Remembering Jules Henry

It was Tom McGrath who first told me about Jules Henry, Tom the jazz musician and poet, Tom the dramatist, Tom the arts enabler, Tom who had a real belief (as do I) in the liberatory power of art,   Tom who died earlier this year too young.   On one of the many days when I'd dropped into his office at the Glasgow arts centre he was setting up, Tom showed me this book I'd never forget, the classic Penguin Education of the 1970s, with its plain white cover and heavy black font with the U of Culture, and the S of Against and the A of Man picked out in red and blue, an inspired design by Philip Thompson

Jules Henry was a prominent US anthropologist. A student of Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, he had published studies of the Pilaga indians of south America and carried out the alphabetisation of a previously unwritten Mexican Indian language. At the height of his career in the 1950s he made the decision to stop looking at other people's cultures and turned his enquiring gaze on his own, using all the tools of his training  and experience to investigate his society's national character, a society obsessed throughout its 150 year old existence with amassing wealth     What, Henry asked, has our concern with raising our standard of living done to us?   The answer was to come in his book, Culture Against Man, first published in 1963.   

One of the hallmarks of primitive cultures, Henry said, was that they did not produce more than they needed. Objects were made as and when they were needed. There was an implicit understanding that wants and production.would not change. Contemporary culture differed in that it sees wants as infinite.  It lacks, moreover, any idea of a property ceiling, an intuitive limit found in most (though not all) primitive societies.   This gave rise to two predominant characteristics, a drivenness among the elites and the fear of insecurity found among everyone else.

Contemporary society's one-sided emphasis on survival (against nature and other people) and the gratification of material needs had been at the cost of satisfaction of complex psychic needs.   As   a result society was 'a grim place to live ...though man has survived physically, he had died emotionally'.   (Even the methods used to ameliorate the human condition - methods which human beings had themselves come up with - had been turned against them eg psychoanalysis which was now used for motivational research and,public relations.)

Henry did not claim to be objective.   His account of society was what he called 'a passionate ethnography' and he used the tools of anthropological research, above all close observation, spending time - or getting his researchers to spend time - in the homes, schools, hospitals that were the underpinning institutions of contemporary society. And while his study was restricted to the United States he was clear that his findings were true of other similar societies world wide.

Much of Culture Against Man was concerned with schooling, 'the heartbeat of the culture'. US schools were a place where children were drilled with the society's cultural orientations, and where what was taught was largely the instrument for instilling them.   School created what Henry called 'the essential nightmare'.   This nightmare he said 'must be dreamed in order to provide the fears necessary to drive people away from something   (in our cases, failure) and towards something (success).' Instead of loving knowledge, children became embroiled in the nightmare.   All but the brightest have the constant experience that others succeed at heir expense and could not but develop a tendency to hate those who succeeded.   This hatred, Henry remarked, was what was euphemistically called 'envy'. (Many native peoples would be shocked at what they would perceive at the cruelty of US classrooms for their competitiveness and the wringing of success from another's failure.)

Henry also looked at how society dealt with the elderly who were also ill, In a section titled 'Human obsolescence' he identified a culture's denial of death and an effort to maintain life that was technical and impersonal. The elderly patients lived out their days in states of anxiety and silent reminiscence, punctuated by outbursts of petulance against each other. Social life was minimal but there was clearly 'a yearned after communion but no real ability to achieve it'.   There was also a huge gulf between the young and the elderly even when the aged are mentally alert, this is because our culture is 'an avalanche of obsolescence hurling itself into the Sea of Non-Existence'.

Turning to the families of those designated 'mentally ill' Henry noted that psychosis was the final outcome of all that was wrong with a culture.    He remarked ruefully: 'There are many roads to insanity and our culture has probably trod them all - no other culture has developed as many forms of psychosis or found as many ways to attain it as ours - we are secure in our riches - as highly developed in psychopathology as in technology.   But here as elsewhere Henry was compassionate rather than angry towards those whom he encountered.   The parents of the children he lived with or spent time were doing the best they could, caught in their own difficulties or limitations, not of their own making.   They were, he would later write,    'Greek tragedies without gods ... destined to misery and even to catastrophe because they were locked in by their past'.

About the author himself I know little.   He was born in New York in 1904 and studied at Columbia. He would later teach there as he would at Chicago and the University of Washington in St Louis where he was working when he died on 23 September 1969; he had just managed to correct the proofs of his last book, Pathways to Madness, a development of the chapter of the same name from Culture Against Man,  

In1967 he took part in the 'Dialectics of Liberation' congress at London's Roundhouse, along with other prominent radical thinkers and activists like Herbert Marcuse and Stokely Carmichael   As US involvement in Vietnam was escalating, his talk concerned what he called the social and psychological preparations for war. While primitive societies often located their enemies outside their own social systems, the enemy in modern life was selected by those in power, while the perceptual functions of the people were shaped to suit this group's objectives.   There was, he said, 'a depressive core in the soul of the American population which made people turn away from the anguish of others, while brooding only on their own'.  

A collection of essays was published posthumously in 1973 under the title, On Sham, Vulnerability and Other Forms of Self-Destruction.

Forty years on from his death, it is Henry's work that still matters, still valid. still evocative. His attention to the lived lives of his subjects, to their real experience, is still too rare,   his critical yet compassionate understanding rarer still.   Culture Against Man is one of those books that actually does manage to link the lived lives of ordinary men, women and children to the wider structures, social, political and economic which give shape to them. Here. too is a book written in a language that is easy to understand.   There is no specialised jargon here. Right from the start the reader is gripped as in the best of fiction, but how rarely in a work of factual analysis. It deserves to be discovered again.