The Primitive Mentality

14 07 2010

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There is, perhaps, no subject that has been more extensively investigated and more prejudicially misunderstood by the modern scientist than that of folklore. By “folklore” we mean that whole and consistent body of culture which has been handed down, not in books but by word of mouth and in practice, from time beyond the reach of historical research, in the form of legends, fairy tales, ballads, games, toys, crafts, medicine, agriculture, and other rites, and forms of social organization, especially those that we call “tribal.” This is a cultural complex independent of national and even racial boundaries, and of remarkably similarity through the world; in other words, a culture of extraordinary vitality. The material of folklore differs from that of exoteric “religion”, to which it may be in a kind of opposition – as it is in a quite different way to “science” – by its more intellectual and less moralistic content, and more obviously and essentially by its adaptation to vernacular transmission: on the one hand, as cited above, “the myth is not my own, I had it from my mother” (Euripedes), and on the other, “the passage from a traditional mythology to ‘religion’ is a humanistic decadence.” (Evola)

The content of folklore is metaphysical. Our failure to recognize this is primarily due to our own abysmal ignorance of metaphysics and of its technical terms. We observe, for example, that the primitive craftsman leaves in his work something unfinished, and that the primitive mother dislikes to hear the beauty of her child unduly praised; it is “tempting Providence”, and my lead to disaster. That seems like nonsense to us. And yet there survives in our vernacular the explanation for the principle involved: the craftsman leaves something undone in his work for the same reason that the word “to be finished” may mean either to be perfected or to die. Perfection is death: when a thing has been altogether fulfilled, when all has been done that was to be done, potentiality altogether reduced to act, that is the end: those whom the gods love die young. This is not what the workman desired for his work, nor the mother for her child. It can very well be that the workman or the peasant mother is no longer conscious of the meaning of a precaution that may have become a mere superstition; but assuredly we, who call ourselves anthropologists, should have been able to understand what was the idea which alone could have given rise to such a superstition, and ought to have asked ourselves whether or not the peasant by his actual observance of the precaution is not defending himself from a dangerous suggestion to which we, who have made of our existence a more tightly closed system, may be immune.

As a matter of fact, the destruction of superstitions invariably involves, in one sense or another, the premature death of the folk, or in any case the impoverishment of their lives. To take a typical case, that of the Australian aborigines, D.F. Thompson, who has recently studied there remarkable initiatory symbols, observes that their “mythology supports the belief in a ritual or supernatural visitation that comes upon those who disregard or disobey the law of the old men. When this belief in the old men and their power — which, under tribal conditions, I have never known to be abused – dies, or declines, as it does with ‘civilization’, chaos and racial death follow immediately”. The world’s museums are filled with the traditional arts of innumerable peoples whose culture has been destroyed by the sinister power of our industrial civilization: peoples who have been forced to abandon their own highly developed and beautiful techniques and significant designs in order to preserve their very lives by working as hired laborers at the production or raw materials. At the same time, modern scholars, with some honorable exceptions, have as little understood the content of folklore as did the early missionaries understand what they thought of only as the “beastly devices of the heathen”; Sir J.G. Frazer, for example, whose life has been devoted to the study of all the ramifications of folk belief and popular rites, has only to say at the end of it all, in a tone of lofty superiority, that he was “led on, step by step, into surveying, as form some spectacular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into indicting what I cannot but regard as dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavor, wasted time and blighted hopes” — words that sound much more like an indictment of modern European civilization than a criticism of any savage society!

-Ananda Coomaraswamy courtesy of the Gornahoor blog

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15 07 2010
Quote of the Day « J.S. Bangs

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