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Mythical Inequalities

The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca

by Anthony F.C. Wallace
Knopf, 384 pp., $8.95

Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology

by Mary Douglas
Pantheon, 177 pp., $5.95

Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures

by G.S. Kirk
California, 299 pp., $7.95

Pour étudier l’homme…il faut d’abord observer les différences pour découvrir les propriétés.”

—J.-J. Rousseau

In this year of Grace 1971 anthropology has the curious status of being both in fashion and on its last legs. The fashion stems from the revival of Rousseauism. As Lévi-Strauss has pointed out, our Protestant-ethic background leads us to suppose that in the opposition Culture-Nature it is Culture and technological gadgetry which wear the badge of progress and superiority—“Hell is the others.” But just now many of us are smitten with remorse and disgust and a renewed longing for the Arcadian dream. In Richard Brautigan’s novel, Trout Fishing in America, the eponymous hero ends up being sold by the foot in a Cleveland wrecking yard, stacked among piles of toilets and dusty lumber—by implication “Hell is ourselves.” The last legs part of the equation is more straightforward. Anthropology is the study of primitive society, but primitive society is ceasing to exist; as the late R. G. Collingwood put it, the destiny of anthropology is to become history or nothing.

The three books under review have little in common, but the authors are all, in their different ways, responding to this contemporary clash of values and it is interesting to see what they do about it.

Professor Wallace, who is at heart an ethnographer in the old style, seems to validate Collingwood. The original Seneca were one of “the six nations” which formed the Iroquois Indian Confederacy. Because the Iroquois homeland lay in the area of what is now the New York-Canadian frontier zone, their contacts with the French and British settlers were, from the start, very close, and we have fuller accounts of their traditional pattern of life, stretching over a longer period, than for any other North American Indian people.

The primitive tribes to whom these records refer have long since ceased to exist, so instead of an ethnography in the conventional style Wallace has written a history. He describes the Seneca in their glory, in their decline, and in their adaptive regeneration. Although the heroic manner can be rather irritating, it is a fine book.

There are now about 20,000 people who have squatter’s rights in the Iroquois reservations of New York State, Quebec, and Ontario by virtue of claimed descent from the Indians of old time. They have television, cars, central heating, and all the other proper markers of civilization; politically they are underprivileged. Most of these Indians, most of the time, live very much in the style of their non-Indian neighbors; a minority of around 5,000 are “pagan” “long house” people who preserve through their religion a link with their traditional past. That religion is not the religion of the ancient Seneca Indians but a derivation from a millenarian revivalist cult established by the prophetpreacher Handsome Lake at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The existence of Indian reservations poses just the same moral problems as those which appear in more virulent form in the social segregation of Blacks and Whites, but by sticking to religious history Wallace is able to avoid discussion of such embarrassing issues. He starts with a brief account of the cult practices which he himself observed at the Cold Spring Long House in 1951 and then goes back to tell us how it all began. Roughly speaking, this has meant writing a history of the Iroquois Confederacy for the period 1640-1840. This takes us back to Rousseau in a very direct sense since Rousseau’s own ideas of the Noble Savage were deeply influenced by what he read in the Jesuit Fr. Lafitau’s ethnography of the Iroquois published in Paris in 1724.

Wallace concentrates on religious matters and he emphasizes the splendors and horrors of his story rather than the sordid details of political intrigue; but he has citations for everything he says and if the “nobility” of his heroes sometimes seems too good to be true, this only reflects the attitudes of those who observed them.

It is salutary to remember that in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the gap in technological sophistication between the settlers and the Indians was relatively slight and the two groups were able to pay mutual respect to one another as human beings. Admittedly they were often at war, but when Whites were captured as prisoners they were often adopted into the families of their captors. It is noteworthy that many such captives later showed great reluctance to return to their own people. The same sort of thing happened in the early days of European expansion in Asia and Polynesia. Outside those areas where slavery flourished, it was the nineteenth-century shopkeepers and missionaries rather than the eighteenth-century soldiers who first reduced the Noble Savage to an exploited serf.

