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The Artist’s Cultural Fashions and History of Religions

The Artist’s Cultural Fashions and History of Religions
© Photograph by Peter Jordanoff

The question that I should like to discuss in this article is the following: what does a historian of religions have to say about his contemporary milieu? In what sense can he contribute to the understanding of its literary or philosophical movements, its recent and significant artistic orientations? Or even more, what has he to say, as a historian of religions, in regard to such manifestations of the Zeitgeist as its philosophical and literary vogues, its so-called cultural fashions?

It seems to me that, at least in some instances, his special training should enable him to decipher meanings and intentions less manifest to others. I am not referring to those cases in which the religious context or implications of a work are more or less evident, as, for example, Marc Zakharovich Chagall’s paintings with their enormous “eye of God,” their angels, severed heads, and bodies flying upside down-and his omnipresent ass, that messianic animal par excellence. Or Eugène Ionesco’s recent play, ‘Le Roi se meurt’, which cannot be fully understood if one does not know the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ and the ‘Upanishads’. (And I can testify to the fact that Eugène lonesco did read these texts; but the important thing for us to determine is what he accepted and what he ignored or rejected. Thus it is not a question of searching for sources, but a more exciting endeavour: to examine the renewal of Eugène lonesco’s imaginary creative universe through his encounter with exotic and traditional religious universes.)

But there are instances when only a historian of religions can discover some secret significance of a cultural creation, whether ancient or contemporary. For example, only a historian of religions is likely to perceive that there is a surprising structural analogy between James Augustine Aloysius Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and certain Australian myths of the totemic-hero type. And just as the endless wanderings and fortuitous meetings of the Australian cultural heroes seem monotonous to those who are familiar with Polynesian, Indo-European, or North American mythologies, so the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in ‘Ulysses’ appear monotonous to an admirer of Honoré de Balzac or Lyov Nikolayevich Tolstoy. But the historian of religions knows that the tedious wanderings and performances of the mythical ancestors reveal to the Australian a magnificent history in which he is existentially involved, and the same thing can be said of the apparently tedious and banal journey of Leopold Bloom in his native city. Again, only the historian of religions is likely to catch the very striking similarities between the Australian and Platonic theories of reincarnation and anamnesis.

For Plato, learning is recollecting. Physical objects help the soul withdraw into itself and, through a sort of “going back,” to rediscover and repossess the original knowledge that it possessed in its extraterrestrial condition. Now, the Australian novice discovers, through his initiation, that he has already been here, in the mythical time; he was here in the form of the mythical ancestor. Through initiation, he again learns to do those things which he did in the beginning when he appeared for the first time in the form of a mythical being.

It would be useless to accumulate more examples. I will only add that the historian of religions is able to contribute to the understanding of writers as different as Jules Gabriel Verne and Gérard de Nerval, Novalis and Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca. It is surprising that so few historians of religions have ever tried to interpret a literary work from their own perspective. (For the moment I can recall only Maryla Falk’s book on Novalis and Stig Wikander’s studies of French writers from Jules Michelet to Mallarme. Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin’s important monographs on Stéphane Mallarme and Valery could have been written by any excellent literary critic, without any contact with the history of religions.) On the contrary, as is well known, many literary critics, especially in the United States of America, have not hesitated to use the findings of the history of religions in their hermeneutical work. One need only call to mind the frequent application of the “myth and ritual” theory or the “initiation pattern” in the interpretation of modem fiction and poetry.

My purpose here is more modest. I will try to see whether a historian of religions can decipher some hidden meanings in our so-called cultural fashions, taking as examples three recent vogues, all of which originated in Paris but are already spreading throughout western Europe and even the United States of America. Now, as we all know well, for a particular theory or philosophy to become popular, to be a la mode, en vogue, implies neither that it is a remarkable creation nor that it is devoid of all value. One of the fascinating aspects of the “cultural fashion” is that it does not matter whether the facts in question and their interpretation are true or not. No amount of criticism can destroy a vogue. There is something “religious” about this imperviousness to criticism, even if only in a narrow-minded, sectarian way. But even beyond this general aspect, some cultural fashions are extremely significant for the historian of religions. Their popularity, especially among the intelligentsia, reveals something of Western man’s dissatisfactions, drives, and nostalgias.

