When a Nobel Laureate Visits Your Lecture

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.

17 thoughts on “When a Nobel Laureate Visits Your Lecture

  1. wow. that’s amazing. I’m jealous. Not about the Nobel Prize thing so much as the cult figure status. It’s like having Thomas Pynchon visit your creative writing class and say “plot is bullshit!” what a fantastic experience! Was he passing through, or was it more like, I want to visit Helsinki, how can I get there?

  2. Woops. It’s not clear from that post that Dr. Gajdusek was already visiting Helsinki to give lectures in a biology forum, so this was just kind of like a “I’m here. Would you like to meet me?” sort of thing.

  3. When the Nobel Laureate Visiting Your Lecture is Dan Gajdusek, leave your children at home.

    Gajdusek is a self-confessed and convicted pedophile who took over a dozen children from the South Pacific to the United States claiming he had adopted them, but when investigations of him for child rape came under way in the 1990s it was discovered he had not such documentation and had taken these children not adopted them.

    These facts and well known and are easily documented (see: http://www.cnn.com/US/9604/05/briefs/am/ , http://www.mindspring.com/~txporter/prevnews.htm ). As a rape survivor I am disgusted that you and your department would fawn over this serial rapist, kidnapper and pedophile. What’s next, are you going to endow a chair in honor of Jeffrey Dahmer? What sort of anthropology do you practice that allows you to so easily remove the consequences of such sick field practices from your professional admiration?

  4. Thank you for your comment. Please note that I pointed to Gajdusek’s legal record in my original post. I am aware of the charges against him (and of his subsequent conviction) and these were also brought to the attention of my students — who, I hasten to add, are by no means ‘children.’

    On various trips to the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, I have met more than a few of those that Gajdusek brought to the U.S. Despite the facts of his prosecution in the US, to a man, they all regard Dr. Gajdusek fondly and with admiration. This is also true of extended kin. He is generally held in high regard by folks who live in the Okapa and Marawaka districts. This is to say nothing of the benefit to local people brought by his medical research (and the medical institutions he helped to establish).

    The above comment notwithstanding, I definitely don’t think this is the place to adjudicate such matters. He was tried; he served his time. My comments were not directed toward his ‘field practices’ as such, but to the comments he made while giving a guest lecture.

    It is no doubt important to be up front about these things, and I appreciate your response, Kelly L. Still, I practice the kind of anthropology (I would like to think!) that doesn’t shy away from what might make me uncomfortable and that doesn’t confine human complexities to some index of irredeemable monstrousness.

  5. I guess you “pointed to,” but avoided, Gajdusek’s “legal record” in your original post, but I would imagine most readers wouldn’t know the object of your adoration was a habitual pedophile. Saying that a serial native kidnapping rapist has “been the subject of controversy and legal prosecution” is like saying the Son of Sam had a few problems with his neighbors.

    It is creepy that you still want to see Gajdusek as a nice guy and go to great lengths to represent him as loved by the very groups which produced legal charges against him. I guess he was the nicest kidnapper buggerer pedophile they had ever met.

    It is even creepier that you want to dismiss the behavior of kidnapping children and raping them in a foreign country as just part of “human complexities.”

    If it hadn’t been for all the conservative Nobel adoration generated by people like you, Gajdusek would have served a 30 year sentence without parole. His fawning influential friends saw to it that he did very little time and was allowed to leave the United States where he can now entertain classes of erudite anthropologists unbiased about his repressible acts or as you would say, his “human complexities.”

  6. Writing more than 25 years before Gadjusek’s conviction, Nobel laureate Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet wrote that Gadjusek “had an intelligence quotient up in the 180s and the emotional immaturity of 15-year-old. He is quite manically energetic when his enthusiasm is aroused, and can inspire enthusiasm in his technical assistants. He is completely self-centered, thick-skinned, and inconsiderate, but equally won’t let danger, physical difficulty, or other people’s feelings interfere in the least with what he wants to do. He apparently has no interest in women but an almost obsessional interest in children, none whatever in clothes and cleanliness; he can live cheerfully in a slum or a grass hut.” — Burnet 1971, quoted in Steadman and Merbs, “Kuru and Cannibalism?”American Anthropologist Vol 84, 1982, page 612.

  7. From one of the websites Kelly L cited:

    “Those who returned to their native lands, as many did, often became leading citizens there, and some sent their own children to live with Gajdusek years later.”

    The absolutism of the moral denunciation of rapists doesn’t really help me understand this. Were these people duped into being serially raped, and then giving up their children to being serially raped, or is there something more going on here? (Rhetorical Question). Nobody here is FOR rape… but if there is anything to be said about Gadjusek’s case it is that it is anything but black and white….

  8. Everyone who writes for this blog has a family. Some of us have children. Clearly all of us find the idea of sexual violence — especially sexual violence against children — utterly repellent. The point of anthropology’s message of cultural relativism — at least my version of it — is not that it teaches us that “anything goes” but that all human action is comprehensible, even the actions that we condemn morally.