Ironically, it was the American War of Independence and the exaggerated loyalty of the Iroquois to their British allies which were the immediate cause of the Iroquois’ downfall, but doubtless they would have met disaster anyway. The story of the revivalist prophet Handsome Lake who flourished in the period 1799-1815 has epic qualities which Wallace fully exploits. Close parallels have been recorded from many other parts of the Colonial world but, if one takes a long-term view, there is more pathos in such histories than Wallace allows his readers to recognize.

It is understandable that his story should stop abruptly at 1840; many things have happened since then, some tragic, some heroic, some simply bizarre. It was around 1840 that the Seneca were cheated out of most of their land through the operations of an enterprise known as the Ogden Land Company, though it is to the credit of the famous anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan that they eventually got a small fraction of it back again. Latterly the Iroquois have achieved fame as steel construction workers, but it is straining the facts to suggest that this is a part of a “rebirth” of traditional culture. Even within the last ten years the Iroquois have had to fight desperate legal battles with the Power Authority of the State of New York just to survive at all. Of course, Professor Wallace knows all this very well for he was a principal expert adviser to Edmund Wilson when the latter was writing Apologies to the Iroquois (1959); but by playing down the interval between antiquity and modernity Wallace makes the present nostalgia seem too simple.

Dr. Mary Douglas’s evocation of Rousseau’s Noble Savage is much more complicated. The primitive society of which she herself has expert knowledge—the Lele of the Kasai in Eastern Congo—has long ago been swept up into the maelstrom of modern politics, but instead of resorting to history she has developed a penchant for comparative religion. All her recent work gives the impression that she is no longer much concerned with the attainment of empirical truth; the object of the exercise is to adapt her anthropological learning to the service of Roman Catholic propaganda.

Just how far she is successful in this respect must depend, I suppose, upon the reader’s own predilections. The dust jacket of Natural Symbols carries enthusiastic eulogies from two anthropologists of repute, both of whom praise her clarity, wit, and erudition; to that I can only respond, with great regret, that I myself have found her argument confused, mostly very dull, and strikingly lacking in scholarship. If, in a book which purports to display religious sophistication, the argument is to rest on such propositions as “[in] the social world of anchorites…there is little sense of sin” (p. 103), the skeptie is entitled to ask for evidence. There is plenty available. The early Christian fathers, to whom the name anchorite was first applied, left copious autobiographical accounts of their inner experiences which are readily accessible. They contain page after page of sexual fantasy and sinladen remorse. But Dr. Douglas, in the interest of her creed, simply pretends that such material does not exist, or, alternatively, that it does not mean what it says.

Her argument is summarized by her publisher as follows: “Dr. Douglas focusses on the ways in which the human body has been applied as a symbolic mode for society itself. Human beings tend to create the world in their own image; thus every man…sees his own body as an organic symbol of society. By the same logic, blood, breath, and milk are used as ‘natural symbols’ to express the kind of relationships that bind persons to their society. And persons alienated from their own bodies may be poorly integrated into the company of their fellow men.” I have found it difficult to detect this thesis in the body of the book itself, but if we suppose that this is what our author is trying to say, then it would seem that she is simply standing Freud on his head. In Freudian dogma, the house is a symbol for the human body; for Douglas, the body is a symbol for the cosmos. No doubt you can play it either way, but which diagnosis is more likely to provide a useful interpretation of empirical data? Here is an example which Dr. Douglas should respect:

When my beloved slipped his hand through the latch-hole my bowels stirred within me.
When I arose to open for my beloved my hands dripped with myrrh;
The liquid myrrh from my fingers ran over the knobs of the bolt….
(Song of Songs V:4-5 New English Bible version)

To my simple carnal mind this is a poetic description of sexual intercourse; Douglas, I imagine, would prefer to discover a mystical reference to the Church as the bride of Christ.

