In Memoriam: Gilbert Lewis 1938-2020.
While deeply saddening, the news of his death was not unexpected. I had been dreading it, as he had told me in his email messages of the series of punishing operations he had endured in recent months. Poignantly, the day that he died happened to be my 83rd birthday, and I reflected that we had been the best of friends for fifty years.
I first met Gilbert in late 1969 just after we were interviewed in Cambridge for the post of Assistant University Lecturer in the Faculty of Anthropology chaired by Meyer Fortes. We did not know one another then but chatted over a beer while waiting for the train back to London, sharing our experiences of recent fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. As I had already been awarded my PhD from the ANU and had my first book in press, I won that position, but a year later, equipped with his LSE PhD, Gilbert was appointed to a second assistant lectureship in Meyer's department. Our friendship ripened as we shared temporary accommodation; our children played together, and our wives shared their grievances with the male-dominated 'College System' which excluded them. I left Cambridge in 1974 to return to the ANU while Gilbert, with the additional incentive of a Fellowship at St John's College, spent the rest of his career at Cambridge.
Our voluminous correspondence began in 1975 and continued until our final exchange (Subject: 'A Bad Week for Good Humour' referring to the deaths of Clive James and Jonathan Miller) a few days before Gilbert's own demise. Filling four thick folders, our letters will join smaller collections of mainly academic correspondence in my archives to be deposed in the ANU.
In a different key, I would like to offer some thoughts about Gilbert's complex character. As you well know, he was a man of many professional pails: medical doctor, social anthropologist, widely-read scholar. As a consummate fieldworker, his insightful social observation also informed his talents as a writer, a painter, and a photographer; he was a discriminating collector of books and ethnographic artefacts. There was little he couldn't turn his hand to. On the home front, he cooked (complementing Ariane's dishes) and gardened (I recall spinach was his speciality). For exercise he walked and cycled but gave up jogging after his first heart attack. He doted on a beloved French dog, Ola, until it succumbed to old age.
Beyond the family home, Gilbert had a passion for bird-watching. The multifarious avian fauna of Australia and New Guinea was a joyous revelation to him, and he was envious of the variety of bird-life (especially the colourful parrots) that visited our Canberra garden. His comment from Barnes last August was sad: 'It's been a bad year for birds, hardly a swift in the sky and no swallows.'
Gilbert's painting was inspired by unfamiliar locations. In a Spanish house-party organized by my wife to celebrate my 70th birthday, he painted a ghostly 'apparition' of Bronislaw Malinowski (the Polish subject of my biography) which appeared during the evening. This framed painting still hangs on my study wall.
Finally, in tribute to Gilbert's remarkable literary skills, I shall refer to a review I wrote in 1981 of Day of Shining Red: An Essay on Understanding Ritual. The focus of this second Gnau monograph is a short male initiation rite that involved the smearing of initiands with the penile blood of their mothers' brothers. Gilbert engages in
a painstaking search for 'context-dependent meaning' (bearing in mind that 'meaning is a word of easy virtue') to 'explain' the rite by examining the nature of evidence and the possible grounds of interpretation which allow us finally to say 'we understand' when confronted with the exotic practice. It is Gnau experience of their ritual that mattered most to Gilbert rather than any inferred or imputed cognitive significance. Not for him a reification of the meaning of a rite, as anthropologists are typically inclined to promote. Like Montaigne, he was deeply sceptical of claims to truth. Discursive, tentative, continually qualifying and self-correcting (but never jargon-snagged), Gilbert's writing is inseparable from his cautious probing into meaning. He button-holes the reader with a candid, garrulous charm, and despite its meandering course through thickets of what might appear to be evidence for one interpretation or another but then turn out to be neither, the book entertains and delights.
Gilbert, through our long friendship I can only reiterate that you have gladdened and delighted my heart. I will sorely miss our conversations.
Michael W. Young, 29 January 2020
The following are Dr Lewis' main publications
Knowledge of Illness in a Sepik Society: A Study of the Gnau, New Guinea, Athlone Press, 1975; Day of Shining Red: An Essay on Understanding Ritual, Cambridge University Press, 1980; A Failure of Treatment. Oxford University Press, 2000; Pandora's Box: Ethnography and the Comparison of Medical Belief. HAU Books: The University of Chicago Press, 2020.
Religious doctrine or experience: A matter of seeing, learning, or doing. In H. Whitehouse and J. Laidlaw, eds. Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion, Altamira Press, 2004.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2020|
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