|Electronic version of Pasztory 2001.|
"Nostalgie de la boue" means ascribing higher spiritual values to people and cultures considered "lower" than oneself, the romanticization of the faraway primitive which is also the equivalent of the lower class close to home. I have been submerged in such ideas since I was born and am just getting my head out of the waters. My parents romanticized Hungarian folk culture my father photographed and published peasant architecture, my mother wore folk dresses, my uncle and father promoted native handicrafts in the weaving workshops they organized in the 1930's. I went much further in romanticizing the seemingly most unromantic Aztecs, leaping across an ocean, a continent and five centuries in revalidation.
Generally, I have been the cautious scholar, staying away from fringe enthusiasms. To my colleagues and even to some of my students my attitude has often been seen as "too critical" and not romantic enough. I have especially had a tendency to discourse against the widespread use of the term "shaman" since the very first course I taught (with Ann Farkas) on "Shamanism and Art" left an indelible impression, and I still have a significant quarrel with the life-work of Mircea Eliade. Some of us are more romantic than others.
Some of us take classes in drumming to go into a trance and be at one with the universe of archaic peoples; some of us just criticize Eliade. It has dawned on me recently that in fact there is not that great a distance between us; we're all romantics, it's just that some of us take different positions along the continuum of romanticism. I have heard fellow art historians and anthropologists admit that they censor what they say about the people they studied in a class, so the students will not have a low opinion of them. Or, as Monni Adams once put it, "if we paint too negative a picture of our natives we put ourselves out of business." The fact is, we are all members of the same religion, but some of us are high church and others fundamentalist holy-rollers. We rarely question our religion as a whole. Let me call this religion "Primitivism".
This primitivist terrain has been with us at least since the eighteenth century when Bougainville published illustrations of those charming and elegant Tahitians, Rousseau found man good in his native state, and Marie Antoinette played milkmaid at Versailles. Primitivism is part and parcel of the Enlightenment, of the classification of peoples, of the concept of progress, the democratic revolutions, nationalism, ethnicity, and multiculturalism.
But in fact it is more global and cuts more deeply than the recent history of the West. As Freud noted in Civilization and its Discontents, the civilized have always longed to be uncivilized and attributed great virtues to them. Tacitus admired the Germanic tribes, Herodotus the barbarian Scythians, Ibn Khaldun the nomadic Beduin, and the Chinese the Mongols. Bruce Chatwin's admiration of nomads in recent popular books is nothing new. Even the sixteenth-century Aztecs considered their primitive and nomadic ancestors to be superior to themselves. The nostalgia for the mud of origins seems to begin as soon as one foot is out of the mud, and history has probably seen many Lady Chatterleys in love with a hard-to-understand blue collar accent. Note that "civilization" is often imagined as feminine, searching for that lost, primitive, masculine lover.
Many of us are dissatisfied or bored with our own civilization, whether by that we mean New York City or the village of Walpi at Hopi. It is not surprising that until Utopias and Marx most peoples put the Golden Age into the past, or into far-away lands where men and women have more integrity despite, or because of, the paucity of their possessions. It may be said for us that massive technological change since the eighteenth century may be responsible for an equally massive ideology of primitivism, but primitivism as an idea is not new, it is only more widespread and institutionalized. The Hollywood movie in which the poor hero strikes it rich, or the homeless man teaches the rich how to live is simply a modern version of the folk tale in which the youngest (i.e. weakest and poorest) son defeats the dragon and marries the princess. Princesses always like these folk heroes.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the desire was to educate the primitive as in the folk tale, the peasant hero goes to live with the princess in the castle. In the twentieth century "authentic" primitives have dwindled to such an extent that they have been not only extensively recorded, but in case they forgot, their arts and crafts have been retaught to them and they have been begged to remain primitives so that they could remain the "others" that define who we are. Princesses have been forsaking their courts to move into thatched huts with their native heroes. And with the dwindling of primitives, the civilized have gone one step further to try to learn the trances, voodoo and drumming so they could become primitives in themselves and their own "others". (This is not to say that any of us primitives or civilized have forsaken our refrigerators if we are lucky enough to have them).
I have recently read Cecelia Klein's excellent and as yet unpublished article criticizing the excessively romantic use of the term "shamanism" in Pre-Columbian studies, which I could not have done better myself. She mentioned my 1982 critique in which I argued that shamanism belonged to simple hunter-gatherer societies and the term should not be applied to stratified agricultural ones. I objected to the then-wholesale application of the term "shaman" to almost any religious specialist. I thought it was ludicrous to consider shamans the only creative artists par excellence. In retrospect I see that there was then a cultural imperative to prefer the idea of a spontaneous practitioner going into a trance as much more attractive than a priest perhaps associated with the religion of one's childhood that one was rebelling against performing precise, formulaic and controlled rituals.
