Monday, November 22, 2004

Meet R. R. Marett

Admiration, however, does not in itself amount to fine art, which is, so to say, admiration become expresive instead of merely appreciative. Expression implies the use of a medium or vehicl which is artificial in the sense that it is new matter adapted to some lovable form in order the more clearly to bring out its intrinsic charm, the grace inherent in its formal quality. Paradoxical as it may sound,t he artist transfers the matter to the form, not the form to the matter; for we adapt the means to the end, and the form whether it be given in nature or in idea is always the final cause of the activity. This adaptation and transference of the matter to suit the form must be carried out adequately; and the skill shown in the preparation of the medium of expression is what we know as style. Thus style is not a primary, but a secondary or incidental, end of fine art; for, though it stands to reason that, if there is to be expression of the form, a certain measure of expressiveness msut be imparted to the vehicle, the latter result is attained by the way. Hence to look no further than the style, forgetting that it is but the minister of the form, is a short-sighted policy bound to lead to disaster. Stylism is the bane of art. It comes about chiefly when artists seek to outdo one another instead of seeking after the intrinsic beauty of the form which can never be outdone. Thus the true artist must ever concentrate on the form, and leave the style to look after itself. Great art has an air of innocence and freedom because it is on the face of it careless of style. It always looks as if the genius had never heard of art for art's sake.

R. R. Marett, Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion. Clarendon (Oxford: 1932), pp. 150-151.

R. R. Marett is a name that deserves to be known. He is one of the great anthropologists of religion, taking his place with people like Edward Tylor and James Frazer. Marett is most famous for noting that the phenomena required more than merely Tylor's notion of animism, i.e., the attribution of spirits/souls to things; there was another sort of issue anthropologists needed to recognize:

The question is whether apart from ideas of spirit, ghost, soul, and the like, and before such ideas have become the dominant factors in the constituent experience, a
rudimentary religion can exist. It will suffice to prove that supernaturalism, the attitude of the mind dictated by awe of the mysterious, which provides religion with its raw material, may exist apart from animism, and, further, may provide a basis on which animistic doctrine is subsequently constructed.

(In The Threshold of Religion, quoted from here.)

This additional doctrine he called 'animatism' or 'preanimism'. This discovery was in great measure spurred by his study of Melanesian religious life, particularly its concept of mana, discussion of which he was a major pioneer. One of the things I like about Marett is his strong recognition of the importance of religion as lived; as he once said, "religion is not so much thought out as danced out." Thus in criticizing associationist accounts of religious origins (e.g., Frazer's), he always insisted that association in the mind according to similarity, contiguity, or causation is only what happens from the passive perspective: the active perspective is attention or interest, which does the chief work. Marett's anthropological work thus often reads like a sort of phenomenology of religion; and this is certainly true of Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion, which is one part of his published Gifford Lectures. I haven't read the other part, unfortunately; Marett's books are rather tricky to find. I lucked out with FHPPR, since I came across a first edition in a used bookstore (where it cost me only Can$17.50). It is a beautiful little book, although with some of the standard faults of anthropologists of Marett's time. Here are the chapters, with the chapter abstracts, which show many of the strengths and weaknesses of Marett's approach:

1. The Religious Complex: On the hypothesis that his religion helps the savage to live, the qustion arises whether such help comes mainly by way of thinking, acting, or feeling. Now the thinking is of poor quality, to judge by primitive mythology. The acting, again, is symbolic, its efficacy being held to depend on the intervention fo a higher power manifested only for such as are in the right spiritual condition. Thus it is all-important that feeling should provide the necessary assurance of being in touch with this higher power, which, however, is only by gradual experiment revealed as a power making for righteousness.

2. Hope: If religion is taken as an intensified expression of the will to live, a positive hopefulness is seen to be the basic element in it. Such an attitude is characteristic of the ancient savage, who mastered fire, refused to recognize the finality of death, and anticipated the control of the animal kingdom in his spelaeolatric rites. The same moral is to be drawn from the rites of the modern savage, whether rites of participation or of projection. All such rites are not merely magical, but religious, in so far as they are normal developments of the social life, and apply an inward spur to tis essential activities.

