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RUTH BENEDICT: APOLLONIAN AND DIONYSIAN VrcTOR BARNouw T HE Chippewa can not kill the father!" Ruth Benedict exclaimed to me one day, looking up gravely from my much blue-pencilled thesis and emphasizing each word separately. "They can not kill the father! Contrast with Eskirnol" My adviser turned her meditative eyes upon me and inquired, "Can't you fit that in somewhere?l' As often happened, I felt that I almost saw her point, but not quite. However, I jotted a hurried note-"Chips don't kill father.... Esk.(?)"-and said that I would have to think about it. Like most·of Ruth Benedict's students, I looked up to her with a mixhire of veneration and bewilderment. With her silvery aura of prestige, . dignity, and charm, she seemed to be like a symbolic representative of the humanistic values _ of the Renaissance. Yet Ruth Benedict often seemed to have a kind of private language and way of thinking which made communication uncertain. She used unexpected verbal short-cuts, tangential observations, and symbols to convey her meaning; but these stratagems did not always succeed. In this particular ca.se, I debated with myself for several days about her cryptic suggestion. Finally, I decided to insert a foot-note to the effect that while the Eskimos frequently killed their aged or incapacitated parents, the Chippewa had not resorted to this custom, although both groups were nomadic hunters who moved through an inhospitable environment in which care for the aged was difficult. Perhaps, I suggested, the Chippewa respected parental authority too much to be able to commit patricide. It is possible that I did not put my heart into that foot-note. At any rate, when Dr. Benedict came to re-read the manuscript , she deleted it with a dubious shake of the head, remarking that the idea was not convincing-and I did not contest the point. Ruth Benedict sometimes had a way of talking about "primitive" peoples as it she could see an x-ray of their souls projected upon an invisible screen before her. "The Blackfeet always dance on a knife-edge/' she · would announce, as if seeing them there, balancing precariously-along the blade. Then she would tum to her visitor with a charming smile. ayou know," she would i:!-dd with a nod of the head, implying that her consultant could also see the vision. This implicit confidence ushered the dazed neophyte into the company of Boas ·and the immortals. "The Pima· like slow intoxication. That fits in perfectly with all of the rest about them, doesn't it? You know." One nodded, smiled, and tried hard to remember the information. ("Will they have that on the exams?") But perhaps Dr. Benedict assumed that her students had made their way through the same vast body of literature that she had read and come to the same vivid and original conclusions. 241 242 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY Ruth Benedict was thirty-two when she began to study anthropology -"to have something really to do," as she put it. Before then she had taught English in a girls' school and had written a great deal of poetry published under .the name of Anne Singleton. Her devotion to poetry persisted through Ruth Benedict's later years. Even in the scholarly papers which began to appear in the nineteen-twenties when she was thoroughly steeped in the austere, almost military, intellectual discipline of Franz Boas, there was always some lyrical awareness of balance and phrase which werit far above and beyond the normal call of academic duty. Ruth Benedict also looked very like a tall and slender Platonic ideal of a poetess. The students who could not understand her lectures were at least able to derive something from the opportunity of looking at her. Her dreamily gazing eyes under the dark brows were most extraordinary, like the hooded grey eyes of an aristocratic eagle. In her face and manner there appeared to be a subtle blend of will and of trancelike reflection. She had an other-wordly look about her; yet she was resolute about the matters of this world. I used to feel that there were two sides to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 241-253
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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