For most scholars Mesoamerica had "priests" before 1950 and "shamans" after. Mesoamerica hadn't changed we did. Not only did my criticism have no effect, my article has been used to extend the term "shaman" even further. You can't fight the zeitgeist. Cecelia and her co-authors demonstrate in detail the uselessness of the expansion of this term especially into "royal" contexts.
As I read the article, I was convinced that good as it was, it would make no difference to those who yearn for the sublime in their fantasy of shamanism. My next reaction surprised me do Cecelia, myself, and countless other scholars imagine that we can contain the primitivist forces in our society by impeccable scholarship? Are we not trying to put genies back into bottles? Have we ever asked why we are involved in the scholarly studies of shamanism in the first place? Do we try to do anything other than manage and control the concept and is not our fascination as great in its way as that of the naive drummer or even the much maligned Eliade?
Admitting one's own romanticism within one's scholarship is not easy. Shouldn't the real task be to face up to one's own "nostalgia de la boue", even if we consider ourselves more rational than scholar X or Y? And what about our own times in which we became romantics, willy-nilly? Can I come to understand that better? Can I somehow go beyond it? Isn't that the real task to unravel and what we all scholars and drummers search for?
Apparently we have accepted the world of technology but long spiritually for "archaic ecstasy". Now that is a vast and interesting subject to tackle and is beyond the scope of this polemic. Let me just float one idea in relation to the popularity of shamanism. We Westerners are reasonably consistent in what we search for and right now it is, surprisingly, more "technology". We believe in technology, regardless of what we say to the contrary, and we believe that archaic or low-class persons have developed technologies of the spirit that we envy or wish to acquire. These might be useful drugs, techniques of mind control, extrasensory or even extraterrestrial perception. Even "spontaneity" and "instinct" are to us not yet understood forms of techniques to be learned. Already in the 1820's James Fenimore Cooper's indians had an understanding of nature that was impossible to a white man; the mind's control of the body is legendary among the Hindus, while reading minds is the greatest skill of Chinese warfare. The "shaman" has become a catchall term for all the mysterious mind-specialists among archaic cultures, and our concept of "shamanism" sums up their greatest value to us. If this "shaman" ultimately turns out to be very much like the Hindu yogi well that's just Eliade brilliantly plugged in to the spiritual needs of the twentieth century and transposing cultures as he saw them make sense one on top of the other.
The sixteenth century sought gold as the treasure of exotic cultures we are now searching for spiritual gold. If the twentieth century was the century of physics in the mainstream, the margins were already looking ahead to the next great unknown: the mystery of the mind and the mind-body problem. The twentieth century unraveled the mysteries of consciousness but barely touched the non-conscious or unconscious despite Freud. That is precisely the area that has been more openly cultivated by nonwestern cultures. We admire it and we wish to acquire it. Gold may be valuable, but self-knowledge and mind control are invaluable. Wouldn't you want to read nature like a Noble Savage, manipulate the minds of others, and control your body and illnesses? If there hadn't been shamans we would have had to invent them, and in many cases we have.
Perhaps the hardest to face is that our attitude has been one of conquest. It is easier to take what someone else has than to recreate it. Is it surprising that a curer here or there or one of our quick-fix scholars invented a lot of mumbo-jumbo and pulled our collective leg? Proof that readers are after "information" and not scholarship is the continued popularity of the Castaneda Don Juan books after multiple unmaskings as hoaxes. If it "works" it's not a hoax. Shamanism may turn out to be more our cult than that of other peoples, and there is no way to understand it without that dimension. Shamanism may have its day to be superceded by something else.
Primitivism, however, is probably here to stay even if many formerly traditional groups modernize and join the "conquerors". The lowly, the exotic, the disabled, women, slaves and animals were always believed to have intuitions and secrets of the mind in which they were stronger than their masters. "Masters", whoever they may be and however defined, may always need access to the less fortunate whose gold is the self. It is a mud full of treasure.
Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, New York, Bollingen Foundation, 1951.
Klein, Cecelia F, Eulogio Guzman, Elisa Mandell, Maya Stanfield-Mazzi and Josephine Volpe, "Shamanitis: A Pre-Columbian Art Historical Disease", 2000, in press.
Pasztory, Esther, "Shamanism and North American Indian Art", in Native North American Art History: Selected Readings, Pearlstone, Peek Publications, 1982.