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February 21, 2004

Cultural Universals, or, Homo Poeticus

Decades ago, academics in the humanities refered to Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell wrote of a "monomyth" underlying the world's mythology. Levi-Strauss (no, not the pants maker) advanced the notion of structuralism, i.e. that certain key structures underly all cultures, into the domain of cultural anthropology. Though a lot of this came from Freud and Jung, who really had little if any basis in reality, there is nonetheless some profit into seeking commonality in the human race. Sadly, this trend was soon swept away by post-structuralism, and today only the foolhardy or extremely secure in the humanities speak of cultural universals.

Let me go against the grain for a bit, though, and suggest that those who deny commonality in the human race usually have something of an agenda. I would be a bit more willing to accept that the institutions that make up various cultures that we know have no basis in the structures of the human brain and its evolution were it not for the fact that the evidence screams otherwise.

When people first arrived in North America, humanity generally existed at a tribal and village level. Jericho and Catal Hüyük lay millenia in the future. Nonetheless, when, close to ten thousand years later, the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they found kings, priests, cities, books, and writing. With no contact between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, the structures of urban civilization had nonetheless evolved parallel to each other. Were the bases of culture less rooted in the wiring of the human brain, the Spaniards would have found a society that was totally alien.

My main point, though, lies not in social institutions, but in language and grammar. Many years ago, everyone's favorite anarcho-syndicalist lay out the notion of a "deep structure," a universal grammar that carried the basic substance of human language that was generally the same despite the accidents of different languages. When we look at people throughout the earth, we see a strong tendency to poetry, a tendency to employ turns of sound, rhythm, and the like to entertain, to recall great deeds of the past, to magnify or humiliate a person, etc.

The various particulars of poetry differ by language. Modern English rhymes, while Old English and Old Norse used a highly formal system of alliteration. Greek and Latin used meter, and I am not familiar enough with other languages to write about other peoples.

"But what is your point, Andrew?" you might be asking. Look at the Norse skald. The skald was, I think I can safely say, nothing like the current idea of a poet (a mincing pansy sitting in a coffee shop smoking unfiltered cigarettes); rather, he lived in a rough and tumble world of warriors who could break into fights at a moment's notice, spend a great deal of time drunkenly magnifying their own physical prowess, and who in general could kick a modern poet's ass without breaking a sweat.

You might, gentle reader, at this point say, "Aha! Does not the example you cited prove that most of the trappings of culture are nothing more than constructs?" I would reply that we ought to look deeper. The skald could spontaneously compose poetry that followed elaborate metrical patterns, poetry that more often than not magnified the might in battle of a man or conversely, in what is known as a "flyting," heap abuse and scorn upon someone. What was praised? Martial virtue, wealth and generosity with that wealth, and comradeship.

The most apt comparison to the skald, then, is not the poet, but the rapper. The good rapper can, after all, spontaneously compose using elaborate turns of rhym, and these compositions usually involve martial virtue, the loyalty of one to his group, an excess of wealth that would be quite at home in any Eddic or Skaldic poetry, etc. Moreover, when performed competitively, it also takes on the form of a flyting, right down to the imagery of words as weapons. Finally, we ought to note that, liner notes aside, rap is still largely an oral, as opposed to a written genre.

So it is, then, that the poetry of martial valor manifests itself in different forms, but with a structure that is generally the same in two very different cultures. Now then, if we did not believe that people have, in general, the same brains, such manifestations would not make much sense. But if you are willing to grant that people are generally the same, then it is perfectly logical that poetry, stripped of many cultural accretions, finds itself returning to its true form.

Posted by schizmatic at 05:57 PM