History is a series of nights and days.
Short days and protracted nights.
— Nicolás Gómez Dávila
As the French explorer Pierre Martin de La Martinière cautiously approached the obscure port town of Varanger, situated along the Barents Sea in what is now Norway’s Finnmark, he could look back on a life of adventure altogether worthy of a picaresque novel in the lower Baroque style. Left fatherless at a young age, La Martinière had served as a surgeon’s assistant during the Thirty Years’ War, had been captured first by the Spanish at the Battle of Lerida and then by Barbary corsairs during a subsequent voyage to the East Indies, and had spent four years as a slave before being liberated by the Knights of Malta, and all that before the age of 16. He had gone on to study medicine at the Ospedale degli Incurabiliin Naples and later rose to the rank of “chymical physician of the Royal Court” in Paris, but it was in the year 1670 that La Martinière truly began to make his mark as a scientist, having signed on as a surgeon with the Danish Northern Trading Company’s pioneering expedition to the boreal regions of Europe.
For five months the Company’s vessels plied the coasts of Sápmi (Lapland), northern Russia, Novaya Zemlya, Greenland, and Iceland, with the goal, as La Martinière put it in A New Voyage to the North (1671), of surveying the “Manners, Customs, and Trade of the Northern Peoples of Europe.” His study of the indigenous peoples of Fennoscandia was, in his words, “entirely New, and the Remarks are such as no Traveller has yet made on the Northern Nations.” The Finno-Ugric Sámi — historically known as Lapps or Laplanders — would henceforth be viewed largely through a lens ground to prescription by La Martinière and the explorers, merchants, and missionaries who would follow in his wake. For some 3,500 years the Sámi had been fishing, trapping, and practicing semi-nomadic reindeer-herding across the undulating plateaus of the Arctic tundra, but now the forces of the so-called Enlightenment were, in the form of La Martinière and his confrères, rapidly approaching with all the power of the Moskstraumen or Maelstroom, that famously deadly whirlpool swirling in the Norwegian Sea just off the Lofoten archipelago.
Within half an hour of setting foot upon the shores of the Varanger Peninsula, La Martinière encountered local inhabitants who seemed “amaz’d to see us,” though the Frenchman haughtily wondered whether this astonishment stemmed from the intimidating “sight of Men Arm’d” or simply from encountering “Men less Barbarous than themselves.” The members of the landing party were surprised to find that the native Sámi gave the Danish captain “little encouragement for Traffick,” the only foreign commodity of any interest being rolls of tobacco. “To retaliate our kindness,” such as it was, the Sámi presented the explorers with a feast of dried fish, reindeer and bear steaks, and then more fish, this time boiled without salt and served with “the Oil of other Fish, or a sour Drink which is one of the best Beveridges in their Opinion.” Unfortunately “their Ragous were not to our liking,” complained La Martinière, but that was only the start of the cosmopolitan Frenchman’s bigoted objections to Laplander life. “Their Eyes are like a Hogs; their Eye-Lids are almost all like those that are Blear-Ey’d: They are Stupid, Brutal and Lascivious,” La Martinière wrote. (It could have been worse; he regarded the natives of Novaya Zemlya as “of all the Creatures I ever saw, of the Race of Man, the most unlike the Image of that Creature.”) To top it all off, it seemed to the French surgeon that, hard as it was to believe, the Sámi “deal still with the Devil; almost all of them are Wizards, and so Superstitious.”
It did not take long for the European interlopers to begin seeing necromancy around every corner. La Martinière claimed that “in each House there is a great black Cat which is highly valued by them: The Laplanders talk to it as if it was a reasonable Creature. Every Night they go out of their Huts with it to consult it alone, and it will follow like a Dog, either at Fishing or Hunting. Tho’ this Animal looks like a Cat in appearance, yet had I had ever so little more Superstition, I should have believ’d it to have been a Familiar Spirit ministring to them: A terrible Sight to a Southern Christian.” The Sámi shamans, called noaidi in their native Uralic tongue, had indeed long been feared by the dáža, the non-Sámi, as practitioners of witchcraft. Entering into profound trance states while drumming on their runebomme, or magic drum, the noaidi would cast protective or injurious spells, tell fortunes, manipulate weather patterns, uncover hidden game, mediate with the dead, and even narrate far-off events that their disembodied spirits had witnessed. Swedish missionaries considered each drumbeat to be a message to Satan himself, for “while under the spell of his satanic trance, a shaman would communicate with his attendant demon that, because of his tremendous acuity and faculty for moving swiftly, could divulge global events to his master.” The noaidi, like their shamanic counterparts the Inuit angakoq, played crucial roles in the social and spiritual life of the siida, or village-collective. It was imperative, from the standpoint of enlightened scientists like La Martinière and the missionaries making inroads in Sápmi, that these seemingly sinister noaidi be dealt with summarily.
