Furthest Right

Primitive Mentality (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy)

There is, perhaps, no subject that has been more extensively investigated and more prejudicially misunderstood by the modern scientist than that of folklore. By “folklore” we mean that whole and consistent body of culture which has been handed down, not in books but by word of mouth and in practice, from time beyond the reach of historical research, in the form of legends, fairy tales, ballads, games, toys, crafts, medicine, agriculture, and other rites, and forms of social organization, especially those that we call “tribal.” This is a cultural complex independent of national and even racial boundaries, and of remarkably similarity through the world; in other words, a culture of extraordinary vitality. The material of folklore differs from that of exoteric “religion”, to which it may be in a kind of opposition – as it is in a quite different way to “science” – by its more intellectual and less moralistic content, and more obviously and essentially by its adaptation to vernacular transmission: on the one hand, as cited above, “the myth is not my own, I had it from my mother” (Euripedes), and on the other, “the passage from a traditional mythology to ‘religion’ is a humanistic decadence.” (Evola)

The content of folklore is metaphysical. Our failure to recognize this is primarily due to our own abysmal ignorance of metaphysics and of its technical terms. We observe, for example, that the primitive craftsman leaves in his work something unfinished, and that the primitive mother dislikes to hear the beauty of her child unduly praised; it is “tempting Providence”, and my lead to disaster. That seems like nonsense to us. And yet there survives in our vernacular the explanation for the principle involved: the craftsman leaves something undone in his work for the same reason that the word “to be finished” may mean either to be perfected or to die. Perfection is death: when a thing has been altogether fulfilled, when all has been done that was to be done, potentiality altogether reduced to act, that is the end: those whom the gods love die young. This is not what the workman desired for his work, nor the mother for her child. It can very well be that the workman or the peasant mother is no longer conscious of the meaning of a precaution that may have become a mere superstition; but assuredly we, who call ourselves anthropologists, should have been able to understand what was the idea which alone could have given rise to such a superstition, and ought to have asked ourselves whether or not the peasant by his actual observance of the precaution is not defending himself from a dangerous suggestion to which we, who have made of our existence a more tightly closed system, may be immune.

As a matter of fact, the destruction of superstitions invariably involves, in one sense or another, the premature death of the folk, or in any case the impoverishment of their lives. To take a typical case, that of the Australian aborigines, D.F. Thompson, who has recently studied there remarkable initiatory symbols, observes that their “mythology supports the belief in a ritual or supernatural visitation that comes upon those who disregard or disobey the law of the old men. When this belief in the old men and their power – which, under tribal conditions, I have nnever know to be abused – dies, or declines, as it does with ‘civilization’,. chaos and racial death follow immediately”. The world’s museums are filled with the traditional arts of innumerable peoples whose culture has been destroyed by the sinister power of our industrial civilization: peoples who have been forced to abandon their own highly developed and beautiful techniques an significant designs in order to preserve their very lives by working as hired laborers at the production or raw materials. At the same time, modern scholars, with some honorable exceptions, have as little understood the content of folklore as did the early missionaries understand what they thought of only as the “beastly devices of the heathen”; Sir J.G. Frazer, for example, whose life has been devoted to the study of all the ramifications of folk belief and popular rites, has only to say at the end of it all, in a tone of lofty superiority, that he was “led on, step by step, into surveying, as form some spectacular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into indicting what I cannot but regard as dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavor, wasted time and blighted hopes” – words that sound much more like an indictment of modern European civilization that a criticism of any savage society!

