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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lectures (6d)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Pilgrimage)

[a] Pilgrim's Peak RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[b] Pilgrim's Peek RL
William Edgar Geil had begun his five mountain narrative journey with something like a deft hand. It was not quite aplomb, but I could see its hazy outline from there. In just a few lines, he had taken his readers through a maze of Chinese cosmology, and hinted that he might know a lot more about Chinese culture than I ever would have imagined. He continued with a long set of reflections on the nature of pilgrimage across the world.

          For, with whatever different motive we journey, we follow a custom 
          ingrained for centuries, the custom of pilgrimage. What lies at the 
          root of this practice? Every religion appears to have some sacred 
          sites. Where there is a definite founder, the places associated with 
          him are obviously of interest. Therefore in Sinai, in Palestine, in 
          Nepaul, in Arabia, in Persia, as well as in Shantung, are a few of the 
          localities of historical importance. Only second to the founder will be 
          the great missionaries, and then come the local saints; the scenes of 
          their labours will receive attention...In all such cases, it was natural 
          that mere curiosity, or veneration of the departed man, should attract 
          many sightseers. 

          And as each century enriched the place with new associations, more 
          and more objects of interest accumulated, till the city might become a 
          thorough museum of history. And in the great majority of cases, 
          expectations of healing, entertained by the visitors, have led to a 
          general belief in local miracles, with constant increments of shrines and 
          relics...[Then] there came a time when visitors went, moved by more than 
          mere curiosity, sentiment, history. These places were felt to be hold 
          ground and men went not simply as tourists, but as pilgrims.

While this was not the deepest explanation I had ever read about the origin of holy sites, it was serviceable and even just a little bit compelling. On the other hand, it did not approach the brilliance of Marcel Granet's 1922 description of teeming, bubbling, frothing religious energy fairly flowing from the social engagements on holy ground in early China. No, Geil's description was somewhat more wooden and incremental, with interest in religious founders being layered o'er by thickening levels of saintliness and an accompanying collection of accoutrements in the form of relics. It was believable, I critiqued, but in a sloppy pseudo-objectivist sort of way. I was feeling a little mean, and beginning to think that this stiff American had gotten a B- on his first real test of religious insight. He hadn't failed—not by a long shot—but he could not put his finger on just what makes holy sites dazzle. For that, we need the brilliance of French sinologists in the Durkheimian tradition. We need Marcel Granet.
[c] Pilgrim's Pique RL

I put down The Sacred 5 of China and went to find my copy of Marcel Granet's The Religion of the Chinese People. For perhaps the hundredth time, I reread the most spectacular description of holy places I have ever seen. I was quite aware that mine was a minority opinion, and that many readers (far too beholden for my tastes to a misplaced and pre-Kantian misunderstanding of objective "rigor") would find Granet's description prohibitively French. Where were the footnotes? Where was the reason? It all just sounds, said one critic, "a bit too literary."

Undeterred, I opened to the section called "Holy Places and Peasant Festivals." It crossed my mind that what I was now doing, in the spirit of systematic reading, was the highest level—moving from one argument to another, and then engaging them in my own mind. Mortimer Adler calls such reading "syntopical," and I was preparing to put William Edgar Geil in the path of an intellectual radial arm saw called "French sinology." I was confident that Marcel Granet would lead again to the lieux saint, the holy place.

          The location of these Holy Places is quite well marked out for some 
          parts of China; but all I can describe is the general appearance, the 
          ritual landscape of the Festivals. For the unfolding of their traditional 
          ceremonies, they required a terrain variegated with woods, water, 
          vales, and heights. There the crowd of pilgrims spread themselves, 
          come from afar, often in carts, dressed in seasonal clothes that were 
          freshly woven and of which the dazzling newness declared the 
          prosperity of each family. In their finery, the women folk, usually invisible 
          and shut up in their hamlets, showed themselves in groups and shone 
          like clouds. With their sprigged robes, their grey or madder-red-dresses, 
          they appeared as beautiful as the mallow or cherry blossom. 

          Groups of people made or renewed relationships. Drawing one another 
          by the sleeve, taking one another by the hand, they gave themselves up 
          to the joy of meetings long and impatiently awaited and which had to be 
          of short duration. In the enthusiasm of these solemn assemblies they 
          moved up and down in all directions over the terrain, filling it with their 
          happiness and feeling that happiness fed by memories recovered at their 
          contact with the witness of all the potent joys of their race. 

