Christopher Allen unmasks PNG artefacts
Christopher Allen Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea National Gallery of Australia. Until November 1.
Self-consciousness is a burden as well as a blessing for humanity. Animals live in their immediate experiences, fully engaged in hunting, or play, or surviving pain and hardship. They form habits, as we can see with animals that have been well or badly treated, and they can be more intuitive than we are — sensing a master’s moods, or their own impending death, but they cannot reflect on these feelings. They do not ponder the difference between justice and injustice, or fear what may come after the end of life.
The ability to think about questions of morality and justice helps human beings live in social groups, setting bounds on their egoistic desires, deferring and even sacrificing gratification for the common good. But this kind of thinking, like the formation of language that makes it possible, is a collective process.
Communities tend to think of their norms and values as timeless, established by their founding ancestors or dictated by gods. Witch doctors or, in more advanced cultures, scriptural scholars are on hand to answer any questions that arise, and the answer is always there already, set in unquestionable authority.
In most human communities over the millennia, to grow up has meant to be inducted into common values that remain unquestioned. It is a mental world similar to the one that all the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century tried to emulate, most obviously in the crudest cases: the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia simply put to death anyone who looked as if they might have the capacity to think for themselves.
But these totalitarian experiments were doomed to failure, because thinking for oneself had already spread like a virus, carried along with modern science and habits of mind formed in the Enlightenment, inherited from the Renaissance and ultimately from antiquity. State indoctrination could not reverse the process of history: it might enforce compliance among the more passive mass of the population, but it could not compel belief among those who had learned to ask questions.
This is what makes Socrates such a revolutionary intellectual figure, even in the already intellectually adventurous world of ancient Greece. His predecessors had been the first to ask what the world was made of, to conceive of the domain of nature as distinct from the supernatural, and to ponder the fundamental problem of being and becoming. But Socrates moved the focus to ethics, inquiring about the nature of virtue, courage and justice.
In the dialogues, we see him time and again confronting interlocutors whose instinct is to fall back on what the community has always thought. Socrates forces them to see the contradictions of these habitual ideas, and to start to think, as though learning to use a muscle that had never been put to work. Often the interlocutors end up in a state of frustration, unable to resolve the problems; and, understandably, some of them get angry.
In one of the dialogues, Meno, the eponymous character takes Socrates’ criticisms well but says he is fortunate to live in Athens, because not all Greek states would put up with such a subversive thinker. Plato wrote this with deliberate irony, years after Socrates’ trial and execution in an Athens confused and destabilised in the wake of defeat in the Peloponnesian war.
In his lifetime (470/69-399 BC), Socrates was the most important philosopher in Athens, for most of the others came from elsewhere; as such he became the type of the intellectual lampooned in Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds (423 BC). But he was by no means the only questioner of his time: Aristophanes also sends up Euripides as an example of the new intellectual, while the comic playwright himself does as much as anyone to provoke questioning in plays filled with extraordinary alternative worlds — utopias, visions of peace instead of war, a city ruled by women and a communistic abolition of private property. And in spite of the blame Plato levels at Aristophanes in The Apology, he includes him with Socrates as fellow dinner guests in The Symposium.
We started thinking with the Greeks, and that habit has never died out despite waves of obscurantism. Even the medieval church built its theology on intellectual foundations borrowed from the Greeks. One of the many problems with Christian fundamentalists is that they turn their back on that tradition. To the extent that the Jews and Muslims
have a tradition of philosophy, it is also based on the Greeks. But their fundamentalist traditions are bogged in legalism, which is the opposite of philosophy.
A few weeks ago, the BBC carried the story of another blogger hacked to death by Islamist murderers in Bangladesh, the fourth this year. These are not people who argue with you or shout at you for asking questions. They don’t ridicule you in a comedy or even try you in court for impiety. In their eyes anyone who asks questions deserves instant and brutal death at the hands of vigilantes; and even if these are the acts of extremists, the blame ultimately lies with the theology that legitimises intolerance.
A tribal culture such as the one covered in the National Gallery of Australia’s Sepik River exhibition is not intolerant of questioning because the idea is inconceivable. It is a society in which beliefs are in a sense co-extensive with reality: there is no critical distance from which one could stand back and consider the world as potentially independent from what is thought about it, or to see those thoughts, as Buddha taught, as figments of the mind and its passions.
And yet it is such figments that confront us as we enter this fascinating exhibition, another in a series of fine shows to study the art and culture of Australia’s region. Sensitively installed in a soft lighting that is evocative of the gloom of a ceremonial men’s house, these objects are easier to imagine with some of the living power they would have had for their original audience.
They are mostly effigies of ancestors or nature spirits, or long, almond-shaped masks with elongated noses, or figures of ancestors wearing such masks. These spirits, of whatever kind, are vital to success in hunting, fishing, farming, reproduction and war, and while they can help, their power is also dangerous and needs to be carefully solicited and afterwards placated with offerings. There is one particular mask that was said to be able to cause disease or even death, but this may be equally true of the others whose stories we do not know.
This is a world in which there is no escape from belief — no room for personal scepticism or private apostasy. Nor can we console ourselves with the thought that at least these indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. Unfortunately there is nothing harmonious about a world ruled by fear; and that is what these masks and figures represent — either the