It was supposed to be a groundbreaking work of anthropology. And for the most part, it was. In 1890, Sir James Frazer unleashed the massive The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion into the world. It was the first work that collated worldwide, history-spanning religious and magical beliefs, and then sifted them through an analytic filter. The origins of certain myths and beliefs were revealed; behaviors that seemed idiosyncratic were found to fit global patterns; and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion was shown to resemble many other stories of gods who were killed and resurrected three days later. The mysteries of religion could now be studied like any other realm of human behavior. Coming between Darwin and Freud, Frazer’s work played an active part of the Western world’s shift to the secular.
- The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization by Teofilo F. Ruiz. 200 pages. Princeton University Press. $24.95.
It is also a deeply personal document. This fact is hard to catch at first. On a first reading, you are simply captivated by stories of shamans who maintain a supply of foreskins in case they need to bring on some rain, of tribes so reverential of trees that anyone who damaged one was likely to have his intestines wrapped around the wounded plant in apology. But perhaps sorting through so many superstitions and taboos, through so many senseless deaths and emotional and physical sufferings for illogical, irrational belief systems, started to get to Frazer. Maybe his despair started to seep into the material.
It starts with a few questionable statements about colonialism. “It is no mere accident that the most vehement outbursts of activity of the human mind have followed close on the heels of victory, and that the great conquering races of the world have commonly done most to advance and spread civilization, thus healing in peace the wounds they inflicted in war,” Frazer writes. He makes much reference to “savage societies” in the colonies, and calls despotism “a friend” to human progress, as it is the fastest way to update a community into modernity. It’s the kind of thing we cringe at today, but they can be forgiven in that vague way of, well, he was writing from late 19th-century Britain, before the atrocities committed in the name of empire were fully revealed and before we knew the long-term economic and social stunting that the colonies suffered. At the time, his were popular views.
Nonfiction is a tricky game. It would not be so if we were purely rational creatures, if we were able to keep all of our foul, weird, wriggly bits wrapped up at all times. All too often the scholar believes he is just offering an objective vision of the world, his own self comfortably absent from the text. But then the reader turns a corner, and the writer’s neuroses are laid out for all to see, the writer himself often remaining unaware he’s been stripped so bare.
Frazer was not the even-tempered anthropologist he believed himself to be, studying the world around him with a cold eye and a firm grasp of on his own prejudices and emotional state. His work includes heartbreaking passages about your average savage’s realization that he is not in control of the world around him: the sun rises whether he is out there casting spells or not. It is easy to imagine that passages written with such an aching longing represent the metaphorical means through which Frazer dealt with the disillusionment process we all must go through as we journey deeper into adulthood and face our limitations. There are rantings about the stupidity of his fellow humans. (“We shall find underlying [the population of the intelligent and thoughtful] a solid stratum of… the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious, who constitute, unfortunately, the vast majority of mankind.”) And there is pure dread about what the future might bring, as political power is removed from the hands of the civilizing force of the British Empire, and as the stupid and the superstitious continue to breed and crowd out the intellectually refined.
You spend so much time with Frazer (more than 900 pages in my edition) that you come to empathize with the man. He was certainly not the only person who vocalized such views — this was the dawning of the age of eugenics as a fashionable cause. Social programs were disasters, and a large percentage of the population of the United Kingdom was living in squalid poverty. Foreign policy in Europe continued to be tense — the groundwork for World War I was slowly being laid. Reading Frazer, I felt an immense affection for him in the same way I feel affection for my grandfather when he is talking politics that I wholeheartedly disagree with. I can understand the world Frazer lived in, with its start/stop progress, its upheaval and tumult, and I can imagine that the future must have looked terrifying to him. I doubt he realized just how much of his psyche he revealed in the pages of The Golden Bough, but his intellect and his prose are so tremendous that the politics become simply a minor distraction, even if you just want stories of bloody Bacchic celebrations.
