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Book Review: The Tribal Imagination—Civilization and the Savage Mind, by Robin Fox

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Professor Robin Fox is one of those mildly conservative, somewhat eccentric, Englishmen that even we Irish Revolutionaries cannot help but find likeable. I had read his The Red Lamp of Incest some years ago, and found his argument, following Edvard Westermarck, that we are not, in fact, all burning to commit incest with our mothers and sisters to be quite a relief–particularly in the sense that Freudian Psychoanalysis tends to regard the psychological balance between the centrifugal incestuous forces of the nuclear family, and the ban on incest, to be the causa sine qua non of civilization and, indeed, of an acceptable level of personal sanity. Here, I am not indulging in a fashionable swipe at Freud–his analysis of the bourgeois family is, in my view, generally sound. It’s just that the bourgeois family is rather more the exception to human development than the rule. This is one of the key points of Professor Fox’s new book.


As an anthropologist, with a career spanning over five tempestuous decades, Professor Fox has never been afraid to isolate himself from the orthodoxies of the day. He still considers the study of kinship to be the basic grammar of anthropology, and this book is dedicated to Claude Lévi-Strauss and Ernst Gellner – two giants of the study of kinship structures. Be that as it may, Fox’s main interests here are the underlying structures of Western, post-industrial, society – a society that has all but abandoned the whole idea of kinship. To reach these structures, Fox must undertake a vast journey, spanning millions of years of hominid development, and focusing on everything from food in the Old Testament, to the metre of Gaelic poetry, to the marriage customs of today’s Iraq. This book is a truly remarkable achievement. It is one of those rare books, that having read it, you will never think of the world in quite the same way again.


My review begins with the cover photograph. We see a very young boy on a Belfast street of the 1970s. He is aiming a gun in a classic TV detective pose. Behind him, we see women going about their daily business, as they practically ignore the heavily armed British soldiers who patrol the street. Straight away, an Irish person will say that this is a Catholic street. Why? For one thing, it was rare to see such heavy British army presence on Protestant streets. But, more importantly, in Ireland, it is thought that the Protestant settlers have more square faces, while the native Catholics have more round faces. This boy has a round face. The toy gun in his hand probably came from China, but the guns his older brothers probably carried came from Libya – a gift of revolutionary solidarity to the Irish Republican Army from Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.


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