That old-time religion

Rather than perpetuate certain misunderstandings engendered by the term animism, I am thinking it might be better to speak of particularizing – as opposed to universalizing – traditions. This identifies what, to me, most distinguishes tribal religions from our own: their concern with the inner realities of specific beings, places and events, and the web of relationships that connect the people to them (and to each other). Whereas to speak of animism – or of shamanism, fetishism, etc. – risks placing undue emphasis on certain features that may be more important in some traditions than in others, in an attempt to universalize what resists universalism.

This bias is hard to surmount: we say “the universe” as if unitariness were a fact of nature. (These days, physicists and astronomers seem more and more convinced that the opposite is the case.) The Greek cosmos remains a much more expressive term. A cosmos is a stage where sacred dramas are enacted, where all manner of narratives unfold and intertwine, where the Word becomes flesh – and vice versa, perhaps.

At its most original, a telling partakes of multifaceted particularities. Let’s borrow a bit from literary criticism: we are talking not (or not merely) about texts, but about sacred speech acts. Story and poem, song and dance, the present moment and illo tempore (to use Mircea Eliade’s terminology) may all be fused. Listen to this brief passage from one of the Warlpiri dreamings, from central Australia:

“That person lived always in that place beside that waterhole. The other two lived at Yajarlu. That is where they lived. The child crawled about on her own near the waterhole there.

‘Well, suddenly those two disappeared from there. They disappeared. They went in, forever. No, they did not come out again.

“Later another person, another man came that way, but he did not see them. ‘Ahh, nothing there! I say, what happened to them?’ He tried to find them. Then he went back to the other place where he was living. He lived there a long time, the person who belonged to that place, the old man, Jupurrurla. The old man lived there a long time, in his own country.

“Then he saw the fires. In the west. He saw the fires. ‘They are lighting fires over there! Yes, the people are lighting fires! Later I will go over to look at the burnt-out areas, yes, later I will go over and have a look. I will have a look at the burnt-out areas tomorrow. Tomorrow I will look at them, tomorrow.”

This comes toward the end of a dreaming entitled “To Yarmurnturrngu and How I Came Back to Yajarlu,” told by Jacko Ross Jackamarra and translated by Peggy Rockman Napaljarri and Lee Cataldi (Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories (Yimikirli), HarperCollins, 1994, 37-43.) What a casual reader would consider the main story is already finished; this mysterious passage belongs to the whole by some magic of juxtaposition more familiar to us from lyric poetry than narrative proper.

It is precisely the indirection and allusiveness of this sacred speech act that leads me to believe that the way of silence, the via negativa, may be native to particularizing traditions, too. You’ll have to get a hold of the book yourself to see what I mean. But for now let me quote the translator’s note in full, over-long as that may make this entry.

“Jacko Ross Jakamarra is regarded by other Warlpiri people living at Yuendumu as one of the finest exponents of the traditional narrative. To the Western reader, his way of telling a story may seem strange, cryptic, allusive and apparently disconnected; characters and stories are introduced that do not seem to relate to the apparent plot, the matter of the abducted child.

“However, as the title indicates, what is important is the return of the mother with the child to her home in Yajarlu. In fact what unifies the narrative is place, not character or a single strand of events. All the events in the narrative take place at or in relation to Yajarlu: the theft of the child, its return to its rightful home, the separate but always present concern of the old Jupurrurla for both the people, the mother and child, and the country, and who might be lighting fires. The narrative is about restoring things to their rightful state and position. In this way, at the close of the story, the traveler who is passing through on his way to his own home and relatives provides a coda elegantly emphasizing this central concern.

“There are two other aspects of Jakamarra’s narrative technique which should be noted. One is the allusiveness, which both complements and teases the listeners by demanding they supply details they should know, for example, that Jupurrurla is the owner of Yajarlu. The other is the humour of the dramatized exchanges, the words put in the mouths of the different characters, and also of course the way the narrator acts these out, the way the other woman considers taking the child and decides to do so, the panic of the mother when she discovers the substitution.” (Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories, 43.)

Others have written more eloquently than I can about the importance of place-based narratives in fostering moral and ethical concerns: see especially Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (about the Australian aborigines) and Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places (about the Apache). I merely want to point out that similarly poetic, somewhat humorous narratives of place redolent with hidden lessons and allusions may be found within our own tradition. For example, in Genesis: check out the telling of Abraham’s purchase of a burial place for Sarah (23:3-20).

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