Hanukah & Happiness & William James

If, then, we give the name of healthy-mindedness to the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good, we find that we must distinguish between a more involuntary and a more voluntary or systematic way of being healthy-minded. In its involuntary variety, healthy-mindedness is a way of feeling happy about things immediately. In its systematical variety, it is an abstract way of conceiving things as good. Every abstract way of conceiving things selects some one aspect of them as their essence for the time being, and disregards the other aspects. Systematic healthy-mindedness,
conceiving good as the essential and universal aspect of being, deliberately excludes evil from its field of vision; and although, when thus nakedly stated, this might seem a difficult feat to perform for one who is intellectually sincere with himself and honest about facts, a little reflection shows that the situation is too complex to lie open to so simple a criticism.

–William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

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I See Dead Professors On Zoom (Yevamot 96b-97a)

Ripe for parody, this article at Slate about an online lecture-course hosted at Concordia by a professor of art history who had passed away sometime before says a lot about the neo-liberal university and the degradation of higher education, about profit, academic precarity, and death. At its best, the art of education builds upon the live combination of spontaneous dialogue and expert instruction. Critical in tone, the article speaks to the limits of technology and machine learning to meet in a complete way the demands of pedagogy and other arts of social interaction. We can moan all we want about late capitalism, about the collapse of time into a digital miasma. But where will it get us?

A product of capital and a part of its culture, the phenomenon indicates the degree to which digital technology is constituting something like a spectral apparatus. Books and old movies and musical recordings have always done this. But not really. When I read a book or watch a movie or listen to a recording, it’s all in the third person. This is different. The sense of being addressed directly, the sense that here is the professor in a place where there is supposed to be give-and-take, right over there across from me, performing, or rather continuing to perform, teaching as if in real-time at a recognized institution of higher learning (as opposed to on Youtube) will have crossed more deeply those lines that separate the living and the dead.

While not forming a perfect analogy, the story about the online class, already a year or so old, reminds of this teaching from the Babylonian Talmud about dead sages. It turns out that the Babylonian rabbis were not so unlike scholars today. They too got enraged when their teachings were taught without attribution. Unlike us, however, they had a more robust lens into the hereafter.

“For Rav Judah stated in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the Scriptural text, I will dwell in Thy tent for ever? Is it possible for a man to dwell in two worlds! But [in fact it is this that] David said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Lord of the Universe, May it be Thy will that a halakha may be reported in my name in this world’; for R. Yohanan stated in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai: The lips of a [deceased] scholar, in whose name a halakha is reported in this world, move gently in the grave. Said R. Isaac b. Ze’ira, or it might be said, Simeon the Nazirite: What is the Scriptural proof of this? ‘And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine that glideth down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of those who are asleep, like a heated mass of grapes.’ As a heated mass of grapes, as soon as a man places his finger upon it, exudes immediately so with the scholars as soon as a traditional statement is made in their name in this world, their lips move gently4 in the grave” (Yevamot 96b-97a).

Would that my own learning could take on that same semblance of a heated mass of grapes before being pressed into wine.

[h/t Dana Hollander and Martin Kavka]

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Space and Martian Synagogues (Larry Yudelson)

To fantastic effect, Larry Yudelson put a bunch of images together at NeuralBlender, an AI site. From what I understand, you enter the prompt and the machine folds, in this case, a synagogue-look into 1970s sci fi cover art. For more space and some martian synagogues, go here to Larry’s Twitter feed, which is where I first saw them. At the blog, I wanted to enlarge the image, but they look much better, sized better and more crisp, there at Twitter. This one is “Space Synagogue by Rick Sternbach.” Three things I take from this, one concerning the futuristic and space-ship quality of the synagogue, the second concerning the ability of the imagination to mix and match material, the third concerning the potential quality of digital art.

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(William James) Religion Is….

I’ve been struggling with the caricature according to which the definition of religion suggested by James is “Protestant.” This is to claim that for James, religion is a private matter, The problem is this. On the one hand, the caricature comports exactly with how he defines religion in the second chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience. On the other hand, the caricature does not comport with the larger body of work. A Pluralistic Universe is given to a model of human mind and awareness vis-a-vis a world in which distinct and finite beings, including God who is finite, are interconnected into a larger, animate matrix.

