Christo­pher Allen un­masks PNG arte­facts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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