Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Golden Bough Revisited

Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive.--"Our Debt to the Savage"  

The Sibyl Deiphobe with a golden bough in J.M.W. Turner's 1834 painting

Pangutkutan, the Mangyan ritual of exhuming the bones of the dead

IF THE RESEARCH DONE BY Douglas Pennoyer (1977), Thomas Gibson (1986) and Masaru Miyamoto (1988) on Mangyan ritual and religion were published in the early 20th century (although Fletcher Gardner and H. Otley Beyer might have had some by then), they would have made for rock-solid material for Sir James George Frazer's 12-volume book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1906-1915), an influential work on comparative anthropology and mythology. A required reading (then in Collier paperback) in a graduate seminar I took decades ago, it was a book I don't remember having written a paragraph about, much less paid attention to its criticism, but when I found a copy of the first single-volume, abridged edition of the book (1922), my fascination was rekindled. The book got its title from an episode in the Aeneid, where the Sibyl Deiphobe (then more than 700 years old) tells Aeneas he can only enter Hades to meet the ghost of his father if he offers Proserpine a golden bough from a sacred tree in an adjacent forest, which he finds and presents to Charon, the ferryman, to gain entry to the underworld. The incident was depicted in a trademark 1834 art work by English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord Wiliiam Turner. In a nutshell, the thesis (or theme) of The Golden Bough is that human intellect evolved from a superstitious belief in magicians to a religious belief in priests and gods to enlightened belief in scientists, a proposition that many critics found hard to accept.

Although there are graphic (maybe questionable) accounts of Bagobos, Apayaos and Ifugaos drinking the blood and eating the entrails and brains of their slain enemies to gain courage, and rituals of other Filipinos included in the book--Tagalogs, Tagbanuas, Igorots, Tinguians (who avoided naming the dead), Negritos, Zambals, Italones (unfamiliar to this writer, who I learned are from Nueva Vizcaya), and Agutaynos (another unfamiliar one from Palawan), there are none of Mangyans, which may be fortunate because pundits of the time (thanks to Wiki) found fault with the methods Frazer used to collect his materials; he never spoke directly to people of the cultures he wrote about but relied instead on other researchers' findings and on questionnaires he gave to people traveling to other lands, and many elements of his text were later debunked. "Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages" wrote Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "since his explanations of their observances are much cruder than the sense of the observances themselves."  British anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt wrote that the book "had little or no relevance to the conduct of life in an Andamanese camp or a Melanesian village, and the whole, supposedly scientific, basis of Frazer's anthropology was seen as a misapplication of Darwin's theory of biological evolution to human history and psychology," noting that even during Frazer's lifetime, social anthropologists "had for the most part distanced themselves from his theories and opinions", and that the lasting influence of The Golden Bough "has been in the literary rather than the academic world." Social anthropologist Edmund Leach was even more scathing: "Frazer used his ethnographic evidence, which he culled from here, there and everywhere, to illustrate propositions which he had arrived at in advance by a priori reasoning, but, to a degree which is often quite startling, whenever the evidence did not fit he simply altered the evidence!"

The list of literary figures The Golden Bough had its impact on is indeed long: T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Robert Graves, H.P. Lovecraft, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and so on. Make a separate list of non-writers like mythologist Jessie L. Weston, psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard of The Da Vinci Code.  Fanciful and contrived or illuminating and prophetic, the book has a leave-it-or-take-it thesis, and I am inclined to take the latter position. I also believe that human thought progresses by accretion, that elements of savage ritual and magic and religion persist in modern human scientific thought, as man continues to make sense of and survive the challenges presented by the world around him. Maybe that's why we see evidence of voodoo being practiced in New York City, or simply enjoy a bloody steak sizzling on the barbecue after a stressful day. (In Mindoro we have this ritual of tossing the first shot of gin bulag, or Ginebra San Miguel, to the bushes for the dead, and I swear one will keep drinking the contents of that anointed bottle until it is empty.) In the last chapter of the book entitled "Farewell to Nemi", Frazer proposes that while science is the sturdiest form of thought, it is possible that another future system of thought may replace or improve it, and he doubts the ability of science to protect the human race in moments of apocalypse such as when the sun expires. This brings us these questions: if science is not the ultimate stage in the evolution of human thought, what is it and what will it be like? Can the next stage in the development of human thought, after science, save us from the death of our solar system and bring us to another blue planet? Did Stephen Hawking have anything to say about this?