In that light, I would emend James famous definition of religion to square with what religion means in a pluralistic universe.

According to James:

Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

Careful readers might note a tension in the original wording by James between “solitude” and “in relation.”

On that basis, I would like to align the definition this way. Adding only three words, my emendation is in bold font:

Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine in the world.

Once “the world” is introduced into what it is that James meant and what we mean by “religion,” all kinds of variations are possible that are not possible when we lose sight of what for James was the object of mental states or intentional consciousness. Feelings, acts, and experience always stand in relation to a defining vis-a-vis.

I would like to think that adding “in the world” is what parliamentarians call a friendly amendment. James was an anti-theist. The revised definition embeds religion onto the material topographies of a pluralistic universe in ways that the original language does not.

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Monsieur Chouchani

Lots of excitement is instantly surrounding recent news about the trove of notebooks by Monsieur Chouchani. The legendary Monsieur Chouchani was the teacher of Elie Wiesel and Emmanuel Levinas. Born in Russia “around the turn of the twentieth century,” he died in Uruguay in 1968. Almost nothing is known about him, including his first name. Ilan Stavans writes about him here, with reference to his book, The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (2019). This piece here in Yisrael Hayom (Hebrew) is interesting, but if you read carefully between the lines, the corpus of notebooks feels like a nightmare. According to this at the JTA, Chouchani’s writings are “difficult to decode and contained everything from his thoughts, to memory exercises, to mathematical formulas and original ideas in the field of Jewish thought.” The notebooks went to Shalom Rosenberg and they are now available to the public, assuming their rightful place in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. But what if, but what if, but what if Monsieur Chouchani turns out to be nothing more than a cipher, a lunatic-charlatan? What if the thinking remains undecipherable? What if there’s no there there behind the legend? What if it;s gibberish? Reports so far have said nothing by way of actual ideas. Waiting to see if the notebooks get published in Hebrew and translated into French and English.

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Magic Onion (E.B. Tylor)

h/t Samuel Spinner

On old thing in mint museum-comdition here at Pitt Rivers Museum

Onion stuck with pins and a metal coil, used in sympathetic magic [SM 07/01/2008]

Place details: EUROPE. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland / England Somerset near Wellington Rockwell Green. Cultural Group: European, British, English: Local Name: Unknown. Materials: Plant Bulb / Metal Wire / Paper Plant / ?. Processes: Written / Coiled / Bound / Inscribed / ?. Dimensions: max L = 85 mm Max W = 50 mm Maker: Unknown Field Collector: ?Edward Burnett Tylor When Collected: By 1891 Other Owners: John Milton; by 1891, Edward Burnett Tylor PRM Source: Dorothy Tylor and executors of Anna Rebecca Tylor Acquired: Donated (Bequeathed) 1921

KEYWORD: Religious Object / Inscription / Amulet / Inscription / CLASS: Religion / Writing / ?.

Object description: Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic. The onion has a piece of paper wrapped around it. The paper has the name John Milton written on it and it has been pinned to the onion. A piece of wire is pushed through the onion. One end is coiled, the other has a hook on it. [SM 07/01/2008]

Publications history, trails & websites: Discussed on pages 389-90 of ‘Exhibition of Charms and Amulets’, by E. B. Tylor, in The [of the Second International Folk-Lore Congress held at the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, from Thursday 1 to Wednesday October 7 1891], edited by Joseph Jacobs and Alfred Nutt (London: David Nutt, for the Organizing Committee, 1892), pp. 387-93. Tylor writes: ‘A similar charm [to 1917.53.600] now exhibited is interesting from the fact that not only its genuineness, but its exact history, is known. It is an onion stuck full of pins, and bearing on a label the name of a certain John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green, the hamlet where the onion was prepared to bewitch him. In a low cottage-alehouse there, certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth, during the open hours of a Sunday afternoon, drinking, when there was a gust of wind; something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly what they were, caught them up, and carried them off. I became possessed of four of them, but three have disappeared mysteriously. One which has gone had on it the name of a brother magistrate of mine, whom the wizard, who was the alehouse-keeper, held in particular hatred as being a strong advocate of temperance, and therefore likely to interfere with his malpractices, and whom apparently he / designed to get rid of by stabbing and roasting an onion representing him. My friend, apparently, was never the worse, but when next year his wife had an attack of fever, there was shaking of heads among the wise. That publican-magician was a man to have seen. He was a thorough-going sorcerer of the old bad sort, and the neighbours told strange stories about him. One I have in my mind now. At night, when the cottage was shut up, and after the wife had gone to bed, there would be strange noises hard, till the neighbours were terrified about the goings on. One night his wife plucked up courage and crept downstairs to peep through the key-hole, and there she saw the old man solemnly dancing before the bench, on which sat “a little boy, black all over, a crowdin’ (fiddling) to ‘un.”‘.’ This is presumably one of the ‘Charms’ listed under Tylor’s name on page 460 of ‘Catalogue of the Exhibition of Objects Connected with Folk-Lore in the Rooms of the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House: Prepared by the Chairman of the Entertainment Committee’, same publication, pp. 433-60. [JC 23 11 2007, 7 12 2007]