To try to discuss the book without its icing of religiosity makes little sense, but part of the argument is as follows. In recent years, Professor Basil Bernstein has developed an impressionistic, hard to pin down, but interesting theory in the field of socio-linguistics. Very roughly his thesis is that language, as acquired by young children from their parents, functions on two dimensions which usually receive very unequal development. As a restricted code, which tends to be characteristic of working-class homes in which the parents have only limited educational equipment, language is a device which constantly reinforces the speaker’s ideas about his own position in the total structure of society. The function of this restricted language as a means of communicating new information or generating new ideas is very limited. In contrast, middle-class parents encourage their children, from the start, to develop language as an elaborated code which makes few assumptions about the local conventions of social structure but becomes increasingly a tool for making Gedanken experiments, which are dissociated from the practical difficulties of real life experience.

Douglas has tried to develop an analogous theory in which ritual symbols (notably those consisting of parts or extrusions of the human body) take the place of Bernstein’s language codes and where the opposition “Group/Grid” replaces Bernstein’s “Restricted/Elaborated.” The precise nature of this analogy is one which I have found it impossible to unravel. It seems clear that Diagram 3 (p. 29), which employs Bernstein’s terminology, and Diagrams 5 (p. 59), 9 (p. 105), 10 (p. 141), and 11 (p. 143), which employ that of Douglas, are meant to be in some way related, and that this relationship is central to the general argument of the book, but personally I am baffled. All five diagrams have the same shape and are marked with the same lettering, but the various arrows and +/- signs, which are evidently intended to help the reader to comprehension, appear to be distributed on a principle that is entirely random.

There is not much anthropology in all this. It appears to be Douglas’s thesis that whole societies can be categorized according to a system derived from the alternatives (a) high or low emphasis on the individual as against the social whole and (b) high or low emphasis on reason as against ecstatic mystic experience. From time to time she cites anthropological cases to illustrate this formula but makes no attempt to test the general validity of her argument. My own impression is that every generalization in the book could be easily refuted by scores of contrary cases.

Whether or not the book has merit as a religious treatise is not for me to say. She warns the professional churchmen against “arguments couched in the bodily medium: Strongly subjective attitudes to society get coded through bodily symbols,” but she laments that “Christian preachers fail to respond to the current use of the body as a social medium.” We are, it seems, expected to admire “the young radicals of today” who “reject political power, express contempt for the physical body, read the mystics and cultivate non-rationality.” This is a somewhat odd agglomeration of eccentricities but the flavor of Rousseau is very strong.

Geoffrey Kirk, Professor of Classics at Yale, takes a very different line; he is a firm believer in rationality and eclectic common sense so that his hunt-the-slipper study of the methodology of myth analysis turns out to be very catholic in style. Almost everyone is given a run for his money, Max Müller, Jung, Cassirer, Kerenyi, Otto Rank, Eliade, Dumezil, Stith-Thompson, the lot. There is merit everywhere and error too. Kirk’s bête noire is the anthropologist Malinowski, who maintained the Rousseau-ist doctrine that we can only hope to understand mythology if we study also the context of Noble Savagery in which it operates. But Kirk’s disdain for barbarous ethnography is qualified by considerable respect for at least some of the ethnographers. For members of his own profession the most surprising characteristic of his book is the space and serious attention which he is prepared to give to the anthropological arguments of Lévi-Strauss.

The core of Kirk’s argument consists of a severely boiled down structural analysis of mythical materials which originated in archaic Greece and the ancient Middle East. For example he points out that the ancient mythographical tradition distinguished three types of Cyclopes—(i) “those who built the vast walls of Mycenae,” (ii) “Polyphemus and his group,” (iii) “the gods themselves”—and then by ingenious and learned argument he shows that these three types can be fitted to a Lévi-Straussian model: Culture versus Nature with Polyphemus in the middle as Mediator. Elsewhere he makes use of what Lévi-Strauss has written about eagle hunting among the Hidatsa to suggest an explanation as to why the Sumerian Culture-Hero Etana should have found his magic eagle in a pit.