    I understand that Kelly L has very strong feelings on this subject, but he/she trashes Strong and his blog entry for reasons that just aren’t fair.

    This post is not full of straight-forward “adoration” for Gadjusek — it is a nuanced account of the ambivalent feelings that Strong had when Gadjusek visited and basically told Strong’s students that everything their professor had told them was ridiculous. I think he does a good job of doing this.

    Saying that Gadjusek has “been the subject of controversy and legal prosecution” is not like saying the Son of Sam had a few problems with his neighbors. It is like saying that the Son of Sam has “been the subject of controversy and legal prosecution” — a true and fair statement, although clearly not as judgmental as Kelly L would like.

    Is this an expose of Gadjusek’s career? No. Is it a vehement denunciation of his actions? No. Is Strong under some sort of moral obligation to produce _only_ denunciation and expose when writing about Gadjusek? I don’t think so.

  9. I must reject any description of Strong’s post as being, as Rex puts it, a “nuanced account of the ambivalent feelings.”

    There is nothing nuanced about Strong’s post. Strong is clearly rapt in awe of a man, he now admits, he knew all along to be a kidnapping serial pedophile rapist. Look at the toadying descriptors he uses to describe this serial rapist: gracious, prolific writer, producer of useful research, a scientific rock star, graphic storyteller, exoticizer, a lover of Melanesia, animated, loud, eloquent, verbose, swearing, gruff, fascinating. Beyond the mention of the pedophile as an exoticizer, he can barely contain his fawning adoration for this great man. Strong describes himself as: excited and intimidated. This is nuanced?

    Strong’s post is just as nuanced and clear as mine is; perhaps you just don’t like the idea that he was so obviously enchanted with a celebrity serial rapist.

    By the way, “saying that the Son of Sam has ‘been the subject of controversy and legal prosecution’” is not a “a true and fair statement.” While technically true, it would be not be a fair statement: a true and fair statement would be that David Berkowitz confessed to and was tried and convicted of six brutal murders. Anyone writing that Berkowitz was only the subject of controversy and legal prosecution would obviously be trying to hide something. Is that what “nuanced” has come to mean?

  10. Kelly–please do not think I disrespect your experience.
    By the background you mentioned I understand your rage.

    @ckelty, theres much more in the short texts on Daniel Gajdusek that are linked to above than the questions the concept of ‘moral relativism’ rises (like does something like that really exist or is it an inference ticket).

    Haven’t you wondered on the notion of relevant whitnesses having vanished? (ok I admit this is interesting only for anthropologists being professionally interested in their own culture or so.)
    Concerning the phrase you quoted–that one made me ask myself for the reasons that had made him take all these children to the u.s. –mean the educational issue that is mentioned. Thought may be that is what Strong means by ‘colonial’.
    And second, why and how have these children, after having returned to Melanesia become what is said. And have they, really? And in what regards? Fragen über Fragen.
    And what about inequality in regards of wealthyness and poverty in legal treatment? Some “Washington Free Press” page mentions Gajdusek’s case as an example for a famous and popular and honoured and wealthy person having been given great privileges.
    Don’t get me wrong. In here I have heared of Gajdusek for the first time. I don’t know anything and I’m far from judging anyone.
    Anyway I share Kelly’s perception of Strong’s affection.
    Just, I think, I read it differently. To me it talks of conflict.

    respect, mr. strong.

  11. the discussion here of Gajdusek reminds me a little of the discussion of the Mark Foley scandal: I don’t know much about Gajdusek’s case, but from what I gather it sounds like it would be much more appropriate to consider it in terms of creepy, self-interested leveraging of power and wealth and cultural differentials (& in which Gajdusek would hardly be alone: hey, feminist theory anybody?) than “pedophilia”, which is a term that seems to be being used here (as it was for Foley) for sexual contact on the part of an adult with anyone under 18 (especially male anyones, it is worth noting). I’m far more uncomfortable with a discussion that puts sexual advances by adults toward 8 year olds on a level with sexual advances toward 15 year olds than I am with a discussion that acknowledges the yuck factor in Gajdusek’s history while also understanding that there are simpler and more complex forms of yuck out there.

  12. An interesting exchange, and while a bit angrily heated I must say that Kelly makes more sense than Strong or any of his defenders. Kelly’s listing of descriptors is interesting and does show a high level of admiration for the famous scientist, and Strong did seem to intentionally sidestep his criminality with his understatement. I’m glad Kelly alerted us to this. Like Orange and others here I hadn’t heard about Gajdusek’s scandal before, but one of the articles I found on google said he was reported to have had sex with a 10 year old “adoptee.” But age aside, it is just so odd to read posts from Kathleen Lowry and Strong seemingly belittling the harm of having sex with children, as if this were just a minor part of a wonderful scientist’s career. Kathleen Lowry’s post seems to argue that it is OK for custodial adults to have sex with their charges as long as they are under the age of 15 or some other magic age.