But I had a hard time finding any sympathy for Teofilo Ruiz while reading The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz follows Frazer’s model pretty well, offering up a historical document with a helping of his own personal problems on the side. The book ostensibly explores how men and women throughout time have dealt with the immense weight of living in a world with incredible suffering and pain — through religious belief, through art and aesthetics, through decadence and hedonism. Like Frazer, he tracks particular behaviors to find their universality. For example, some of the citizenry responded to the Black Death that killed half the population around them by imagining they were being punished by God and tried to make amends. Others decided to eat, drink and screw until the end came for them. And then others wrote a collection of tales about a society trying to function amid the backdrop of plague and terror and called it the Decameron.
If Ruiz is writing about humans’ avoidance behavior, looking for all the ways we manage not to take responsibility for the state of the world, he is doing so with a significant amount of judgment. The word “avoidance” does not have a positive connotation, nor does “removal” or “ahistorical,” other words he uses instead of “coping strategy.” For Ruiz, there is something shameful about these methods of distracting ourselves from what he sees as the “meaninglessness” of existence. The religious are particularly scorned, as Ruiz believes they use the promise of an afterlife to check out from the here and now. He somehow forgets that throughout history, Christianity was the one reason not to check out. To please God, it was important to be Christ-like, tend to the poor and watch over thy neighbor. For every saint and mystic who used a connection to God as a reason to live on a mountain away from the rest of humanity, there were un-cloistered nuns and monks, believers and preachers who did the dirty work of daily life to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth.
Like Frazer, Ruiz spills his guts all over his manuscript. Here is simply a small sampling of his particular issues:
page xiii: “God, or, as I may tend to say through this book, ‘god’…”
page 18: “I, who claim to be a devoted atheist…”
page 36: “I slowly lost my faith during my 20s and have remained for the last four decades a devoted atheist…”
page 39: “Science cannot disprove the existence of god (although it may show the irrationality of religion)…”
(I had to stop listing there; I was getting bored. Let me assure you that this verbal tic continues throughout.)
Frazer held the religious as superior over the magical. Magic was superstitious, but religion was a higher state. Ruiz takes that further — religion is an emotional crutch, an “attempt to step out of historical processes, to escape the crushing reality of everyday expectations,” and pure rational atheism is not only a more honest belief system, but also a more ethical way to go through life. But Ruiz is incapable of making the argument and letting it stand for itself. He keeps trying to shore it up, not aware that with all the fussing he’s actually destabilizing it.
Most revealing is his repeated use of the word “devoted.” It’s such a strange word to couple with “atheist.” It suggests the posture of head down, hands clamped over one’s ears. It says that no matter what happens, no matter what one experiences or feels or intuits or needs, a devoted atheist will refuse to give oneself over to belief as that would be giving over to temptation and weakness. I’m not convinced this is a rational act. Agnosticism is at least an open, fluid, humane state of being. Pessimism, rigid disbelief, and a view of life as essentially meaningless is its own avoidance behavior. Frazer wrote that there is no true religious belief without action. Religion is (supposed to be) about engagement, not hiding or twisting away from life. Believing that we’re all fucked no matter what, as Ruiz appears to think, is a way of avoiding reality, or at the very least, of refusing to be a part of the rehabilitation process.
Frazer and Ruiz are working the same ground, although Ruiz obviously has a much less substantial set of tools. Humans are forever trying to find ways to dodge reality, or mold it, or understand it. Some use magic. Others use religion. Others use smug superiority, believing that they have it all figured out and everyone else is living under a delusion. Ruiz’s time, our time, is just as tumultuous as Frazer’s, is just as scary and just as dangerous. And a lot of that danger is cloaking itself in religious garb, it’s true. Frazer mistook the violence of his age as being the work of ignorant, superstitious rabble, and not the result of stifling conditions under repressive governments and inhumane living conditions; similarly, Ruiz ignores the environment that gives this religious violence room to breathe. And if that strong, rational intellect is only capable of producing a removed, misguided examination of human nature, then what is it really good for? Ruiz might not be hiding from history, willing as he is to see the ugliness of our past. But by denying the greater forces at work, he is hiding from the potential of the future. • 8 November 2011