearing that my drawing might be the fruit of my imagination, I photographed him, and it was Louis XIII to the life who stared at me from the negative. A narrow strip of beard that looked half natural and half makeup, ran down his chin, and he was either all curtsies and scrapings, bowing forward with rounded back to leer at you while his hands sent dismayingly over your person and he murmured over the beauty of your clothes, or he would straighten up abruptly, stick out his chest, and posture stiffly as if posing for his portrait.

Unfortunately, though several drawings and photographs made it into the book, this Louis XIII’s portrait did not. However, it is pretty easy to find portraits of the original Louis XIII:

Louis XIII by Franz Pourbour the Younger, 1620
Louis XIII by Franz Pourbour the Younger, 1620

You know, I can see the possible resemblance.

The WIkipedia notes some rumors on the subject of “Was Louis XIII gay?” and there’s some even weirder stuff on the talk page. I don’t know if this is some real connection, or if people just like to speculate that famous people might have been gay.

At any rate, it is a blow against the claim that homosexuality is unknown among hunter-gathers.

… To heighten the impression of inversion this man dragged along with him, behind him, a child whose features were no less astonishing than his own–a little Aiglon* with romantic locks brushed across his forehead and immense, incredibly ringed eyes that were a little melancholy and rather protuberant.

*According to Google, “Aiglon” is a private boarding school in Switzerland, so I take this as a French term for a school aged child?

What was this? Was it a girl, a boy? A boy, yes, said our Louis XIII, turning round to stroke the passive forehead’ and a very good trapper. He got two foxes the other day. The word “trapper” went very ill with the look of the boy, and I was sure the man was lying about his minion. As the evening wore on, and the child began to droop with sleep, he refused to allow the boy to go off to the igloo alone, explaining with inconceivable gestures that they always slept together (gesture of rocking the child to sleep in his arms) and saying that the boy was never able to go to sleep without him.

…The whole thing was beyond words disconcerting, and I aid to myself that next day, when thi man and the child had moved of over the sea, had vanished into the infinity of the North, I should be perfectly right to believe that the whole thing had been a dream.

It is interesting how our definition of “homosexual” has changed over time to no longer include “synonymous with pedophile.” I don’t know if this is because of a shift in the behavior of gay people, a shift in how people think of gay people, or a mere shift in the technical carving up of categories. The association with actors, however, remains.

The meeting of two worlds:

Trading at a Hudson’s Bay Post is a struggle in which two mentalities, the White and the Eskimo, meet and lock. In the end each is persuaded that he has won the match–the white man because in this barter he has got his “price,” and the Eskimo because he is convinced of having got something for nothing.

Your Eskimos turn up with sacks of foxes and signify that they want to trade. The trading is done at the Store, which stands some forty yards off from the Post proper. You lead them out, and as they troop over the snow there is a good deal of strangled laughter. What a great farce this is! Once again they are going to do the white man in the eye, and once again the white man is not going to know what has happened to him. All those wonderful things that fill the Store are to be theirs for a few foxes. What can the white man want with foxes? in the igloo, a fox-skin will do as a clout, but even to wipe things with, the ptarmigan makes a better rag It isn’t possible that the white man should have so many things that need wiping!

One by one, like Arab into a mosque, they file into the Store, wives and children at their heels. And though they have been inside before, each time that they see these treasures they stand stock still, silent, stunned. … To people for whom a rusted file is a treasure–Amundsent speaks of Eskimos traveling six hundred miles to get a few nails–this is the holy of hollies. They raise their heads and see fifty tea kettles hanging from the ceiling almost within reach. … The notion that thanks to a few tufts of frozen fur they are going to possess these gleaming treasures is too much for them. It sends them off into brief gusts of nervous laughter. And what an amazing being this white man is! Not only does he have all these pots and kettles that you see, but every year a new lot arrives. He must have, buried in his distant country, immense caches of pots and kettles. …

…when he leaves the Store, dragging behind him a wooden box filled with treasures, he senses vaguely that many of these shining objects are of no use to him. Oftener, however, it is simply that he no longer wants those things which, a moment ago, he was unable to resist. And then a second stage of trading begins–that between the natives themselves. And since in their eyes nothing possesses intrinsic value, but the value of an object is great or small accordingly as they desire or disdain it, a handsome dog-collar may be swapped for a clay pipe, or a half sack of flour for a red pencil. A needle thus becomes worth a whole fox, a worn strip of leather has the value of a lamp. And what is most curious is that no Eskimo will ever say to you that he has been had in a trade. It is not that his vanity forbids such a confession but that this can never occur to him. He wanted what he got in the trade; soon after, perhaps, he ceased to want it; but between the two his primitive intellect will not allow him to establish any relationship. Nor is this phenomenon peculiar to Eskimos. In the South Sea islands I have known natives to do sixty miles through the bush and across rives in order to trade for matches they furiously desired because the matches had red heads.

