Face-Lifting The Stone Age

The Middle Classes and the Culture Cult
Roger Sandall
to the rathouse
the Revivalist
I first came to Australia to do some camerawork in the Northern Territory. A number of enlightened people led by W.H. Stanner and W. C. Wentworth had seen the importance of recording traditional Aboriginal culture.  The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies had been set up to achieve this goal, and one of its tasks was to record on film important aspects of the old-time way of life. Trained in cinematography in the USA, I arrived to take up a position as documentary film-maker to the Institute late in 1965.

The next seven years were busy. Working in Arnhem Land we filmed a Kunapipi ceremony. Towering symbolic penises, ornamented with white fluff, were constructed alongside supposedly vaginal pits during night-long singing and dancing, while male initiates were bathed from head to foot in human gore. Other work was done on Melville Island and at Yirrkala, and this led to a series of films at a number of remote locations in the deserts west of Alice Springs. Striking pictorial sequences documented the renewal of cave paintings in the Yuendumu region, while in the Petermann Ranges a group of men performed a fertility ceremony in honour of the mulga bush, after which we all climbed up to the rust-red heights above.

Elsewhere, totemic fertility rites combined with song and dance enacted the travels of mythical heroes. One of these figures was especially memorable. Named Wadaingula, he was a rather unsavoury fellow with some of the attributes of Jack the Ripper. Equipped with an unusual split or two-headed penis, Wadaingula travelled secretly underground, periodically emerging alongside startled women, whom he attacked and raped, before continuing on his dark subterranean way. It is possible that instead of having a divided penis Wadaingula actually was nothing but a predatory penis -- or two penises perhaps. Totemic ontology is never entirely clear, and descriptions by reliable eyewitnesses are understandably few.

During his dance the man playing the part of Wadaingula added a touch of realism by occasionally swatting flies which, as happens in the bush, tended to land on the erect sixfoot emblem made of grass and sticks which represented his sexual apparatus. This caused a good deal of hilarity. Whether because its internal armature was not equal to the strain, or because of a natural tendency to detumesce, the penile emblem eventually sagged and began to look like a wilted sausage. Meanwhile the audience shouted encouragement. The dancer flourished his device. The persisting cloud of
flies were waved away. And laughter was general. Sacred this event may have been, but solemn it was not -- the comic talents and good humour of the participants saw to that. It may also be worth noting here that what are called "sacred places" in the earnest vocabulary of modern bien pensants are frequently places of this kind: sites where figures like Wadaingula emerge to do their fertilising duties, unhindered by sexual harassment laws.

With no expertise in Aboriginal ethnography myself, these projects depended heavily for their success on the advice and direction of various anthropological collaborators. The films were generally well received, and one of them was awarded first prize for documentary at the Venice Festival in 1968, a Lion of St Mark.

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Then something  funny happened. Within a year or two of these events not only this particular film, but all similar films made for the Institute, were withdrawn from public circulation (copies had to be repurchased with some difficulty from their overseas buyers in America and Europe, not all of whom would agree to part with them). The negatives were then placed in a sub-zero vault to ensure the chemical stability of their dyes, and from that day on, for thirty years, they have never been seen again. Funded at considerable expense for both educational and scientific purposes, these unique documentary records were meant to deepen public understanding of traditional Aboriginal culture. But that isn't what happened. Paralleling the selective academic amnesia noted by Kenneth Maddock (see "The Remoteness of the Recent Past", Quadrant, May 2000) the prohibition on their use has merely added to the deepening ignorance of the true nature of old-time Aboriginal life.

The reasons once given for deep-freezing the films were plausible. They dealt with secret/sacred subject matter which some rural Aborigines felt sensitive about at the time. There were also others in the Northern Territory who were unsure exactly what was supposed to be secret and what wasn't, and for safety's sake preferred to have the films withdrawn. At the same time political activists and urban Aborigines were discovering the exciting connections between secrecy, power, the cash nexus, and mythology both genuine and contrived.