Throughout the 17th century, Scandinavian missionaries worked tirelessly to exterminate Sámi shamanism, banning mention of the old gods while consigning as many magic drums as they could to the flames. Specific efforts were undertaken to eradicate the indigenous belief “that the living and the departed were regarded as two halves of the same family,” as Håkan Rydving noted in The End of Drum-Time: Religious Change Among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s (1961). For the Sámi animists who sacrificed to Radien-attje (the supreme celestial deity), Beaivi (the goddess of the sun), Lieaibolmmai (the ruler of wild animals), and Bieggolmai (the god of summer winds and storms), among others, the sun was setting on an entire world. What is more, the actions of the authorities had ramifications beyond the extirpation of traditional social and religious practices, for unbeknownst to them the drums had an array of utilitarian functions. Jouko Keski-Säntti, Ulla Lehtonen, Pauli Sivonen and Ville Vuolanto, in their fascinating 2003 article “The Drum as Map: Western Knowledge Systems and Northern Indigenous Map Making,” demonstrated that “for the Sami, the drum was, metaphorically speaking, the shaman’s sleigh: the drum itself, the drumming and the decoration of the drum skin together functioned as a map. This map was created by an individual shaman’s spiritual journeys, which he or she had made for the benefit of, and on behalf of, the community that he or she had a calling to serve. Before a shaman set out on such a heavenly or underground journey, he had to coordinate his instrument as well as himself with his local surroundings in order to be well-anchored in this reality.” So the runebomme were in fact maps, “used by a shaman in a divination ceremony to indicate the general direction in which the hunters should go to look for game. Even the species of game they might expect to catch that day could be forecast…The shaman might also use the drum to record hunting successes directed in this way, inserting a tin tack, for instance, to represent a kill, or to store a piece of valuable metal given to him in gratitude for his help.” Deprived of these instruments, shamans reported being figuratively, but also quite literally, lost, unable to find their way home. Keski-Säntti et al. concluded their sensitive study of the noaidi and their magic drums with the observation that the indigenous people of the Arctic could have no conception of the distinction the Western mind makes between “historical and mythical time, or among geographical, astronomical and mythological space. To the Arctic people, space and time also conveyed personal and collective meanings. These were the puncta dolentes in the encounters between the Western and indigenous knowledge systems.”
The Finnish researchers hit upon an extremely useful phrase: puncta dolentes, those sickening or painful points that all too often accompany cultural interactions and conflicts. But their phrase also puts me in mind of puncta delentia, the copyediting marks indicating that a character is an error to be ignored and ultimately expurgated. How many artifacts, how many cultural practices, have been treated in this way over the years? When Swedish missionaries threw Sámi drums into the fire, they thought of themselves as editing, revising, and emending the culture they sought to improve. What they were actually doing was burning an entire people’s modes of spiritual conveyance, their history books, their forms of entertainment, their collective cartography. It did not help matters much that a great many of the runebomme that survived the purge were housed in museum collections in Copenhagen, only to be lost during the Great Fire of 1728. The archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green considered this event to have been an “apt and terrible symbol of the quenching of the Sámi shamanic spirit.” When the Danish museums and libraries went up in smoke, Árni Magnússon lamented that there “were many things which the world no longer owns; the damage cannot be helped.” He may not have been thinking specifically of the Sámi drums that perished in the flames, but it was true all the same. The copyediting of history thus received another influx of proofreading marks: abbreviate, transpose, close up, delete, insert a full stop.