Yet the history of thought should warn us against concluding that because the scientific theory of the world is the best that has yet been formulated, it is necessarily complete and final. We must remember that at bottom the generalisations of science or, in common parlance, the laws of nature are merely hypotheses devised to explain that ever shifting phantasmagoria of thought which we dignify with the high sounding names of the world and the universe. In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought: and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena—of registering the shadows on the screen—of which we in this generation can form no idea. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this prospect. In the ages to come man may be able to predict, perhaps even to control, the wayward courses of the winds and clouds, but hardly will his puny hands have strength to speed afresh our slackening planet in its orbit or rekindle the dying fire of the sun.--"Farewell to Nemi"

Goat head in Brooklyn's Prospect Park: voodoo in the city? (Marc Lallanilla)

Kurtz' jungle readings in Apocalypse Now

Kepler 186f: after science, what stage in the development of human intellect can bring us there?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Of Ferals And Fetishes

WHILE I'M ON THE SUBJECT of American imperial Gothic (and not-so-Gothic) fiction about the Philippines, I am posting several more stories that I have come upon in this foray. The first is "Mivins" (1902), the only short story on this subject as far as I know that is not available on public domain, by our mysterious writer Sargent Kayme which appeared in Metropolitan Magazine, a copy of which I found on Biblio. Here the barong reminds us of the awesome blade that hacked the head off a carabao at one blow in Apocalypse Now. The second is by another little-known writer Charles E. Meyers: "The Anting-Anting of Maga" (1895) in Overland Monthly, which has shades of Robert Louis Stevenson and W.W. Jacobs. Then the three Laguna hag tales (1902-1903) by African-American U.S. Volunteer Army captain Frank R. Steward (whose narrator doesn't identify himself as such) in Colored American Magazine, and are the subject of University of Texas scholar Gretchen Murphy's angle of reading. What I consider the most sympathetic of the group are the poignant last two stories, also from Overland Monthly: Pierre N. Beringer's "Joseppa, Sweetest of Tagalog Children" (1900) and William O'Connell McGeehans's "The Spirit of the Philippines" (1902).

Mangyan amulets (Masaru Miyamoto)

Capt. Frank R. Steward

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Pot Training

MY BALETE BANYAN (Ficus philippinensis) bonsai-in-training ($50 FedEx included, Wigerts nursery in Florida) had to come in while still with its moorings and take its reserved pot ($20, pick up at Home Depot) when the temperature outside dropped below 60°, and is already firing up the imagination. Not yet permanently planted, the aerial strangler roots are there, anchored in the ground but still too young to tackle a giant dao tree, and the main branch is leveled for a kapre to smoke his postprandial cigar on. Shaping a bonsai is a long and slow process especially for a newbie like me, so I'll be coming back to this specimen about a year from today to check on its progress, saving in the meantime for a phone with a better camera. And to be clear, this pot has nothing to do with weed!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Giving It A Shot

VISITED THREE MORE campuses (Amsterdam Avenue and Ithaca are done) and several antiquarian bookstores in the last four weeks. We are giving ourselves a break this Columbus Day weekend, then it's off to Providence ("where the Old World shadows hang heavy in the air" says Don Henley) before the November 1 Early Decision deadline. My baby stretching wings and aiming high before she takes off.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Imperial Gothic

WHO WAS SARGENT KAYME? Because I like mysteries, I did some online sleuthing on a recently acquired book to shed light on the identity of the author behind Anting-Anting Stories and Other Strange Tales of the Filipinos, well-received book of short stories (in 1901 when America was fascinated by the exoticism of its new possessions) but only came upon one interesting lead. Written under a pseudonym, the book was thought to have been written not by "a soldier in the United States service but a well-known New England author" (Current Literature, 1901) and indeed reminds one of Kipling out of other writers of the Gothic during the imperialist period--Conrad, Croker, Perrin, Bierce, Crawford et al. "Mivins", the only other known work ascribed to this nom de plume, was a short story in the July 1902 issue of Metropolitan Magazine (More on this later). So if the writer was a well-known author, why use a pseudonym? Wouldn't using the real name help sell a book, much more one of demonstrated quality? Care to take a stab? I've given up, going instead for a story in the anting-anting collection that touches on Mindoro and gives one a taste of Moro terror and raw swift's nest.