LADISLAV HOLY - Prof. of Social Anthropology, St Andrews 1987-1997

By Prof. Richard Fardon - from  Anthropology Today,  Vol 13, No 3, June 1997, pp 21-22.


Ladislav Holy's premature death on 13 April robs British anthropology of a distinctive voice: not just on account of the Czech-accented stage whisper with which - one was never sure whether advertently - he communicated his private and not always flattering thoughts about ongoing seminars, but because of a set of concerns and ways of addressing them that were part of the native dialogue yet articulated in terms of passions and experiences different from those of the natives. The intellectual variety of British anthropology has depended for most of the century on assimilation of perspectives and emotional commitments transplanted from Empire or Commonwealth and from Central Europe. Ladislav Holy belonged in the distinguished company of the second stream - with Malinowski, Nadel, Franz Steiner, Gellner and his friend Milan Stuchlik, to mention only a few. It is to this distinguished company that the discipline's avoidance of parochialism is in large measure due.

I met Ladislav in 1980 on being recruited to his (impossible not to say 'his') newly established Social Anthropology unit at the University of St Andrews, then entering its second year. So I can speak of his earlier life only by report. Ladislav's appointment as Reader at St Andrews followed an extraordinarily productive six years at the Queen's University Belfast where, together with Milan Stuchlik and a group of young colleagues and students, he had published the early manifestos of a particular way of thinking about social anthropology. Ladislav himself edited two of the four volumes of Queen's University Papers in Social Anthropology that appeared; he and Milan convened an Association of Social Anthropologists conference on their ideas; and they co-authored a presentation of their ideas as Actions, Norms and Representations: Foundations of Anthropological Inquiry based upon their Belfast lectures and published after Milan's sudden death in 1981.

These volumes argued that, by virtue of the self-defining character of human activities, anthropological interpretation could proceed only on the basis of understanding indigenous categories and analysing activities in terms of those categories; imposition of outsiders' analytic categories onto local concerns led to confused analyses and the distorted representation of local systems of knowledge, as several of Ladislav's contributions to the 'Queen's' papers demonstrated. Thus far, one might think this a reiteration, albeit a fundamentalist one, of the conventional idea of seeing things from the natives' point of view. However, Holy and Stuchlik went on to ask how this point of view can ever become available to anthropologists. Taking seriously the problem that speech acts are social activities in their own right, they called explicit, normative local discourses about behaviour 'representational models', on the grounds that their function was to give public accounts of social activities. Representational models were akin to ideologies, though this is not a term Ladislav much liked since it struck him as reductionist and patronizing. People's activities took 'representational models' into account rather than following them. An interpretative account of people's knowledge should not repeat representational models but seek to demonstrate the knowledge on which people's activities (including the activity of representing) rested. This was the 'operational model' and, to a much greater degree than the representational model, such knowledge was necessarily plural, incomplete, potentially contradictory and, above all, pragmatic.

The implications of this distinction for fieldwork methodology were succinctly spelt out in Ladislav's contribution to the ASA's Ethnographic Research: a Guide to General Conduct, where he argued, on the surface conventionally enough, that fieldwork was a corrigible practice of learning through participation. Typically, he went on to give the conventional argument a tweak by pursuing its logic inexorably: reflexivity, as he understood it, ought to address the inadequacy of the researcher's performative competence in the making of proper local meanings. His relish for the absurd, and his occasional penchant for portraying himself as the hoodwinked victim of wily East Fifers or the innocent victim of cultural cross-purposes, are as much at issue here as the difficulties of knowing the Berti or Toka. As a non-native in Britain, Ladislav lived ethnographically all the time rather than on occasional fieldtrips; he also lived with a great appetite for the best in life. Making a fool of yourself as a field tool tickled Ladislav; 'pompous' was a word he normally conjoined with 'idiot'. Truth and humour were close companions. Comparative Anthropology afforded Ladislav an opportunity to argue that contrary to some critics his interpretative paradigm did not lead to excessive particularism but was compatible with a comparative anthropology of the processes by which meanings were created.

At the risk of oversystematizing, it is difficult to resist further echoes of the life in the theoretical work. Ladislav's education and earlier career had been devoted largely, on his own account, to eluding the inanities of official versions under the marxist regimes of the 1950s and 1960s in the country where he had been born in 1933. The popularity of the football results among Czechs, he once explained, was readily explicable in terms of a coincidence between representational model and event that occurred uniquely in relation to sporting occasions under the Czech regimes. Not for nothing, as his last monograph explains, are evasions of authority on the part of the anarchist Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk part of the shared culture of Czechs; or, as Hasek himself said of the prototype of one of his characters, 'In unrefined language he unconsciously expressed in a simple and honest way the detestation the ordinary Czech feels for Byzantine methods. It was in his blood - this lack of respect for the Emperor and for polite phrases' (Heinemann English translation, 1973, p.216). The Czech culture in Ladislav remained deeply involved in resistance. None of the three colleagues in Scottish universities whose obituaries of Ladislav have been published neglect mention of Ladislav's eccentric views of university administration, which he often saw as a series of impediments put in the way of serious scholarship by the forces of idiocy and evil. In dramatizing particular occasions of administrative idiocy, Ladislav generally cast himself in the character of the 'good soldier', apparently doing as he was told while alternately foot-dragging or taking advantage of the opportunity of any unclarity in administrative procedure to follow orders to the letter in gleeful anticipation of precipitating an absurd outcome.

