The Gift

by David A. Bell | October 16, 2006

Marcel Mauss: A Biography By Marcel Fournier Translated by Jane Marie Todd (Princeton University Press, 442 pp., $35)

The outward lives of great intellectuals do not always make lively reading, even for other intellectuals. For every tragic, monstrous, or heroic thinker whose biography resembles pulp fiction, there is another who passed his days quietly at his desk, reading and writing, returning home every evening to a cocoon of bourgeois respectability. For every Shelley, a Kant; for every Foucault, a Weber. A great mind does not need to experience the abyss to find originality. Sometimes he or she can, as Hamlet said, "be bounded in a nut shell and count [himself] a king of infinite space." The interest of such outwardly conventional figures lies in what they thought, not in what they did; and perhaps also in what their lives tell us about the world through which they passed.

Marcel Mauss, the nephew of Emile Durkheim and a great social scientist in his own right, falls unmistakably into this category. With his new biography, Marcel Fournier has performed a significant service by collecting the most important information about Mauss's career and presenting it in a lucid 350 pages (not including notes), but the material does not exactly thrill. Mauss's outward life was the stuff of notecards and well-worn library seats, of Sunday family dinners and academic politics, of common aches and pains and the occasional discreet fling about which few details survive. Mauss studied philosophy, taught social science, wrote books, and--unlike other founding figures of modern anthropology--did not venture off to Africa or the American Northwest or Samoa to observe "primitive cultures" where they lived. He mostly stayed put in Paris, diligently climbing the ladder of French academia and eventually reaching its pinnacle, the College de France. Fournier tells this story in detail, treating us along the way to the sort of factual nuggets that only specialists can love (and perhaps not even them): lists of top candidates in French national exams in the 1890s, the titles of lecture programs from the 1920s, the locations of various classrooms within the labyrinth of the Sorbonne, and so forth. Jane Marie Todd has ably translated all this material, although with the occasional annoying slip-up (conferences, of which academics give a very large number, are lectures, not "conferences").


From this carefully compiled data, a picture of a milieu, and a mind, emerges. Mauss was born in 1872 to a bourgeois Jewish family in the quiet Lorraine town of Epinal. He attended secular schools, and at eighteen enrolled at the University of Bordeaux, where his remarkable uncle taught. He studied philosophy, passed the hypercompetitive agregation exam that opened the doors to a career in higher education, and eventually won a position teaching "religious science" at the eclectic Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He helped his uncle edit the pioneering journal L'Annee Sociologique, for which he wrote, over the course of his career, a stunning 464 book reviews. (Durkheim beat him, notching up 498.) Mauss struggled with a never-finished doctorat d'etat (a sort of super-doctoral thesis) on prayer, taking off time to serve, during World War I, as a translator for British combat units. A dedicated militant of the French Socialist Party, he contributed to the newspaper L'Humanite and took part in the movement to establish cooperative stores as an alternative to retail businesses.

Finally, in 1925, Mauss published his masterwork, Essay on the Gift, a concise and luminous short book that anthropologists still regard as one of the classics of their discipline. Drawing on ethnological work from around the world, Mauss proposed a general model of "exchange in archaic societies." Contrary to much received wisdom, he insisted that these societies did not possess "natural economies" based on barter between individuals. Instead, there prevailed a system of collective gift-giving, exemplified by the "potlatch" of the Indians of the American Northwest. (He considered its relevance so universal that he even described the Mahabharata as "the history of a gigantic potlatch.")

Gift-giving of this sort, he argued, was obligatory, reciprocal, and ritualized, involving the symbolic transfer of pieces of the gift-givers' souls. It constituted what Mauss called a "total phenomenon," which extended to every aspect of social life. He traced the survival of elements of this system into modern societies, and concluded that it was an enormous exaggeration to label modern man an "economic animal" concerned only with calculation and gain. "Homo economicus is not behind us, but ahead of us," he aphorized. He ended the essay with an impassioned plea for what Fournier calls "a `new ethics' founded on mutual respect and reciprocal generosity," involving old-age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, and other elements of the welfare state for which Mauss the socialist militant was struggling at the time.

More than eighty years after its publication, The Gift remains a living work with which social scientists still wrestle. To be sure, no one would any longer accept its audacious generalizations about the common features of all "archaic" societies, from Polynesia to Canada to Africa. Still, anthropologists have drawn considerable inspiration from Mauss's emphasis on the complexity and the dynamism of "archaic" exchange systems. Historians, most notably Karl Polanyi and Natalie Zemon Davis, have used it in tracing, in different ways, the complex origins of modern forms of exchange. Sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu have seized on its criticisms of capitalism, classical economics, and utilitarianism, and on Mauss's militant insistence that economics be linked to morality and religion. Left-wing social scientists have hailed it as the definitive example of a politically engaged work of scholarship. Some French social scientists have even founded a group whimsically titled "Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales," or MAUSS.

