Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Unsettled: Pulling an Eliade

[This is the third installment of an essay which began here.]

The students were keen to leave the complexities and compromises of old/new, documentary/fictional, art/ceremony, Yolngu/balanda "Ten Canoes" behind. I can't blame them. Complexity and compromise are irritating before you even know what you're in for. Courses usually start with the simplified and abstracted, and work from there. When I later gave them ethnographer Howard Morphy's schematic account of the social and religious structures of Yolngu society, some wondered why we hadn't started there. Shouldn't one begin a journey with a map?

It was a good question, but one I was prepared for - indeed, one I had set up. I wanted to start with something concrete and dynamic and particular, not an abstract overview. I wanted to convey a sense of a culture as a tree, not a flowchart. I wanted a sense of cultural transmission through storytelling and image situated in the present, not the timelessness of text. I wanted an Aboriginal source, not a balanda like Morphy. ("Ten Canoes" wasn't perfect - the timelessness of cinema seems a greater problem than the role of de Heer - but close enough.)

Actually I'd hoped that by the time we came to Morphy they would have been weaned of the desire for an overview, or at least suspicious of overviews and our desires for them. Between "Ten Canoes" and Morphy I had inserted a swatch of the original idea for the course, a close reading of an influential western theorist's interpretation of Aboriginal religion juxtaposed with his sources and later critiques. It was supposed to have called in question the very idea of a God's eye view-like map or overview.

Our case study was Mircea Eliade. Eliade is a formative figure in the study of religion. Many students were familiar with his Sacred and Profane, and with the central role an Aboriginal example plays in its theory of sacred space. Further - like us - Eliade's sources were not fieldwork but texts. By familiarizing ourselves with his sources we could watch him in the act of reading - and perhaps become more reflexive readers ourselves. So we read two versions of Eliade's claims about a sacred pole among the ancestors of the Arrernte (a Central Desert people), the section from Spencer and Gillen's The Arunta Eliade cited as his source, and a rant about his claims by a contemporary scholar named Sam Gill, who traversed this material in his book Storytracking.

Eliade thought his work in the comparative study of religion equipped him to see religious meanings to which social scientists were blind. Specifically, he had his eye out for anything like an axis mundi, the paradigmatic "hierophany" which forges a link with a transcendent realm above the mundane, providing "orientation" to people lost in the existentially wearing "chaos of homogeneity and relativity." The apparent lack of a transcendent dimension in Aboriginal traditions suggested Eliade's claims could not be, as he insisted, phenomenological discoveries - true of all human beings - but merely historically contingent features of some human cultures.

To find an axis mundi among the "archaic" Australian Aborigines would validate the universality of his theory of religion, and in Spencer and Gillen's The Arunta Eliade thought he found one. When he had finished his work the creator ancestor Numbakulla departed to heaven by means of a pole, which his human followers - unable to follow him, although he invited them - carried with them as a navigational device in their restless and aimless wanderings. When, one day, the pole broke, the humans lay down awaiting death. Eliade found:

Seldom do we find a more pathetic avowal that man cannot live without a "sacred center" which permits him both to "cosmicize" space and to communicate with the transhuman world of heaven. So long as they had their [pole] the Achilpa Ancestors were never lost in the surrounding "chaos." Moreover, the sacred pole was for them the proof par excellence of Numbakulla's existence and activity. (Australian Religions, 53)

Unfortunately, the story of Numbakulla and his pole is almost entirely concocted. Numbakulla is not mentioned in the story of the breaking pole, which in any case describes only one of many different groups of wandering ancestors, the others of whom get by without a pole. Likewise there's no indication that he is a celestial being (as opposed to merely leaving the scene) and, we learned, the idea of Numbakulla as the creator was a concoction of Spencer, a consequence of mistranslation and Lutheran missionary meddling.

Arrernte traditions are resolutely horizontal and plural. The centering verticality of Eliade's interpretation speaks to his sense of the chaos of the horizontal, not any Arrernte view. We talked a fair amount about the western religious myth of the desert as empty chaos and its connection to more recent views of the meaninglessness of mere existence. It is of course entirely inapplicable to a hunter-gatherer society which did not wander aimlessly in but moved knowingly through and even cultivated the desert.

I wasn't after a mere gotcha point. Yes, Eliade cherry-picked in Spencer and Gillen, who were sidelined by prejudices of their own. But we had no right to assume we could avoid Eliade's fate, being, like him, reliant entirely on the reports of others. I found myself defending Eliade's presumption that his work as a comparativist let him see what was of universal value in an Aboriginal tradition, something even the most finely grained account just of that tradition could not distinguish. I am not a comparativist in Eliade's sense myself, but from personal experience affirm the comparativist creed that you can't know what language, culture or religion are - even your own! - until you've encountered more than one. Outsiders can have genuine insights.

Besides, there's nothing wrong with trying to understand something new in terms of what you already know. That's how understanding works - though obviously the point of discussing this was to make it work better. Claiming confirmation of your views from other traditions, without allowing them to challenge your received views, gets you nowhere. But true engagement with the other can lead to a broadening, even a fusion of horizons. Eliade had devoted an entire course to Aboriginal traditions in 1961 (?), in which he corrected some - if not all - of his earlier concoctions.

I think one is more likely to develop a salutary humility by seeing a case like Eliade's as one where someone is genuinely trying to learn and falls short, rather than as simple imperialism. The tougher imperialisms don't think they are. Eliade also in 1961 inaugurated what was to become a key journal in religious studies with an essay on a "new humanism": the renaissance in human experience which would result as the dried-up west was confronted - by the ministrations of the discipline of religious studies - with the still vital experiences of the sacred of "archaic and oriental" religions. Of course, the existential urgency of Eliade's project was one of the reasons he could plant his pole in Central Australia and then discover it there.

The absence of an axis mundi, of a creator, of centers, constitute deep challenges to Eliade's project. There are broader implications, too. Just as Numbakulla goes nowhere but just vanishes, there is no privileged view from above. Gill's discussion of "territory" let us see the God's eye view which is the hidden heart of so many of our conceptions of knowledge, from the map to the overview, and, behind that, the sense that things only have meaning because of the intention of their creator. Recognizing the connections between these and the ideas of "religion" we inevitably bring, we could get a frisson of another way of experiencing the world and organizing that experience. How might one map a world defined not by territories seen from above but by trajectories traversed - sung, danced - by embodied individuals in many different intermittently interconnected groups? Dance as map?

It all offered a change of aspect analogous to that in the "Ten Canoes" narrator's insistence that a good story is not linear but "like a tree." How and why did I think students would get it? I suppose I'm a phenomenologist in my own way, and share Eliade's sense that the discipline of religious studies has an important function restoring a fully human way of being of which the disenchanted modern West has lost sight. In non-modern traditions we don't just encounter something foreign and new but re-encounter something we've always dimly known but not known how to know.

My view isn't Eliade's, of course. He argues for the indispensability of the "sacred" as we confront the heartbreak that is historical time, and offers the study of religion as a means to partial reenchantment. On my more spacial, plural and social view, religious studies is the discipline which reminds us there is no consensus on the real.

Letting Eliade's imperialistic universalism founder on the shoals of concrete but uncentered Arrernte Dreaming tracks served my purposes nicely: Aboriginal traditions scuttled the expectation that all religions have a vertical dimension, compensate for the insufficiencies of this world with links to another, or even hang together as one world. But was I not pulling an Eliade of my own: claiming, on the basis of experience of non-Aboriginal traditions, to be able to see deeper into such traditions than my sources, and in this way, perhaps seeing even less than they did?

[The next installment of the essay is here.]

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