The FallOctober 21, 2006
In my last posting I quoted a small part of an essay by anthropologist E Richard Sorensen. In it he has been focusing on what he calls ‘pre-conquest’ consciousness. He has spent a large part of his career living amongst hunter/gatherer communities throughout the world and reports that if it wasn’t for the large amount of time spent immersed in these cultures he would never have become aware of their profoundly different state of mind. In fact, by his own admission it took a very long time to even recognise that there was a different state of mind – so alien was it to our own way of thinking.
It’s important to note too that Sorensen would never have achieved what he did if he hadn’t lived in amongst his ‘subjects’ as he has done. Normally academics are expected to maintain an ‘objective’ distance from their subjects but fortunately Sorensen is not one of them, the richness of his observations and understanding is far in excess of anything an ‘objective’ technique could have produced.
In ‘Ischmael’ Daniel Quinn uses the metaphor of fingers on a hand to describe how members of a tribe relate to each other and to what degree they are individuals – here is a passage from Sorensen conveying that same sense:
One day, deep within the forest, Agaso, then about 13 years of age, found himself with a rare good shot at a cuscus in a nearby tree. But he only had inferior arrows. Without the slightest comment or solicitation, the straightest, sharpest arrow of the group moved so swiftly and so stealthily straight into his hand, I could not see from whence it came.
At that same moment, Karako, seeing that the shot would be improved by pulling on a twig to gently move an obstructing branch, was without a word already doing so, in perfect synchrony with Agaso’s drawing of the bow, i.e., just fast enough to fully clear Agaso’s aim by millimeters at the moment his bow was fully drawn, just slow enough not to spook the cuscus. Agaso, knowing this would be the case made no effort to lean to side for an unobstructed shot, or to even slightly shift his stance. Usumu similarly synchronized into the action stream, without even watching Agaso draw his bow, began moving up the tree a fraction of a second before the bowstring twanged.
Later on Sorensen describes what happens to these cultures as they lose this state of being due to exposure to the conquest oriented cultures of civilisation, sometimes it is a slower process but sometimes it happens very suddenly, this next quote is long but very revealing;
…in cases of accelerated change, a whirlwind psychological debility would sometimes suddenly break loose. The following, abstracted from my field notes, is a firsthand description of one such case:
I’m out, back from the Andaman where I’ve just been through an experience I’ll not soon forget. Only by pure chance did I happen to be there when their extraordinary intuitive mentality gave up the ghost right in front of me, in an inconceivable overwhelming week. I’m almost wrecked myself, in a strange anomie from having gone through that at too close a range, and from staying up all night too many times to try to understand just what was going on. I never was much good at keeping research distance, always feeling more could be learned close in. And I’d come straight into the Andaman from two months of tantric philosophical inquiry in a Tibetan monastery. Perhaps that tuned awareness up a notch too much.
There really was no way to have predicted that, just after I arrived, the acute phase of their ancient culture’s death would start. To speak abstractly of the death of a way-of-life is a simple thing to do. To experience it is quite another thing. I’ve seen nothing in the lore of anthropology that might prepare one for the speed by which it can occur, or for the overwhelming psychic onslaughts it throws out. Nor does my profession forewarn of those communicable paroxysms that hover in the air which, without warning, strike down with overwhelming force, when a culture’s mind gives way.
Yet this is just what happened when the traditional rapport of those islands was undone, when the subtle sensibility of each to one another was abruptly seared away in a sudden unpredicted, unprecedented, uncognated whirlwind. In a single crucial week a spirit that all the world would want, not just for themselves but for all others, was lost, one that had taken millennia to create. It was suddenly just gone.
Epidemic sleeplessness, frenzied dance throughout the night, reddening burned-out eyes getting narrower and more vacant as the days and nights wore on, dysphasias of various sorts, sudden mini-epidemics of spontaneous estrangement, lacunae in perception, hyperkinesis, loss of sensuality, collapse of love, impotence, bewildered frantic looks like those on buffalo in India just as they’re clubbed to death; 14 year olds (and others) collapsing on the beach, under houses, on the pier, in beached boats as well as those tied up at the dock, here and there, into wee hours of the morn, even on through dawn, in acute inebriation or exhaustion. Such was the general scene that week, a week that no imagination could have forewarned, the week in which the subtle sociosensual glue of the island’s traditional way-of-life became unstuck.