It is often supposed that in a traditional society, or under tribal or clan conditions, which are those in which a culture of the folk flourished most, the individual is arbitrarily compelled to conform to the patterns of life that he actually follows. It would be truer to say that under these conditions the individual is devoid of social ambition. It is very far from true that in traditional societies the individual is regimented: it is only in democracies, soviets, and dictatorships that a way of life is imposed upon the individual from without. In the unanimous society the way of life is self-imposed in the sense that “fate lies in the created causes themselves,” and this is one of the many ways in which the order of the traditional society conforms to the order of nature: it is in the unanimous societies that the possibility of self-realization – that is, the possibility of transcending the limitations of individuality – is best provided for. It is, in fact, for the sake of such a self-realization that the tradition itself is perpetuated. It is here, as Jules Romains has said, that we find “the richest possible variety of individual states of consciousness, in a harmony made valuable by its richness and density”, words that are peculiarly applicable, for example, to Hindu society. In the various kinds of proletarian government, on the other hand, we meet always with the intention to achieve a rigid an inflexible uniformity: all the forces of “education”, for example, are directed to this end. It is a national, rather than a cultural type that is constructed, and to this one type everyone is expected to conform, at the price of being considered a peculiar person or even a traitor. It is of England the Earl of Portsmouth remarks, “it is the wealth and genius of variety amongst our people, both in character and hand, that needs to be rescued now”: what could not be said of the United States! The explanation of this difference is to be found in the fact that the order that is imposed on the individual from without in any form of proletarian government is a systematic order, not a “form” but a cut and dried “formula”, and generally speaking a pattern of life that has been conceived by a single individual or some school of academic thinkers (“Marxists”, for example); while the pattern to which the traditional society is conformed by its own nature, being a metaphysical pattern, is a consistent but not a systematic form, and can therefore provide for the realization of many more possibilities and for the functioning of many more kinds of individual character than can be included within the limits of any system.

The actual unity of folklore represents on the popular level precisely what the orthodoxy of an elite represents in a relatively learned environment. The relation between the popular and the learned metaphysics is moreover, analogous to and partly identical with that of the lesser to the greater mysteries. To a very large extent both employ one and the same symbols, which are taken more literally in the one case, and in the other understood parabolically; for example, the “giants” and “heroes” of popular legend are the titans and gods of the more learned mythology, the seven-league boots of the hero correspond to the strides of an Agni or a Buddha, and “Tom Thumb” is no other that the Son whom Eckhart describes as “small, but so puissant”. So long as the material of folklore is transmitted, so long is the ground available on which the superstructure of full initiatory understanding can be built.

Let us now consider the “primitive mentality” that so many anthropologists have studied: the mentality, that is, which manifests itself in such normal types of society as we have been considering, and to which we have referred as “traditonal”. Two closely connected questions must first be disposed of. In the first place, is there such a thing a s a “primitive” or “alogical” mentality distinct from that of civilized and scientific man? It has been taken for granted by the older “animists” that human nature is a constant, so that “if we were in the position of the primitives, our mind being what it is now, we should think and act as they do.” Or on the other hand, for anthropologists and psychologist of the type of Lévy-Bruhl, there can be recognized an almost specific distinction between the primitive mentality and ours. The explanation of the possibility of disagreement in such a matter has much to do with the belief in progress, by which, in fact, all our conceptions of the history of civilization are distorted. It is too readily taken for granted that we have progressed, and that any contemporary savage society in all respects fairly represents the so-called primitive mentality, and overlooked that many characteristics of the mentality can be studied at home as well as or better than in any African jungle: the point of view of the Christian or Hindu, for example, is in many ways nearer to that of the “savage” that to that of the modern bourgeoisie. What real distinction of two mentalities can be made is, in fact, the distinction of a modern from a mediaeval or oriental mentality; and this is not a specific distinction, but one of sickness from health. It has been said of Lévy-Bruhl that he is a past master in opening up what is to us “an almost inconceivable” world: as if there were one amongst us to whom the mentality reflected in our own immediate environment were not equally “inconceivable.”

We shall consider, then, the “primitive mentality” as described, very often accurately enough, by Lévi-Bruhl and other psychologist-anthropolosits. It is characterized in the first place by a “collective ideation”; ideas are held in common, whereas in a civilized group, everyone entertains ideas of his own. Infinitely varied as it may be in detail, the folk literature, for example, has to do with the lives of heroes, all of whom meet with essentially the same adventures and exhibit the same qualities. It is not for one moment realized that a possession of ideas in common does not necessarily imply the “collective origination” of these ideas. It is argued that what is true for the primitive mentality is unrelated to experience, i.e., to such “logical” experience as ours. Yet it is “true” to what the primitive “experiences”. The criticism implied, for such it is, is exactly parallel to the art historian’s who criticizes primitive art as not being “true to nature”; and the that of the historian of literature who demands from literature a psychoanalysis of individual character. The primitive was not interested in such trivialities, but thought in types. This, moreover, was his means of “education”; for the type can be imitated, whereas the individual can only be mimicked.

