I have just finished reading anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s, ‘Crime and Custom in Savage Society’. Its riveting stuff. He went to live with pacific Trobriand Islanders in 1920 and asks, ‘how does a society without written laws, offices of law, agents of law or courts of law….keep the law?
He labours to dispel misconceptions that this comes about as a result of ‘slavish submission’ or ‘a pervading group sentiment’, though he does share that the Trobrianders believe all death to be the action of supernatural forces and that even the very old must have paid the price for stepping out of line..
which seems bound to motivate social co-operation somewhat..
Death bought on by deviance from Natural law (and sometimes because you kept too many yams for yourself) will really sharpen your mind. Your demise has something to do with you. It’s not that the Afterlife may look a particular way but that this one may not be cut too short, either by spirits you’ve offended or by someone you’ve pissed off enough to employ supernatural leverage to even the score.
A day or two after the deceased has been buried he gets dug back up in search for clues as to cause of death and sure enough subtle signs indicate that he was too free with the ladies, forgot his obligations, or failed to give the chief his due amount of fish.
Its not such a strange idea. In western culture we wonder about the symbolism of illness, the poetry of affliction, the significance of ‘untimely’ demise. In fact, no-body is allowed to die of natural causes anymore. Some demon disease is responsible, a demon which we are pitted against and working to excoriate.
Yet at the same time we know that if we aren’t square with ourselves and in good faith more or less then we invite a host of complaints down upon our heads, both internal symptom and circumstantial mischief.
So the Trobriander obeys Natural law out of self interest. Imminent grisly death by witchcraft not withstanding. When this is superceded by codified laws created by god-kings, Conscience slips underground as the Furies, or as avenging Harpies, as autonomous a denizen of the psychoanalytic couch as it is an agent of knowing-how-to-be available to both the Trobriander and to the heartwood of our own ancestral memory.
The difference between us is that though we are both driven along by unconscious forces the Trobriander is doing it out loud and with great meaning whilst we experience exactly the same thing as a neurosis, not because of the content of our beliefs or lack of them but because our allegiance will only stretch as far as code and creed.
It might be replied that the Trobriander maintains the connection with natural law at the price of ego consciousness but as Malinowski points out this is largely down to the prejudice of ethnographers who prefer not to look at the extent that personal prestige and private ambition motivate the law-abiding islanders.
”Far from being a group affair, his rights and his duties remain the concern of the individual who knows perfectly well how to look after his interests and realises he has to redeem his obligations [to do so].” B Malinowski
So, we could learn much from the Trobriander.. and from our own indigenous selves. We believe humanity to be so lacking in knowing-how-to-be, so in need of benevolent instruction that life’s rules all have to be scribbled down and applied by force, forgetting that if you scratch at the surface just a bit what you find is not just a bundle of complexes in a room filled with shadows but natural order so strong that the ‘primitive’ will often administer justice on themselves and have certain suicidal niceties to go with it.
In the West peoplewe kill themselves for similar reasons life, so that shame may seep into the fabric of life no further than than the carpet you’ve haried your kiri on. Or we have accidents subconsciously designed to appease the gods for our hubris. Or we fall sick from those poetic illnesses that attends the unexamined life or the hubris of assuming we’ve already done it..
”Inflation beckons the Raven’s claw.” alchemical saying.
So, we share the fear of sanction but the Trobriander is motivated by more than the fear of a jealous chief. He might have the resources to take you down from the inside but just having too much is an acute embarrassment. Everyone knows that you can’t have more than your fair share without it spoiling your sense of belonging and the protection this affords.
Which is why the successful hunter might not go out today. He’s loathed to deprive his mates of the joy that their meagre hunt will still bring everyone, the pleasure of feeding him for a change, the strengthening of bonds and safety in a precious feast.
The things that belong to us, our triumphs and the prestige they give rise to do not satisfy unless we in turn belong and have commensurate responsibilities. Social scientists have spent much time and effort trying to raise productivity in the modern workplace using all kinds of material incentives, evoking competitiveness, shaming stragglers.. but the most effective strategy has been shown to be one that paradoxically departs most radically from the veiw that human being are fundamentally power hungry social climbers.
One specific experiment conducted at the Bell telephone company, one that initially sought merely to study patterns of heart disease amongst workers, accidentally discovered the roots of productive motivation..
What they discovered was that it was not the stresses of executive life that created spikes in heart disease rates, nor the grind and poverty of being on the factory floor. The worst stats were amongst college men who never made it past foreman.
They never found their true niche in life, and died of not belonging.