To pass through the disintegrating social enclaves was to undergo a rain of psychic blows, a pelting shower of harrowing awarenesses that raised goose flesh of unexpected types on different epidermal sites along with other kinds of crawlings of flesh and skin. There were sudden rushes, both cold and hot, down the head and chest and across the neck, even in the legs and feet. And deep inside, often near the solar plexus, or around heart, or in the head or throat, new indescribable sensations would spontaneously arise, leave one at a loss or deeply disconcerted.
Such came and then diffused away as one passed by different people. Sensations would abruptly wash in across the consciousness, trigger moods of awe, or of sinking, sometimes of extraordinary love, sometimes utter horror. From time-to-time nonspecific elemental impulses arose just to run or dance, to throw oneself about, to move. All these could be induced and made to fade and then come back, just by passing through some specific group, departing, and then returning, or by coming near a single friend, moving off and coming back. That this was possible so astonished me that I checked and checked and checked again.
Such awarenesses, repeatedly experienced, heap up within the brain. Eventually the accumulation left me almost as sleepless and night-kinetic as they had become. I did discover that with body motion, mind becomes less preoccupied within itself, therefore less distressed. With kinetic frenzy mind-honor lessens very much. But it left them exhausted during the day, somnambulant, somewhat zombie-like. When night returned, the cycle would re-begin, as if those nocturnal hours, when they would otherwise be sleeping, were the time of greatest stress.
Though the overt frenzied movements could be observed by anyone, the psychic states that so powerfully impelled them were not easily detectable to outsiders. It seemed as if one had to have some personal rapport within the lifeway before the mental anguish could be sensed. Then it would loom, sometimes overwhelm. One Westerner looking casually on said, ‘How exotic to see these uneducated types staying up throughout the night, dancing strangely, relating to each other in nonproductive ways. This place must be an anthropological paradise: Tourists happening on the scene thought it a fillip to their holiday. Intimacy and affection seem prerequisite to connecting with these inner surges of human psyche, even overwhelming ones.
Eventually I retreated, mentally exhausted, cognitively benumbed, emotionally wrung out. I tried to thwart that siege (when I finally recognized it for what it really was) by getting key people out. A useless foolish gambit; for no one would leave the spot, as if they were welded to it, as if it held some precious thing they very greatly loved, which they neither would nor could abandon.
When the mental death had run its course, when what had been was gone, the people (physically still quite alive) no longer had their memory of the intuitive rapport that held them rapturously together just the week before, could no longer link along those subtle mental pathways. What had filled their lives had vanished. The teensters started playing at (and then adopting) the rude, antagonistic, ego-grasping styles of the encroaching modern world, modeled after films and then TV. Oldsters retreated into houses, lost their affinity to youngsters, who then turned more to one another, sometimes squabbling (which did not occur before).
It seems astonishing that the inner energy of such passings is so undetectable to minds not some way linked to the inner harmonies and ardors of the place. Research-distance yields abstractions like ‘going amok,’ which could have been easily applied that week, or ‘revitalizing movement,’ which also could have been (in a perverse kind of way). It seems that only by some mental coalescence with the local lifeway can one access its deeper psychic passions, not just those of adolescence, but graver ones like those which for a time were released in inconceivable profusion, when the collective subtle mind of the islands, built up over eons, was snuffed out.
When I was first learning about ‘pre-conquest’ cultures I remember thinking that it felt like they were still living in Eden and this report from Sorensen certainly conveys a sense that this tribe was ‘falling from grace’ in a truly biblical sense of the phrase.
I now think it even more unlikely that any civilised person could ever achieve that same mental state and I’m even less sure that we as a people could ever get back to it under our own steam either, no matter how many years and how many generations we had to do it in.
I have been, and still am, greatly inspired by the Continuum Concept in terms of what we can do to help out children grow up as whole people but I also see more clearly now that it will be impossible to prevent things like sibling rivalry and squabbling amongst them. As always our task as parents is to teach out children how to cope with their ‘fallen’ state.
One thing I kind of disagree with the author about is the implication that the pre-conquest culture was the result of evolution. I don’t think we evolved from something else into this way of being, I think it’s simply the natural state for all beings and the state that most properly wild animals are in. Jason Godesky (who’s putting out some staggeringly good work at the moment by the way) just posted this piece about the changing elephant culture which seems to be portraying something similar amongst elephant populations.