Don’t forget the primitive
- Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War by Dudley Young
Little, Brown, 379 pp, £16.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 356 20628 9
The ‘Glory that was Greece’ has had a hard time recently. Big guns have been drawn up against our accustomed admiration of the Greek genius, our collusive Philhellenism. It is very heavy artillery indeed. First, Martin Bernal’s enormous Black Athena (two volumes already, with two more to come) – a brave piece of iconoclasm that questions not only the primacy of the Greek cultural achievement over its Near-Eastern, Semitic and African neighbours, but also the bigotry and racism sheltering under the authority of ‘traditional’ Classical scholarship. Now Dudley Young (in a more modest 350 pages) joins in the campaign – with a differently aimed, but equally impassioned, attack on ‘the Greeks’ as we think we know them.
Vol. 14 No. 18 · 24 September 1992
I am unreservedly grateful for the generosity and good humour in Mary Beard’s review of Origins of the Sacred (LRB, 20 August), but a little perplexed by her tendency to kiss and kick, to reclaim with one hand most of what she has given with the other. For example: if my Greek meditation, like that of my fellow blasphemer Martin Bernal, does, in fact, manage to deliver a significant blow (‘very heavy artillery indeed’) at the patriarchal warrior myths that still befog important aspects of our imaginative life, it is probably more than a ‘blown up version of E.R. Dodds’; and if in the monkey section I manage to persuade her that boring old brachiation is not boring at all, then surely she should have been willing to stay with the argument as it speculates on the hominid darkness, instead of half-reluctantly waving farewell with ‘Mad it may well be …’
Well, better mad than bad, I suppose. ‘Unnervingly Victorian’, on the other hand, though not very kindly meant, I shall take as a compliment, and cheerfully accept the comparison with Frazer. There have of course been some changes since The Golden Bough came among us: the cold bath of Modernism has tightened our prose somewhat, we now know about the sex life of chimps, as Beard says, and some of us have even heard the odd rumour about the sex life of women.
But other things have not changed: like Frazer, we are still dismayed by the dissociation of sensibility that has been crippling the Western mind since the Renaissance; and like him, some of us still think the remedy is to be sought in a story that does justice both to our primitive past and our scientific present – which is why I propose Darwin as the figure around whom we must gather for a pow-wow. Or put it this way: Frazer’s idea, which was fashioned mostly by Wordsworth, was that the revolution we long for must reach well past the Roman Republic to the truly ancient springs. Add to this our idea, call it (for brevity’s sake) ‘feminism’, and stir.
It may be, as Beard says, that the time for such epic reconciliation is ‘long past’, but only if we continue to cede what is left of our ground to the ubiquitous thought-police and their ‘Hush hush, whisper who dares, there’s no point at all in saying your prayers.’
University of Essex