Sunday, March 11, 2007

"There are more things in heaven and earth . . . "

Over at 3 Quarks Daily, Justin E. H. Smith has an essay up that is ostensibly about the difficulties inherent in translating the Yuktun word nâk:

It may denote, depending on context, reindeer lichen (Cladina rangiferina), an Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), an adult Yuktun woman, a Russian, something resembling poetic justice, and, of most interest to many, the life force that runs through every tundra-dwelling creature, through the sky, through the great sea to the North, and, during the short Summer, through the top ten centimeters or so of the ground.
It is that last meaning that leads him to say some things about shamans in Yuktun culture that I thought, in the eyes of some readers, might justify the lengthy passage below:
The mid-1930s were difficult years, following the 1933 report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party on “Shamanistic Practices and Historical Progress among the Siberian Tribes.” There, it is reported that “the shaman is usually picked from the most unproductive, most nearly criminal element within Yuktun society, from among those who, in a more advanced stage of history would find themselves members of the Lumpenproletariat. They are positively hostile to labor, often grand mal epileptics, and prone to the sort of deceitfulness and evasiveness that in a socialist society can only be described as counterrevolutionary. They practice their art by convincing other tribe members that they are in contact with spirits from the ‘underworld’. They speak in tongues and beat on drums to invoke these spirits, and their fellow tribesmen watch, spellbound. It is a magic show and a stunt, all craftily organized by the shaman to gain the maximum respect possible, and, we dare mention, the maximum remuneration in the form of gifts.”

The report tells of a crafty woman, evidently in her thirties but already hunched over, wrinkled and grey like a tribal elder, who had perfected the black art of shamanistic fraud. According to the report, she had conned the delegates from Moscow into participating in a ceremony where, by skillful use of smoke, intoxicating herbs, and disorienting glossolalia, she managed, as the report maintained by way of an uncharacteristic colloquialism, to make asses out of all of them.

Narda had been told that she was to stop her shamanistic performances and to confess, before the delegation of party members, to her own charlatanism. But she insisted to the members of her tribe that she was no charlatan, but a real shaman, and that she would demonstrate as much to the party delegates. When they arrived, she invited them all into her yurt. She began by dancing, beating on a drum and calling to her spirit helpers. Gradually, she worked herself into a trance. She called forth a flood, and at once her yurt was filled with water, up to the ankles of all of the spectators. Next, she called forth a serpent from the underworld, and caught it in her hands, holding it close to the faces of the stunned delegates. Finally she commanded the men in her yurt to drop their pants and to hold their penises with both hands. She returned from her trance and commanded them to return as well. And there they were, standing to their ankles in water, pants down, holding their members like onanistic fools. They begged her forgiveness, rushed out of the yurt, back to Moscow, and made a concerted effort, in writing up the report, not to look each other in the eyes.

While I'm sure that Pharaoh's magicians (or, for that matter, the Richard Dawkins crowd) might have some explanation for how Narda pulled off this little trick, the greater mystery to me is that the esteemed members of the Committee, hardened atheists all, we can assume, reveal themselves to be open (as opposed to "susceptible") to the notion that something--nák; the Over-soul; the Force; God; what you will--exists outside and beyond them despite their very public denial that Narda had some sort of link to it.

Such a story is obviously not in and of itself a proof of God's existence but, it seems to me, clear indication of a collective desire, if not need, for the transcendent in our lives. I'm not so naïve as to think that that settles that or that there is no danger in the seeking out of the transcendent or the thinking that one has dibs on what the specifics of the transcendent are or what we are to do with that knowledge, but neither is acknowledging those dangers an adequate reason for not, therefore, seeking out the transcendent. Rather, I'd think that acknowledging them is the necessary first step to take on such a search.

Update: This musing, at the end of an article on evolutionary explanations for the origins of religious belief:
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life.

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Paul Decelles said...

Great post and introduction to a new blog at least for me. Last night I was talking with a group of friends and the talk strayed over to the supernatural where we all had little weird stories to tell. One thing I always try to get across is that I always look for materialistic explanations.

For instance with respect to ghosts I find it interesting that no one has been able to measure anything that is correlated with the presence of ghosts. If the "supernatural" interacts with our universe then it seems there must be something measurable.

On the other hand I too have experiences that are difficult to explain and am susceptible to them and wonder about them. But for me nothing is gained by dispensing with the scientific viewpoint.

Some of these people believe in things such as aura and angels and energy fields and to me these may be great metaphors-I have for instance felt "energy fields" of other people but all these things seem to fall apart as does psi when confronted with controlled experimentation.

R. Sherman said...

The question I've always had is this: If there is nothing transcendant, but over the course of evolution our brains developed the capacity to falsely believe in the transcendant, then why is this so? What is the evolutionary benefit to developing a mind which deceives us?

Paul Decelles said...

I don't have a ready answer to this...but consider that our mind interprets reality for us. For instance our mind will fill in details in patterns that really aren't there-this is the basis for lots of very convincing optical illusions. The moon for instance is not bigger closer to the horizon-it only appears bigger. Our mind deceives us in these cases but usually the deception is advantageous allowing extrapolation of ambiguous or incomplete information.

Possibly what we call transcendence and the emotions of awe and oneness that accompany transcendence are advantgeous generally if they reduce our fear of the unknown-just a wild guess here.

The point being that since the mind deceives us in other domains that are clearly statistically advantageous to us (remember adaptations don't have to work perfectly), it seems logical that deception concerning transcendence might be a similar sort of deception.