In the remaining years of his life--he died in 1950--Mauss did not publish any other work of the stature of The Gift. Still, some fragmentary pieces that he composed in the 1930s on "techniques of the body" have had enormous influence, not least through the intermediary of Bourdieu and, earlier, Norbert Elias. By techniques of the body, Mauss meant the way culture expresses itself through particular and highly developed bodily actions: everything from dancing to swimming to sitting (or, in some societies, squatting) to positions for sleeping and sexual intercourse. While Mauss did relatively little work himself in this area, his speculations helped to open up a vast new field of scholarly inquiry. The fact that much of this inquiry today takes the form of a crude "cultural studies" is most emphatically not his fault.

Throughout his career, Mauss had the uncanny knack of distilling his vast reading and considerable common sense into short, lucid, elegant statements of principle. In 1902, for instance: "There are no uncivilized peoples. There are only peoples from different civilizations. The hypothesis of `natural' man has been definitively abandoned. ... Let us leave aside these pointless speculations on the paradisiacal man or the horde of pithecanthropines." Or this, from a lecture in 1899: "Property, law, and workers' organizations are social facts, real facts corresponding to the real structure of society. But these are not material facts; they exist only in the minds of men assembled into a society. These are mental facts--economic facts themselves are social facts (money, value, etc.) and thus mental facts, just like all the other social facts connected to them." Or this, in 1929: "Every social phenomenon has one essential attribute: ... it is arbitrary. All social phenomena are to some degree the work of the collective will."

Remarks of this sort, which anticipate the best aspects of the cultural turn taken by the social sciences during the past generation, make one regret that Mauss completed so few of the many ambitious projects that he undertook during his career. Just as his vastly ambitious doctoral thesis on prayer never came to completion, so he also left behind fragmentary projects on the phenomenon of the nation and on the Soviet Union (of which he was too mildly critical), to mention only the most notable. As Fournier concludes, "Mauss set to work only when goaded by necessity." Durkheim repeatedly lamented Mauss's unsatisfactory work habits: "I fear delays and procrastination, which are only too common from my nephew."

Fournier does disappointingly little to illuminate what lay behind this procrastinating and dilatory side of Mauss's character, which kept him from achieving a reputation equal to Durkheim's. He does provide evidence from which one might easily read a fraught and somewhat oedipal relationship between nephew and uncle. Mauss's father, Gerson, who ran an embroidery factory in Epinal, seems to have had a small part in his son's life. Instead, Mauss attached himself to Durkheim, following him to Bordeaux, serving as his willing amanuensis on L'Annee Sociologique, and putting a very Durkheimian emphasis on social solidarity and empirical analysis at the heart of his own research. Yet at the same time Mauss engaged in mild but real rebellion, embracing a political militantism that Durkheim eschewed, adopting a self-indulgent lifestyle at odds with Durkheim's sobriety, engaging in a series of sexual liaisons of which his family disapproved (he finally married a longtime mistress at the age of sixty-one), and driving his hard-working uncle to distraction with his erratic habits. The great writer Charles Peguy later captured, with comic brilliance, the figure that Mauss cut in Parisian high intellectual society, and the dandyism that was Mauss's only real departure from bourgeois respectability:

That supreme distinction, that finesse, that supreme elegance of Mauss (not the wine merchant), the diction, the severe, impeccable, implacable diction.... That elegance of Mauss's.... That ne plus ultra, that delicate profile, that noble, assured gaze, not loutish at all, that flowery language, those pleasing lips, that jacket, democratic but elegant, democratic but sober, democratic but severe, that beard, curly, fiery red, blond, golden yellow glowing red, golden yellow flaming red, well trimmed four-cornered falling, tapering falling, secretly glowing, that mustache, not precisely, not vulgarly, not crudely swaggering but triumphantly royal in almost the same color, those long sociologist pants, those republican cuffs, that elegant vertical pleat in the pants, so evenly, so equitably remunerative, that elegant High German way of speaking, that lily-and-rose complexion....

It is a description, incidentally, that does more to illuminate Mauss than anything else in Fournier's informative but dry book.