I would argue here however that these original reasons for prohibiting the use of the films have long been superseded and eclipsed. The censorship they suffer from today has a more obvious political explanation -- the need to avoid and evade, to suppress and dissemble and deny whole areas of ethnographic reality which were formerly well known, romanticising and prettifying their bloodier practices or disturbing sexual features to satisfy middle-class taste. The aim is to produce a Wadaingula-free world with all the nasties cosmetically airbrushed away -- a world where Aboriginal mythology has been detoxed, bowdlerised, Disneyfied, and made safe for children's picture books telling pretty tales about the Dreamtime. In this cleaned-up version of Aboriginal culture Wadaingula and his deplorable habits have no place at all.

When she learned what the Institute's films contained -- this was some twenty years ago -- a part-Aboriginal woman with no experience whatever of tribal life, but who is now a professor and widely regarded as an authority on ethnographic matters, expressed shock and downright disbelief that such things were part of "her culture". She evidently felt that it would have been better if the films had not been made, better if there were no such records of the past. The energetic promotion of "black culture" around which she was successfully building her career made them highly inconvenient. That the films were at least banned from public view was a great relief: only if they were entirely and permanently suppressed could her uplifting political and social projects succeed. And so it is that what may once have been secret because it was sacred, is now secret because it is unedifying, indelicate, embarrassing, and not the sort of thing which will help the cause -- the cause of romantic primitivism which engages the moral energies of large numbers of Australia's middle classes today.

Whether they are black or white or brown, bien pensants much prefer to see those Rousseauvian scenes of Aborigines endlessly used by the ABC. No matter what news item is being reported -- even if it deals with horrific health statistics from the far north -- the video footage presented by Channel Two usually shows a touristic Northern Territory lagoon with the members of an Aboriginal family, some of them juvenile and with dark appealing eyes, wading into a pond of floating flowers. One or two are sucking on waterlily stems. Such images illustrate what an aunt once described to me as "the perfectly idyllic existence, my dear boy, that Aborigines enjoyed before the white man came". After which she toddled off to prune her roses.

I like to imagine my aunt entertaining the distinguished Aboriginal authority on black culture to afternoon tea. There they are standing on the grass before the house, the roses have been inspected and admired, and both women are getting on famously. Each warmly agrees that Prime Minister Howard's refusal to apologise makes him a national embarrassment, but just as my aunt is about to compliment her visitor on her splendid Aboriginal heritage ... Hullo -- what's this? A huge doubleheaded penis explodes out of the lawn! The shrieks! The indignation! The gathering of skirts and cries for mercy! But naught availeth. Neither age nor youth is spared. The milk is spilled. The tea-set scattered. Violently taking them one by one Wadaingula has his dreadful way, disappearing as mysteriously as he came.

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Now you will say this whimsy is in appalling taste, and I would be the first to agree. Because that's my point. The Stone Age was in appalling taste from first to last. And so was the Bronze Age. And so was the Iron Age too.

None of them had anything in common with tea parties or rose gardens. For one thing, Priapus was everywhere. The Greek gods were unmanageable buccaneers who fought and drank and ravished and robbed and "roared with laughter at the lame smith who waited on them", while the mortals of the house of Pelops, as Bertrand Russell remarked, hardly provided a better model of family fife. Indeed, the genteel editing of their adventures occupied embarrassed schoolmasters for many a year.

"Thyestes corrupted his brother's wife and thereby managed to steal the 'luck' of the family, the famous golden-fleeced ram. Atreus in turn secured his brother's banishment, and recalling him under pretext of a reconciliation, feasted him on the flesh of his own children."   And so on. Family Stew is not a pretty sight, but what would you have? The savagery of the Stone Age and the barbarism of the Bronze Age are what they are -- savagery and barbarism. And their myths and ideals and ethical assumptions are exactly what you'd expect -- savage and barbaric. They are definitely not compatible with civil society, and you will search in vain for Rape Crisis Centres among their institutions.

So what is it that underlies the modish middle-class infatuation with tribal life? What explains the popularity on the National Geographic channel of discreetly sanitised portrayals of cultures (no lice, but loads of spirituality) which Foxtel's well-fed audience, watching from their comfortable living rooms, couldn't put up with for a single day? Why is it that the middle classes are so blind to the very different moral universe represented by the palaeolithic, with its routine mayhem and rapine? PC has already received plenty of comment in these pages and deservedly so. But it is not the only moral pathology which afflicts us. Now perhaps might be a suitable time for a look at the romantic ideology of the Culture Cult -- or PCW.