In the interests of fairness, I should note that de Poncins comes around to the necessity of the Eskimos’ ways and mentalities after a fair amount of exhausted traveling about on the ice himself. Much of what he says in the first half of the book is meant to show his own misconceptions. But continuing on with the subjects of trade and culture:

Everything about the Eskimo astonishes the white man, and everything about the white man is a subject of bewilderment to the Eskimo. Our least gesture seems to him pure madness, and our mot casual and insignificant act may have incalculable results for him. Let but a Post Manager say to an Eskimo, “here is a package of needles for your wife,” and he will have started … a train of questions and ruminations that may lead anywhere. The free gift is unknown among the Eskimos: better yet, it is incomprehensible to them. Had the white man said, “Lend me your wife in exchange,” the Eskimo would have understood. An exchange is normal’ a gift passes his understanding. It sends his thoughts going. It i amoral. He will not thank the white man. He will go back to his igloo and ruminate. “Since the white man has given me these needles,” he will in effect say to himself, “it must be that he does not want them, and if he does not want his treasures, why should not I have them?” From that day forth, this Eskimo will be a different man. He will begin by despising the white man, and soon he will plan cunningly to exploit him. Since the white man has proved himself a fool, why not? So the Eskimo becomes a liar and a cheat. A single generous impulse on the part of the white man has stared the moral disintegration of a native.

De Poncins does not tell us how he came to believe in the possibility of this final series of events, whether due to conversation or personal experience or what-have-you. Nevertheless, let us take it as a general warning against the dangers of misunderstood gifts.

On happiness:

Many people imagine that the sun is necessary to human happiness and that the South Sea islanders must be the gayest, most leisurely and most contented folk on earth. No notion could be more falsely romantic, for happiness has nothing to do with climate: these Eskimos afforded me decisive poof that happiness is a disposition of the spirit.

(De Poncins himself, however, develops some serious cabin fever in the middle of winter.)

Here was a people living in the mot rigorous climate in the world, in the most depressing surroundings imaginable, haunted by famine in a grey and sombre landscape sullen with the absence of life; shivering in their tents in the autumn, fighting with recurrent blizzard in the winter, toiling and moiling fifteen hour a day merely n order to get food and stay alive. Huddling and motionless in their igloos through this interminable night, they ought to have been melancholy men, men despondent and suicidal; instead, they were a cheerful people, always laughing, never weary of laughter.

A man is happy, in sum, when he is leading the life that suits him, and neither warmth nor comfort has anything to do with it. I watched these Eskimos at the Post. This house, you would say, ought to mean for them the zenith of well-being and relaxation… But look at them! They are dull, sullen, miserable. Physically, they seem shrunken, their personalities diminished and extinguished. Instead of laughing, they brood; and you see them come in, take their seats on the bench and remain like sleepwalkers, expressionless and spiritless… But open wide the door, fling them into the blizzard, and they come to. they wake up suddenly; they whistle,; their women scurry about, their children crack the triumphant whip, their dogs bark like mad: an impression of joy, of life, fills the environs of the Post.

I suspect that people are basically happy when living in accordance with their natures, active, and possessed of a sense of agency over their lives.


7 thoughts on “Kabloona Friday

  1. At any rate, it is a blow against the claim that homosexuality is unknown among hunter-gathers.

    That’s an extraordinary claim that I had not heard. I have heard that homosexuality is unknown among some tribes of hunter-gatherers, which seems quite plausible.


    • *Googles* Looks like you’re right–here Cochran says “most” https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/depths-of-madness/
      But I wager Jayman has said, at some point, “Unknown among hunter-gatherers,” as he tends to overstate his points.

      Still, any pathogen seems unlikely to have infected the Eskimo at this point, given their isolation and extremely low population density. (I also suspect that a survey of the Eskimo would not have revealed any evidence of this behavior, as no one else may have realized what was going on. Similarly, take the recent statements from Africa, following the US’s attempt to make people more accepting of homosexuality, that before people had been unaware of homosexuality, but now they know and they’re mad. There are gay people in the area, but they don’t normally go advertising the fact.)


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