Monday, July 30, 2007

Observations concerning patient V. - Part II

I. Introduction

Marcel Griaule (1898 – 1956) was a French anthropologist, who was closely affiliated with Bataille's brand of Surrealism. Indirectly, he influenced the world view of one of the most infamous Black Metal musicians, Kristian "Varg" Vikernes, the man behind Burzum.

An unlikely lineage? Read on...

II. Marcel Griaule and Surrealism

For students of Surrealism, Marcel Griaule is best known as the leader of the 1931-1933 Dakar-Djibouti expedition.

Amongst the participants in the mission was the prominent French surrealist and ethnographer Michel Leiris, one of Georges Bataille's closest friends. Michel Leiris's wrote his 1934 book "L'Afrique Fantôme" about his personal experiences during the expedition, describing it as a failed attempt to flee western civilization and the life in big cities.

André Schaeffner, a musicologist, also participated in the expedition and made field recordings of African musicians. In 1929 he wrote in 'Documents', the Surrealist review that inspired this blog: "No object of musical sound or sound production, however primitive, however formless it may seem, shall be excluded from classification ... it is only on the condition that nothing of a people's musical life shall be deemed unworthy of examination that we can consider a general study of instrument making and scoring throughout history and the five continents".

But Marcel Griaule himself also was close to 'Documents'. He succeeded Michel Leiris as the editorial assistant of the review, functioning as the right hand of Bataille, who was at the time the magazine's editor. In 'Documents', Griaule published several articles: on Abyssinian totemism in 1929, on the legend of the Queen of Sheba and on the gunshot in 1930. Griaule also contributed to 'Documents' infamous anti-dictionary, writing entries on the evil eye, on Abyssinian games, on the spittle (all in 1929), on the treshold, on pottery and on Ju-Ju (all in 1930).

III. Marcel Griaule and the Dogon

During the Dakar-Djibouti expedition, Griaule studied the culture of the Dogon, a West-African people living in Mali and northern Burkina-Faso. Following the expedition, Griaule would study Dogon culture extensively for more than 25 years, becoming famous for a study on the meaning of masks in the complex mythology of the Dogon. The star Sirius plays an important role in certain initiatory cults of the Dogon, and in a footnote to a 1950 publication Griaule wrote that aspects of the 'secret knowledge' of these initiatory cults seemed to tally somewhat to then-current Western astronomical knowledge on Sirius. After his death in 1956, Griaule's pupil Germaine Dieterlen continued his work with the Dogon. In 1965, she published "Le Renard Pâle: La Mythe Cosmogonique: La Création du Monde" in which even more extensive claims were made about the astronomical knowledge of the Dogon, such as the fact that they were aware of Saturn having rings.

Of course, it would be erroneous to suppose that the Dogon's initiatory secret knowledge was age-old. Mythologies are not static systems: that some peoples have no written history, does not mean their culture does not develop. On the contrary, mythologies are dynamic, transforming over time, incorporating new meanings and absorbing new knowledge. It seems likely that the Dogon had given Western astronomical information a place is their cosmological system. This information may have reached them through education by missionaries or other contacts with westerners. Research by Wouter E. A. van Beek, a professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, suggests that Griaule himself may have inadvertently supplied the astronomical knowledge to the Dogon. Van Beek was unable to replicate Griaule's findings during extensive field studies among the Dogon. In a 1991 article in Current Anthropology called "Dogon Restudies. A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule" Van Beek suggests that Griaule had expertise in astronomy, and that his questioning of his Dogon informant may have been leading.

Here is a subtitled excerpt from the documentary "Dogons: Chronique d'une passion" in which Jean Rouch and Germaine Dieterlen remenisce about the work with Griaule and the Dogon cosmological controversy.

IV. The Dogon and ancient astronauts

The next step in our line of descent from Griaule to Kristian Vikernes is Robert Temple. Robert Temple based an 'ancient astronaut theory' on Griaule's and Dieterlen's findings. Wikipedia: "Ancient astronaut theories center around the proposal that the Earth has at some point in the distant past been visited by intelligent extraterrestrial beings, and that furthermore such contact is linked to either the origins of, or their developmental influence on, human cultures, technologies, and religion". In his 1976 book "The Sirius Mystery" Robert Temple theorized that the Dogon's supposed extra-ordinary astronomical knowledge was brought to the Dogon by visitors from outer space.

Robert Temple's book was one of many books published in the 1970s which put forward ancient astronaut theories; the best known of these were the books of Erich von Däniken. These books were published in a period in the 1970s when fuzzy-headed thinking was very popular. Charles Berlitz's theories on the Bermuda Triangle sold 20 million copies, Fritjof Capra published the bestseller "The Tao of Physics" and gurus like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Sathya Sai Baba were gaining substantial popularity.

One may suppose that the idea that non-western societies were repositories of mysterious wisdom, fulfilled a vital function in the cultural life of the 1970s. The fascination with mysterious, non-western wisdom points towards the sacred, both the right-handed sacred (the accumulation of knowledge, asceticism, submission to spiritual authority figures) as well as the left-handed sacred (religious ecstasy as a 'high'; sacredness in opposition, if not rebellion to traditional sources of intellectual and spiritual authority: science and the Christian churches).

V. Viking fascist astronaut robots

As is detailed in Moynihan's and Søderlinds much-debated book "Lords of Chaos", Kristian "Varg" Vikernes, the man behind Burzum, has fashioned his very own ancient astronaut theory. Where Coil sing about "Egyptian Aztecs arriving from Norway", Vikernes dreams of fascist viking robots arriving in Norway - from Sirius. Vikernes puts forward the theory that Norse mythology finds it's origin in the arrival of extraterrestrial robots from Sirius which created the human race though genetic experimentation. Non-Aryan races, so Vikernes believes, are the result of failed experiments.

Like the fuzzy-headed theories from the 1970s, Vikernes's thought points towards the sacred, both of the righthanded variety (the accumulation of knowledge, asceticism, authoritarianism and - racist - taboos) and the lefthanded variety (rebellion, transgression, murder, madness).

And there we have our genealogical lineage: Vikernes's theories on astronauts from Sirius descend from those of Temple, which in turn descend from Griaule's ethnographic work. Of course, the parentage of Vikernes ideas is ironical. Griaule was an ethnographer who tirelessly worked to promote knowledge of the beauty of non-Western cultures - cultures deeply despised by Vikernes as non-Aryan. Griaule was active in Bataille's virulently anti-fascist circles, while Vikernes is an outspoken fascist. Griaule's thought fathered a strange, dangerous grandchild.

Post scriptum

Here is a documentary by Jean Rouche on the Dogon, shot during a 1950-1951 expedition with Griaule.

Here is a link to an interesting dissertation on exoticism, focusing amongst others on Leiris's "L'Afrique Fantôme".

1 comment:

Passionate Ornithology said...

Thanks for this article and the Dogon documentary. I'm highly interested in Leiris.