Tuesday, December 28, 2010

life in all its intensity, illogicality and durability

orthodox for some

Recently I received the gift of a book of essays and occasional pieces, written in the sixties, by Charmian Clift, one of Australia's most talented and thought-provoking writers. The collection is entitled Trouble in lotus land. One of her pieces, 'The loftiest form of springtime', is a short but intense and vivid description, half poetical, half anthropological, of the ritual activities and festivities around Easter Passion week on a Greek island - that's to say, within a close-knit and profoundly tradition-bound Greek community. The Day of Lazarus, Palm Sunday, Holy or Passion week, Maundy Thursday, these are terms with no great significance for me, but on this Greek Island these days and weeks are imbued with a seasonal ritual which clearly isn't entirely Christian. As Clift puts it:
Christ and Dionysus merge in torn flesh and flowers, and life is resurrected from the dead earth. The pagan world is always there, lingering on, dark and impenitent.
Reading about these rituals, their colour and intensity, their apparent essentiality to the communities that engage in them, takes me far from the kind of remark I read this morning, a blog comment about faith as a form of intellectual dishonesty, and not really 'a way of knowing' at all. My response, right now, would be that faith, for these communities, isn't a way of knowing, but more like a way of being, and that to call it faith wouldn't be entirely accurate. For these villagers, as with tribal peoples throughout the world, all of this goes beyond the label of 'faith' or 'religion', and terms like 'truth' and 'falsehood' don't really apply. It's just what they do, and it constitutes their identity. I've written about this in an essay called 'big and small religions', in which I express my ambivalence about attacks on religious belief based purely on logic. I don't think religious belief is particularly logical in the accepted sense, but it can clearly provide people with a strong sense of identity, motivation and energy, as the work of Emily Kngwarreye has so powerfully shown. I've long been of the view that religion and science are not reconcilable, that at base they are in competition in seeking to explain how the world is and how it works, but it's clear that we can't all be scientists, and there are whole cultures with traditions that can't readily incorporate the findings of modern science. The sorts of vigorous and rigorous critiques aimed at fundamentalist Christians, or at the teachings of the RCC, seem to me inappropriate when dealing with smaller, tribal religions or belief systems, or their quirky versions of mainstream, larger religions. A sort of 'tread softly, for you tread on my whole way of being' approach is called for. We can even celebrate the colour and intensity and ingenuity of their rituals and belief systems, while always recognising how much damage they can do [I've seen a horrible video in which a young girl was being threatened with death by a 'witchdoctor' for being possessed, and we often hear of the horrific treatment of albinos in Africa, due to irrational belief systems, etc]. For the most part, though, they are effective in binding communities together and helping them to thrive collectively, if not individually - otherwise, such rituals and belief systems wouldn't have developed. 
Some have argued that the sympathetic attitudes of some western intellectuals towards these 'small religions' or local 'traditions' smacks of condescension, but in Australia, as elsewhere, we've learned the hard way of the dangers and the damage involved in underestimating the power, the energy and the resilience of supposedly primitive belief systems. I for one don't see them disappearing in the foreseeable future, until at least a scientific worldview is equally capable of binding communities together, providing equivalent rewards and satisfactions [as of course it does in many modern scientific fields and 'campus communities'].
Another thing about this little piece - it took me back to my own readings of anthropological writings in the eighties, especially Clifford Geertz's concept of 'thick description', the idea that the anthropologist should describe the ritual or practise in the richest possible detail, incorporating not only her own observations, but whatever commentary or  background can be provided by the participants, however contradictory or multifarious - the contradictions and 'illogicalities' being often more revealing and key to the understanding of the event as any 'official' version. To try to see things from a variety of other perspectives can't be a completely bad thing, can it?  


  1. I grudgingly see the wisdom in what you're saying. Though it just makes my pragmatic mind start thinking about what sorts of small steps which could take multiple generations might be taken.

    Can you describe the experience in Australia that you allude to that makes you especially pessimistic about the possibility for advancing tribal people beyond superstition?

  2. First, thanx for dropping by - i'm obviously not much good at getting people to comment here.

    Hard to describe the Australian aboriginal experience for those who haven't experienced it - needless to say it's enormously complex. For a long time, up to the fifties and sixties, there was a policy here of assimilation, in which so-called 'half-caste' aborigines were taken away from their parents, either forcibly, or more often sneakily, and brought up in white families. These people are now called 'the stolen generations'. Tribal aboriginal society was regarded as inferior, and bound to die out. The task was to 'smooth the dying pillow'. Not surprisingly, there's been a backlash against this approach since the sixties, with the rise of aboriginal black pride, a growing interest amongst white people in aboriginal culture and languages [several hundred have been identified], and a recognition of the devastating impact that much western culture has had upon aboriginal society. Today, rural and outback aboriginals have amongst the lowest life expectancy anywhere in the world, there are massive problems with health, with drug and alcohol dependency, with welfare dependency. Yet some outback aboriginal communities are thriving, managing to retain a strong sense of identity, including shared religio/cultural practices [what you have described as superstition - and I too used to dismiss it as superstition many years ago]. The fact is that it's a rich and inventive tradition, very oral in nature, full of stories featuring totemic animals and magical creatures, sacred places and ancestral journeys, which place individuals firmly in their particular 'mob', linked very much to the land. I'm a thorough-going atheist myself, but experience has shown that an insensitive attempt to pull all the superstitions out from under aboriginal people [and by implication many other people steeped in a religio-cultural identity] does more damage than good. Not that there aren't positive signs. There are many successful aboriginal people who have managed to straddle the white world and a traditional aboriginal world.
    There's a lot more that I could say, or question - about all this. For example, would it really advance humanity if these ways of thinking and being, which we so easily label as 'tribal' or 'primitive' or 'superstitious', were to disappear in favour of a homogenised scientific or rational outlook? Who knows.

  3. Thanks, that's a really interesting and depressing account and your questions aren't easy.