Atlantis, an Autoanthropology by Nathaniel Tarn


By Neil Leadbeater

In this literary memoir and autoethnography, anthropologist, poet, essayist and translator Nathaniel Tarn reflects upon a life lived in many different cultures. Now in his ninth decade, it is a work that has been over thirty years in the making, giving us a truly remarkable summation of a lifetime’s achievement.

Something of the modesty of the man speaks to us in the title for Tarn hesitates to call it an autobiography per se. In it, he eschews the empirical ‘I’ for he has lived such a full life that he has ‘never (yet) been able to experience the sensation of being only one person.’ The dedication: ‘To all my (m)others’ and some of the quotations that preface the book are worth repeating here because they point the reader to the way in which Tarn has chosen to embark upon his project: ‘I is a throng of voices’ (Janet Rodney: The Book of Craving) and ‘No, one wasn’t just one. One was ten people, twenty, a hundred. The more opportunities life gave us, the more beings it revealed in us…’ (Joseph Roth: Right and Left). Instead, Tarn assumes the position of narrator, referring throughout to this person or persons called Tarn, as if he were a fictional character. This shifts the perspective, making the narrator examine his life as a subject of study.

The book is organised into a series of ‘throws’ rather than chapters. The full significance of this choice of word is explained later in the text (think of the potter and his wheel). Each ‘throw’ follows a particular theme which weaves its way into the overall tapestry of the book, following more or less in chronological order.

Before embarking on his distinguished literary career, it is necessary to remind ourselves that Tarn had been an anthropologist for thirty years, beginning with studies at the Musée de l’Homme, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the College de France, Paris, in 1949-50, continuing with work at the University of Chicago (including fieldwork in Guatemala), 1951-53; the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.), in 1953-58; fieldwork in Burma in 1958-59; and teaching at the S.O.A.S. in 1960-67.

Reading between the lines, we get a real sense of the tensions that built up and the decisions that had to be made when Tarn came to realise that he could no longer inhabit simultaneously the world of anthropology and the world of literature. There had always been the hope that poetry and fieldwork could continue in parallel but something had to give. Resigning from ‘the best southeast Asia job in the world’ in 1967, Tarn changed tack and worked for a couple of years at Jonathan Cape, publishers, London, breaking new ground by pursuing literary connections with the Americans before re-entering academia in the United States and, after teaching at Princeton, teaching comparative literature at Rutgers from 1970 to 1984.

On one level this is a book about people and places. Among many of the world’s major artists and intellectuals, he knew André Breton, René Char, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Margot Fonteyn, Günter Grass, Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, Octavio Paz, Henri and Nō Siegel and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

As an anthropologist, Tarn has travelled widely to places in Guatemala (special mention should be made here of Lake Atitlán, which became a kind of spiritual home to him with overtones of a lost Eden), and South East Asia. Reading about these and other places, one gets a sense of how privileged and grateful he feels for having seen them before the tidal wave of mass tourism took over and changed their character forever. In 1959, for example, when he first saw the Taj Mahal in India it was with, at most, a dozen other people. Twenty years later, he shared it with several hundreds.

From the world of literature, we read of Tarn’s associations with the British, the Europeans and the Americans. In Britain, there is an account of Tarn’s membership of ‘The Group’, an association of British poets that included Peter Redgrove and George MacBeth that used to meet at the home of Edward Lucie-Smith, his work with the publishers Jonathan Cape and, by extension, Cape Editions and Cape Goliard Press, his inclusion in volume 7 of the hugely influential Penguin Modern Poets Series and the publication of his first full-length poetry collection Old Savage / Young City. After emigration to America, we read of his assimilation into American life and his meetings with leading luminaries such as Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Eliot Weinberger and Charles Olson. 

On another level, the book is about far more than this. At its heart, it is an exploration of poetry: what it is and how it comes about within the mind of the creator. There are insights into the visionary poetry of Wordsworth and Blake, the need for the poet not merely to give pleasure but crucially to become part of the very spin of the world in motion. It is also about the many different sides of Tarn: Tarn the traveller who has an insatiable interest in other cultures, especially in religions and symbolic systems, primarily but not exclusively, classical, Mayan and Buddhist, Tarn the avid collector (of textiles, ceramics, postage stamps and books), Tarn the ornithologist (trips to Cape May and Hawk Mountain to watch the raptor migrations, magnificent sightings in Alaska, birding in New Guinea) and Tarn the botanist (he has a particular love of roses)…and this is by no means all. ‘Completion,’ he states, ‘is not a word that ever should come near this book.’

Following ‘retirement’ there are accounts of trips to countries as far flung as Bhutan, Indonesia, China, Japan and Ecuador to soak up the culture. We read of his insatiable enthusiasm for visiting museums and cultural monuments and the need to experience one’s past.

Tarn’s views on the way in which historical artefacts are displayed for the public’s consumption, consumer bourgeois culture, his horror of human exploitation and the impotence of institutions to do anything to stop it, his prediction that ‘the planet will survive by the skin of its teeth.  The human race will not,’ and the fact that too few understand that the conservation of nature and of culture are indissolubly linked: ‘you cannot save one without the other’ are all argued vigorously and stated with conviction. Although, at times, the writing is introspective, his style is always engaging and often conversational with a good dose of humour.

Poetry is so central to Tarn’s world that, towards the end of the book he declares that its title is also known to its author as Atlantis: An Autoanthropoem. It is here that he poses the question as to why so many young people want to be poets and concludes that it is because it is the only means whereby one can create ‘world’. As Tarn sees it, ‘Poetic liberation is the oldest liberation movement there is. Anyone can join. Anyone should.’

You can find the book here:

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014); Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and The Gloucester Fragments (Littoral Press, 2022). His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Nepali, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.