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The Province of the Primitive

Three women, from the Valltorta Gorge (From rock painting, Spain, c. 10,000 to c. 3000 b.c.)

This month at JCF we are entertaining the theme of harvest. I’m not imagining a solely agrarian notion through which to explore that theme, but rather am  also referring to the harvesting of the fruits of human imagination, the bounty of human thought and creative spirit that stretches back even to the “dark... abysm of time” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, Iii). One of the featured texts this month is Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, and alluding to that Shakespearian abysm he writes, “[…] we shall be finding clues to the deepest secrets not only of the high cultures of both the Orient and the Occident, but also of our own most inward expectations, spontaneous responses, and obsessive fears” (Primitive Mythology, 10).  

Our own most inward expectations, spontaneous responses and obsessive fears have not markedly changed since the dawn of human history; modern Homo sapiens does not think or imagine much differently than our prehistoric ancestors. In fact, the same rational, imaginative abilities invented the atlatl as well as the iPhone. The art of cave painters that Lynn Tucker wrote about in her MythBlast last week remains, in the opinion of many (even Picasso), unsurpassed in any subsequent era. In his delightful, often astonishing book, Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came To Think It, Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes,

 Over the entire history of our species, no evidence of any overall change is discernible, for better or worse, in the skill with which humans think. Maybe there was an era, long before the emergence of Homo Sapiens, when life was ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ and hominids scavenged without leisure for ratiocination; but for hundreds of thousands of years thereafter all our ancestors, as far as we know, were relatively leisured foragers rather than relatively harried, hasty scavengers (Out of Our Minds, Chapter 2, "Modern Stone Age: Foraging Minds"). 

The phrase “harried, hasty scavengers” seems to describe well what many of us have become in contemporary life. People work more jobs and more hours and have more stress, fewer resources, longer lives and worse health. A life of relative leisure sounds pretty good in comparison, and it turns out that in some important ways, modern humans may be more primitive than our prehistoric ancestors were. Which brings us to that problematic word, primitive. Primitive conjures many associations: non-technological, non-literate, small, uncivilized and isolated. If one is honest, there can hardly be an argument that for most, the word primitive is synonymous with inferior, that primitive or savage (another synonym) people are superstitious children ignorant to the nature or structure of the world, of morality, indeed, of life itself. 

The original copyright date of Primitive Mythology was 1959, a time when the use of the word primitive was common in scholarly papers, textbooks, and as general linguistic currency. But reading this volume of Campbell's work, I find that pejorative sense of the word is lacking. Instead, one finds a persistent sense of wonder and awe attending the seemingly unremitting human project. My reading of Campbell is that he finds no mind literally primitive, but rather sees “…more sophisticated […] visions of the local traditions, wherein those mythologies themselves will be known to be but the masks of a larger […] ‘timeless schema’ that is no schema” (Primitive Mythology, 25). For humans, ideas and images make the world, not impersonal forces or the material exigencies of life. Human imagination and thought respond to life’s circumstance and reimagine the world in a way we then literally try to create. The evolution of culture is grounded in the fundamental idea that individuals change, that they take on qualities that did not ancestrally or congenitally belong to them, they become different than they once were, and together, these individuals may create a world that does not yet exist.

Imagination is not fashioned by myths, myths are products of imagination. Human imagination has the capacity to imagine things that aren’t, and to imagine differently the things that are. The power of the human imagination armed with myth is the power to dive deep into the hidden world. I think that Campbell, himself, saw through the dismissive trope of primitivism of the late 1950’s and wanted 

To make it serve the present hour, […] to assemble—or reassemble—it in its full dimension, scientifically, and then bring it to life as our own, in the way of art: the way of wonder—sympathetic, instructive delight; not judging morally, but participating with our own awakened humanity in the festival of the passing forms” (Primitive Mythology, 25). 

The mythic images and passing forms are themselves, as Campbell often noted, essentially poetic, and like all poetry, ideally employed in a dialogue with all we know, all we don’t know, and all we’re afraid to know. I think myth begins in, and should always be accompanied by, skepticism. Myths arise because of doubts about the nature of reality and curiosity about that which we cannot quite apprehend. Entertaining doubt moves one closer to the light, closer to truth; skepticism is the hallmark of the arts and sciences, the interdependent domains that make possible the flowering of both individuals and civilizations. 

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