[d] Pilgrim's Parchment RL
This is a burgeoning, percolating social intensity that Granet's teacher, Emile Durkheim, saw as the very heart of religiosity. People gathering together in communal intercourse was the prerequisite for reaching the highest levels of religious ecstasy. It was Granet, however, who channeled the master's great idea and wrote as if in a Durkheimian social-analytical trance-state of the precise ways that people commingling in holy sites all came together to create something bigger than the individual—something that would be remembered, retraced, and relived year after year, decade after decade, and century after century. When human engagement reaches its highest states, we get holiness. When we get holiness, we get pilgrimage sites. It's a lot more complicated (and intense and fervent) than founders, missionaries, and relics. And then he brings his description to a fever pitch, with animals sharing in the cultural-natural fluidity and making all the world one with itself. The moments are brief, but they are imprinted on humanity and nature in ways that give the sacred mountains of the world their ongoing value.

          They wished to make this beneficent contact as intimate as possible; 
          from it there seemed to come to them a prodigious enlargement of their 
          inner life. They experienced the tutelary power whose sanctity spread 
          from every corner of the landscape, blessed forces which they strove to 
          capture in every way. Holy was the place, sacred the slopes of the valley 
          they climbed and descended, the stream they crossed with their skirts 
          tucked up, the blooming flowers they plucked, the ferns, the buses, the 
          white elms, the great oaks and the wood they took from them: the lit 
          bonfires, the scent of the nosegays, the spring water in which they 
          dipped themselves, and the wind that dried them as they came from 
          bathing, all had virtues, unlimited virtues; all was a promise given to all 
          hopes. And the animals which teemed and also held their seasonal 
          assemblies, grasshoppers gathering under the grass, the arrested flights 
          of birds of passage, ospreys gathered together on sandy islets and shared 
          in the holiness of the place and the moment. Their calls, their chases, 
          were signals, emblems, a language in which men heard an echo of their 
          own emotions.

          They felt themselves strong by their harmony with the natural order. 
          Their festivals opened and closed the rainy season. Were the festivals 
          regulated by the first and last rainbows to appear? Or did they regulate 
          their appearance? In these gatherings where rural concord was forged 
          in rhythmic time, all, exalted by a sentiment of joyous power, imagined 
          that they cooperated in the harmony of nature. Their creative joy turned 
          into a need to worship from which the earth set aside for their 
          gatherings benefited, divine land where everything merited a cult, the 
          great isolated trees, the little woods, the pools, the confluences of rivers, 
          the gushing fountains, the mounds, the split stones, and the rocks which 
          seemed to bear the imprints of giant footsteps.

[e] Pilgrims' Passage RL
I sat back in a satisfied daze, a little tingle in my spine as I let Granet's words resonate—"tutelary power whose sanctity spread from every corner" and "rural concord...forged in rhythmic time." Now that's pilgrimage, I thought, and took another sip of coffee. Yes, I knew that a certain kind of literalist would disagree with me, but I was firmly in Granet's camp when it came to showing the pilgrim's progress. Both were fictional accounts of a sort—Geil and Granet were speculating. But in another way, both were grounded in source materials. Geil's were obvious; Granet's less so, but no less significant for that. The experienced reader of The Religion of the Chinese People can sense Granet's rich use of the Classic of Poetry (詩經) and the Book of Rites (禮記). It is as though his work channeled both the careful scholarship of Leopold von Ranke and the literary exuberance of Gustave Flaubert.

I sighed.

Picking up anew The Sacred 5 of China, I knew I should give it another chance. With regard to pilgrimage, Geil had acquitted himself reasonably well. Still, just a little bit of the initial luster had worn off. Here was a religious person—more on that soon—who couldn't quite convey the religious excitement of pilgrimage. I knew I was being terribly harsh and rather opinionated in this regard, and declared the readerly version of a truce, waiting to see what the rest of Geil's preface held for me. In one sense, he was two-for-two already. He had passed my fairly critical review of five-phase cosmology and pilgrimages, albeit with higher scores on the former, like a verbally-challenged math whiz taking the SAT. Let's give him a 700 on cosmology and a 450 on pilgrimage. Not everyone can match Marcel Granet's perfect 1600, after all.

Or maybe I was just being mean. I kept on reading. 

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Pilgrim's Portal RL

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