Severed heads that germinate

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an entertaining article by this name, Derek Freeman undertakes to explain why Dyaks take heads.

Unsurprisingly it turns out — to assure fertility.

(Everything the primitive man ever does — or thinks about — it would seem — is fertility.  Is this why we call him primitive — or is it just the imagination of the anthropologists that is?)

How does Freeman arrive at his conclusion?  Not by asking the Dyaks themselves, who, he says, were not very helpful in establishing this conclusion (p. 234).  Rather, he argues by way of Greeks and Romans who thought that sperm originates in the brain (not an especially wild assumption, if you consider male behavior carefully) and descends into the genitals through the spinal column.

As a group of English scholars once said:  and therefore a witch.*

Freeman’s refusal to take a no for an answer is important if only because other anthropologists suffer from the same misconception:  homo is sapiens, according to the profession, and therefore all his actions must arise from thought.  To coin a phrase, thought germinates action.  In fact, the business stands the other way up:  man acts and only then thinks up good reasons for doing so.

The actual reason why Dyaks take heads stares Freeman in the face on the pages of his own article, but, a true scientist that he is, he does not notice.  The reason is, in short, that the taking of heads assures that” the forest will abound with wild animals” (p. 237).  Which it sure does:  every head taken means one less competitor for food.  Head-taking is an early form of environmental protection.


Incidentally, the article mentions another anthropological argument:  that of McKinley, that heads are taken as a way of “winning souls for humanity” by “the ritual incorporation of the enemy as a friend”, the enemy’s head being chosen as a “ritual symbol of social personhood”.  I have news for McKinley:  the reason why heads are the preferred trophy world over is that the head is the only proof positive that the victim is really 100% dead.

For all this, it is a brilliant article; the description of the ngelampang ceremony, in which the daughters of the god petulantly ask to be given a head, an infant whose head is about to be taken confides in his mother that he “dreamt of being bitten by a huge and threatening snake, from which his head hurts even more than if it had been struck against an upstanding stump” (to which the mother answers “I fear my child that you are about to be speared and your head about to be carried off in a cane container”), the taken head is rocked gently like a baby and sung lullybies to, and when it is let slip out of its wrappings and dropped on the floor, it causes the women of the long house to jump up in (pretended) revulsion — the ceremony has all the precious worth of all superstructure — which is not, as per Marx, the weed grown upon economics, but weed grown on the evolved, mechanical, unconscious, hard-wired behavior.  (The explanation; perhaps the justification; but not the reason).

One only wishes the description provided more details of lighting, dress, colors, music.  Life and ideology are alright, but theater, well, that’s really interesting.


*Cf. proof that if she floats, she is made of wood (or maybe a duck), Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail


Why it’s all such dreadful crap

October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

What strikes me most, whenever I consult Wikipedia entries on writers or film directors, is the very long list of works they commit: most manage a movie or a novel a year — for thirty or forty years straight!

Yet, anyone who works in an intellectually stimulating field knows how difficult and how rare it is to produce an original, good thought; and how important it is for a mind to be underemployed if it is expected to produce good results:  time to germinate and gestate good ideas in our slow, turtle mind — the subconscious; time to realize them and line them up; time to review them and cull them of chaff; time to present them in legible way.

Knowing all this, you scratch your head:  how can it be possible for all these people to work so furiously, so incessantly, and to produce good work?

The answer is — it isn’t.  Most of these thirty or forty works are scrap;  one or two may be worth the while, but the rest is as good as forgotten now.  What is worse, the time spent turning out mountains of second rate trash probably detracts from the time needed to produce the one or two true masterpieces that the author might have in him.  Unless you’re a Mozart, or a Beethoven, being overly productive almost certainly is — counterproductive.

Why do artists insist on producing at such a furious rate?  (Ian Mac on his fortieth so-so novel this year).

The answer is economics:  in part it is the unpredictability surrounding royalty streams:  since no one can know in advance which work will go on to be that stuff of which old age pensions and family fortunes are made — the long-seller — everyone tries to improve his chances by producing many works — on the theory that thirty shots at the dart-board are better than one; but more important is the idea that to establish oneself in the market, and to remain within it, one must always remain in the public eye; and this means publishing annually.  A musician once explained this to me so:  you wonder why I took on that worthless gig?  Well, I took it because if I decline, well, then they will not invite me next time when the going is good.

This maybe good economics but is hardly good art.  If an artists has it in him to make one or two truly good works within his lifetime, provided he has the time to think them trough and polish them, then keeping him busy producing a series of half-baked annual abortions distracts him and — ruins his chances at greatness.  The Magic Mountain took twelve years to write.  Rememberance of Things Past — thirteen (Swann’s Way alone — four).  Il Gattopardo — probably fifty to gestate.

It also means that we, the consumers of that art, have to swim through that tide of mediocrity; and that nearly everything which is thrown our way is un-thought-through, incomplete, slapdash, tawdry, gimmicky, and cheap.

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