Discussed on page 246 of ‘Documents of British Superstition in Oxford (A Lecture Delivered before the Oxford University Anthropological Society, on the 2nd of November, 1949)’, by Ellen Ettlinger, in Folklore, Vol. 54, no. 1 (March 1943), pp. 227-49: ‘The fourth object in the Pitt Rivers Museum that was used as a malignant charm is an onion, stuck full of pins, and bearing on a label the name of a certain John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green. E. B. Tylor has handed the story of this onion down to us: In a low cottage-alehouse in this hamlet certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth drinking when there was just a gust of wind. Something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly well that these stabbed and roasted onions were personifications of the enemies of that publican magician, who wanted to get rid of them.’ [Unsigned, no date; JC 23 11 2007]

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(Animism) Primitive Jewish Culture (E.B. Tylor)

Jewish culture and Judaism spot E.B. Tylor’s monumental Primitive Culture.

There is no special theory of Jewish culture or Judaism in Primitive Culture.

Judaism is nothing special, just one more dataset in the ethnographic record.

Primitive Judaism is folklore

Primitive Judism is not monotheism, not ethics.

Primitive Judaism is animism

Monotheism is animism.

These are the Jewish data in Primitive Culture:

Here in Vol. I

1, p.86, chad gadya

1, p.189 hallel

1, p.295, death and pestilence take the personal form of destroying angel

1, p.431 soul and blood

1, p.433, nefesh, ruach, neshama

1, p. 435

1, p.441; kabbalah and Vedanta

1, p.446 Samuel’s ghost

Here in Vol. 2

2, p.14 kabbalah transmigration of souls

2, p.68, 81-2 sheol, gehenna, Babylonia,

2, p.71, 78 paradise, firmament

2, p.73 heaven, bright vague thought

2, p.81 Sheol

2, p.166; stone pillars

2, p.196; jews and mulim believe that dogs howl at angel of death

2, p.330 yetzer, Persian influence

2, p.355, supreme god, jews today and nationality among monothests

2, p.386, sacrifice in ancient Israel

2, p.440, lustration, water, Levitcus

Leviticus gets the last word, just like it got the first word in the traditional heder.

Readers of Hasidism might take special note in relation to the term chiyut (life-force)

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Online Anti-Semitism & Jewish Life in Europe During Covid

Posting here the EU Report on anti-Semitism online after Covid. In addition to its status as a record, it highlights the conjunction between online platforms, the expression and organization of hate, and pandemic-culture in the digital West. Related is here: EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life (2021-2030).

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Animism, Affect, Spiritual Beings (E.B. Tylor)

In late mid-career, I finally got around to E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture and more of these musty nineteenth century contributions to the science of Religion. I am now including in my graduate seminar on Theories and Methods Max Müller’s Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of India, as well Tylor. You can find public access to volumes I and II of Primitive Culture here and here.  

Having read about without ever having actually read it, I assumed simply that Tylor’s project was swamped in nineteenth century racial theory and colonial practice that is the hard and definitive division of humanity according to racial typologies, between “high” and “low” culture, “primitive” and “civilized.” Following received opinion in contemporary theories of religion, I assumed also that the definition of religion as “belief” in “spiritual beings” was looked at as a Protestant prism that is cognitive-intellectualist and private and that does zero justice to the lived character of material culture.

