Monday, November 12, 2012

Reading :: The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
By Sir James Frazer

In their review of the history of ethnography, Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor discuss the armchair fieldwork that was the norm in the late 1800s and early 1900s: travelers would visit various spots of the world, come back with stories, and armchair scholars would then assemble and interpret them. Among those who never conducted formal fieldwork: "James Fraser, whose book The Golden Bough (1915) was central to early twentieth-century anthropological thought" (p.15).

I appreciated the background that Boellstorff et al. provide, especially since I had become increasingly uneasy about the methodology of The Golden Bough over the past year—I've been chipping away at it for a while, mostly in odd moments. It represents a synthesis of an incredible number of stories from all over the globe, stories of magic and religion that Frazer doggedly relates in order to develop a theory of religious development (although that description is probably an oversimplification). Frazer looks at ancient and modern customs involving purification, fertility, harvest and planting, human and animal sacrifice, and on and on.

The book, as I said, synthesizes an incredible number of stories. However, from a modern methodological perspective, it falls short. Frazer introduces suppositions and treats them facts that underpin more suppositions, which themselves become treated as facts for still further suppositions. (The signals for this move include phrases such as it is reasonable to suppose and we must conclude that.) One of Frazer's ground-level suppositions is that humanity's experience is more or less universal, so its rituals will tend to be underpinned by the same ideas. Although Frazer attempts to validate this notion by drawing connections among stories, the attempts are scattershot.

One of Frazer's main contributions here is the notion of totem, which he interprets as the "savage's" belief that his [sic] external soul resides in the animal that belongs to his totem. Durkheim later continues and critiques Frazier's line of thought, while Levi-Strauss rejects it. (Alas, I read these three books in reverse order.)

Whatever its flaws, though, this book is justifiably a classic. Frazer attempts a universal study, drawing from Western and Eastern magic, trying to demonstrate a common humanity with common beliefs. If you have a lot of time, certainly read it.