Friday, January 23, 2015

Remarks on Frazer

Not Wittgenstein's remarks, but mine.

1. He has a way with words. This could almost be Fred Vargas:
The Mass of Saint Sécaire may be said only in a ruined or deserted church, where owls mope and hoot, where bats flit in the gloaming, where gypsies lodge of nights, and where toads squat under the desecrated altar. Thither the bad priest comes by night with his light o’ love, and at the first stroke of eleven he begins to mumble the mass backwards, and ends just as the clocks are knelling the midnight hour. His leman acts as clerk. The host he blesses is black and has three points; he consecrates no wine, but instead he drinks the water of a well into which the body of an unbaptized infant has been flung. He makes the sign of the cross, but it is on the ground and with his left foot. And many other things he does which no good Christian could look upon without being struck blind and deaf and dumb for the rest of his life. But the man for whom the mass is said withers away little by little, and nobody can say what is the matter with him; even the doctors can make nothing of it. They do not know that he is slowly dying of the Mass of Saint Sécaire.
 2. But his snobbery is incredible:
When we survey the existing races of mankind from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego, or from Scotland to Singapore, we observe that they are distinguished one from the other by a great variety of religions, and that these distinctions are not, so to speak, merely coterminous with the broad distinctions of race, but descend into the minuter subdivisions of states and commonwealths, nay, that they honeycomb the town, the village, and even the family, so that the surface of society all over the world is cracked and seamed, sapped and mined with rents and fissures and yawning crevasses opened up by the disintegrating influence of religious dissension. Yet when we have penetrated through these differences, which affect mainly the intelligent and thoughtful part of the community, we shall find underlying them all a solid stratum of intellectual agreement among the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious, who constitute, unfortunately, the vast majority of mankind. One of the great achievements of the nineteenth century was to run shafts down into this low mental stratum in many parts of the world, and thus to discover its substantial identity everywhere. It is beneath our feet—and not very far beneath them—here in Europe at the present day, and it crops up on the surface in the heart of the Australian wilderness and wherever the advent of a higher civilisation has not crushed it under ground. This universal faith, this truly Catholic creed, is a belief in the efficacy of magic. While religious systems differ not only in different countries, but in the same country in different ages, the system of sympathetic magic remains everywhere and at all times substantially alike in its principles and practice. Among the ignorant and superstitious classes of modern Europe it is very much what it was thousands of years ago in Egypt and India, and what it now is among the lowest savages surviving in the remotest corners of the world.
Frazer is nakedly racist and what he thinks of the "savages" of Australia he thinks also of the lower classes of England and elsewhere. I don't mean to dig him up just to criticize him for not having been more enlightened, but it seems to me that Wittgenstein's response to Frazer has an interesting and important political aspect. In locating the magical impulse within us Wittgenstein denies this kind of racism and snobbery. He runs shafts down into himself, and invites his readers to do the same, not into the "low mental stratum" of other people or places. Tat tvam asi. This activity is confessional but also radically democratic or egalitarian.

(This probably is not an earthshaking revelation but I need to return to my old "it's only a blog" mentality or I'll post nothing at all.)         


  1. I'm sure there is a valid post-colonialish critique or two to be written on the topic, my broader interest along these lines is all of the things that people take on/by faith (religious or otherwise) and what role such functions have in our critterly ways, to mangle Santayana a bit what is human-animal-faith?

    1. This doesn't exactly answer your question, but yes. That is a good thing to ask.

    2. a related matter, not perhaps without some irony given Witt's similar critique of Freud's penchant for reductionism, is to be found in Freud's sense of sublimation where he notes that we do many things as much for aesthetic reasons, like fancy table-settings or cooking techniques, as we do for mere functionality.

    3. Wittgenstein said you could write a book on anthropology in which you divided the things people do into roughly those two categories (the aesthetic and the functional). I think it's an important idea for him.

  2. It would be interesting in this context to consider Wittgenstein's use of the word "primitive" - "primitive tribes", etc - which can strike modern readers as a bit dodgy. But whereas Frazer seems to think modern, educated man has made a radical break with the primitive past (thanks to Reason and Science), Wittgenstein regards modernity as a refinement - and by no means the only viable one. The roots on which we have built our sophistication stand in need of no apology.

    Indeed, the "radical break" approach transforms reason into something mysterious and quasi-religious. On the one hand you have the rather sordid world of physical necessities, emotions, and so on. But on the other hand you have this almost godlike faculty of ratiocination. (The religious flavour of this is picture is hardly suprising, since it was borrowed directly from medieval theology where rationality is an aspect of the soul.) Basically, Frazer decries the superstitions of primitive people while championing a modern superstition as least as bizarre as the ones he's criticising.

    1. Yes, 'primitive' is dodgy (probably in German as well as in English), but if what you mean by it is something like early-and-therefore-simple-in-form and you don't have a prejudice against the simple then I don't know how bad it really is. Of course the hypothesis that Australian religious forms, for instance, have not changed much for thousands of years might be completely false, but it isn't necessarily dodgy in the same way. Wittgenstein talks about 'savages', too, but it's hard to know how bad this is. Maybe it is simply bad. Or maybe it is not bad at all given his view that we are capable of being much more savage than the people we call savages (a bit like Nietzsche's rubbing Christian anti-Semites' noses in their own Semitism). But then maybe that kind of thing is dodgy too. Thankfully we don't have to either talk like that ourselves or pass judgment on Wittgenstein or Nietzsche.

      What's nice about Wittgenstein's view is that it does not make any radical break between kinds of people. If anything is primitive then it is in us as much as in other people.

      Reason is regarded as quasi-religious by the Greeks, too, isn't it? At least, in their different ways, by Plato and Aristotle. And I think you get something similar in Indian philosophy, but I feel like a 19th century amateur saying things like this.

      Frazer seems to lack imagination and/or contact with his own humanity. He fails to see himself in others or them in himself. It's an intellectual error (his theory is open to criticism on this score) but not only that.