The grievous damage done to shamanic practices did not cease with the intentional and accidental burning of the runebomme in the 17th and 18th centuries. Siberian shamanism was similarly ill-treated, ostensibly on the practical grounds that it was “connected with animal sacrifice, and slaughtering livestock intended for collectivization violated Soviet law.” Vladimir Bogoraz, however, cruelly labeled (or libeled) shamanism as a “form of religion that was created through the selection of mentally unstable people,” while the Soviet ethnographer Taras Maximovich Mikhailov disdainfully and inaccurately insisted that believers in shamanism possessed “no complex of ideas, no defined system of rituals and sacrifices, but only fragmented, vague images, illusions, and thoughts, haphazardly called into being by events.” Better to replace such practices with a more rigorous worldview, like, say, soul-crushing scientific atheism, or so-called scientific socialism, or perhaps a truly rigorous system like Lysenkoism. Soviet scholars did acknowledge that “the extinction of religious vestiges is not a straightforward process. Under certain circumstances, they may revive, influencing some groups of people. But the general tendency of the development of society inevitably dooms them to gradual extinction,” though as Andrew Brown later wrote, “it is pleasant to read this and reflect that there are almost certainly more shamanists than communists flourishing in Siberia today. Neither Marxism nor shamanism could cure the diseases they claimed to, but shamans had the better songs and made the world a little easier to endure.” (I do not, for the record, agree at all with Brown’s perfunctory and narrow-minded dismissal of age-old shamanic herbalism and folk medicine.)
While the reindeer-herding peoples of Sápmi and Siberia managed to avoid physical extinction, and retained certain cultural vestiges, there is no denying that the repression carried out by missionaries, scientists, and scientific atheists from the 17th to the 20th century took a terrible toll. And if the reader questions the relevance of these campaigns of cultural suppression, admittedly distant in both place and time, do bear in mind that the fundamentalist and dogmatic atheists of our own era have at least as much, if not a great deal more, contempt for your faith as men like La Martinière and the Marxist ethnographers discussed above had for the noaidi.
What the Sámi experienced when they were accused of sorcery and had their runebomme confiscated and incinerated, and what the indigenous Siberians experienced when their religious faith was deemed “unscientific” and their shamans were tossed out of helicopters, might be termed cultural genocide; social death is another apt term. As Claudia Card has written, “the harm of social death is not necessarily less extreme than that of physical death. Social death can even aggravate physical death by making it indecent, removing all respectful and caring ritual, social connections, and social contexts that are capable of making dying bearable and even making one’s death meaningful. In my view, the special evil of genocide lies in its infliction of not just physical death (when it does that) but social death, producing a consequent meaninglessness of one’s life and even its termination.” This feeling of hopelessness, of being stranded, lost, and adrift, was eloquently expressed in the 2015 Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent, when the elderly Amazonian shaman Karamakate, gazing at a rock face featuring an ancestral map he could no longer interpret, sighs: “I do not know, I do not remember. These stories used to talk to me. They would answer my questions. The line is broken, the memories are gone. Stones, trees, animals have fallen silent. Now there is only the drawings on the rocks. Now I am an empty body. A chullachaqui,” the mythical chullachaqui being a sort of hollowed-out doppelgänger, an appropriate enough image in the context of social and cultural death.
Culture itself has often been conceived of as a sort of cognitive map. According to Charles Frake, “people are not just map readers; they are map-makers. People are cast out into imperfectly charted, continually shifting seas of everyday life. Culture does not provide a cognitive map, but rather a set of principles for map making and navigation. Different cultures are like different schools of navigation designed to cope with different terrains and seas.” Deprived of its cultural cartography, any society will be reduced to the position of the shamans of Sápmi or Amazonía, rudderless and unable to make its way home. The widespread destruction of these various cognitive maps happens to be a distinct feature of modern existence ever since the Enlightenment. Heiner Müller has persuasively argued the “Enlightenment was an attempt to build the Tower of Babel anew. The thinkers of the Enlightenment thought that they had discovered a universal language in that of reason. In this way, through rationality, they suppressed every other language.” Müller’s postulation mirrors that of G.K. Chesterton, who contended that “the modern world seems to have no notion of preserving different things side by side, of allowing its proper and proportionate place to each, of saving the whole varied heritage of culture. It has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything.” It is for this reason that I am inclined to agree with the Nicolás Gómez-Dávila’s aphorism: “The modern world shall not be punished. It is the punishment.”