The next and most famous characteristic of the primitive mentality has been called “participation”, or more specifically, “mystical participation”. A thing is not only what it is visibly, but also what it represents. Natural or artificial objects are not for the primitive, as they can be for us, arbitrary symbols of some other and higher reality, but actual manifestations of this reality; the eagle or the lion , for example, is not so much a symbol or image of the Sun as it is the Sun in a likeness (the form being more important than the nature in which it may be manifested); and in the same way every house is the world in a likeness, and every altar situated at the center of the earth; it is only because we are more interested in what things are than in what they mean, more interested in particular facts than in universal ideas, that this is inconceivable to us. Descent from a totem animal is not, then, what it appears to the anthropologist, a literal absurdity, but a descent from the Sun, the Progenitor and Pajapati of all, in that form in which he revealed himself, whether in vision or in dream, to the founder of the clan. The same reasoning validates the Eucharistic meal; the Father-Progenitor is sacrificed and partaken of by his descendants, in the flesh of the sacred animal: “this is my body, take and eat.” So that, as Lévy-Bruhl says of such symbols, “very often it is not their purpose to ‘represent’ their prototype to the eye, but to facilitate a participation,” and that “if it is their essential function to ‘represent’, in the full sense of the word, invisible beings or objects, and to make their presence effective, it follows that they are not necessarily reproductions or likenesses of these beings or objects.” The purpose of primitive art, being entirely different from the aesthetic or decorative intension of the modern “artist” (for whom the ancient motifs survive only as meaningless “art forms”), explains its abstract character. “We civilized men have lost the Paradise of the ‘Soul of primitive imagery’. We no longer live among the shapes which we had fashioned within: we have become mere spectators, reflecting them from without.”

The superior intellectuality of primitive and “folk” art is often confessed, even by those who regard the “emancipation” of art from its linguistic and communicative functions as a desirable progress. Thus W. Deonna writes, “Le primitivism exprime par l’art les idées,” but “l’art évolue … vers un naturalisme progressif,” no longer representing things, “telles qu’on les conçoit”; thus substituting “la réalité” for “l’abstraction”; and that evolution , “de l’idéalisme vers un naturalisme” in which “la forme tend à prédominer sur l’idée”, is what the Greek genius, “plus artiste que tous les autres,” finally accomplished.

To have lost the art of thinking in images is precisely to have lost the proper linguistic of metaphysics and to have descended to the verbal logic of “philosophy”. The truth is that the content of such and “abstract,” or rather “principial,” form as the Neolithic sun-wheel (in which we see only an evidence of the “worship of natural forces,” or at most a “personification” of these forces), or that of the corresponding circle with center and radii or rays, is so rich that it could only be fully expounded in many volumes, and embodies implications which can only with difficulty if a all be expressed in words; the very nature of primitive and folk art is the immediate proof of its essentially intellectual content. Nor does this only apply to the diagrammatic representations: there was actually nothing made for use that had not a meaning as well as an application: “The needs of the body and the spirit are satisfied together”; “le physique et le spiritual ne sont pas encore séparés,” “meaningful form, in which the physical and metaphysical originally formed a counterbalancing polarity, is increasingly depleted in its transmission to us; we say then that it is ‘ornament.'” What we call “inventions” are nothing but the application of known metaphysical principles to practical ends; and that is why tradition always refers the fundamental inventions to an ancestral culture hero (always, in the last analysis, a descent of the Sun), that is to say, to a primordial revelation.