3. Fear: Fear is secondary to hope, if equally fundamental in religion; its true function being to induce a needful caution, though in its craven form it is an enemy to strenuous living. Black magic illustrates this bad side; whereas its good side appears in those disciplinary terrorisms which religion employs in connexion with punishment, whether hereafter or on this earth, or again, with the educational system both at puberty and in later life. Thus fear, giving rise, as it does, to quasi positive attitudes such as purity and humility, exerts a chastening force directly helpful to the good life.

4. Lust: In seeking to regularize the violence of sexual emotion, religion has been less concerned to encourage than to restrain it. The repressions involved in the incest-taboo may go back to a matri-central form of the family, when the mother's blood, being regarded as the sole source of generation, provoked an awe that enabled her to enforce chaste relations within the home circle. In contrast marriage, being at first little more than a tolerated license, develops rites that are partly piacular, though partly making for communion between alien groups. As male ascendency grows, the fertility cult gives way to forms of religion that reflect masculine authority.

5. Cruelty: Hunting as the earliest mystery-craft must have helped to invest blood with a sacredness that may account for the origin of cooking as a purificatory rite; while the slaying of the animal, wild or domesticated, is felt to need apology. So too in human sacrifice, the victim, slave or enemy though he be, is never without a certain sacredness, which extending also to the slain criminal, transforms each into a kind of martyr, as is more obviously the case with the king slain at the end of his term of office, or the widow who undergoes suttee. These, then, vicariously represent a general habit of self-torture which, though sublimated into self-sacrifice, looks back to ugly beginnings.

6. Faith: It is not inconsistent with the hopefulness inherent in primitive religion that it should rest on a faith in tradition, though this might seem to contradict the tendency of the immature mind to indulge in random play. Another trait of such a mind being to enjoy repetition by rote, it is on this that the static type of society seizes in order to obtain the rigid system of law that it needs. The cyclical view of life, reflected in the belief in reincarnation, implies a round of duties comprised in a sacred custom, and only faith in its infallibility can supply the moral effort needed to maintain it.

7. Conscience: Together with a blind allegiance to social convention goes sorrow at beign out of touch with the rest and a desire to be restored to the fold. Though some sins are irremediable, others admit of rites of penance which remove the pollution, sometimes as if it were a physical foulness, but also, as in the rite of confession, by identifying it with a state of the mind; while the publicity of the humiliation helps to cast down the sinner in his own eyes. At the same time, a forgiveness which goes beyond strict justice is apt to inspire the penitent to repay the debt with interest.

8. Curiosity: In treating the pursuit of knowledge as a mystery for which moral discipline must form a preparation primitive religion effectively refutes that shallow interpretation of tis rites which, because an appeal to a god is not always in evidence, deems them self-sufficent and arrogant in their underlying spirit. On the cotnrary, the novice at initiation, the member of the secret society, the theocratic ruler, and the craftsman must one and all purchase their enlightenment at the cost of a rigorous training, while the door of the sanctuary remains closed to unqualified persons.

9. Admiration: Religion is found in association with the desire to express beauty of form from the days of the cave-artists who, in the case of the animals represented, preserve a naturalistic style, though their masked human figures verge on the monstrous, as if the bestial still competed with the human in mystic value. Though stylized or purely geometrical art favours abstract thinking, emotion attaches more readily to concrete wholes, and in many ways fine art can assist religion in bringing out the quality of that which is worthy to be admired and loved.

10. Charity: Prehistoric times were no golden age in whcih peace and charity reigned throughout the earth, but within the primitive home the woman must have played her natural part of peace-maker; while her curse may well have been the primal sanction agains the shedding of kinly blood, even if her lamentations did must to stimulate blood-revenge. So, too, endo-cannibalism, cutting for the dead, and blood-brotherhood are rights making for consciousness of kind. As contrasted with a just but heartless legalism, charity gives freely without insisting on reciprocity.

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