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Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Marcel Mauss: A Biography

This is both a biography in the usual sense of the term and an intellectual biography. One learns, in other words, about Marcel Mauss the man and the thinker, and these two aspects are rather well-meshed (but more about this below). Mauss, who is best known for his short essayThe Gift, was an armchair anthropologist—by that I mean that he never traveled to the American Northwest nor to the Pacific islands and never observed the customs of the indigenous peoples he wrote about; this has left him open to various criticisms. (This being said, Mauss did direct the field works of his numerous students who brought back useful data.) The originality and incisiveness of his ideas has earned him the respect of scholars in a number of disciplines. Fournier provides an apt summary of this essay and underscores its central theme, namely, that in pre-modern societies economic exchanges consist of “total services” affecting entire communities rather than among isolated individuals, and that these often have a religious dimension, such as the Polynesian belief in the hau, a spiritual power that “forces gifts to circulate, to be given and returned” (242). Mauss did not limit his attention to these arguably odd and  disconcerting practices; he took pain to trace parallels with more western, and somewhat more individualized mores such as could be found in ancient Rome, and he thought about ways in which the spirit of the gift and the obligation of reciprocity could be rediscovered in modern times. But the value of this book, especially for readers who might not know more about Mauss than the fact he was the author of The Gift, is that it will help them to situate this essay in the context of a much larger and quite encyclopedic work.

Mauss was born in 1872 in the part of Lorraine that had not been annexed by the new German empire after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Hence he grew up in an atmosphere of intense patriotism which he shared. Patriotism, however, occasionally veered into anti-Semitism of which he suffered. The most evident manifestation of anti-Semitism in his youth was the infamous Dreyfus affair which prompted his political engagement on the side of the defenders of Captain Dreyfus. Mauss himself was a non-practicing Jew but his family was deeply religious, a fact that, as Fournier notes, played a part in his intellectual curiosity for the study of comparative religion. A central fact in Mauss' life was that he was Emile Durkheim’s nephew. His famous uncle influenced both his choice of a career and his own theoretical outlook. For years, Mauss also collaborated on the review Année sociologique which had been founded by Durkheim. Nevertheless, Mauss managed to carve his own domain within French social thought and to achieve a stature almost equal to that of his mentor. As he began to study religions in a more practical manner than his uncle by learning Sanskrit and other ancient languages, Mauss found another mentor in the person of the orientalist Sylvain Lévy who became “his second uncle” (302).

Mauss' career and his reputation in academic circles was already well established when World War I broke out. He volunteered (at the age of 42!) and spent several years at the front, acting as a translator and liaison officer assigned to the Australian troops. The inter-war years marked the apogee of his success. Not only did he continue to teach in the various schools with which he had been associated before the war, but he established the Institut d’ethnologie and in 1930 was appointed to the prestigious Collège de France (he had applied for a position at the Collège in 1909 but had been defeated by other scholars whose names today are completely forgotten). He was a brilliant teacher—Fournier writes that “people listened to Mauss as if he were Scheherazade” (280) —and influenced countless numbers of students who revered him. Outside of France, Mauss ,whom Fournier describes as an Anglophile (295) was friends with several British anthropologists and made a few visits to Britain; he never went to the United States but corresponded with American scholars.

The German occupation of Paris (1940-1944) was a severe ordeal for Mauss. Perhaps thanks to the intervention of some of his former students who held influential positions in the Vichy regime, he managed to escape arrest and deportation but he lived in misery during these years. He was reinstated as professor emeritus in 1945 but the post-war years turned out to be for him a period of rapid intellectual decline, and he died in a state approaching senility in 1950.

Fournier is at his best in retracing the steps of Mauss' academic career and in describing the rivalries to which the complicated structures of the French academic world give rise against a background of often intense ideological conflicts. (Although the lines of cleavage have changed, much of this pattern of bureaucratic fragmentation and intellectual confrontation remains true even today.) His book also provides a lot of details about Mauss' rather paradoxical political engagement. In some sense, he was a committed socialist, at least in terms of the time and energy he devoted to the cause, but he also was resolutely opposed to Marxist dogmatism and to economic determinism in general.  He was also very skeptical about the Bolsheviks’ chance of success in the economic sphere and critical of state planning. His favorite approach to social reform paralleled that of the cooperative movement which he tried to help on several occasions (incurring substantial financial cost). As Fournier notes,

His opposition to a purely economic interpretation of social relations led him to constitute what could be called “a complete science of cooperative relations between different ages and different peoples as well as between individual and families” (206).

The more disappointing aspect of this very readable and otherwise fascinating biography concerns the relative lack of critical engagement with Mauss' works. Although Fournier gives a fairly good sense of the overall directions in which Mauss pursued his multiple research interests (e.g., social theory, ethnology, comparative religions, politics), one is left wanting to know more about the specific ideas that he advanced. The essay on the gift is discussed at some length in a perceptive manner, but Fournier treats Mauss' other writings more superficially. What I miss in this book is a sense that Mauss continues to speak to our contemporary concerns. His message is, precisely, that the concerns of any age are always related in some ways to that of another age. There are no “primitive” societies: some of their essential features continue to inform, in veiled or transformed ways, our own practices. In fact one of the most intriguing aspects of Mauss' thought, which he developed in the years that followed the publication of The Gift, is that reciprocity and the bonds of exchange extend through time and involve inter-generational patterns. Social evolution works on beliefs and customs, transforming them as circumstances change but also, paradoxically, sustaining them through time. Individuals may not always experience this continuity in their discrete and seemingly unrelated choices but these choices are informed by norms that they inherit and pass on. This also accounts for Mauss' early interest in religion, a concept that, according to some at least, expresses a bond or connection (ligare) among human beings and between them and their god(s).

The English translation is only about half as long as the original French text which provides a little more depth but even in that text Fournier is more interested in the interplay between Mauss' life and times than in exploring Mauss' theories. It must also be admitted that the prolific and rather eclectic nature of Mauss' writings almost defy efforts at discussing them in all their complexity. The book tells us much about Mauss' life, his political activities, the influence he had on his students, and so on. This cannot be done without commenting on the ideas that made Mauss so influential and respected, but readers interested in intellectual history will find the tidbits offered more tantalizing than satisfying. The absence of a complete bibliography of Mauss' works is also regrettable (there is one in the original French text). Mauss was not the author of a few well-known books; in fact, the only book he attempted to write, On Prayer, was left unfinished and what would have been its first installment was even withdrawn from the publisher by Mauss before it could be printed and distributed (however, an English translation is available today). He wrote instead a great many articles and essays of various length which were published in a variety of forms including articles in scholarly reviews, chapters in edited volumes (mélanges), prefaces, newspaper columns, and so on. It would have been useful to provide detailed references to all of them and to indicate which ones have been recently republished in French or translated into English. (On this point, it should be noted that Marcel Fournier is the editor of an 800-page compilation of Mauss' political writings that was published by Fayard in 1997.) All the same, readers of this journal should feel a debt of gratitude to the author for having “given” us a work that sheds much light on a thinker who is well-known but has remained so far, especially among English-speaking scholars, something of a mystery.

Laurent Dobuzinskis is Chair of the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, Canada.

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