Monday 20 July 2015

two hours of pushing broom…king of the grove

I have just started essaying the massive tome (the one volume, abridged paperback version) by the influential Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer. This ethnographic undertaking had its first best-selling runs around the turn of the past century and was absolutely devoured by scholastics and the reading public. Modern criticism is mostly directed at what strikes the politically-correct attuned ear as chauvinistic and racist and very much dated, and while contemporaries did wonder that Frazer himself was not as savage (or more so) as the primitives he studied in expounding such a monumental work premised on his own ignorance and confusion (the origins of the cycle of death and rebirth and the metaphoric rituals that have arisen that seem to defy explanation).
In Frazer’s own time, however, his work was most controversial in that Christianity’s customs were not spared from the rigourous analysis of how magical thinking creates totem and taboo and progresses onto religion. Subsequent editions of the Golden Bough, referring to the votive branch that gained ร†neas entry to the Underworld and reminds me of the later parallel occurrence when Henry II (Henry Plantagenet, the Sprig-Bearer—specifically of a hedge called broom that was cultivated to form the enclosures of landholdings and a nickname that came before this encounter) of England and Normandy met with Philip II of France—under a elm tree near the border town of Gisors, between the kingdoms—and violently fell the innocent tree after their failed embassy (perhaps to negotiate a peace-settlement or as some imaginatively suggest the schism among the Western Christian Military Orders), tended to not subject native religion and customs to the same treatment—although it was clearly superfluous at this point since Frazer had already made his point. As I said, I am just getting started and it is a very dense work but I am already struck by the numerous lucid examples, which I think was a time for privileged witness before war and industry wholly swept away native superstitions, and categorisations of magical thinking and had never before appreciated how homeopathy—whether charms, potions or medicine, is based on the principle—misguided belief that ought to be dispelled, according to Frazer, that like engenders or attracts like. The Golden Bough is pretty dismissive of such recourse, no matter how strongly ingrained but is not an exposition on other merits over mechanisms and relations, and really leaves no room for alibis for practitioners other than medicine men. It’s slow-going, but I am excited to see how the argument progresses and to see whether the self-censorship was a faithful omission.