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With Lambros on My Mind

On March 5th, we lost a teacher, colleague, friend, and mentor - Lambros Comitas. He passed away while at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he was still teaching at age 92 as the Gardner Cowles Professor of Anthropology and Education. Fittingly, he died “with his boots on.”

The son of Greek immigrant parents from the island of Ithaca, yet a quintessential New Yorker, Lambros graduated from high school at 16 and entered Columbia College in Morningside Heights. His education was interrupted by the war, and in 1948 he received his A.B. In 1952 he married Irene Mousouris who survives him, along with his beloved dachshund "Xochi" ("flower" in Aztec/Nahuatl).

Lambros’s academic life was centered at Columbia University where, in 1962, he received his Ph.D. in Anthropology. Two years later, he would cross West 120th Street to join the faculty at Teachers College where he remained for the next 56 years. From 1985-2001 he was Director of the Research Institute for the Study of Man (RISM), a leading center in New York City for the study of the Caribbean, which had been founded in 1955 by Dr. Vera D. Rubin.

At Teachers College, Lambros succeeded Professor Solon Kimball in directing the Ph.D. Program in Applied Anthropology where he designed the First and Second Year Colloquia: during the first year graduate students studied theory in preparation for going to the field that summer, during the second year they were exposed to methodology while writing up the field report of their summer research. In this sequence, Lambros said, one learned from one's mistakes rather than carrying preconceived notions to one's first field experience.

In his 1989 essay, “Ithaca on My Mind: An Anthropologist’s Journey,” Lambros professed he owed much to a reading of the poem "Ithaca" by Constantine Kavafy, a Greek poet who wrote during the first part of the 20th century. The opening stanzas of the poem were in many ways an exhortation to the call of anthropology. Here I quote from Lambros’s translation of the original Greek.

When you set forth for Ithaca,

pray that the journey be long,

full of adventures, full of knowledge.

The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,

angry Poseidon, fear them not,

such you’ll never find along your way

if your thoughts are lofty, if select

emotions touch your spirit and your flesh.

The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,

fierce Poseidon, you’ll not encounter

if you don’t hold them in your soul,

if you don’t conjure them up before you.

Pray that the journey be long.

That many be the summer morns,

with what pleasure, with what joy,

you enter harbors first-time seen

and stop at ports Phoenician,

and acquire wares of beauty,

mother of pearl and coral,

amber and ebony,

and sensuous scents of all sorts,

as many as you can,

excesses of sensuous scents.

To many Egyptian cities go,

to learn, and to learn from the learned.

What is anthropology, Lambros asked, but the science of man, with ties to the biological sciences, to the humanities, and to its sibling social sciences — a science which in theory explores all facets of human life through time and space. Contemporary American sociocultural anthropology has many theoretical currents — structural-functionalism, Weberian theory, structuralism, symbolic theory, Marxist social theory, and postmodernism — but no one approach dominates American anthropology. Lambros, similarly, was eclectic. He understood the value of multiple perspectives and the flexibility gained from a lack of a dominant approach, pointing out that the absence of rigid boundaries and definitions “offers an arena for creative combinations and innovative solutions to theoretical and methodological questions.”

“If anthropology has a soul, that soul is the field,” he stated. But the field is only one of the two indispensable components of anthropology. The other is the anthropologist. The field is both “crucible and molder of anthropologists,” and he described their relationship as the “intricate dance” between the researcher’s personality and knowledge and the unfamiliar social and cultural forces that initially engulf him.

Lambros was the consummate field worker, with an interest in the nature of society and in basic research on real-life issues whose findings could be applied to practical problems. He understood that methodology was the key to pursuing and resolving the scientific problem posed by the anthropologist, and his research encompassed many field locations and problematics: study of the "fishing folk" of Barbados (1956, 1957-58); two projects in Jamaica — one on the impact of government-sponsored fishing cooperatives in five communities (1958), the other on the long-term effect of marijuana use among lower-class Jamaicans (1970-72); community and social change in post-revolutionary Bolivia (1964-67); and a multi-pronged investigation of hashish use in Greece (1972-79). Other work included a joint US-USSR research project on variables contributing to longevity in Abkhasia and Georgia (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985), and a multidisciplinary study of society and culture in the Co-Principality of Andorra (1983).

Dr. Comitas was best known for his drug research in Jamaica and his work with Rastafarians. From his research among fishermen in the Caribbean he formulated the concept of “occupational multiplicity” whereby an individual cobbles together a number of work activities to eke out a living. His four-volume work, "The Complete Caribbeana 1900-1975," was an essential bibliographic guide to the scholarly literature of the region. In 2003 he founded the Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study (CIFAS) which promotes research on issues related to environmental and technological crises as well as regional approaches to long-term conflict. At the time of his death, he was at work on a research project among the First Peoples of New Brunswick, Canada, and had migrated to a focus on visual anthropology.

In theorizing anthropology as journey in his Ithaca essay, Lambros expressed that the most rewarding journey of them all was teaching. Of special concern to him was training students who would choose careers of applied research in domains somewhat distant from traditional academic pursuits. As successors to his own generation, they would become, in my estimation, one of his most important legacies in the field of anthropology. With unflagging devotion to his students, along with a sly sense of humor and Old World charm, he taught the trade — or more appropriately the art — of anthropology to many waves of students, and he advised well over 100 dissertations.

While preparing newly minted anthropologists to set out on their own journeys, Lambros never severed the ties that bind. Friday afternoon was a weekly ritual when colleagues, friends, and graduate students, current and former, gathered in his gracious office at Teachers College — first in Thompson Hall, then in Macy, and later at 216 Zankel Hall — to share libations and stories, punctuated by rum from the Caribbean.

For Lambros Comitas the journey of anthropology and Kavafy’s Ithaca were one:

Always have Ithaca on your mind.

Arrival there is your journey’s end.

But do not rush the trip one whit.

Better it last for many years

and you reach the island when already old,

rich with all you’ve gained along the way,

without expecting Ithaca to give you riches.

Ithaca gave you that splendid voyage.

Without her you couldn’t have ventured forth.

But she has nothing left to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t fooled you.

As wise as you’ve become, with such experience

by now you must have understood

what mean these Ithacas.

Lambros, you have arrived at your beloved Ithaca. While you did not rush your journey,

it was too soon for us. We will forever have you in our hearts. May you rest in peace.

~ September 29, 1927 - March 5, 2020 ~

Lambros at his 90th birthday celebration

Teachers College, September 29, 2017

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