In these applications, however utilitarian their purpose, there was no need whatever to sacrifice the clarity of the original significance of the symbolic form: on the contrary, the aptitude and beauty of the artifact at the same time express and depend upon the form that underlies it. We can see this very clearly, for example, in the case of such an ancient invention as that of the “safety pin,” which is simply an adaptation of a still older invention, that of the straight pin or needle having at one end a head, ring or eye and at the other a point; a form that as a “pin” directly penetrates and fastens materials together, and as a “needle” fastens them together by leaving behind it as its “trace” a thread that originates from its eye. In the safety pin, the originally straight stem of the pin or needle is bent upon itself so that its point passes back again through the “eye” and is held there securely, at the same time that is fastens whatever material is has penetrated.

Whoever is acquainted with the technical language of initiatory symbolism (in the present case, the language of the “lesser mysteries” of the crafts) will recognize at once that the straight pin or needle is a symbol of generation, and the safety pin a symbol or regeneration. The safety pin is, moreover, the equivalent of the button, which fastens things together and is attached to them by means of a thread which passes through and again returns to its perforations, which correspond to the eye of the needle. The significance of the metal pin, and that of the thread left behind by the needle (whether or not secured to a button that corresponds to the eye of the needle) is the same: it is that of the “thread-spirit” by which the Sun connects all things to himself and fastens them; he is the primordial embroiderer and tailor, by whom the tissue of the universe, to which our garments are analogous, is woven on a living thread.

For the metaphysician it is inconceivable that forms such as this, which express a given doctrine with mathematical precision, could have been “invented” without a knowledge of their significance. The anthropologist, it is true, will believe that such meanings are merely “read into” the forms by the sophisticated symbolist (one might as well pretend that a mathematical formula could have been discovered by chance). But that a safety pin or button is meaningless, and merely a convenience for us, is simply the evidence of our profane ignorance and of the fact that such forms have been “more and more voided of content on their way down to us” (Andrae); the scholar of art is not “reading into” these intelligible forms an arbitrary meaning, but simply reading their meaning, got this is their “form” or “life”, and present in them regardless of whether of not the individual artists of a given period, or we, have known it or not. In the present case the proof that the meaning of the safely pin had been understood can be pointed to in the fact that the heads or eyes of prehistoric fibulae are regularly decorated with a repertoire of distinctly solar symbols.

Inasmuch as the symbolic arts of the folk do not propose to tell us what things are like but, by their allusions, intend to refer to the ideas implied by these things, we may describe them as having an algebraic (rather than “abstract”) quality, and in this respect as differing essentially from the veridical and realistic purposes of a profane and arithmetical art, of which the intentions are to tell us what things are like, to express the artists’ personality, and to evoke an emotional reaction. We do not call folk art “abstract” because the forms are not arrived at by process of omission; nor do we call it “conventional”, since its forms have not been arrived at by experiment and agreement; nor do we call it “decorative” in the modern sense of the word, since it is not meaningless; it is properly speaking a prinicipial art, and supernatural rather than naturalistic. The nature of folk art is, then, itself the sufficient demonstration of its intellectuality: it is, indeed, a “divine inheritance.”

[Omitted: discussion of two illustrations.]

The characteristic pronouncements of anthropologists on the “primitive mentality”, of which a few may be cited, are often very remarkable, and may be said to represent not what the writers have intended, the description of an inferior type of consciousness and experience, but one intrinsically superior to that of “civilized” man, and approximating to that which we are accustomed to think of as “primordial.” For example, “The primitive mind experienced life as a whole … Art was not for the delectation of the senses.” Dr. Macalister actually compares what he calls the “Ascent of Man” to Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, not realizing that the poem is the description of the descent or materialization of consciousness. Schmidt remarks that “In ‘heathenish’ popular customs, in the ‘superstitions’ of our folk, the spiritual adventures of prehistoric times, the imagery of primitive insight are living still; a divine inheritance … Originally every type of soul and mind corresponds to the physiological organism proper to it… The world is conceived as being partner with the living being, which is unconscious of its individuality; as being an essential portion of the Ego; and it is represented as being affected by human exertion and suffering … Nature-man live his life in images. He grasps it in his conception as a series of realities. His visions are therefore not only real; they form his objective insight into a higher world… The talent, in the man of understanding, is only obstructed, more or less. Artistic natures, poets, painter, sculptors, musicians, seers, who see God face to face, remain all their lives eidetically rooted in their creations. In them there lives the folk-soul of dissolving images in their most perfect creative form … Natural man, to whom vision and thought are identical … The man of magic … is still standing in a present world which includes the whole of primeval time .. [On the other hand] the emancipated man, vehicle of a soul… differentiates the original magical somatopsychic unity … Outward and Inward, World and Ego, become a duality in the consciousness.” Could one say more in support the the late John Lodge’s proposition, “From the Stone Age until now, quelle dégringolade”?

