The Evolution of Culture
Americans embrace their beastly brethren

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Aug. 1, 1998)

Newness still remains the Americas' prison -- James Hillman

One of the books I brought to read during my month of traveling in Europe is the new issue of Spring, a "journal of archetype and culture," published twice a year. The new issue, ironically, is devoted to the theme of "American soul." It has been interesting to read the issue's essays, which often compare American and European attitudes.

In his essay, "Culture and the Animal Soul," James Hillman, as the quote above indicates, makes the point that America from the beginning has been the "New World," carrying the European visionary fantasy of riches and eternal youth. In his view, we continue to bear this expectation, especially of ourselves. We always sacrifice authentic spontaneous culture, he argues, to the fantasy of progress and civilization.

In an essay on "The American Discovery: Mistakes and Fictions," Jay Livernois exposes the way the characterization of America as an El Dorado was from the beginning opposed by a scientifically fraudulent counter-claim. By the 18th century, European scientists promoted the view that everything in America -- from the land to the people, animals and plants -- was biologically inferior to its European "originals." Thus settlers of the Americas frequently journeyed to Europe to have their children.

Livernois reads this as an effort by Europe to control its own terrified responses in the face of the profound "otherness" of the American continent. For one pathetic and extreme example, he cites Columbus' lifelong refusal to relinquish his fantasy that he'd discovered a new route to the East. A man far behind his own time, Columbus clung to medieval dreams of leading a new Crusade to bring the infidels of the East to Christ.

Livernois also exposes the long-buried fact that the Pilgrims' arrival at Cape Cod in 1620 was marked by a singular tragedy. Dorothy Bradford, whose husband William was soon to become governor, threw herself overboard and drowned while he spent six weeks exploring the best place to land and establish a settlement. The suicide was caused, Livernois writes, quoting Gov. Bradford's journal, by a collective depression that overcame "the tenderhearted women who came to New England among the pioneers, [so] that their hearts grew faint and sick when they first beheld that wild-looking northern land, so different from the green and cultivated England they had left."

Geography, the wilderness, in other words, represented both the new frontier, with the possibility of riches, and the terror of the unknown. Europeans, Livernois argues, developed a notion of the inherent inferiority of the Americas to defend against an anxiety that would have otherwise overwhelmed them, making settlement of the wild and woolly New World impossible.

It is fascinating to tour Europe with this thesis in mind. One does notice that the European landscape is, wherever it can be, almost completely gardened or contained. One can read this at its most positive as an aesthetic expression -- and it certainly is -- but one also wonders why everything has to be so "green and cultivated."

Even in tiny Dornburg, in rural Germany, every home is perfectly gardened, almost with mathematical precision. At first this is simply "pretty." But if you walk into the hills, you notice that all of the trees in the villages seem to be ornamentals. Surrounding the villages are huge open, cultivated fields and then, far back, small sections of forest are left standing. It is rather like Dunwoody, or any other American suburb, where nature has been completely subjugated to gardening.

It seems to me that for all of America's preoccupation with progress, we do have a concern for the preservation of wilderness and animal species. You don't even hear the subject discussed here. And yet, wherever you go in Europe, you find people fascinated with the wilderness and mythology of the "Wild West." In my travel agent's office in Istanbul, the fan is decorated with little plastic cowboys and Indians. In Dornburg, teenagers quizzed me about the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains. Europeans still seek in America the experience of wildness and wilderness, even as they deride us for our lack of culture -- our poor gardening.

Of course, we in turn gaze at their own cultural artifacts with open-mouthed, snapshot-taking awe. Touring the monuments and museums and gardens of Paris and Rome can be humbling. The beauty is often as overwhelming as the wilderness must have been to the Puritans. Indeed, in Venice, travelers used to be hospitalized for a temporary psychiatric disorder said to be caused by seeing too much beauty at once. If you spend a day in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, you will begin to have a sense of this possibility.

It is easy to dismiss America as inferior to Europe when you consider the scale of its art. But when you begin to examine its content, you notice something remarkable: Animals figure heavily in it. In the rescued mosaics of Constantinople's palace floors, you see the wildness and tenderness of animals depicted. Beasts in the company of angels glower at you from every corner in Rome. Indeed the city's history begins with the she-wolf. Renaissance painting, of course, conflates Christian images with pagan ones, bringing the animal and the spiritual into one another's company.

Does this not tell us something about the nature of culture -- that it originates, as Hillman argues in his essay in Spring, in the "animal soul?" Hillman insists that we make a distinction between civilization and culture. Civilization, he says, is linked to time, to developmental, evolutionary fantasies. Culture, he says, is the spontaneous aesthetic expression that occurs outside time, like the display of an animal. Civilization is unnecessary to culture. I would argue that civilization is the record of cultural achievement reflecting specific values that have been reified through hubris. In other words: Civilization is the record of culture edited to reflect a developmental fantasy.

But if you attempt to see through any original work of art, independent of its history, you find its real value -- its "cultural" aspect -- in its animal quality, its spontaneity, its unique expression compared to its generic (species-specific) form, its unselfconscious display.

Thus, culture erupts independent of civilization, when we permit it. It is not necessary, Hillman argues, to have eons of history, dustbins of historical artifacts and ancient ruins to have legitimate culture. America's problem is that in the absence of a Euro-style civilization, we have, instead of sinking fully into our animal souls -- the very wilderness that so terrified the settlers -- attempted to build a civilization through manic progress and technology. (Yet, as I said earlier, we and the Europeans themselves are drawn ever back to the American wilderness full of untamed beasts.)

The American fantasy that we can create a New World in a big hurry, that we are always in the process of evolution and civilization, costs us a great deal. Whatever does not contribute to the scientific delusion of progress is immediately dismissed as useless by many in our country. Thus, those spontaneous expressions of culture are diminished, so that magic and science can find no room for one another. In this, Europe does remain ahead of us in many respects, although many would read it as backward.

You see this in Europe, as I said, in the conflation of the pagan and the Christian images, but in many other ways, too. Drugstores sell homeopathic and herbal remedies as well as pharmaceuticals, for example. The best example I can think of is our experience with our Istanbul travel agent. Istanbul is more European than Asian. Our travel agent was a young man who is studying for a master's degree in biology and plans to pursue a doctorate at Berkeley. While we were planning our tour of interior (Asian) Turkey, he brought us cups of Turkish coffee. When we'd finished them, he told us to invert our cups.

Five minutes later, he stared into the cups and read our fortunes -- divining all sorts of issues in our lives with complete accuracy. For him, it was completely natural to be a scientist who reads fortunes. But as he took us to a rooftop for what he regarded as the best view of Istanbul, he said: "I always feel a little guilty when I read fortunes." I suspect the extent of his guilt is the extent to which the project of western civilization -- to fix everything according to one scientific model -- has taken hold of him.

Paradigms | Archetypal Advice | Articles | Essays | Writings Home

What Is SoulWork
Greeting The Muse
Is SoulWork For You?
About SoulWorks LLC
Upcoming Events
Top Of Page
Copyright 1997-1998 SoulWorks LLC