About Tylor I would make two notes. First, the colonial discourse is the obscene legacy of cosmopolitan universalism and the European idea of progress, prejudices that are complicated in the text by the way that Tylor understands the lived connection across cultures. Second, the notion that Tylor’s orientation is Protestant turns out to be a useless caricature of a more sophisticated project about “religion” as spiritual orientation vis-à-vis the natural world. He understood religion in tight relation to [1] culture, [2] nature, and [3] objects. Reading Tylor is to find vitalism and proto-formations of new materialism, animal studies, and affect theory. 

By culture, Tylor means something broad “in its wide ethnographic sense…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (vol. I, p.1). I’m noting here the much forgotten subtitle of the magnum opus: PRIMITIVE CULTURE: RESEARCHES INTO THE DEVELOPMENT OF MYTHOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, LANGUAGE, ART, AND CUSTOM. More than belief, religion is a part of culture.

About culture, Tylor assumes basic binaries between progress/evolution, high/low, civilized/primitive that make him almost impossible to read out-loud today, while he argues at the same time that human mind is uniform and that there are no innate differences between cultures. The criteria with which Tylor will distinguish so-called primitive and so-called civilized cultures are technological and knowledge-based; they have to do with the types of social and political organization that promote human “goodness,” “power,” and “happiness” (vol. I, pp.26-7). Tylor rejects the idea of biological race having anything to do with any of this (vol. I: pp.7, 158-9). “Primitive” includes people of his own time, place, and country. In other words, the prejudices are liberal.

Tylor knows that what he calls progress is mixed and uneven. This is because he thinks that so-called primitive and so-called civilized cultures are connected as higher and lower stages of one single human formation (vol. I, pp.1, 28-9, 37). I do not understand critical readings of Tylor that assert that he looked down on “lower cultures.” What we will see in later chapters is the vitality of the myth and religion of so-called primitive cultures carries over into so-called higher cultures, the latter being just as much a part of nature as the former (vol. I, p.2). According to Tylor, it is only when one does not see lines of connection across cultures that one sees only arbitrariness and stupidity in “primitive culture” (vol. I, pp.19, 23).

Key to Tylor’s understanding of culture is the idea of cultural “survivals.” These survivals are “processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have carried on by force of habit into a new state of society.” They stand as “proofs and “examples” of “an older condition of culture out which a newer one has been evolved.” Examples include everyday things like old technologies and styles and other aesthetic forms, popular sayings, games of chance, divination, etc.. They include also and especially things like myth and religion. Not restricted to superstitions, survivals reflect in new-world forms” “the serious business of ancient society” and matters of “serious belief” (vol. I, p.16). Tylor’s understanding of culture is one that takes note of the “modes of connexion” that “bind together the complex network of civilization” (vol. I, p.17).

Tylor tries to correct for European bias even as he carries it forward. In this, his thinking about culture represents a liberal and broadminded form of anti-racist racism or racist anti-racism. The human race, on the one hand, constitutes a homogenous and undifferentiated whole placed, on the other hand, at different grades of civilization. Tylor will continually encourage his readers to adopt a “broad” view of culture, and, with it, a broad view of religion. A sympathetic scholar, Tylor pulls together missionary accounts of so-called contemporary “savage tribes” while rejecting with open contempt the “unappreciating hated and ridicule” lavished in “narrow hostile zeal” against systems such as Brahminism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, which are “consistent and logical” to a “high degree” (vol. I, p.22). Tylor is limited to to the view that culture “develops” and gets better over time. At the same time, he could recognize that “the white invader and colonist,” whose culture Tylor assumed to be “morally superior” to the culture of the peoples he “improves or destroys,” represents his own culture very poorly. In the same critical vein, Tylor understood that modern slavery is incomparably more brutal, that the relations between the sexes are less free as is modern governance than is the case among so-called “savages” (vol. I, p.29).

