Saturday, February 11, 2012

Made of Paper: The Golden Bough

In his wonderful biography of James G. Frazer, Robert Ackermann observes that modern anthropologists often regard Frazer as an embarrassment. Aside from briefly visiting Greece, Frazer did no field work. His voluminous output owed much to the fact he spent almost his entire life at a library writing table. The Golden Bough generally takes travelers’ tales uncritically as reports of beliefs and practices in societies around the planet. Frazer had no clear concept of culture and his comparative approach wrenched ideas out of their context of meaning. Working without the idea of culture, his modern critics object, Frazer imposed the same positivistic evolution away from magic and toward science on all societies everywhere.
The Golden Bough was one of the grand explications of human life and thought that I read in my early twenties when I was reaching for some sort of comprehensive understanding. Today, I acknowledge some of the criticisms of the work, but I still believe that it is important and should be read in its entirety. Inspired by J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the golden bough incident in Virgil’s Aeneid, in which a priest of the goddess Diana was ritually murdered by his successor, Frazer made his way through a multi-volume account of mythological themes, describing how societies around the world have repeated themes such as the dying and reviving god, ritual sacrifice, and scapegoats.
At one level, The Golden Bough is a majestic compendium of myths. I think it also occupies an important place in the history of ideas, though. Frazer was educated as a classicist and became one of the founders of anthropology. He marks the turning from thinking about Greek and Roman antiquity as a canonical model to thinking about Greek and Roman society in the same way that Europeans were beginning to think about other societies.  His comparative approach to these societies did largely ignore culture, but I’m not sure that is entirely a problem because in finding similar patterns that could be lifted out of different contexts, Frazer was moving toward finding common forms of human thinking, or what we would today call cultural universals. Sitting in the library may have limited his depth of understanding and led him into some factual errors, but it also made possible a breadth of vision and synthesis that would not have been possible for an anthropological specialist.
Reading The Golden Bough as a founding work of late modernity, the questions I have about it have less to do with its methodological flaws in analyzing other times and places than what Frazer may unwittingly tell us about his own time and ours. The rejection of antiquity as the measure of the present, as it had been since the Renaissance, may have left modern social thinkers without historical normative standards, placing everything that happens on the same plane.  Frazer recounts anecdote after anecdote drawn from locations around the world, and these are held in place only by the fact all the anecdotes and all the locations follow the same movement away from magic and toward science. 

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