Our department was amazed (or, at least, I was) to receive a call at the end of November from D. Carleton Gajdusek asking if anyone here in Helsinki studies New Guinea. In fact, I do research in highland Papua New Guinea (I was last there in 2003). Arrangements were made for him to visit our department, and I also asked him to give a guest lecture in the course I was teaching on Melanesia. He graciously agreed.
It was exciting, to say the least. Gajdusek is a legendary figure in both medicine and Melanesia, and in fact, in the medicine of Melanesia. He was centrally involved in research on kuru. (See Lindenbaum’s classic, Kuru Sorcery. See also Warwick Anderson’s ‘The Possession of Kuru.’) Partly in recognition of this research, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976. I had read around in Gajdusek’s journals while in graduate school, and I briefly contemplated conducting dissertation research on the influence of the ‘slow virus’ theory of kuru and the scientific understanding of HIV. Gajdusek was [perhaps is] a prolific writer — his journals number into hundreds and hundreds of pages, and include ruminations on his adventures and researches ranging from Pakistan to Micronesia, along with thoughts on Nietzsche, et al. I found them useful for their descriptions of the expatriate social scene in the eastern highlands of New Guinea in the colonial period. Gajdusek has hiked through some of the remotest parts of interior New Guinea. [He has also been the subject of controversy and legal prosecution. See this article.]
So, it was rather like inviting a scientific rock star to come talk to one’s students. And it was also like being visited by the colonial past. I was excited and intimidated. Dr. Gajdusek did not disappoint. His talk — completely spontaneous and off the cuff — was peppered with graphic stories of headhunting, semen rituals, colonial betrayals, and more. In fact, probably because he is not an anthropologist, he endulged richly in all the ‘exoticisms’ that New Guineanists of a professional stripe struggle to undo. But he also said somethings that went against my own teaching. For example, ‘anyone who tells you there are bigmen in Melanesia — it’s bullshit!’
I think what he meant was that authority is very loosely structured in most Melanesian societies. When I asked him to sum up his general take on Melanesia, if there was one, he said: ‘Culture is bullshit.’ By this, I think he meant to emphasize the improvisational and inventive nature of Melanesian sociality. Still, it was clear that what appealed to Dr. Gajdusek about Melanesia was that, in his mind, Melanesians exhibit a kind of core humanity–they were (it seems) uncorrupted. This has been the appeal of the ‘primitive’ for many Westerners and for many centuries. It was remarkable to have someone with intense knowledge, harrowing stories, personal adventures, and an obvious love of Melanesia espousing this interest (this trope of otherness) live and in person.
His talk came at the end of a semester of readings in Melanesian history, including detailed investigations into such fashionable anthropological topics as the history of the sweet potato, human migration around 50,000 years ago, the social effects of agricultural intensification, anthropology’s loose structure debate of the mid-20th-century, and so on. My students were well-equiped (if I do say so myself) to find insipiration — and critique — in the Laureate’s lecture. Gajdusek is animated — loud, eloquent, verbose. He swears. He’s gruff. But he is fascinating. And for that reason, I was very much glad that he was willing to speak to my students.