If it is difficult for us to understand the primitive belief in the efficacy of symbolic rites, it is largely because of our limited knowledge of the prolongations of the personality, which forces us to think in terms of a purely physical causality. We overlook that while we may believe that the anticipatory rite has no physical effect in the desired direction, the rite itself is the formal expression of a will directed to the end, and that this will, released by the performance of the rite, is also an effective force, by which the environment in its totality must be to some extent affected. In any case, the preliminary rite of “mimetic magic” is an enactment of the “formal cause” of the subsequent operation, whether it be the art of agriculture of that or war that is in question, and the artist has a right to expect that the actual operation, if carried out on this plan, will be successful. What seems strange to us, however, is that for the primitive mentality the rite is a “prefiguration”, not merely in the sense of a pattern of action to be followed, but in the sense of an anticipation in which the future becomes a virtually already existent reality, so that “the primitives feel that the future event is actually present”: the action of the force released is immediate, “and if its effects appear after some time it is nevertheless imagine – or, rather, in their case, felt – as immediately produced. Lévy-Bruhl goes on the point out very justly that all this implies a conception of time and space that is not in our sense of the word “rational”: one in which both past and future, cause and effect, coincide in a present experience. If we choose to call this an “unpractical” possibility, we must not forget that at the same time “the primitives constantly make use of the real connection between cause and effect… they often display an ingenuity that implies a very accurate observation of the “connection.”

Now it is impossible not to be struck by the fact that it is precisely a state of being in which “everywhere and every when is focused” (Dante), this is for the theologian and the metaphysician “divine”: that at this level of reference “all states of being, seen in principle, are simultaneous in the eternal now”, and that “he who cannot escape from the standpoint of temporal succession so as to see all things in their simultaneity is incapable of the least conception of the metaphysical order.” We say that what seems to “us” irrational in the life of “savages,” and may be unpractical, since it unfits them to compete with our material force, represents the vestiges of a primordial state of metaphysical understanding, and that if the savage himself is, generally speaking, no longer a comprehensor of his own “divine inheritance,” this ignorance on his part is no more shameful than ours who do not recognize the intrinsic nature of his “lore,” and understand it no better that he does. We do not say that the modern savage exemplifies the “primordial state” itself, but that his beliefs, and the whole content of folklore, bear witness to such a state. We say that the truly primitive man – “before the Fall”-was not by any means a philosopher or scientist but, by all means, a metaphysical being, in full possession of the ‘forma humanitatis’ (as we are only very partially); that, in the excellent phrase of Baldwin Smith, he “experienced life as a whole.”

Nor can it be said that the “primitives” are always unconscious of the sources of their heritage. For example, “Dr. Malinowski has insisted on the fact that, in the native Trobriand way of thinking, magic, agrarian or otherwise, is not a human invention. From time immemorial, it forms a part of the inheritance which is handed down from generation to generation. Like the social institutions proper, it was created in the age of myth, by the heroes who were the founders of civilization. Hence its sacred character. Hence also its efficacy.” Far more rarely, an archeologist such as Andrae has the courage to express as his own belief that “when we sound the archetype, the ultimate origin of the form, then we find that it is anchored in the highest, not the lowest,” and to affirm that “the sensible forms [of art], in which there was at first a polar balance of physical and metaphysical, have been more and more voided of content on their way down to us.”

