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In defense of "The Golden Bough"


Dear Camille:

I've noted with interest your many admiring references to the seminal British anthropologist James Frazer and his classic work, "The Golden Bough." Like so many others, I felt the haunting spell of Frazer's vision of the dying and reborn god/king and the persistence of pagan ritual into modern times. As you know, Frazer's thesis (along with Jessie Weston and Margaret Murray, and the whole Cambridge Ritualist school) has been, apparently, solidly refuted by subsequent research, and is far out of academic favor. And yet I'm a little suspicious. Maybe it's because I know that anthropology is just as influenced by poststructuralist "theory" as literary studies is. Maybe it's because I still feel an undeniable imaginative/spiritual truth in Frazer's vision. So I have a few questions I'd like to hear your response to.

Have contemporary anthropologists dropped Frazer because he's truly been disproved, or are they just more interested in how tradition "enforces power relations"?

Why do contemporary scholars generally view ancient tradition as repressive rather than, as we did in the '60s, a liberating source of resistance to the dominant culture?

Do you agree with Ronald Hutton, in his excellent and fair-minded "Stations of the Sun," that Frazer et al. should be "taken out of the dead-end of history and put on the high road of modern imagination and literature"?

How do you make use of Frazer in your own thought and work?

Last, I want to offer you this quote from G.K. Chesterton: "The great mass of men are poets; but for some reason I have never heard explained, it is only the minority of non-poetic people who get to write critical studies."

Christopher Hill

Dear Mr. Hill,

While I was in graduate school (from 1968 to 1972), I systematically rummaged through the often sooty library collections looking for ways to rethink and recast literary criticism, which I wanted to expand to include history, archaeology and the visual arts and music. I couldn't stand the pat, namby-pamby moralism of genteel, Protestant-style New Criticism, then in its declining phase. My pagan instincts were at fever pitch, stoked by the Dionysian firepower of rock 'n' roll (Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones were at their height).

The 13 volumes of classicist Sir James George Frazer's "The Golden Bough" (published over two decades beginning in 1890) hit me like a thunderbolt. (The bland, widely available one-volume condensation should be avoided like the plague.) Frazer's vision is nearly psychedelic; the whole history of humanity is dreamily woven into his sober prose. In his startling juxtapositions, we pass in the blink of an eye from primitive tribal rites to Egyptian cult to Greek myth to rural British folklore. The familiar becomes strange, and the grotesque becomes normal.

Frazer's work has epic scale yet mesmerizing fineness of detail. We see the great structures of civilization forming and melting against a background of elemental mystery. The effect is cinematic and sublime. Frazer treats magic and religion with scientific neutrality and refuses to grant Judeo-Christianity or mainstream European culture their ordinary prestige and priority. He is a heretic.

What I took from Frazer is his narrative sweep, multicultural sympathy and structuralist technique. How lucky I was to have the pagan-minded Frazer as my intellectual model rather than the unlearned, one-dimensional Michel Foucault! "The Golden Bough" is like music -- the dark resonance of Johannes Brahms' four symphonies, which inspired my "reading" of Western culture and its recurrent themes.

Those interested in escaping the current, stultifying dead end of French poststructuralism should look at John B. Vickery's "The Literary Impact of 'The Golden Bough'" (1973), which, in separate chapters, explores the "controlling ideas," "intellectual influence" and "literary uses" of "The Golden Bough" as it dramatically influenced Freud, Jung, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. The definitive biographical study of Frazer (1987) is by Robert Ackerman (who coincidentally is director of liberal arts at the university where I teach).

As for the dreary fad-followers of academe, don't ask me to explain their sappy behavior! One reason I am so contemptuously dismissive of thin-as-gruel, Foucault-spawned New Historicism is that, as an archaeology fan from childhood, I am an old historicist teethed on German philology who respects facts as well as power of imagination. The details in Frazer that may have been "refuted" are nowhere near in number or degree the bonehead errors made by Foucault in every discipline he touched (see J.G. Merquior's 1985 exposé, "Foucault"). Frazerian discourse, I contend, is far suppler and more polyvalent than the Foucaldian, which is chained to the linguistic claptrap of Ferdinand de Saussure.

I was reminded of the Frazerian globalism of the Cambridge School of Anthropology in an excellent text I recently discovered on the remainders table at Borders bookstore: "Past Worlds: Atlas of Archaeology" (HarperCollins, 1997 edition, $19.98). Sure enough, the general editor proved to be from the University of Cambridge. With superb maps, ingenious graphs and beautiful illustrations of sites and artifacts, this slim but large-scale book provides a magnificent survey of world culture, from mankind's origins to the Industrial Revolution. "Past Worlds" could serve as a scholarly primer for interdisciplinary 21st century education. I enthusiastically recommend it to every student and teacher in the humanities.
SALON | March 10, 1999

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