Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture
Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) is a great forgotten Australian. He was one of the world’s pioneering anatomists, an authority on human evolution, and a renowned, if controversial, amateur archaeologist/anthropologist. He wrote numerous scholarly and popular works, founded a leading edge medical and social science school at University College of the University of London, and was made a fellow of the Royal Society and a knight of the realm. Yet today his name is virtually unknown in the land of his birth, partly no doubt because he lived most of his life in Britain – although he traveled widely and often revisited his homeland, not least significantly when he was hugely instrumental in setting up anthropology as an academic discipline in Australia.
Elliot Smith is worth remembering, and I hope that this little book will help in that respect. It is not a biography as such, but rather a history of the man and his ideas put in the context of his life and times, with the major focus on his much contested theory of the diffusion of culture, which put Egypt as the fountain-head of human civilization, the centre from which major elements of civilization were spread by the migration of peoples and ideas. I want to revisit his writings, robust and challenging, but always scientific in their methodology ; to see them in the light of contemporary events – such as the exciting archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century and the catastrophic First World War – and to look at the way people reacted to his theories. I do not wish to put forward any hagiographical or total defence of his position; but at the same time I believe that some redressing of the intellectual balance is required. His diffusionist model may not have become – as it at one stage seemed to promise to become – the ruling paradigm in anthropology, but nor has it been conclusively refuted, despite being much ridiculed in some academic circles. Elliot Smith didn’t win his debate – although he contended to the end against such heavyweights as Bronislaw Malinowski that it was winnable. Rather than being refuted by systematic research, it is contendable that the discourses of anthropology and archaeology simply moved on to other issues and embraced other methodologies. Many central ideas raised by Elliot Smith and co-diffusionists such as W. J. Perry were essentially side-stepped and never really subjected to sustained scrutiny. Elliot Smith would have been the first to welcome such scrutiny. Scientific progress, he always said, was a matter of offering hypotheses and testing them rigorously, and he always professed himself more than willing to accept conclusions that contradicted his own suggestions. My overall message is that Elliot Smith’s prodigious labours and fertile ideas – so long unfairly caricatured and stereotyped in the ethnological literature – deserve considered reassessment.
History and Religion
Arnold Toynbee’s views on religion were conditioned by his world historical theories, as expressed in his monumental Study of History. His religious faith intensified in later life after some traumatic life events (most notably the loss of a son through suicide and his divorce from his first wife Rosalind); and also after personal mystical experiences. The later volumes of his Study and other works from the 1950s were frankly more mystical than his earlier works. His opinions also became steadily more ecumenical in tone, ultimately embracing all major religions.
This can be illustrated from an examination of two works from the 1950s: An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956) and Christianity Among the Religions of the World (1958). The first, short book was based on the Gifford lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1952 and 1953. Toynbee was an inveterate giver of public lectures, as well as an incredibly productive (some think over-productive) writer. This dated from his more impecunious early days, and an enduring memory he had of his father’s financial difficulties. Toynbee himself achieved his brilliant University career only by winning scholarships, and he never afterwards missed an opportunity to earn money by giving public speeches and lectures (he toured the US many times basically to make some money) and by writing for newspapers and magazines. He never became financially secure until the brilliant success of D.C. Somervell’s abridgment of the first six volumes of the Study in 1946, and perhaps he was never really secure in his mind about his financial safety. He had an almost visceral anxiety about being poor.(This was a constant source of friction with Rosalind, who as a Carlilse aristocrat, whose family homes included Castle Howard, was – at least in her husband’s eyes – too spendthrift).
On Christian Faith and Secular Despair
Born in Rye, Sussex, son of a shipping businessman, Alec Vidler ( 1899-1991)was educated at Sutton Valence School, Kent, read theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge (B.A. 1921),then trained for the Anglican ministry at Wells Theological College. He disliked Wells and transferred to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, Cambridge, an Anglo-Catholic community of celibates, and was ordained priest in 1923. He retained a life-time affection for the celibate monkish life, never marrying but having a wide range of friends, including Malcolm Muggeridge, who was at Selwyn with him. Muggeridge’s father was a prominent Labourite and Vidler imbibed leftist sympathies in that circle. His first curacy was in Newcastle, working in the slums. He soon came to love his work with working class parishioners and was reluctantly transferred to St Aidan’s Birmingham, where he became involved in a celebrated stoush with the bishop E. W. Barnes, himself a controversialist of note. Vidler’s Anglo-Catholic approach to ritual clashed with Barnes’s evangelicalism. Vidler began a prolific career of publication in the 1920s and 30s. In 1931 he joined friends like Wilfred Ward at the Oratory House in Cambridge, steeping himself in religious history and theology, including that of Reinhold Niebuhr and “liberal Catholicism”. In 1939 Vidler became warden of St Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden (founded by a legacy from Gladstone) and also editor of the leading Anglican journal Theology, which he ran until 1964, exerting considerable progressive influence across those years. He also facilitated a number of religious think-tanks in these, and later, years. In 1948 he was appointed canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where he set up “his own unofficial theological college, which comprised middle-aged ordination candidates known as ‘the Doves’, or, less charitably, ‘Vidler’s Vipers’”. In 1956 he was invited to become Dean of King’s College, Cambridge. He lectured in divinity and plunged into college life, attempting to combat the increasingly aggressive secularity of the student body: “The beard, the flashing eyes, the black shirt, the white tie, all bring Alec irresistibly to mind, striding along King’s Parade… In these last years he remained a doughty controversialist and one glimpsed the almost puckish spirit of someone who was never a respecter of persons”. He retired to Rye in 1967, leading an active life (mayor of Rye for some years), his beard and long habit making him a conspicuous figure. He died in 1991.
Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990)
Pundit to Pilgrim
Today’s generation, I suppose, has largely forgotten Malcolm Muggeridge (although it should be said that there is a journal, The Gargoyle, dedicated to him, that a Muggeridge Society exists and that his religious writings flourish , especially in the United States). I remember him vividly as a TV pundit of the 1970s and 80s. His TV presence was compelling. He was pungent, scathing, mordant, sarcastic, sceptical, iconoclastic, curmudgeonly, but also capable of being totally charming, witty and cuttingly intelligent. His gnomic appearance – great domed head, bulbous nose, wide mouth – had a slightly clownish aspect. His voice was unmistakeable but how to describe it? Resonating, close to gravelly, absolutely clear enunciation, the voice of an orator or debater, and he endlessly orated and debated, as well as producing, in his own words, a torrent of words for publication. As obituarists remarked, he had an unerring capacity to puncture pomposity; and he spent his life ridiculing authority. He was a rabid critic of modern western civilization, of capitalism, materialism and moral vacuity, as also of all totalitarian regimes and ideologies, Fascist, Marxist, whatever. He is sometimes cited as a pungent social critic, but there is something missing. It is thoroughgoing social analysis. His judgments are often absurdly sweeping, often paradoxical and inconsistent. Take his book The Thirties, finished, appropriately enough, in an army training camp as the world readied for World War 2. It is a fascinating, readable and amusing book, with wonderful pen portraits of the politicians and public figures of the age. But almost everything and everyone is reduced finally to the absurd. As history (for which he professed contempt ) it is highly problematical, to say the least.
Ann and I spent Christmas 2012 in the UK. We wanted to revive memories of former stays in Britain, but I had the nostalgic idea of revisiting London, and perhaps having a White Christmas. Snow, as it happened, did not eventuate. I had studied for my PhD in London at LSE under the supervision of Bernard Crick. Bernard went on to become a very distinguished academic and public figure. His biography of George Orwell was much acclaimed. We became life-long friends, and he visited us in Brisbane only a year or so before his death in 2008. Ann and I dropped in on LSE during our week in London. I hadn’t been to the great city for a decade or so and had never managed to visit LSE in my various trips there. So I found it staggeringly changed, modernised (wonderful new library) and expanded. I detected a notably more sociable and friendly atmosphere there now than in my days as a clueless colonial postgraduate student. The philosophy then was rather “work it out for yourselves”, whereas now there are all sorts of student support. I remember on arrival being sent in to Michael Oakeshott, a political philosopher of note and then head of LSE, a conservative in what had been a very leftish school (memories of Harold Laski and lots of Fabians). He immediately passed me on to Bernard, as he was the only one, I was told, doing anything remotely historical. I vacillated for months in choosing a topic, until frankly told to choose and get on with it, good advice. Bernard was very helpful in my getting my thesis published by Clarendon Press, Oxford.
There were many highlights in our week. They included a walk in rare sunshine across Tower Bridge, then finding St Hallows church, the oldest church in London, a beautiful if strangely hybrid church with its Georgian heart surrounded by remnants of previous ages. We revisited the British Museum. I had not been there since the renovations. They include a glass roof in its internal courtyard. In our usual nerdy way, we much enjoyed Room 50, with its excellent interpretation of early Roman and Anglo-Saxon hoards. Also, another day, the pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain, then a walk along the Embankment past the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square, with its statues of Lloyd George, Smuts, Churchill and other Prime Ministers; then to Mary Le Strand and the Cortauld Gallery at Somerset House (I have mixed feelings about its ice rink). The Victoria and Albert’s Hollywood Costume exhibition surprised us by its creativity and coverage.
Our main goal was to spend Christmas at Clare Hall, Cambridge, a college of which I am a Life Member. We travelled to Cambridge by rail, and stayed in a college guest flat at West Court, rather Spartan in the traditional college fashion, where it is thought visitors have nothing to do but study abstemiously. As we had no car, we spent a week of probably healthy long walks into Cambridge, via Burrell’s Walk and over the Cam (about 5 km); doing the usual sights – familiar to me from a number of study leaves – from Great St Mary’s, Michaelmas Hall, Lyon Yard, to the Fitzwilliam. We had vague hopes of listening to the King’s College choir on Christmas Day, but found it virtually booked up (if you didn’t want to queue from 9 till noon in inclement weather). So we settled for Candlelight Carol evensong at St Mary’s, which was quite wonderful. We had Christmas lunch at Brown’s in Trumpington St, three courses of traditional fare with champagne cocktails and an Italian pinot noir. We spent our last day at King’s Lynn, a fascinating old seaport on the Wash, once main port for the old woollen trade with the Hanseatic League.
We drove to High Wycombe, so that we could spend a couple of days exploring the area where my family, the Crooks, had lived for centuries, before my branch of the family moved to Wales in the late nineteenth century, before emigrating to Australia in the 1920s, to escape the post-war slump in the Welsh mining industry. Some of Ann’s ancestors also came from the High Wycombe area. Among the places we visited were the charming little village of Wooburn (where Crook agricultural labourers used to live); Monk’s Risborough, a beautiful village with a lovely church, St Dunstan’s (where we discovered a grave of my ancestor John Crook); Aston Clinton, Weston Turville (where Ann’s relatives the Weedons came from); the Chilterns. Then we went on to the Cotswolds via Fairford, with its full collection of beautifully preserved medieval stained glass windows (only saved through the efforts of an influential supporter of Cromwell).We saw in the New Year of 2013 with an old friend at Chipping Campden. Being very gentry Tory country, we witnessed a local Hunt Procession. Chipping Norton nearby is the hunt centre and also the home of David Cameron (the Prime Minister). Our enjoyable trip ended with a nostalgic tour of Windsor Castle, impressively restored since the fire.
We are planning a trip to Japan around September this year (2013).