Primitive Culture Worship -- to spell it out -- involves the moral transfiguration of the tribal world. Although you can find signs of it as far back in history as you care to look, in modern times it dates from Rousseau and the invention of the Noble Savage. Before Rousseau most aspects of tribal life were regarded as obviously and unarguably ignoble: savagery was where you found brutal and despotic power, gross superstition, wretched poverty, cruel and arbitrary punishment, insanitary habits, incurable diseases, and the non-stop blood-letting of interminable feuds.

After Rousseau, among the fashionable Paris intellectuals he courted (none of whom had experienced real dirt-and-diseases tribalism in their lives, or witnessed human sacrifice, or seen hideous punishments and mutilations, or been present at a Kunapipi ceremony where the young men were painted head-to-toe with blood, or had the faintest idea what any of this means) everything was gradually turned on its head. Henceforth no deep division was allowed to divide the radically contrasting social institutions of Civil Society from those of the primitive world. Savagery was ennobled, the savage himself was redeemed, and it became a mark of advanced thinking to regard tribalism as superior to civilisation itself .  The myth of the Noble Savage was and is little but an illusion of the alienated urban mind. But many people prefer illusions. Humanity can only endure a little reality at a time.
It might be argued however that Rousseau was long ago; that 250 years of industrialisation separate us from his writings; and surely modern anthropology is a much more immediate source of these attitudes today? There's something to this -- anthropology has certainly played a part. But overall it misses the point. Firstly because romanticism expresses an anti-modern yearning which is timeless, which continually recurs throughout history, and which is as deeply embedded in human nature as the appeal of wilderness and the attraction of the great outdoors. In the second place, it is precisely because of the effects of 250 years of industrialisation that so many people now fantasise about the tribal world. The growth of the one is the direct cause of the other, which thrives alongside it. In contrast, you will not find much romantic primitivism where civil society has never taken root -- in Russia, in West Africa, in parts of South America -- where the barbaric is right in your face day after day. It is a Western sentimentalism indulged by spoiled, white, ignorant, discontented urbanites.

The hysteria now gripping Australia whenever the subject of indigenes is mentioned is without precedent -- the paroxysms of political righteousness, the journalistic fingerwagging, the gubernatorial tears. It is all so totally divorced from any practical understanding of the grim realities of Aboriginal life -- whether past or present -- that it points to much deeper troubles within the white psyche and white society as a whole. A great deal of moral energy and political emotion has been perversely displaced. Two overlapping phenomena may be worth considering in this connection -- the decline of the Christian churches, and the collapse of the socialist dream. The first shows its effects in the confused moralistic searching of the educated middle classes as a whole, while the effects of the second appear to reflect the historic disappointments of the Left. In combination, and harnessed to PCW, these discontents amount to a nationally destabilising force.

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It is not for the unreligious to scold a faithless world. But perhaps a few comments may be in order. First, a vacuously indulgent sentimentalism was always the likely terminus of Christian compassion, once sterner commandments atrophied, and unconditional charity was the only moral imperative left standing. Second, when the absurdities of Rousseau were joined to the puerilities of William Blake ("My mother bore me in the southern wild, and I am black, but O! my soul is white") the political implications proved irresistible to a certain type of post-religious mind. Blake's chromatic equation -- black skin = white souls and innocence; white skin = black souls and guilt -- has never been more popular than today.

Thirdly, if it is true that human nature abhors a moral vacuum, it is equally true that it cannot bear a world where nothing is sacred. This is one reason why millions of alienated Christians and Jews, renegades from their own religions and repelled by the industrial world and all its works, now perversely sanctify both primitive culture and scores of trashy cults. They do not see the painting of obscenities on a Madonna as impiety: they have redefined it as Art. Yet the very people who laughingly defend the aesthetic merits of Piss Christ will respond to Aboriginal sacred sites and emblemata (that is, to the priapic world of Wadaingula of which they are so deeply ignorant) with pofaced solemnity, hushed voices, and reverent concern. Nowadays a romantic vision of tribal life, combined with the ideal of cultural salvation, figures prominently in the religious life of many quasi-Christian congregations, and here the fusion of Blake and Rousseau can be seen at its most poignant. For these people the salvation of primitive cultures has replaced the salvation of souls.