Although capable of public gruffness, Ladislav was never authoritarian. His commitments were to scholarship, reasonably conducted personal relations, and a just modicum of effort seasoned with appropriate sociability. If idleness, boorishness and personal meanness were beyond the pale, he respected the goodwill, decency and effort of the least intellectually talented of his students. Probably in reaction to system thinking, he treated those who crossed his path with rapt attention to whatever he could discover that made them individual. In his 25 year British career in Northern Ireland and Scotland, he nurtured different stages of the careers of more anthropologists now practising than many peers who spent longer at historically more illustrious centres of anthropological learning. Doing so, he may have surprised in himself an institution-builder who played his part in shifting the national balance of strength in anthropological studies within the United Kingdom.

In addition to anthropological theory, for most of his career Ladislav Holy's substantive commitments were to Africa, and to the study of the interrelations between kinship, religion and economy. His enduring ethnographic attachment was to the Berti, among whom he began fieldwork in 1961 and 1965 before giving up his base in Czechoslovak academe as Head of the African Department of the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and teacher of social anthropology at the Charles University in Prague. He published monographs on Berti social structure and their conceptions of Islam, as well as a variety of articles concerned with gender, age and Berti ecology under duress. Following Berti leads, he wrote a book-length analysis of the cultural rationales for parallel cousin marriage in the Middle East. Ladislav's second fieldwork site dated from his Directorship of the Livingstone Museum in Zambia (1968-72), a period which also sealed his exile from Czechoslovakia, and resulted in his studies of change among the Toka, including another monograph. He was awarded the RAI's Rivers Memorial Medal for publications in 1992.

During the later l980s, Ladislav's research interests shifted to his native country, which came to dominate his publications in the 1990s, and which he studied with a productive conflict between attachment and detachment. His final monograph, revealingly titled The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, was a wise and elegant synthesis of his long contemplation of Czech identity from both near and afar.

Ladislav and his first wife Alice, fellow students at the Charles University in Prague who married in 1956, lived and carried out fieldwork in Africa, shared their criminalization in absentia by the Czechoslovak government with good humour, and created a home in the East Fife village of Kingsbarns that was itself a work of domestic and horticultural art: one with its doors always open in welcome to visitors. Alice's death in 1990 shattered this life. Ladislav was lucky to find renewed happiness with his second wife Kate, who cared for him through a distressing and prolonged final illness. Their marriage was celebrated a few months before his death.

Ladislav Holy was an outstanding anthropologist and ethnographer, but he will be remembered by his many friends and ex-students as much for his great-hearted qualities of intellectual enthusiasm, personal loyalty and infectious humour which he shared along with his time, his ideas and the hospitality of his home.  

Richard Fardon


Publications mentioned:

1974 Neighbours and Kinsmen. a Study of the Berti People of Darfur. London: C. Hurst.

1981 ed. with Milan Stuchlik The Structure of Folk Models. ASA Monograph 20. London: Academic P.

1983 with Milan Stuchlik Actions, Norms and Representations: Foundations of Anthropological Inquiry. Cambridge: CUP.

1984 'Theory, methodology and research process', in Roy Ellen ed. Ethnographic Research: a Guide to General Conduct. London: Academic P., pp. 13-34.

1986 Strategies and Norms in a Changing Matrilineal Society: Descent, Succession and Inheritance among the Toka of Zambia. Cambridge: CUP.

1987 ed. Comparative Anthropology. Oxford: Blackwell.

1989 Kinship, Honour and Solidarity: Cousin Marriage in the Middle-East. Manchester: Manchester UP.

1991 Religion and Custom in a Muslim Society: the Berti of Darfur. Cambridge: CUP.

1996 The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National Identity and Post-Communist Social Transformation. Cambridge: CUP.

Obituaries of Ladislav Holy have also been published in:

Irish Journal of Anthropology, Volume 2, 1997, by Roy Dilley;

Cesky Lid, Volume 84, 1997, by Josef Kandert;

The Scotsman, 15 April 1997, by A.P. Cohen; 

Glasgow Herald, 17 April 1997, and 

The Independent, 18 April 1997, both by David Riches; 

The Guardian, 22 and 23 April 1997, by Roy Dilley.

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