A critic of modernity, Tylor completely rejects European and Christian models of religion. He rejects, in particular, the basic notion made by narrowminded Christians that “savage” peoples have “no religion.” He notes that the very Christian missionaries who claimed that “primitive people” have no religion are the very ones who then go on to observe the many “definite traditions concerning spiritual beings,” the “minds saturated with the most vivid belief in souls, demons, and deities” (vol. I, 417-9). He writes against the so-called Christian “religious world” that is “so occupied in hating and despising the beliefs of the heathen whose vast regions of the globe are painted black on the missionary maps” that they do so without a shred of understanding (vol. I, 420). Part of a theory of culture and against narrow Christian and European prejudice is the notion that all religions, like all cultures, are connected. No “religion of mankind” lies in utter isolation from the rest” (vol. I, p.421). That would include Christian religion as well as so-called primitive religion. Neither is separate, not one from the other nor the other from the one.

To make that point stick, Tylor needs a broad-enough concept that cuts the definition of religion narrowly down to a basic “minimum.” For Tylor, there is more to religion than belief in a supreme deity or belief in judgement after death; there is also more to religion than the adoration of idols or sacrifice. These definitions of religion are at once too narrow and maximal. Assuming too much by way of content about the constitution of religion excludes too many peoples of the world. These kind of definitions have the fault of identifying religion with particular developments rather than with the deeper, undergirding motives that connect all human cultures into a single formation. That is why Tylor thought, “It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings” (vol. I, p.424).

About this origin point in the modern study of religion, I would note two things.

[1] Critics today have rushed to align Tylor with Protestant Christianity, i.e. the very form he rejected as determinative of religion. If they have even read him at all, what so many critics seem to fail to see is that “belief in spiritual beings” is based upon “animism,” and not just animism, but vitalism. (Tylor cites Georg Ernst Stahl and a scholarly work by Lemoine, Le Vitalisme et l’Anisme de Stahl. Paris, 1864). As part of a theory of cultural continuity and survival, it is animism that establishes the unbroken relation between “tribes very low” in the “scale of humanity” and “high modern culture.” By “animism,” Tylor means “the animation of all nature.” The notion was introduced earlier in a chapter on myth. There, Tylor wrote about how myth speaks to the belief “that inert things” are alive and conscious,” that there is a vitality “giving consistent individual life to phenomena,” “pervading life and will in nature (vol. I, p.285).

[2] For Tylor, “belief” is not a matter of disembodied, immaterial, private, cognitive, propositional in the Cartesian, ideational sense of the word (e.g. I think therefore I am; I believe in God, I believe in the idea of God; I carry this notion around in my head, separate from and detached from the world of physical extension). What Tylor means by “belief” has more to do with mental states, qualities imagined about the world and about beings in the world. Spiritual beings like spirits, ghosts, gods, God, and the like are sensed in the world; they are fancied, lived, and sensed, i.e. felt, seen, touched, heard. Religious actors sense or believe they sense the presence of spiritual beings animating the physical world. These spiritual beings are not immaterial, not metaphysical. Not objects of dry propositional belief, spiritual beings are living and animate; they possess the physical world with their own “vaporous materiality” (vol. I, p.457).

Spiritual beings are sensed in nature: animals, plants and vegatble souls, rivers, trees, sky, rain, thunder, wind, water, sea, fire, sun, human institutions like war and agriculture. Tylor rejects the modern distinction between “man and beast” (vol. I, p.469). Tylor entertains a full-on sense that spiritual beings are embodied beings, devoting almost thirtypages in the second volume of Primitive Culture on the so-called “fetish.” He does not dismiss so-called fetish worship as confusion, false consciousness, or neurosis. For Tylor, the material “fetish” is part of a larger discusion of bodies and embodied spirit possession that defines religion tout court. As he sees it, animism is the general “doctrine,” so-called fetishism the narrow notion of spirits embedded in particular objects. Thecomments appear as part of a general interest in what we today would call material religion (vol II: pp.143-67). What matters is that these beliefs about stocks and stones are not “symbolic.” Citing Berkeley and Leibniz, Tylor discerns affinities in modern science relating to matter as receptacles of force and refined quintessences, to heat, electricity, visible fluids “passing in and out of solid bodies” (vol. II, p.160; in relation to idols-images, cf. pp.169, 177, 181). Animism passes into Phyics, Chemistry, and Biology (vol. II, p.183).