I have spent the last few days devouring the most recent collection of essays by one of the greatest contemporary critics of the Enlightenment, the Hungarian academic Lászlo Földényi, entitled Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears, translated by Ottilie Mulzet and published earlier this spring by Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters imprint. The first essay in the anthology, “Mass and Spirit,” constitutes a compelling indictment against modernity. For Földényi, the “crowd of modernity” is “formed by those who are broken off from the cosmic order; more precisely, it is the multitude of individuals who have refuted this cosmic order. A crowd which is made up of all those who uniformly sense the universe as aimless, accidentally thrown together.” This crowd, “in order to somehow withstand the weightlessness of its own existence,” will parrot “ever more convulsively the slogans of freedom, considered to be irreconcilable with any sort of concession toward the concept of higher order.” When the French revolutionaries turned the concept of “mass” into a political concept — masse du peuple, levée en masse, etc. — they were laying the groundworks for a world beset by “that peculiar modern variation of human beings assembled in a crowd, which, when we turn up in its midst, gives us the impression of having glimpsed the living dead, and who otherwise can seem the liveliest of all.”
“Humans,” Földényi continues, “have become alienated from their own history, as they are from their own cosmic nature.” We have thereby endured a pandemic of social death. Modernists “refute the traditional order: first they refute that well-functioning system of relations, connecting them to the other members of society; then they refute that metaphysical order which renders the homelessness latent in every human life, always resulting in death, bearable; and finally they refute God, more precisely the divine; and at the very end they extinguish every spark of exultation from themselves: namely, they refute their own selves.” While the “holy trinity of technology, economics, and politics proclaims a solution to everything, without exception,” the world itself becomes “faceless,” a “true hell,” a “monotonous, gray hell” that “continues to declare war ever more radically on every and any implicit manifestation of transcendence.” Here we see that the Sámi noaidi clutching his runebomme was only the canary in the coal mine of modern life in all its “unbounded irresponsibility,” something which becomes ever more apparent when we take into account the immeasurable degradation of the natural, cultural, and spiritual environment we could once take for granted.
“Mass and Spirit” makes a convincing case that the basic and often regrettable features of modern life — the “rapid increase of population, the growth of human density, the proliferation of megalopolises” — “are not causes but consequences” of the soul and the spirit “becoming massed together.” Having grown wholly indifferent to our spiritual roots, we exhibit an openness to the “ ‘demonic,’ accompanied by a closure to the ‘divine.’ ” Human beings, Földényi concludes, “would not experience the density of other human beings as a mass if they themselves had not become mass-like in their own souls.” The result is what Nietzsche referred to as the “whole noisy sham-culture of our age,” and all the discontents it churns out day by day, hour by hour, and now even second by second thanks to social media with its characteristic, mind-numbing infinite scrolls. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us, going forward, to combat as best we can the mass-like nature of the modern soul that is making itself felt all around us in the worst ways imaginable.
Földényi’s essay is particularly timely, given its dedication to Elias Canetti, and its reliance on that author’s sociological study Masse und Macht, often translated into English as Crowds and Power, though Mass and Might would work just as well. While Földényi makes much of Canetti’s notion of Entladung or “discharge” — the event which creates a crowd and causes the mass to enclose “within itself those who have been swept into it, as into a living crypt” — equally important for our purposes is Canetti’s account of the destructiveness of crowds. “The crowd,” Canetti perceived, “particularly likes destroying houses and objects like window panes, mirrors, pictures, and crockery.… Windows and doors belong to houses; they are the most vulnerable part of their exterior and, once they are smashed, the house has lost its individuality; anyone may enter it and no-one is protected any more. In these houses live the supposed enemies of the crowd, those people who try to keep away from it. What separated them has now been destroyed and nothing stands between them and the crowd. They can come out and join it; or they can be fetched.” I am reminded in turn of the vicious French revolutionary General Beysser, who declared, amidst all the gut-wrenching massacres, mass drownings, and stake-burnings that accompanied the oh-so-enlightened 1793 genocide in the Vendée, that “a man’s death is soon forgotten, while the memory of burning down his house lasts for years.” Canetti memorably put it this way: “to the crowd in all its nakedness everything seems a Bastille.” To the bloody-minded “crowd of modernity,” any “manifestation of transcendence,” any aspect of traditional civilization, from religion to private property to the family, can represent just the sort of Bastille that leaves the Jacobin with his mass-like soul positively champing at the bit for a crack at the Vendéen peasant, the kulak, the shaman, or whoever it is that stands in the way of what is so often and so erroneously called Progress.