But every bit as important as the curiously twisted religious psychology of PCW are its political roots in the socialist ideal. The socialism I refer to is not a matter of Labor Party branch meetings sixty years ago. Nor does it have to do with state planning, or with budgetary allocations to this sector or that. It is the moral hunger for community -- a hunger which grips numerous people who detest the direction of the modern world, who are deeply convinced that the market system is evil, and who continually identify with classes, groups or cultures which they idealise as representing a more communal existence. It is a creature of the moral imagination, and contains a strong element of utopian millenarianism. Like Judeo-Christian doctrine more broadly, in the last one hundred years left-utopianism built its faith successively on Chosen Peoples who were to lead us to the Promised Land -- first the working class, then the peasants of the Third World, and finally (and largely as a despairing symbolic gesture) the world's surviving indigenes seem to have been pressed into this role.

Each group had experienced expropriation. Each could be defined as oppressed. And each was granted the moral superiority with which the oppressed are believed to be endowed. When you stop to consider these groups something else is striking too -- each Chosen People to engage the enthusiastic sympathy of the Left was in turn more physically remote, more romantically distant, and more culturally alien from the hated industrial and financial centres of the West.

The first to be nominated was the working class. But the workers proved more interested in cars than community, adopted capitalistic well-being as quick as they could, and proved both corruptible and deeply disappointing. The next people to be anointed as global socialism's harbingers lived much further away -- Third World peasant farmers in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. Their exotic leaders often wore berets and had picturesque beards. They engaged in dramatic escapades as well as slaughters. And distance lent enchantment to the political view. All in all they looked about as remote as anything could be from financial markets and cost analysis and the world of Adam Smith. Surely high-minded Third World Socialism would succeed in Tanzania, or Cuba, or South-East Asia?

Yet the average Third World peasant has proved just as interested in greater amenity as the average Western worker, and if he is given a job, and security, and hope, and is free to reap the rewards of his own industry, has equally little time for socialism. Once this became obvious, alongside the spectacle of all those despotic and impoverished Marxist states, the disenchantment of the Western Left led once again to a period of bewilderment and despair -- clearly, the imaginary anti-capitalist communities it longed for would have to be sought even further afield.

But who was left? And where? Where could you find a still uncorrupted counter-class or counter-culture to fantasise about as a communal ideal? Only on the extreme periphery of civilisation, furthest from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, furthest from Paris and New York and civil society itself -- in the Amazon or the Kalahari or up on the Roof of the World. (For Hollywood's Designer Left it seems Tibet is the currently favored location.) The colorful and be-feathered indigenes of Amazonia and elsewhere who from the 1980s were cast as symbols of antimodernism would not only be remote and uncontaminated by the way we live now, they would be selected precisely because they were indeed, as they were for Rousseau, its pure rain-forest antitheses.

No longer is it pretended that the surviving tribes around the world constitute a historic force for change. That would be absurd. Nor is it seriously proposed that their culture can be a model for everyday life. It is just that when the romantic left tries to imagine the opposite of all it most deeply loathes and fears (Bill Gates and McDonald's and computers and capitalism and gene science and NASA and the WTO) then a Tibetan with his yak, or an Amazonian in a canoe, or an Aborigine holding a waterlily in his teeth, is what flickeringly appears on the video-screen of urban discontent. It is all a game of dramatising the Desired and the Undesired, and the loves and loathings these antitheses embody.

In brief. Both lapsed Christians and a disappointed left have taken to Primitive Culture Worship as a sanctified substitute for everything they once held dear: this is the main source of the restless moral emotion feeding the Culture Cult today. Yet this final gesture on behalf of an idealised communalism can only fail. Noble savages are neither more nor less noble than you or I: they are human -- all too human. Primitive culture is not more virtuous than our own, and is often a great deal worse. As for the most popular delusion of all, the notion that with enough goodwill the residue of tribal culture can be "reconciled" with modern life, the fact remains that legally, educationally, economically, politically, and in its ordinary domestic arrangements, the old way of life is incompatible with the way we live now. To suppose otherwise is just a trick of the romantic imagination -- and in Australia, where public knowledge of Aboriginal traditional culture is systematically suppressed in favour of some imaginary Wadaingula-free Eden, this mental trick has very mischievous effects.

