Anybody read Totem & Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages & Neurotics, by ol’ Sigmund Freud?
Just finished it myself. I know Freud’s got a bad reputation these days, but it’s hard to deny that reading what he has to say can be a joyous experience. Partly because of the utter audacity of his assertions, partly because of their beauty, and partly because they’re very powerful. I’m not talking about the whole nefarious Penis Envy business, I know that’s where he kind of fell off the ledge, but this book, taken with a big ‘this was written a hundred years ago’ grain of salt, has got way too much to say to us, the writers of Ignorance.
He’s trying to figure out why there are such complicated rules of taboo in ‘savage’ societies, and also why humans have such a universal attraction to identifying ourselves with animals, which form exogamous groups within the tribe – exogamous meaning groups whose members can’t marry each other. I won’t attempt to summarize all the marvels of this book, but I’ll describe a little of where it ends up, with the most evocative description of the Origin of Everything: totem, taboo, ghosts, sacrifices, magic, art, religion, the whole shamozzle.
He describes our original social organization as being pretty much like you see amongst apes: there’s a big mean ape (Dad) that keeps all the women for himself. The weaker apes (the Sons) live outcast on the fringes, having half-hearted sex with each other, envying the Big Mean Ape, fearing him, and admiring him. Finally, they have the idea to get together, and kill him. Seems good at first — but they realize that they’ve just ruined everything: now it’s brother against brother to the death, and their alliance is destroyed. Unless they agree that such a thing can Never Happen Again – they regret the act. They feel Guilt for the first time. And they maneuver out of it by pretending they didn’t do it, by ascribing the act to supernatural causes, and holding ritual funerals for the Dad where they ask forgiveness for their sin, and ascribe enormous spiritual power to the Ghost of the Dad.
He manages to roll a whole lot of other things into the heap when all is said and done, but here’s what’s interesting about it, in terms of Ignorance: we’ve got basically the same plot, except that Freud’s Dad is a Big Mean Ape, who rules by dominance, and ours, Twig, is a Leader who rules by an Inspiring Vision. And then is murdered by the Tribe, who regret it and have a big funeral ritual.
Now, oddly enough, I’m also reading a book we bought at the bookstore at the Grotte de Niaux, called The Mind in the Cave, which is about the origin of cave art – written by some fellow whose name I don’t remember just at the moment. I could go on and on about what he’s saying, but here’s the relevant bit – he thinks cave art was a highly political act, enforcing the power of a shamanic class, who claimed authority based on their ability to penetrate the veil (which is actually the cave wall) between this world and the spirit world, where they could understand things that everybody else couldn’t.
One might imagine that the first glimmerings of higher order consciousness – that is, the ability to imagine elaborately realized visions of alternate realities, would have struck our thick-browed ancestors as powerful magic. To make real, in your mind, something that is not real!
In other words, if you put Freud and The Mind in the Cave together, you get our play.
Well, I thought it was pretty neat.