The mention of the Trobriand Islanders above leas us to refer toe on more type of what appears at first sight to imply an almost incredible want of observation. The Trobriand Islanders, and some Australians, are reported to be unaware of the causal connection between sexual intercourse and procreation; they are said to believe that spirit-children enter the wombs of women on appropriate occasions, and that sexual intercourse is not a determinant of birth. It is, indeed, implausible that the natives, “whose aboriginal endowment is quite as good as any European’s, if not better,” are unaware of any connection whatever between sexual intercourse and procreation. On the other hand, it is clear that their interest is not in what may be called the mediate causes of pregnancy, but in its first cause. Their position is essentially identical with that of the universal tradition for which reproduction depends on the activating presence of what the mythologist calls a “fertility spirit” or “progenitive deity,” and is the in fact the Divine Eros, the Indian Kamadeva and Gandharva, the spiritual Sun of RV 1.115.1 , the life of all and source of all being; it is upon his “connection with the field” that life is transmitted, as it is by the human “sower” that the elements of the corporeal vehicle of life are planted in his “field”. So that as the ‘Majjhima Nikaya’,1.265-266 expresses it, three things are required for conception, viz. conjunction of father and mother, the moteher’s period, and the presence of the Gandharva: of which the tow first may be called dispostive and third an essential cause. We see now the meaning of the words of BU, “Say not ‘from semen’, but ‘from what is alive [in the semen]'”: “It is the Provident Spirit [prajnatman, i.e., the Sun] that grasps and erects the flesh” (Kaus. Up. 111.3); “The power of the soul, which is in the semen through the spirit enclosed therein, fashions the body” (Sum. Theol. 111.32.11). Thus, in believing with Schiller that “it is the Spirit that fashions the body for itself” (Wallenstein, 111.13), the “primitive” is in agreement with a unanimous tradition and with Christian doctrine: … “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing”, John 6:63.

It will be seen that the Trobriander view that sexual intercourse alone is not a determinant of conception but only its occasion, and the “spirit-children” enter the womb, is essentially identical with the metaphysical doctrine of the philosophers and theologians. The notion that “old folklore ideas” are taken over into scriptural contexts, which are thus contaminated by the popular superstition, reverses the order of events; the reality is that the folklore ideas are the form in which metaphysical doctrines are received by the people and transmitted by them. In its popular form, a given doctrine may not always have been understood, but for so long as the formula is faithfully transmitted it remains understandable; “superstitions”, for the most part, are no mere delusions, but formulae of which the meaning has been forgotten and are therefore called meaningless-often, indeed, because the doctrine itself has been forgotten.

Aristotle’s doctrine that “Man and the Sun generate man” (Physics 11.2), that of JUB 111.10.4 and that of the Majjhima Nikaya, may be said to combine the scientific and the metaphysical theories of the origin of life: and this very well illustrates the fact that the scientific and metaphysical points of view are by no means contradictory, but rather complementary. The weakness of the scientific position is not that the empirical facts are devoid of interest or utility, but that those facts are thought of as a refutation of the intellectual doctrine. Actually, our discovery of chromosomes does not in any way account for the origin of life, but only tell us more about its mechanism. The metaphysician may, like the primitive, be incurious about the scientific facts; he cannot be disconcerted by the, for they can at he most show that God moves “in an even more mysterious way than we had hitherto supposed.”

We have touched upon only a very few of the “motifs” of folklore. The main point that we have wished to bring out is that the whole body of the motifs represent a consistent tissue of interrelated intellectual doctrines belonging to a primordial wisdom rather that to a primitive science; and that for this wisdom it would be almost impossible to conceive a popular, or even in any common sense of the term, a human origin. The life of the popular wisdom extends backward to a point at which it becomes indistinguishable from the primordial tradition itself, the traces of which we are more familiar with in the sacerdotal and royal arts; and it is in the sense, and by no means with “democratic” implications, that the lore of the people, expressed, in their culture, is really the word of God-Vox pupuli vox Dei.

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