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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, January 30, 2015


At the end of JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 5 I tangentially touched on a concept I've not addressed before on the blog. The concept is that of "lawlines," introduced in Dudley Young's 1991 meditation on anthropology and mythology, ORIGINS OF THE SACRED: THE ECSTASIES OF LOVE AND WAR.

Young's project-- his only purely philosophical work, so far as I can tell-- is an attempt to analyze the ways in which ancient societies formulated their laws, taboos, and other codes of behavior. The author's express purpose in exploring the dynamics of archaic myths is to throw some light upon the ways that we as moderns have fallen away from our own heritage, with catastrophic consequences for our ability to know right from wrong. Though Young invokes many philosophers,poets and pundits of the past two centuries-- Sigmund Freud, William Wordsworth, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Buber, Mary Douglas, and Northrop Frye-- the bulk of the book deals with the ancient world, beginning with what we moderns know of paleolithic man and moving into the mythic universes of the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Greeks. Myths for Young are pre-eminently about defining the strictures of law and the powers that support it:

The myths that compose the religious and political structure of every culture are tales of power, how it is to be found and where it is to be used.-- Young, p. 22.

Young contends that there exist meaningful parallels between our own de-sacralized concepts of cultural authority with:

the measures taken by paleolithic man to live with the loss of his innocence, the cultural moves he made to protect himself from further exposure to that sacred monster that had originally tempted him ecstatically into cannibalism and worse. The word I use for these measures is 'lawlines,' and in the beginning this is literally what they are, lines drawn in the mind and on the dancing ground to regulate the flow of energies no longer governed by the codes of primate instinct.-- p. xx. 

Given these abstruse references to "the dancing ground" of hypothetical cave-dweller tribes and to a tempting "sacred monster" who is apparently both the serpent of Eden and Dionysus infecting his Maenads with murderous blood-lust, it should be evident that ORIGINS is not a simple read. I don't propose to review the book in full here, as I've not recently re-read it, though I have given it more than one reading in the past. I could just appropriate his term "lawlines" for my own use, but I felt it would be instructive to meditate on the some of the differences between Young's account of myth and my own.

First and foremost, though Young mentions Jung a few times in the book, his primary influence is Freud's  1913 TOTEM AND TABOO.  Young is not much concerned with the rest of Freud's theory, and he expressly distances himself from the Viennese psychologist's reductive tendencies, but he feels it is important to see Freud's concept within the greater sphere of current anthropological and mythographic knowledge.  Citing Robin Fox's book THE RED LAMP OF INCEST as well as Freud, Young argues that in prehistoric times bands of hominids followed the structural lead of certain anthropoids in that each tribe was dominated by the strongest alpha-male, who kept all the desirable females for himself. At some point a particular tribe (in Young's view, a number of tribes responding to the same internal conflicts) was rocked when the young men ganged up on the older alpha-male-- implicitly the father to at least some of them-- and killed him in order to have access to the women. Freud also asserts that the rebels cannibalized their victim, which is one manifestation of the "sacred monster" mentioned in the quote above. Since then, totemism continued to dominate humankind's development, and countless humans expiated their guilt over the killing of a father-figure, reinforced by the internal dynamic of the Oedipus Complex.

From this germ-idea Young spins a fascinating tapestry of mythic interrelationships that I cannot explore here, but he never strays from the idea that all myths are about forming the "lawlines" that separate order from chaos.  I esteemed ORIGINS OF THE SACRED highly when I first read it, and on a slight personal note, at an early 90s convention I recommended it to Dave Sim-- who had not yet gone public with his doctrinaire Christianity. I imagine that Sim, had he read the book, would have been repulsed by any suggestion that all religions might be traced back to primitive rituals of dance and exorcism.  Yet, Jungian that I am, I was more than a little iffy about that hypothesis from another angle. Though Young is not attempting to reduce all religion to base physical processes as Freud was, even locating the origins of religion exclusively within tribal exogamy-conflicts does have its reductive side.  Once again I cite a favorite Kant passage:

...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.

Thus, as much as I admire Young's book, I reject the notion that all religion arises from totemism, or that totemism, however one defines it, arises explicitly from the sexual competition of males for females, even if this "primal scene" was one that occured in many parallel situations rather than out of one originary event. At base, I think Young used and transformed Freud in much the same way Bataille used and transformed Marx; extending and improving the mythic kernels within the ideological narratives, and then discarding the ideology.  (Parenthetically, Young only mentions Marx twice in ORIGINS.) Where Young focuses on an opposition between order and chaos, Bataille focuses on one between practical work and sensuous play. Here's Bataille's take, hopefully just One More Time:

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.
Bataille was neither Kantian nor Jungian. However, his schema allows for a much broader, much more pluralistic vision of religion's genesis than Young's does-- though I might critique Bataille for also seeing religion as dominantly repressive.  In primitive societies as in modern ones, religion has a double power, to liberate or to enslave-- as much as do any political systems, or artistic credos, or pretty much anything human beings can devise. As a quick example, what if early religions evolved not at attempts at societal control, but out of shamans' claims to be able to heal people and guide the tribes toward good game? One would not necessarily have to believe that such shamans had supernormal powers, but even the illusion of being able to manipulate good fortune might have proved more persuasive to hard-living, practical-minded primitives than an appeal to primeval guilt complexes.

Young's term "lawlines," though, works as an image that mediates between Bataille's concepts of "the taboo" and "the transgression." The Judeo-Christian mind tends to think of the "taboo thing" as something that must not be violated, but the primitive mind, Bataille claimed, knows that only through its violation does the taboo become significant for us.  Thus, one can imagine a "lawline" that is drawn from the initial presentation of a static, taboo situation, to the dynamic status that ensues after the taboo has been broken. Thus, the violation of the Tree in Eden results in the world of toil and labor, but also of the whole history of the Jewish people. Admittedly, some dynamic situations are more horrific than heroic. In THE BACCHAE King Pentheus tries to protect his kingdom from the ecstasies of Dionysus, and his hubris only leads him to be reduced to the status of a hunted animal, albeit not one consumed for his flesh, at least in the play.

I propose that any kind of literature, escapist or realistic, requires conflict, and that conflict springs from violating "lawlines" of one kind or another, though they may deal more with expectation than with matters of cultural jurisprudence.  In the next essay on this topic, I'll demonstrate this theory with reference to the same examples used in THE WORK AND PLAY MIX-A-LOT.

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