Thursday, October 05, 2006

Time's Arrow: Today, Yesterday and the Eternal

Well, I feel like I have got quite severely 'off-subject' over the past few weeks. Readers may remember that this was supposed to be a blog about geology, poetry, anthropology and France. Lately, there's been quite a lot of random stuff about France and not much focussed thought about poetry, let alone geology or anthropology.

I thought I would come back to anthropology for this post because I spent most of last weekend in the new Quai Branly museum in Paris. I visited on both Saturday and Sunday, managing by sheer fluke and cheekiness to evade the long queues on both occasions.

The museum is fascinating although dimly lit, rather claustrophobic, disorientating and cluttered. It contains many strange, beautiful and even frightening objects. After fifteen minutes of walking around the glass cases my younger daughter announced she didn't like it and wanted to go home. The objects are mainly linked to all manner of ceremonies, deity worship, ritual, initiation and sacrifice.

Seeing these various objects and reading about native rituals made me start to wonder what were the equivalent objects and ceremonies in our western society. I remembered the initiation ceremony when my daughter joined the Brownies two years ago, dancing around a mirror on the floor decorated around the edge with flowers (the 'magic pool'):

The sixer takes the new Brownie to the pool and while the sixer turns her round three times, the pack says: "Twist me and turn me and show me the elf. I looked in the water, and there saw....."

New Brownie: The new Brownie then leans over, sees her face and says "Myself!"

In Africa, initiation ceremonies might take place over several weeks in, for example, a 'sacred wood'. The child becomes an adult with new 'knowledge' and 'secrets'. For girls it may be linked to the choosing of a husband and learning to care for his home. The girls may be daubed with clay to make them stand out. In the Brownies my daughter wears a uniform. She learns to cook, how to do first aid, how to make things. Basically the same kind of things that young African girls learn when they undertake initiation ceremonies.

I thought also of the Croissy Carrot Festival that we took part in a couple of weeks ago, dressing up in carrot costumes, wheeling carrots through the streets as if they were some kind of religious icon. How different was this festival to a million other festivals of mainly less contrived character, all necessary celebrations and renewals of the past ranging from ancestor worship to totem worship?

In the Quai Branly I read about the 'War Cultures' of Melanesia which thrive on a constant state of skirmishing war and thought about the cultures in our world today that do the same.

And lastly, sacrifice. The Aztecs built human sacrifice into their cultural system having specially trained priests who were skilled at ripping hearts out with stone knives. Today, who do we sacrifice? Is it the 100,000 Iraqis who are thought to have died in the Iraq war? Perhaps you would prefer not to think about it like that, but you should. What purpose do those Iraqi deaths serve? What purpose did the Aztec deaths serve apart from a demonstration of cultural supremacy?

So where are we, members of technological societies situated relative to members of native societies around the world? Many of these native societies are breaking down. The presence of their cult objects in ethnographic museums such as the Quai Branly is an indication of the fact.

These other societies are separated from ours not only in space, but also in time. That is to say, they are present on other continents, in dense jungles, far from our eyes and also they live on another time scale. Their present is not our present. Their history is not necessarily our history. However, their present may be analogous to our present some five hundred or even two thousand years ago.

This was Claude Levi-Strauss' point of view as an anthropologist. He studied other societies in the way that geologists study modern day river processes in order to understand rivers sediments of the past. The geologist Charles Lyells' phrase: 'the present is the key to the past' applies equally to the work of Levi-Strauss. In addition, Levi-Strauss imagined that in studying primitive peoples he would discover what were the really essential properties of what it is to be human.

The label 'primitive' is judged merely from a technological point of view. As the comparison above attempts to show there are a large number of factors that remain constant in both primitive and modern societies.

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