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.


REEKFEEL said...

like joyce's sympathic magic in naming other works in the text - smth to do with trying to cure his daughter

i've written a very tricky graphic novel based on 'Golden Bough' and 'White Goddess' and others. it ends up as a perpetual calender.
i can;t draw so just all planned out.

here's my orgona project on the link

Stephen Crowe said...

I may have sacrificed clarity on the altar of brevity (boom boom), but as I tried to argue in the post, I don't think Joyce literally believed that he was working magic, but rather that he saw ancient magic rituals as being analogous to poetry, because they used metaphors to explore emotions and ideas.

On a sidenote, I wasted precious minutes of my morning agonising over whether, in 2012, it's appropriate to quote the catchphrase of Basil Brush. I suppose I should have just left it out...