We may at least be reassured that, as Földényi asserts, “there is no state or condition in which the seed-bud of the spirit would not be concealed,” and in another essay, “The Globe-shaped Tower,” he further posits that traditions, however harrowed, exist to confront us with “not only our everyday existence but the existence which preceded our birth and that which will follow our death.” Deprived of those traditions, we will invariably feel as if we have gone astray, not unlike the Sámi shaman without his drum skin. Perhaps, however, it is only when we begin to feel well and truly lost that “the universe is once again conjured back to its previous state of enigma and mystery,” and we can then “stand out like a xenolith from the current ocean of universal monologue.” It is from this vantage point that we can fully recognize the extent of the damage done, and begin the work required to put the fragmented, splintered, and calcined pieces of our natural world, our built world, and our spiritual world back together.
The German mystic and poet Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, dit Novalis, in his bizarre 1802 fragment-novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen: A Romance, described in hallucinatory terms the “empire of the evening sun,” wherein the “lofty flame of a funeral pile” gradually imbibes the light of the sun. The flame “attracted the light more and more strongly; the glory around the star of day was soon consumed, and it stood there a pale, glimmering disk, every new agitation of spite and rage aiding the escape of the flying light-waves. Finally, nought of the sun remained but a black, exhausted dross, which fell into the sea.” In Földényi’s view this melancholy scene alludes to the “final breakdown of metaphysics,” but again the Hungarian critic offers solace, this time in the form of Novalis’ contemporary Heinrich von Kleist, who in a passage on the “absolute reflection” of the state of grace proposed that “the more that reflection becomes darker and weaker in the organic world, so does the grace within it emerge all the more living and radiant.” Even in the empire of the evening sun, it is still possible to light up the eventide.
Sámi mythology tells of the heavenly mountain ranges of Saajveaaajmoe or Bassevárri, where the deceased who followed the gods’ will in life could enjoy the fruits of their piety, from thundering reindeer herds to bodies of water teeming with schools of fish. We also hear of the realm of Ruohtta-áibmu, sometimes written as Rotaimo, a lower sphere governed by the demon Ruohtta. It is this god of sickness who punishes those who failed to live in accordance with the natural order, which he does by shepherding them to the underworld, depriving them of their original bodies, and furnishing them with new ones, while never permitting those unfortunate souls to leave the infernal regions. The damned were to be permanently unmoored, denied even what comfort might have been derived from their previous corporeal form. Having broken themselves off from the cosmic order, they would become, one might even say, mass-like in their own souls, empty shells of their former selves. There is an eery similarity here between the residents of Ruohtta-áibmu and the hollowed-out Amazonian chullachaqui, not to mention Lászlo Földényi’s imagery of the modern mass-like man as the “living dead” swept into a “living crypt.” I will confess to being something of a believer in these intriguing, if disturbing, shamanic doctrines. It seems quite evident that the inevitable consequence of the widespread destruction of tradition is an equally widespread outbreak of social death, and that, to once again cite Gómez-Dávila, progress must be understood as “hubris and nemesis fused together.”
Here in the Moskstraumen of our own making, this maelstrom of modern life, beneath the fading light of the evening sun, the struggle between the traditional order (or what is left of it) and the mass-like souls contemptuous of the cosmic transcendence continues apace, fueled by “every new agitation of spite and rage,” and I can see little to no middle ground between the two camps. We have arrived at yet another terrible punctum dolens, one of those pitted scars pockmarking human history, which cannot be avoided. What can still be avoided, though, is seeing the traditional order obliterated at the hands of those who “declare war ever more radically on every and any implicit manifestation of transcendence,” those who view tradition and culture as nothing more than puncta delentia waiting to be unceremoniously expurgated and banished from living memory, and all for the sake of that hollowed-out, gray, Hieronymus Bosch–like hellscape that would necessarily be the result.
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