Natural Symbols

by Mary Tew
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916

If anthropology has an interest for the general reader, that interest to a great extent lies in the insights the science provides into contemporary society, even as it ranges far afield in time, space, and level of development. Natural Symbols addresses directly the paradox that its readers, unlike many of the subjects of anthropological study, are “people who live by using elaborated speech to review and revise existing categories of thought” and who measure their success by the extent to which they force their disciplines into new channels and maintain “a professional detachment towards any given pattern of experience.” To bring such readers to understand how deeply ritualism and condensed symbolism affect many people and how impoverished is the person unable to grasp the multilevel importance of “efficacious signs” is Douglas’ formidable self-imposed task. At the same time, she insists that “anthropologists must be [the book’s] most important critics”; if the general reader at times finds the detailed discussions of previous studies and of fieldwork among various tribes exhausting, the professional anthropologist will find them exhaustive.

The extensive comparative descriptions of other cultures serve another of Douglas’ purposes: She demonstrates, again and again, that efforts to reform Christianity by deemphasizing ritual and stressing ethics and a personal relationship with God rest upon unfounded or false assumptions. This carefully documented presentation of numerous cultures (at least thirty are discussed in some detail) shows that antiritualism is not necessarily a sign of cultural superiority or of socio-technological evolution. Contrary to what might seem logical, not all primitive religions are magical and ritualistic, and not all primitive societies lack elaborated grid and group structures. Yet, as Douglas puts it, to modern clerics “a rational, verbally explicit, personal commitment to God is self-evidently more evolved and better than its alleged contrary, formal, ritualistic conformity.” To privilege the elaborated speech code and its concomitant habits of mind in this way is as limited and limiting, Douglas argues, as any other exclusive definition of true religious experience.

In addition to comparing various forms of religious experiences across cultural boundaries, Douglas compares secular and religious movements within contemporary culture. Her most sustained example is her observation that secular and religious antiritualism demonstrate a similar pattern of bodily symbolism. In each case, as the exterior forms of society are devalued, each individual person asserts a sharper split between body and spirit, with a concomitant dishonoring of the exterior—the body—demonstrated through neglect of clothing or hygiene or the adoption of bodily forms perceived as bizarre. As the concept of God becomes more personal and interior, the body is seen as increasingly irrelevant or even positively evil, the source of corruption and contamination. Hence, Douglas argues, arise the distinctive garb of monks and hippies.

Besides offering insights into religious movements, attitudes, and conflicts, Natural Symbols analyzes the nature of symbols and language in important ways. Douglas develops the concept of the condensed symbol, something in a culture that is “so economical and highly articulated . . . that it is enough to strike one chord to recognize that the orchestration is on a cosmic scale.” Rituals such as the Christian Eucharist may in fact be symbols of this sort. Beyond their religious significance, condensed symbols have powerful aesthetic and political dimensions. Because “symbols are the only means of communication . . . the only means of expressing value; the main instruments of thought,” the absence of common symbols as norms in modern Western culture stands as a serious problem. Yet the highly educated, who decide upon the official place of condensed symbols in cultural institutions, “are only too likely to have been made, by the manner of their education, insensitive to non-verbal signals and dull to their meaning.” Furthermore, Douglas asserts—in one of her most controversial passages—that “there is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system.” When the condensed symbols of people are denigrated and “when ritualism is openly despised the philanthropic impulse [often proposed as an appropriate alternative to rituals] is in danger of defeating itself.” To be unable to grasp the basic importance of symbols is to “cherish . . . in the name of reason a very irrational concept of communication.” Throughout her book, Douglas urges a respect for the value of symbol and a skepticism toward those who would diminish the “faculty for receiving immediate, condensed messages given obliquely along non-verbal channels.”

In the widest sense, Natural Symbols asserts the importance of structures of all kinds to human beings, whether considered as individuals or as social groups. Douglas seeks to demonstrate that nothing human can be understood as an isolated phenomenon. She shows human thought patterns to be correlative with social patterns, and individual psychological orientations to be embedded in cultural ways of seeing and responding to the cosmos.

Some readers have found Douglas’ comparisons between Christianity and so-called primitive religions disturbing, considering it inappropriate to appear to equate the two kinds of experience or to suggest that Christianity, like other religious systems, correlates in important ways with the kind of society in which it is dominant. Others, however, have seen in this work a seminal analysis of the relationships between sociocultural patterns and religious beliefs and a skillful application of the analytical techniques of the social sciences to the contemporary world. In evaluating the value of such studies, Douglas asserts that one’s “cosmological scheme connects up the bits of experience and invests the whole with meaning. . . . Unless we can make the process visible, we are the victims.”

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