“Primitive culture” is big capacious religion. Readers of Tylor are introduced to Buddhism, Islam, Chrisitainty, Judaism, Greek myth, Zarathustrism, Brahamnism, African trads, Indigenous American tradtions. These are drawn from virtuall all the peoples of the earth: English, Scandanician, Papuans, West Africans, Afghans, Greeks, Algonquin, Mohawk, Chinese, ancient Egyptian, Siberians, Italians, Indians, Irish, Japanese, Turks, Mexiccan, Haitians, Indigenous Australians, Javanese, Borneoans, North Americans, Peruvians, Estonians, Pacific Northwestern, Pacific Islanders, New Zealanders.

In the explosion of comparative data, monotheism is another form of animism, the belief in one big “spiritual being.” Monotheism carries animism to it “upmost limit,” etc., etc. (vol. II, pp.331-61. 449-53). Tylor did not particularly like monotheism. “Entering these regions of transcendental theology, we are not to wonder that the comparative distinctness belonging to conceptions of lower spiritual beings here fades away.” They fade away into “[a]n unshaped divine entity looming vast, shadowy, and calm beyond and over the material world, too benevolent or too exalted to need human worship, too huge, too remote, too indifferent, too supine, too merely existent, to concern himself with the petty race of men, — this is a mystic form of formlessness in which religion has not seldom pictured the Supreme” (vol. II, pp.335-6). Unlike Müller, Tylor was not drawn to “the Infinite.”

Tylor was a melancholic modern, but not simply that. He saw the fading away of spirits in modern world where there is no indwelling deities, no guardian angles, no deities in the boiling pot, no spirits presiding in the volcano, no howling demons shrieks from the mouth of the lunatic. Once upon a time, the whole world seemed actuated by spiritual life.” Force now replaces life, law replaces will (vol.II, p.183). He writes about the dying of myth today in relation to science, weighed down by weights and measures, proportions and specimens, and the anatomizing work of students(vol. I, p.317). But Tylor can still speculate, about myth today, about time, in the present. “The broken and stiffened traditions which our fathers fancied relics of ancient history, are, as has been truly said, records of a past which was never present; but the simple nature-myth, as we find it in its actual growth, or reconstruct it from its legendary remnants, may be rather called the record of a present which is never past” (vol. I, p.326).

With the relation between past and present no longer so simple, no longer distinct, now seen to be interconnected, Tylor allows himself to imagine “the battle of the storm against the forest and the ocean” still being “waged before our eyes.” “We still look,” he writes, “upon the victory of man over the creatures of the land and sea; the food-plants still hide in their mother earth, and the fish and reptiles find shelter in the ocean and the thicket; but mighty forest-trees stand with their roots firm planted in the ground, while with their branches they push up and up against the sky. And if we have learnt the secret of man’s thought in the childhood of his race, we may still realize with the savage the personal being of the ancestral Heaven and Earth (vol. I, p.326).

Myth is still now, in his words, a past that was never present and the record of a present which is never past. Tylor is writing here in a spirit of reverie that inevitably returns to melancholy. “The evidence and interpretation here brought forward, imperfect as they are, seem to countenance a strong opinion as to the historical development of legends which describe in personal shape the life of nature. The state of mind to which such imaginative fictions belong is found in full vigour in the savage condition of mankind, its growth and inheritance continue into the higher culture of barbarous or half-civilized nations, and at last in the civilized world its effects pass more and more from realized belief into fanciful, affected, and even artificial poetry” (vol. I, p.367).

Against artificial poetry and “symbols,” Tylor is a defender of myth and animism. He rejects the notion that these are irrational beliefs, arguing instead that they are based in sense evidence, and that we can still see their effects today. “Everyone who has seen visions while light- headed in fever, everyone who has ever dreamt a dream, has seen the phantoms of objects as well as of persons. How then can we charge the savage with far-fetched absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion which rests on the very evidence of his senses? The notion is implicitly recognized in his accounts of ghosts, which do not come naked, but clothed, and even armed; of course there must be spirits of garments and weapons, seeing that the spirits of men come bearing them. It will indeed place savage philosophy in no unfavourable light, if we compare this extreme animistic development of it with the popular opinion still surviving in civilized countries, as to ghosts and the nature of the human soul as connected with them” (vol. I, p.478). Tylor belonged to an age when intellectuals took ghosts and the paranormal seriously; they did so unapologetically.

