|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
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.
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.
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
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
18 April 1997, both by David Riches;
The Guardian, 22 and 23 April 1997, by Roy Dilley.