Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Page 36: a nice how-do-you-do, version 2

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Page 80: what subtler timeplace of the weald

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part Three: Magic as Metaphor

Part Two
At this point, we’ve seen how magic works by imitating nature, and how that theory led to the worship of gods of nature who die and come back to life. Now it’s time to see what happened when the religious turned from filling their bellies to more mystical concerns.

A recurrent theme throughout Frazer’s history is the development of abstract thought; in other words, a culture’s ability to discuss abstract things in abstract terms. The concept of taboo is a primitive attempt to conceptualise morality, and therefore a very alien one to the modern reader. To see the supernatural as a blessing or a curse is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine otherwise.

But the primitive philosopher recognises no such distinction: “the conceptions of holiness and pollution are not yet differentiated in his mind.” Taboo is a morally neutral force: an invisible energy which, like electricity, can be conducted from one thing to another, and which may be dangerous or beneficial depending on how it’s used.

Take the Old Testament rules that require a menstruating woman to sacrifice two doves. Traditions like that derived not from the idea that women’s bodies are filthy and disgusting (a modern notion invented in the 1950’s to sell douches), but from the primitive belief that menstruation and childbirth have a magical energy that needs to be safely discharged.

Later, we invent the ideas of sin and virtue, and the old taboos must be sorted into good and bad. This is a valuable idea for understanding the Wake, in which H.C.E. is constantly wavering between good and bad, holy and cursed, innocent and guilty, until finally the two sides separate into the characters of Shaun, the blessed son, and Shem, the cursed one.

But the shift to abstract thought isn’t sudden. The primitive mind continues to assume that everything has a physical reality, and attempts to treat abstract things like illness, death and sin like sticks or stones to be thrown away. A scapegoat (animal or human) might carry their sins away like so many rocks (or like Finnegan, a hod of bricks).

But in other cases, the new role is taken by the old god of the corn. Perhaps, as Frazer suggests, it was for reasons of efficiency – a two-for-one sacrifice. Perhaps at the beginning of the new year, which generally coincided with spring, people felt the desire to turn a new leaf. Whatever the reason, the implications are huge. We have now entered the realm of Jesus, the Buddha, and Earwicker, the Phoenix Culprit. The old rituals of death and rebirth take on an entirely new significance: the god dies not for our food, but for our sins. The harvest supper becomes the Holy Communion, and the rebirth of nature becomes the rebirth of the soul. The relationship between form and function shifts from metonymy to metaphor: the Bread of Life, once the promise of future bread, comes to symbolise the promise of life after death.

There’s a lot more to be said about how Joyce used this material, and I hope to have time to cover it in more detail later. But there’s a wider point I want to make about Joyce’s whole project. We’ve seen how rituals intended to influence the growth of crops become metaphors for abstract ideas of sin and virtue. In fact all imitative magic functions as a metaphor: the sacrifice of the god is a metaphor for winter and his rebirth a metaphor for spring. The metaphor is the magic, but it works its power not on nature but on us. The manipulation of the abstract by association with the concrete: when we look at magic in these terms, it quickly becomes indistinguishable from poetry, and both become equivalent to dreams.

Commentators on the Wake often focus on the idea that it’s a “history of the world” mediated through a dream. But I think Joyce took up these subjects because he saw in the traditions of magic and religion the same tools and the same purposes that went into his own work: an exploration not of the world, but of himself. I have no idea how much of Frazer’s argument is true, and I don’t think it’s important. As with all Joyce’s sources, he took whatever stimulated his imagination, and made magic with it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part Two: The Birth of Gods

Part One
In part one, we saw how the theory of imitative magic led to the ritual sacrifice of men in the role of gods of the land. As society grows in complexity, its theology develops with it. Old traditions begin to seem quaint and naïve. The reputation of the gods grows, as does the complexity of their mysteries, and finally their literal connection to things in the real world – to crops, kings and sacred animals – is broken altogether. In the stories of dying gods like Osiris, Attis, Adonis and Dionysus, we can see the shadows of Tim Finnegan and his successor, H. C. Earwicker.

But the humble, immanent origins of the gods is fossilised in the myths that surround them. Just like John Barleycorn in the old folksong, these human-shaped gods continue to re-enact the life cycle of corn. But new rationales must be invented to explain it. For example, Adonis is born from a tree because he originally was a tree. Demeter presents someone with a bowl of corn because originally, the corn presented in the worship of Demeter was literally the goddess herself. The confusing fuzziness of detail and intent in the Wake is not a Joycean invention, but an inherent feature of ancient myth.

Complicating matters further, a culture’s beliefs aren’t monolithic. So while the educated classes worship the new gods, an intuitive belief in animism persists among peasant farmers. They imagine new spirits of the corn, who eventually earn new names and eventually become new deities. Gods multiply and are forced to cohabit, becoming husbands and wives, parents and children. The character of the sacrifice ritual as the “eternal and pathetic contrast between youth and age” is dramatised in myths of family conflict (for example, the battle between Osiris’ son Set and his brother Horus).