    Can Strong or someone else explain how Silverstein’s diagram helps us make sense of all this, or is this just a diagram one flashes about the coffeshop to look chic?

  13. The SM peanut gallery has of late been site of many interesting discussions of ethics. Somewhat appropo of these, I recently viewed an interesting film by the German filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck, which explores how the Unabomber case fits into and exemplifies larger dynamics in American cultural history. The film includes an interview with David Gelernter, one of the Unabomber’s victims. In response to interviewer’s attempt to discuss with him the political content of the Unabomber Manifesto, Gelernter responds: “Once a man is a murderer, I don’t give a damn what his opinions are. His opinions are of no interest to me. What I know about him is that he is a murdered, a creator of pain and suffering. And his opinions are disqualified of being of interest to any civilized human being”

    (http://video.google.fr/videoplay?docid=-4498122861067309591 at 1:47:50).

    What is an anthropologist to do with this kind of position? The refusal of a victim to engage in discussion of the motivations of their victimizer obviously demands at least ethnographic respect, if not sincere human compassion. Nevertheless, if an anthropologist is aimed at understanding the social and cultural contexts providing the structural conditions of possibility for the events in which victim and victimizer were produced, then he or she cannot afford to grant the privilege of final interpretation to a point of view in which commission of moral transgression “disqualifies” a person from having any further meaningful identity. People who have done atrocious things are still people, as complicated and nuanced as the innocent, no less worthy of discussion. Admitting this does not, of course, answer the practical question of what sorts of venues are appropriate places in which to recognize the humanity of ethical transgression and transgressors. But however we try to answer this question in the practical organization of our society, it seems to me that an anthropology classroom (or blog) should remain a place in which it is not morally culpable to discuss a criminal as if he or she had other dimensions besides their criminality.

  14. Gajdusek was prosecuted in the United States, convicted, served his court mandated sentence (19 months), and was released. One can think whatever one wants to think about Gajdusek as a moral or immoral actor but the importance and validity of his research is not invalidated by his personal actions. His research had nothing to do with children, sex, or any of the other things associated with his crimes.

    It seems like part of the debate here is over whether someone can be truly brilliant and still do morally repugnant things is tied up with Western academics belief that intelligence is a moral virtue per se. Everyone can point to the misbehavior and / or ethical lapses of academic luminaries they have known but we tend to overlook it due to our conflation of intelligence with good. In the case of Gajdusek there appears to be a person who has made important contributions to human knowledge but at the same time has acted in ways that are unacceptable to human values. One should no more allow the moral failings to discount the intellectual contribution in Gajdusek’s case than we should allow people’s intellectual contributions to excuse their misbehaviors in less extreme cases (e.g. abusing graduate students and junior faculty, sleeping with students, and all the other day-to-day moral failings of American academics).

  15. The last couple of comments remind me of the occasional controversy in another domain, around Miles Davis. Like all right-minded people, I love Miles’ music. Most folks know, though, that he was a pretty terrible man. He beat nearly every woman he was involved with, sending some to the hospital on more than one occasion. That’s on top of drug abuse, assorted emotional violence to his family, etc. Knowing this doesn’t stop me from enjoying the music for a second. But that’s a privilege I have – other people (anyone with more intimate experience of domestic violence) often feel quite differently. There’s a very moving essay that I can’t seem to find right now, in which a feminist critic describes her discomfort when every time a man in her life tries to create a romantic ambience, he puts on the music of a wifebeater.

    So to try to make this analogy logical again, I think I’m agreeing with Mohawk that reprehensible behavior by a luminary doesn’t invalidate their contributions to knowledge or art. At the same time, I think Jeff M is right to suggest that the ways of experiencing that art/knowledge, and the separation between the ‘reprehensible behavior’ and the individual’s valuable contribution – both are conditioned, shaped by particular experiences and positions. Doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to an answer about whether or not Strong should feel bad, but maybe a parallel case will help lend perspective?

  16. I still do not understand why anyone would say that Strong should feel bad! His post did what posts on blogs are supposed to do….it got us talking and thinking.

    I am a bit surprised, however, that there has not been more of a discussion about Strong’s recounting of Gajdusek’s view of Melanesia as some sort of primitive locus of what it means to be humans in an uncorrupted state. As Strong points out, this has been the appeal to outsiders / Europeans of both the ‘primitive’ in general and Melanesia specifically for quite a long time. How can Gajdusek or anyone who has spent any time in Melanesia still have this image of the places and the peoples? It reminds me a bit of Tobias Schneebaum’s film (Keep the River on Your Right) and the times I have seen him speak.

    Strong’s post was full of things ripe for anthro-heavy discussion but we got mired in Gajdusek’s moral failings and, I think, let the really interesting topics slip away.

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