Eugene Savage (1883-1978, American), A God Appears, 1940, oils on canvas. Seen at Art Deco Hawaii exhibition, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.
For the most part, I think I come down in between Sahlins and Obeyesekere; as I said in my previous post, I quite like Dening’s interpretation of the encounter between the HMS Dolphin and the people of Tahiti, and am much more inclined towards imagining a Hawaiian rationality within a distinctive (non-Western) worldview, and structuring of knowledge, of their own. Sahlins is far too strict within his structures, asserting that since the symbols line up, that must be the explanation, straightforwardly and definitively. He leaves no room for interpretive nuance, and suggests the Hawaiians believed, perfectly, Cook to be the god Lono. Obeyesekere, to the contrary, argues against any distinctive Hawaiian sensibility, and attributes Western Enlightenment rationality to all peoples. But, where Western rationality draws a hard line and dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual, or the rational and the superstitious, I think the Polynesian peoples can offer us an example of how to incorporate the two, an example of how to think differently, yet not irrationally. I think there is a possibility for the Hawaiians having seen Captain Cook as possessing of great mana, and thus as being semi-divine, and having seen the momentous event as imbued in some way either with the spirit of Lono, or with the mood of the Makahiki, because of its timing, all while at the same time, simultaneously without it being a contradiction, recognizing Cook as a living, breathing, mortal human being from another land, with plain, practical, intentions and desires.
Crash Course World History does a nice job on the subject. John Green does not merely repeat the standard story – as Sahlins does, and as I might have expected from a basic intro survey YouTube series sort of approach – but explains both Sahlins’ and Obeyesekere’s arguments, and the difficulties with both, ending with a few questions as to the far broader, more profound implications.
Here are some other voices:
*Scott MacLeod of the World University and School offers a brief but in-depth defense of Obeyesekere’s position, asserting a universal human rationality, and attacking cultural relativism. To be sure, there are elements of Sahlins’ narrative where the Hawaiians seem decidedly trapped by their guiding cultural structures, behaving purely according to obligation to act out the myth, rather than freely and pragmatically. Where Sahlins writes that “The killing of Captain Cook was … the Makahiki in an historical form,” and that “Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands just [after the Makahiki could] . . . . be described as [a] . . . ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality,” MacLeod summarizes Obeyesekere as arguing that the Hawaiians may have deified Cook after his death, retroactively inventing the myth, for practical, pragmatic, political purposes related to the assertion of legitimacy of one political faction over another.
*Clifford Geertz offered his own thoughts on the debate, in a 1995 article in the New York Review of Books, which I am still trying to get my hands on, since my university apparently can’t be bothered to subscribe to online access.
With apologies for getting a bit silly, I think the Drunk History segment on Captain Cook is one of my favorites ever. Keep an eye (ear?) out for my favorite line. Can you guess which it is?