The nature of sacrifice changes too. As the god drifts into the ether, the god-kings on Earth find suicide an increasingly onerous duty. They change the rules. Disturbingly, it was common for the king’s own sons to be killed in his place. Frazer tells of one Swedish king who killed nine of his sons until finally, a frail old man, he was prevented from sacrificing the last one, and died. Eventually the duty falls upon slaves and convicts, often after a short period acting in the king’s place. Later still, the actual death is left out of the proceeding entirely, and the man is banished, beaten, or ducked in the river.

The Tibetan Jalno is an especially interesting case. At each New Year, the ruler temporarily ceded his throne to the monk who bid the highest sum, who took the title of Jalno and ruled with absolute authority. At the end of his brief reign, a second substitute was chosen: a worthless beggar dressed in pantomime costume who went around the marketplace demanding alms, until finally, after a rigged game of chance with the Jalno, he was chased off into the mountains. If he died, people thought it a good omen.

The sacrifice of an animal undergoes a different change. The god eventually reaches a level of prestige that makes it seem absurd for a pig or a goat to literally represent them. So it becomes a mere offering, often rationalised by casting the animal as the god’s natural adversary (for damaging the plant sacred to him or, like the boar in the story of Adonis, for killing him). Thus, in a phrase that could be a summary for much of the Wake, the god is “sacrificed to himself on the grounds that he is his own enemy.”

In the final part, we’ll see how these ceremonies are altered by the community’s shift in concern from their stomachs to their souls.
Part Three

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part One: The Science of Magic

I put off reading The Golden Bough for a long time. I had some idea how important it was to the composition of Finnegans Wake, but I think was intimidated by the monstrous size of the complete 12-volume edition. What if I read the abridged version, only to discover that it wasn’t enough, and my work wouldn’t be complete without slogging miserably through the rest of it? Having finally taken the plunge, I can confirm that the abridged version is quite sufficient (I’m sure that’s all Joyce read anyway), and it’s absolutely indispensable to understanding the Wake. In fact, it’s so packed with important ideas that even though I read it a full year ago, it’s only after rereading it now that I feel able to write something coherent about it. I posted something this time last year about the importance of Easter to the Wake story, so I hope it will become clear just how fitting it is to return to it now.

In fact, The Golden Bough is a fascinating read, not least thanks to Frazer’s decision to structure the book as a kind of murder mystery, in which he takes the role of detective, uncovering the motives behind an ancient and bloody Latin ritual. The King of the Wood of Nemi was an escaped slave who lived in a sacred forest near Rome. He earned his title by killing the previous occupant in single combat and thus lived in constant danger of being killed himself. Frazer attempts to explain this strange practice (as well as many other, more relevant religious traditions, not least those of Christianity and Judaism) by comparing it with a vast catalogue of magical and religious minutiae, constructing an overview of religious development, from the first stirrings of supernatural belief to the world religions of today.

The foundation of Frazer’s theory lies in the nature of primitive magic (Frazer used the kind of terminology that you’d expect from a 19th-Century anthropologist; for simplicity I’ll follow him as far as “primitive”, but stop short of “savage”). He calls it “sympathetic magic”, which comes in two varieties: imitative – to create the desired result by, you know, imitating it – and contagious – to affect something at a distance by acting on something formerly in contact with it. These two laws are often combined, but the most important is imitation, of which Frazer provides countless examples, from European peasants throwing water to make it rain, to the Brazilian Indian who, to increase the size of his “generative organ”, strikes it with a banana-shaped aquatic fruit.

But there’s more to magic than hitting your penis with stuff. It stands to reason that anyone who depends, as early agricultural communities did, on the cycles of nature for survival, will expend a great deal of effort developing ways to keep their crops growing on schedule. This is the first stage in Frazer’s history, in which first farmers, and later specialised magicians, invented magical rituals to ensure the sprouting of plants in the spring.

Following the principles of sympathetic magic, these rituals could include couples having sex in the fields or marrying trees to each other, but at some point they coalesced around the idea of spiritual possession. Early communities, Frazer tells us, believed that all things, animate and inanimate alike, had “souls”, and that magicians could become possessed by the souls of plants to encourage them to grow. Because of that, breaking bread takes on a profound significance: at every meal you are literally eating the body of God.

At a certain point, the plant that is the object of worship stops being seen as the body of the spirit, and becomes merely a lifeless vessel which the spirit can enter and exit at will. This is the first step in the conception of gods, and it represents a crucial advance in a culture’s ability to contemplate abstractions. Now the spirit can be equally worshipped in any form, perhaps as an animal associated with the crops (like a wren in the trees, or a goat in the fields) or, more importantly, in the body of a man-god. The magician or the king himself becomes the vessel of the life-giving power of nature, and thus becomes a god in human form.

But as Spiderman can tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. Each year, nature blooms with life in spring and withers in autumn. In accordance with the rule of imitation, the man-god’s life must follow the same cycle. Thus in countless religious traditions, the concept develops of a god who dies in the body of one man in order to be renewed in the body of another, either after a fixed term or when the incumbent begins to show signs of aging (apparently Shaka, king of the Zulus, was obsessed with procuring hair oil to hide his grey – draw your Gaddafi comparisons here). We can observe the influence of ideas like this in Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s confrontation with the young Cad with a Pipe.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the sacrifice of human gods led to the creation of anthropomorphic, heavenly deities like the ones we recognise from ancient myths.
Part Two