To give only one example: Fifty years ago, Sigmund Freud thought that he had found the origin of social organization, moral restrictions, and religion in a primordial murder, namely, the first patricide. He told the story in his book ‘Totem and Taboo’. In the beginning, the father kept all the women for himself and would drive his sons off as they became old enough to evoke his jealousy. One day, the expelled sons killed their father, ate him, and appropriated his females. “The totemic banquet,” writes Sigmund Freud, “perhaps the first feast mankind ever celebrated, was the repetition, the festival of remembrance, of this noteworthy criminal deed.” Since Sigmund Freud holds that God is nothing other than the sublimated physical father, it is God himself who is killed and sacrificed in the totemic sacrifice. “This slaying of the father-god is mankind’s original sin. This blood-guilt is atoned for by the bloody death of Christ.”

In vain the ethnologists of his time, from William Halse Rivers Rivers and Franz Uri Boas to A. L. Kroeber, Bronisław Kasper Malinowski, and Wilhelm Schmidt, demonstrated the absurdity of such a primordial “totemic banquet.” In vain they pointed out that totemism is not found at the beginnings of religion and is not universal: not all peoples have passed through a “totemic stage”; that Frazer had already proved that, of the many hundred totemic tribes, only four knew a rite approximating the ceremonial killing and eating of the “totem-god” (a rite assumed by Sigmund Freud to be an invariable feature of totemism); and, finally, that this rite has nothing to do with the origin of sacrifice, since totemism does not occur at all in the oldest cultures. In vain did Wilhelm Schmidt point out that the pretotemic peoples knew nothing of cannibalism, that patricide among them would be a “sheer impossibility, psychologically, sociologically, and ethically (and that) […] the form of the pre-totemic family, and therefore of the earliest human family we can hope to know anything about through ethnology, is neither general promiscuity nor group-marriage, neither of which, according to the verdict of the leading anthropologists, ever existed at all.

Sigmund Freud was not in the least troubled by such objections, and this wild “gothic novel,” ‘Totem and Taboo’, has since become one of the minor gospels of three generations of the Western intelligentsia.

Of course, the genius of Sigmund Freud and the merits of psychoanalysis ought not to be judged by the horror stories presented as objective historical fact in ‘Totem and Taboo’. But it is highly significant that such frantic hypotheses could be acclaimed as the sound scientific theory in spite of all the criticism marshalled by the major anthropologists of the century. What lay behind this victory was first the victory of psychoanalysis itself over the older psychologies and then its emergence (for many other reasons) as a cultural fashion. After 1920, then, the Freudian ideology was taken for granted in its entirety. A fascinating book could be written about the significance of the incredible success of this “roman noir frenetique,” ‘Totem and Taboo’. Using the very tools and method of modern psychoanalysis, we can lay open some tragic secrets of the modem Western intellectual: for example, his profound dissatisfaction with the worn-out forms of historical Christianity and his desire to violently rid himself of his forefathers’ faith, accompanied by a strange sense of guilt, as if he himself had killed a God in whom he could not believe but whose absence he could not bear. For this reason, I have said that a cultural fashion is immensely significant, no matter what its objective value may be; the success of certain ideas or ideologies reveals to us the spiritual and existential situation of all those for whom these ideas or ideologies constitute a kind of soteriology.

Of course, there are fashions in other sciences, even in the discipline of the history of religions, though evidently, they are less glamorous than the vogue enjoyed by ‘Totem and Taboo’. That our fathers and grandfathers were fascinated by ‘The Golden Bough’ is a comprehensible, and rather honourable, fact. What is less comprehensible, and can be explained only as a fashion, is the fact that between 1900 and 1920 almost all the historians of religions were searching for mother-goddesses, com-mothers, and vegetation demons-and, of course, they found them everywhere, in all the religions and folklores of the world. This search for the Mother-mother earth, tree-mother, com-mother, and so on and also for other demonic beings related to vegetation and agriculture is also significant for our understanding of the unconscious nostalgias of the Western intellectual at the beginning of the century.


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