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
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
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.
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