One can understand a biographer's unwillingness to venture into the territory of psychoanalysis, strewn as it is with hidden snares, sharp-edged obstacles, and plentiful quicksand. But Mauss himself may have understood something of the psychological dynamics underlying his endless procrastination, and this makes Fournier's reluctance less forgivable. In a letter to his friend Henri Hubert, Mauss once quipped: "The nephew is loafing about half-asleep, dragging his relative intelligence behind him." To an educated French reader, the words "the nephew" could hardly fail to evoke Diderot's extraordinary book Rameau's Nephew, which features the lazy, rebellious, bohemian nephew of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, and explores his psychological makeup in astonishing depth. And despite having little time for Freud, Mauss had a keen interest in various forms of psychology and read widely in the subject for much of his life. It is also probably not a coincidence that Mauss did his most sustained and important work in the decade following Durkheim's death. Surely Fournier could have stepped at least a few yards into this terrain.

Just as disappointing, Fournier does very little to sketch out the broad intellectual context in which Mauss worked. He is very good on the small, tight circle of friends Mauss made in his twenties and who remained closer to him throughout his life than anyone else. Such circles of friends, often formed at the Ecole Normale Superieure (which most of Mauss's friends attended), are a key to understanding French intellectual life in the twentieth century. Fournier lays out the strands of the mixed social and intellectual companionship very clearly, giving particular attention to Mauss's close collaborations with the sociologist Hubert and the crushing grief he felt upon Hubert's death in 1927. But when it comes to the world beyond the network and the family, Fournier falls short.

Take, for instance, the now obscure figure of Francois Simiand. He makes numerous appearances in the book as a friend and collaborator of Mauss's, and as a fellow socialist. But Fournier does not say anything about Simiand's tremendous importance in the development of French social science. An economist and an acolyte of Durkheim who worked for many years in the French administration, Simiand was an early advocate of strictly quantitative approaches, making his reputation with a devastating critique of the dominant historical school of the late nineteenth century, with its predilection for elaborate political narratives. Simiand ridiculed the study of "events" and held up knowledge induced from statistical analysis as the ideal toward which the social sciences should strive. He had a critical impact upon the development of French economics, and as much as anyone, he helped turn French historical writing away from more interpretive approaches and toward the relatively rigid quantitative focus of the Annales school, exemplified by Fernand Braudel and Ernest Labrousse. Simiand's "positive method" followed naturally from much of Durkheim's work and he remained intellectually close to Durkheim's nephew throughout his career. But, with hindsight, the tensions with Mauss's more eclectic and interpretive style seem clear, and one wishes Fournier had explored them.


Beyond Mauss's contributions to social science, his life also dramatically illustrates the history of French Jewry during some of its most dramatic and perilous moments. Born in 1872, Mauss was the grandson of a rabbi (Durkheim's father), and received the Jewish name of Israel. (Durkheim himself, known to the secular world as Emile, was born David.) Mauss received a thorough Jewish education along with his secular one, and while he did not practice the religion as an adult, he never hid or renounced it.

Politically, he came of age during the great surge of French anti-Semitism that accompanied the conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on scandalously flimsy and unfounded treason charges in the 1890s. Later he encountered anti-Semitism among his colleagues and students, including his student Marcel Deat, who moved from socialism to the extreme anti-Semitic right and served as a minister in the collaborationist Vichy regime. Scholars whom Mauss knew well put their anthropological learning at the service of Vichy's repellent version of "racial science." More immediately, the Vichy regime forced Mauss and his bed-ridden wife into a tiny, unhealthy slum apartment, while many of his friends were deported to the death camps. The experience undoubtedly precipitated Mauss's decline. His successor at the College de France, Maurice Halbwachs, could only accede to the position by declaring himself and his wife free of Jewish blood, and presenting genealogical charts to prove the point. (This did not keep the Germans from arresting him.)

Fournier provides all this information in a clear, detached manner. But he fails to call attention to the paradoxical vitality of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French Jewish life, which is also nicely illustrated by Mauss's life. Despite the extraordinary symbolic violence of the Dreyfus affair, the high levels of anti-Semitism that prevailed throughout French society through the 1940s, and the terrible crimes of Vichy itself, French Jews enjoyed in significant respects a degree of toleration that their contemporaries in Britain or the United States could only dream of. Whereas Ivy League universities instituted unofficial Jewish quotas as late as the 1920s and maintained them until after Mauss's death, Mauss himself met with no difficulties gaining admission to the University of Bordeaux in the 1880s. Jews also faced enormous obstacles gaining faculty appointments in American and British university departments through the 1940s. (Columbia famously did not appoint a Jewish professor of English--it was Lionel Trilling--until 1939.) By contrast, when Mauss took courses at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in the 1890s, his teachers already included several Jews, notably the renowned scholar of eastern religions Sylvain Levi. As for Mauss's own appointments at the Ecole Pratique, and then at the College de France, Fournier discusses the academic politics surrounding them in sometimes stultifying detail. He does not draw attention to the fact that, amazingly, in neither case does Mauss's Judaism seem even to have been discussed.