More than a scholarly interest, the fascination with spiritual beings and his own belief or confidence in the power of imagination explain why Tylor rejected “interpretation” in the study of religion.

The interpretation of myth, he argues, only creates more myth. “Any of us may practise this simple art, each according to his own fancy. If, for instance, political economy happens for the moment to lie uppermost in our mind, we may with due gravity expound the story of Perseus as an allegory of trade: Perseus himself is Labour, and he finds Andromeda, who is Profit, chained and ready ‘to be devoured by the monster Capital; he rescues her and carries her off in triumph. To know anything of poetry or of mysticism is to know this reproductive growth of fancy as an admitted and admired intellectual process. But when it comes to sober investigation of the processes of mythology, the attempt to penetrate to the foundation of an old fancy will scarcely be helped by burying it yet deeper underneath a new one” (vol. I, p.277-8). With our own eye on Marx, Müller, Durkheim, and Freud, it would seem how scientific interpretation in religion constitutes its own “fancy.” Instead of looking at what lies behind the rite or representation, Tylor commits ostensibly to a deep dive into the available data. His own writing is affecting, the “belief in spiritual beings” standing on its own against interpretation, against the suppression in interpretation that turns the marvelous into something commonplace. “[T]he mythologists arranged systematic methods of reducing legend to history, and thereby contrived at once to stultify the mythology they professed to explain, and to ruin the history they professed to develop.” (vol. I, p.278)

Tylor is, in this respect a better theorist than the social theorists who came after him writing about religion. Apart from the incredibly crude language about primitive and savage people, there is little in Primitive Culture about animism and material religion that is necessarily contradicted in works in the study of religion by Diana Eck, Charles Long, J. Lorand Matory, David Freedberg, or Bruno Latour. Tylor is a sympathetic thinker drawn to the imagination, to the sense of lived reality. There is very little by way of dried-out stuff like “symbols” and “discourse.” Tylor does not explain away or write off religion and the religions of other people. At this ecological moment, it could very well be that physics, chemistry, and biology will lead back to material religion and the religion of animism, not necessarily away from them.

But there is a destructive method that comes into full view in the conclusion of the second volume of Primitive Culture. At this point in the text, he is back “at home,” as it were, back in Great Britain, trying to referee debates between religious traditonalists and radical rationalists. He refers to the scientific study of religion as a new, emergent field of study now siding with evolutionary theory and comparative method. At question for Tylor has been the survival of cultural survivals in the modern world, if earlier forms of primitive culture once found out in more advanced cultures maintain their rightful place as a “proper representative of more advanced views.” About his own time and place in the world, he now takes on a clinical attitude. It is “a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.” Yet this work that is the work of destruction, “if less genial, is not less urgently needful for the good of mankind.” Taking sides, “the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science” (vol. II, p.453).

What we today call cultural and physical genocide hangs over the entire modern comparative project. I cited above Tylor’s critical from very early in the first volume of Primitive Culture the critical take on the colonial destruction of colonized peoples. Genocide comes up again, right after he has defined religion as “belief in spiritual beings.” He immediately notes there that he cannot prove that this belief pervades every culture on earth or in human history. “It cannot be positively asserted that every existing tribe recognizes the belief in spiritual beings, for the native condition of a considerable number is obscure in this respect, and from the rapid change or extinction they are undergoing, may ever remain so” (vol. I, p,424). I note in passing the end of his own ethnographic study Anahuac; or, Mexico and the Mexicans Ancient and Modern. Steeped in racial thinking, he writes wistfully about old colonial Mexico in all its violent colors, including the violence of racism and slavery in the West Indies. He believes that the culture is about to disappear in the face of what he thought, in 1861, was going to be a full-scale U.S. occupation of the country. In all these varied ways, about animism and human extinction, Tylor more than makes the point made by Benjamin that human civilization is the history of “barbarism.”

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Religion = Spiritual Beings

Teaching Theories and Methods again, the classics.. “Belief” is not quite the right word and not what he actually meant. I’ve lost all patience with beating around the bush as to what people mean by “religion” and “religious.” In social-historical-political context, religion is orientation around “spiritual beings.”

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