Interview with Jim Elmslie, at the NGA Myth + Magic Exhibition, Canberra, August 7 2015
JE – Andrew, you have come a long way from a village in Dagua, and Wewak, to Cambridge University and now on to one of the highest positions in PNG administration, Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery. How did your journey begin?
AM – I grew up in the village, Wautogik. It’s on the mountains overlooking the coast of Wewak, towards Aitape, and I grew up in a village that has been blessed with some of the early leaders of Papua New Guinea, who more or less provided an inspirational model. That was an inspiration and I sought to emulate people like Bernard Narakobi, who was involved in the writing of the constitution. Bernard Narokobi in particular was especially influential. He had a library in his house in the village, and when we grew up we had access to the library and we could read some of those books. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s he began to write profusely and that made us think, “What is he trying to say?” and to learn from what he was trying to say. So that provided for me one of the earliest opportunities to think about what I wanted to be in the future.
JE – Where did you go to high school?
AM – I went to primary school in Banak, it’s in between Boiken and Dagua. I went to high school in Wewak, on an island called Kairiru.
JE – Is the school on Kairiru for more gifted children.
AM – It was in the 1960s and 1970s, and 1980s. Mainly the children of the elite of the Sepik go there. It was a Marist Brothers school. From there I went to Aiyura, near Kainantu, and did my matriculation grades eleven and twelve. I wanted to be an army officer and I recruited for the military, but things did not happen to my favour. I was accepted but they were communicating via radio, and I was expecting it by post. So by the time I heard about my being accepted into the military I was already admitted into the University of Papua New Guinea to do foundation year. I arrived at UPNG in Port Moresby in 1991 and I found my lectures in economics pretty boring and a little bit too cerebral. I felt that they didn’t have a close enough bearing to the realities of economic reasoning, and relied too much on mathematics. I found the lectures in philosophy and psychology and anthropology and linguistics more compelling, so I decided that I would settle on doing a combined degree on philosophy and anthropology, which I did at UPNG.
At UPNG, in those days, I would say that the intellectual spirit that should blaze in a learning institution, was fading like a sunset. We were only just witnessing the last rays of that glowing intellectual culture. Basically not even the embers were there.
JE – What do you put that down to?
AM – Mostly complacency and that high quality people, original thinkers and academics, had left. How can we carry on that spirit of a kind of critical intellectual space that UPNG generated in the 1970’s and 1980’s? Anyway I went there and I studied anthropology and philosophy. I found there were two things wrong with anthropology. One was that it has become too social and uninterested in the sciences, such as biology, which is closely related to anthropology. We treated the sciences with disinterest and indifference. And two, it was not theoretically or philosophically curious. That was disenchanting and I went to study philosophy which was all about the Germans and the classical Greeks, all the while it made it seem as though philosophy was a kind of intellectual preoccupation of only certain cultures, namely the West for the most part. But philosophy didn’t provide a method to investigate other people’s philosophy, like the Melanesians, like the Papua New Guineans. And so what I found was that you could actually do a really good combination between philosophy and anthropology that provided you with a research method and some kind of data and other philosophical concepts. With that you could interrogate and that provides you with a reflective moment to go forward.
I couldn’t find a job at the time I finished my Honours in Philosophy. I read closely a German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. I was then obsessed with the idea of death. Heidegger raised the question of ontology with a new method this time with something call phenomenology, which is about trying to study the way things are without pre-given bias. It’s a very disciplined way of thinking. My interest in death got me to read Heidegger, so I wrote a thesis about death and made a comparison about Plato’s understanding of death and Heidegger’s understanding of death. That was my Honours thesis. Death provides a very rich field of thinking, a rich context for you to imagine a philosophical project. So for instance, Heidegger thought that we possess within our being our death; that death itself is a possibility waiting to happen, it’s like a sum that is outstanding in our lives and it has to be liquidated eventually, and when death intervenes it doesn’t terminate itself but it reconciles itself in the abyss of nothingness. So basically being and nothingness become reconciled. Ultimately you look at it and find that this kind of philosophy or ontological schema is one that is orientated towards death but what you find in most Melanesian societies is the inverse: we are always returning towards the origin, whereas his philosophy is orientated towards death or negation.
To be continued in next OAS Journal