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The impact of romantic primitivism on public life varies from place to place and country to country. In Europe, in India, in China and Japan it is less of a political issue than elsewhere. But in the old colonial worlds of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, it is widely and continuously felt. Here attitudes toward the Noble Savage have gone through a number of stages over the years, and it may be helpful to set these down schematically, stage by stage.

Stage One The Era of Captain Cook.  In this era tribalism is as tribalism was, around 1750, when Rousseau first airs his fantasies. This is also before the pioneers go west of the Appalachians and before Australia and Polynesia are even mapped. On the frontier a clear line is drawn between savage and civilised behaviour. When Cook and others meet the axe-and-club-wielding indigenes of the South Pacific men are killed on both sides, but they are baked and eaten by one side only. There are misunderstandings, but there's no point in romanticising an enemy who wants to split open your skull. Primitive culture is fought, not emulated. On the rare occasion when an explorer had the misfortune of prior exposure to Rousseau he lived to regret it. Crozet, an officer with Marion du Fresne in New Zealand, was particularly scathing about the Swiss fantast after losing his captain and fifteen men in a Maori attack. Empirically, native customs are recorded matter-of-factly in journals; ethically, primitive culture is seen as leaving room for improvement; politically, the life of the stateless savage is seen as nasty, brutal, and short.

Stage Two War and Pacification.   European settlement brings war over land and the violent displacement of peoples. That is how nations were always made, and that is how they were made in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. At this stage the native is still the enemy, but settlers develop a healthy respect for his ability with spear or club, and a straightforward struggle takes place between the two. The outcome is heavily weighted against the natives, however many rifles they obtain. But growing out of anti-slavery agitation a movement is under way in the English-speaking world for the relief and protection of indigenes. This moderates the level of violence; valiant warriors appear as characters in fiction; scientific studies of native peoples begin. No colonial intelligentsia to speak of yet exists, but when it does it will pass a severe retrospective moral judgment on this period as a whole. Although they can hardly be expected to see this in the still distant future, by losing the material battle, Indians, Maoris and Aborigines are well-placed to win the moral war.

Stage Three Moral Transfiguration.  In this stage the vanquished live in reserves and outskirts, demoralised, sullen, and often drunk. Efforts are made to assimilate them but these mostly fail. The settlers meanwhile apply themselves to agriculture, towns grow, and universities are built, while a critical intelligentsia emerges who read Rousseau and Marx and are much given to ruminating on things. And now comes a curious inversion. By a process of moral reasoning, the intellectuals use the degradation of the defeated as a motive for glorifying the culture they once had. At the same time all knowledge of what was stagnant, miserable, cruel and absurd about the old way of life is supressed. Replacing it is genteel upside-down version of the past -- a vision of native tradition which is domesticated and innocuous, where peace and smiling happiness prevail, where spirituality flourishes and the gods are kind. Unsurprisingly, the heirs of tribalism enthusiastically approve this new and academically authorised  version of their lives.

Stage Four  Disneyfication. Sentimentalism begets puerility. The ruthless scalpers of yesterday become loving persons. One-time ferocious fighters are discovered to be artists at heart. Hollywood becomes interested. Empirically, the children of the old-time tribesmen are now citizens like the rest of us with needs like the rest of us -- for housing, education, jobs. But their attempts to succeed are handicapped by the usual academic hostility to market society, and they are intimidated by a lot of newly invented "traditions" they are supposed to support. Combined with this a suffocating religiosity now descends on public discussion. Enforced by priests and judges, journalists and teachers, poets and politicians, it claims that native culture possesses a "spirituality" found nowhere else, and soon the primitive is elevated above the civilised. In the words of one observer in New Zealand it is said that the whites "have lost the appreciation for magic and the capacity for wonder" while white culture, besides being "out of step with nature ... pollutes the environment and lacks a close tie with the land".

Few are unkind enough to note, as the anthropologist Roger Keesing observed, that "the imagined ancestors with whom the Pacific is being repopulated " -- Wise Ecologists, Mystical Sages, and Pacifist Saints --" are in many ways creations of the Western imagination". The moral transfiguration of real-life tribal culture into the imaginary landscape of romantic primitivism is now complete. The defining texts of this last stage are two: The Man-Eating Myth by the anthropologist William Arens, an influential book denying that cannibalism ever existed; and the 1995 Disney epic, Pocahontas.

Quadrant . October  2000