The fact that Jews could enjoy this degree of toleration and success despite widespread anti-Jewish prejudice owed everything to the French "republican" solution to the problems of ethnic and religious identity, which dated back to the beginnings of the French Revolution. As a prominent revolutionary expressed it in the initial debates on granting Jews full citizenship in 1789, "Everything must be refused to the Jews as a Nation in the sense of a corporate body and everything granted to the Jews as individuals." In practice, this policy meant refusing the Jews virtually any collective identity that stretched beyond the bounds of strict religious observance, and making it impossible for French Jews to develop distinct hybrid cultural forms of the sort known in America. The republican synthesis did not even allow for the word Juif; French Jews went instead by the supposedly more purely religious label Israelite. Yet French Jews ready to accept these conditions found that the doors of professional advancement opened wide for them--or, at least, wider than almost anywhere else in the Western world.

Mauss himself readily accepted the conditions. He identified himself as an Israelite, and felt a genuine and intense loyalty to the French nation, going so far as to volunteer for military service in 1914 at the age of forty-two, when he was well past any danger of conscription. Significantly, although the Dreyfus affair led to his political radicalization, his Jewishness seems to have had little to do with the process. Fournier quotes a beautiful passage of Mauss's, one of the most passionate the man ever wrote, about the Dreyfus affair (actually, by mistake, Fournier quotes it twice):

Anyone who did not live through that astonishing civil war conducted without a brutal act, without a drop of blood shed, but with an intellectual passion so fierce that men died of exhaustion, of sadness, of sorrow, of anger; anyone who did not go through it, did not fight in it, however Parisian he may be, does not totally know his city. There is a secret within it that has not been shown him.

Note that Mauss talks about "anyone," and "Parisians," not "Jews" or even "Israelites." It is a passage that might as easily--more easily, one would think--have come from the pen of a gentile.

Although he gave some support to the Zionist movement, Mauss does not appear to have abandoned his passionate republicanism, even when his beloved France turned on him. Indeed, in the fall of 1940 he voluntarily resigned from his departmental chair at the Ecole Pratique to save his colleagues the "disadvantages" that would follow from keeping a Jew in the position. But his feelings and his loyalties were in no sense unusual among French Jews. The great historian Marc Bloch, to take just one example, had a similar passion for the French nation, and felt outrage against Vichy as a Frenchman, not as a Jew. He reluctantly gave up his part-ownership of the journal Annales so that it might continue publication under Vichy's anti-Jewish legislation. Bloch, younger than Mauss, eventually joined the Resistance, which led to his capture and execution by the Germans soon after D-Day.

It has become fashionable to ridicule figures such as Mauss for what seems like a pathetic dedication to the nation that rejected them. But it has also become too easy to forget a basic distinction: that while Vichy did enjoy real popularity among the French for a time, it was not a freely elected government, and without the defeat of 1940 its policies would almost certainly never have come into being. Remember that even the Dreyfus affair, despite the torrent of anti-Semitism that it highlighted and intensified, ended with Dreyfus's formal rehabilitation and with the re-affirmation of republican legitimacy. Nor, as Mauss's own description indicates, did it lead to the shedding of Jewish blood, at least in metropolitan France. We have to recognize that the French bear a heavy responsibility for Vichy's crimes and that French anti-Semitism only triumphed with the help of the Wehrmacht. These distinctions are not exculpatory, but they need to be kept in mind when we judge the choices made by Jews such as Mauss. Their choices were reasonable, indeed honorable ones; they were not in the least pathetic.

Today French "neo-republicans" often lament that figures such as Mauss and Bloch, with their sincere patriotism and earnest political engagement, have largely vanished from French cultural life. The readiness of many French academics to embrace a facile multiculturalism, and an anti-globalization ideology that seems to consist principally of vulgar anti-Americanism (laced with anti-Zionist vitriol), would seem to confirm their point. The tendency of some of Mauss's most prominent and interesting successors, notably Pierre Bourdieu, to follow this political path has been particularly depressing. Yet the case can be overstated. The gaseous nonsense spouted by many French academics today has ample parallels in the far more toxic gaseous nonsense spouted by the Stalinists and fascists of the 1930s. And anyone who knows contemporary French academia will see, in Fournier's biography of Mauss, a surprisingly recognizable type. Just as Marcel Mauss himself tracked the survival of non-economic forms of exchange into the modern world, so the republican, progressive spirit that he embodied still survives, to a surprising and reassuring extent, among his heirs.

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This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.

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