All this is good fun and perhaps important. Certainly Kirk’s treatment of the Akkadian Gilgamesh makes him a more interesting figure than he has ever seemed before and it is plain that Kirk himself, despite a careful insistence that he sees no particular merit in any one style of myth analysis rather than another, regards these experiments in structuralist analysis as the heart of the whole matter. Does Lévi-Strauss’s method work when it is removed from the context of Natural Savagery and applied to proto-Civilization? Because the game is played out in a mood of halfhearted skepticism it is not particularly successful and we get no clear answer to our postulated question, but it is certainly interesting and the potentiality for further development seems considerable.

Professor Kirk first established his scholarly reputation as an authority on the pre-Socratic philosophers and his underlying concern is still with that theme. How did philosophy begin? It is just there that his invocation of Lévi-Strauss is most thought-provoking and most open to doubt. Classicists usually assume that Hesiod and Homer stand at the beginning; their works epitomize an age of mythopoeic thought; Greek philosophy based on the exercise of pure reason, as we meet it in Plato and Aristotle, is seen as a bouleversement, a sudden dramatic leap forward, a complete break with the mythopoeic past. Kirk’s contrary thesis is that there is no such sudden break. He postulates that Hesiod and Homer represent the surviving emasculated tail end of a long tradition, now forgotten, in the course of which genuine philosophic problems were recognized and resolved, but through the medium of mythmaking rather than through the formulation of rational discourse.

This thesis implies that by the time we get to Plato and Aristotle the mythopoeic age was already remote. The Cornford-Jane Harrison thesis that we can learn to understand the Greeks by studying anthropology is thus, quite simply, a mistake. As I have said, Kirk has been led to this view by an intensive, though not entirely comprehending, study of Lévi-Strauss. He has gained the impression that whereas the functionalist anthropologists of the Malinowski era constantly emphasized the interdependence of myth and ritual, Lévi-Strauss harks back to an older nineteenth-century view which assumed that the mythmaker was a primitive philosopher. At one point (p. 284) Kirk asserts quite explicitly that in Lévi-Strauss’s view “all myths embody responses to problems.”

In so far as his own thesis that “the speculative and operative functions of myths may often develop gradually out of their narrative ones” is supposed to derive from Lévi-Straussian arguments of this sort, it seems ill-founded. On his own ground, Lévi-Strauss assumes that the myths of primitive society take for granted a cosmological schema which is, of necessity, a drastic simplification (model) of the reality of experience. He accepts the functionalist view that myths function as a charter for social action but he also assumes that, because of the incompatibility between model and practical reality, myths have a secondary function of “patching up the cracks,” of masking the inconsistencies between what is postulated and what is experienced.

In Lévi-Strauss’s own analysis, myths are “problem solving” only in this special sense; furthermore it is a central feature of his doctrine that this process proceeds at a subconscious level. It is not the outcome of rational intellectual inquiry on the part of individual mythmakers but simply the necessary consequence of blurring over the contradictory implications inherent in any mythological system: “myths think themselves out in men and without men’s knowledge” (“les mythes se pensent dans les hommes, et à leur insu“).

It is surely very questionable whether a mechanical, subconscious, problem-masking function of this sort could ever generate the embryo beginnings of philosophic inquiry, but this seems to be Kirk’s assumption. In any case, it must be emphasized that Kirk adopts only those elements of structuralist theory which he finds congenial, so that we cannot really infer very much from the results of his experimental investigation. Kirk is not responsible for the shortcomings of Lévi-Strauss, but neither is Lévi-Strauss responsible for the shortcomings of Kirk.

It seems to me very likely that a more committed exponent of the technique would manage a great deal more. But in any case, hesitant though he is, Kirk has made a commendable attempt to escape from Collingwood’s dilemma. If anthropology must always degenerate into history, there are still occasions when history may be regenerated by anthropology.

The earliest part of the book, which is mostly taken up with a denunciation of the context-bound proclivities of the functionalist anthropologists and a told-to-the-children exposition of structuralist theory, cannot be recommended.

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