Kings & Councillors

Have been reading this pow'rful anthropology book, Kings and Councillors, by A.M. Hocart.  (Led there by a note in another deep study, Moses & Civilization).  A good book for poets to read, & everybody else. An eye-opening vision of things.  Hocart is one of a kind.  I guess Isaiah Berlin would call him a hedgehog, as opposed to a fox - a thinker who has "one big idea" & pursues it relentlessly.  But Hocart was not just an idea man.  A veteran of 4 years on the Western Front in WW I, he spent much of the 1920s and 30s doing field research in Fiji, Ceylon, India, along with teaching & etc. in those countries.

Hocart is just a very challenging, provocative & entertaining writer.  He makes his one big idea come alive for the reader.  & what is that idea?  Like any good anthropologist, Hocart shows how contemporary human society is rooted in hundreds of thousands of years of ancient and prehistoric human activity.  But he's especially interested, in this book, in the origins of government.  The intro by Rodney Needham is helpful in comparing Hocart's ideas to those of British philosopher David Hume.  Hume challenged the 2 main traditional theories of government : 1) that government is essentially organized exploitation by the rich and powerful of the weak and poor, or 2) that government is a social contract by which the people as a whole provided for their own welfare through representative authorities.  (You could call these the Autocratic & Democratic options.)

For Hume, government originates in the actuality of warfare between different tribes and peoples.  It is the violent rivalry between groups, and this alone, which necessitates government : gov't is essentially defense.

Hocart has yet another view.  Using comparative examples from very different times & places, he argues that the social orders we call government today, originated in ritual.  And what motivated primitive ritual?  Simply this : the collective human desire for what Hocart calls "Life." Modern society has grown so complex and specialized we find it hard to comprehend the simplicity and universality - the "hive-mind" aspect - of this notion.  What Hocart calls Life, his editor Needham writes, might be more accurately defined by the German word, Heil - health, wholeness, overall goodness.  ("Hale & hearty"...)  What Jefferson called "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

For Hocart, archaic human groups equated the spiritual, universal, divine sources of "Life" with their representatives.  Thus the King or the Chief "stands for" the God, the invisible source of all plenty, the "cornucopia" of all human welfare.  Ritual involved the solemn (or not-so-solemn) acknowledgement of these sacred powers & origins : their representation and application in the actual world.  The King, in fact, is not just a stand-in or symbol of the God - he is the God made manifest.  The "actors" in ritual practices shape a kind of cosmic microcosm.  The "impersonators" (king, priest, messenger, etc.) coordinate their ritual acts to shape a holistic ceremony meant to magically evoke and in fact actualize that which the tribe desires : which, Hocart says, is simply (to use the Biblical phrase) "fulness of life".

Hocart elaborates, in fascinating ways, on how contemporary forms of government and social organization exhibit the archaic categories of authority first present (in embryo) in the prehistoric clans and tribes of humanity.  Before articulated, specialized social orders existed, ritual action began to sketch out their later roles.  As Hocart explains, archaic symbolic roles (or "principals" - kings, priests) became modern functions (presidents, advisers, etc.).  In the process (modernization), the sense of human society as a whole, as a "natural order" centered around a common aim ("Life"),  can become obscured.  But Hocart is more scientific than nostalgic.  He sees human culture as a process of continual change and adaptation - every historical situation is a complex, ambiguous mix of that which has always been & that which is fading away & that which is new.  But it's clear he understands anthropology - or the "study of mankind" - as one way to shed light on what often seems irrational or inexplicable or chaotic in human history.


One thing that struck me forcefully, in reading this book, is the picture presented of a certain likeness between the shapes of prehistoric ritual, on the one hand, and the central rites of Christianity, on the other.  This is not a new idea, obviously.  Lots of writers, from a variety of motives & perspectives, have tried to connect Christianity with ancient pre-Biblical religions & myths (Jesus & Osiris, & all that) - often in order to undermine the integrity or distinctness of Biblical religion.  This is not Hocart's aim, nor mine.  What does strike me as very curious, however, is how the basic orientations of prehistoric ritual seem to echo the rites of Christianity.  The poet David Jones, in The Anathemata, & other works, makes much of these echoes and comparisons : yet Hocart seems to find a parallel on an even more basic level.  The king stands in for the sacred spirit : the King is that Spirit, manifest in the ritual.   The "principal" (the royal or sacred officer of the rite) is the embodiment of the god.  The rite of acknowledgement of the king's generous gifts (of Life itself) culminates in a feast.  The food offered by the king is the spirit, is the god : the king offers himself as food.  For Hocart, ritual is a kind of poetic, metaphorical activity.  The physical differences between distinct things (kings, priests, sacred yams, etc.) are dissolved, or fused, by the ceremony itself.  God = king = sacred yam...  the thing is the embodiment of the invisible spirit which is the center of the whole ritual.

Reading Hocart sent me on a path of preliminary speculation : is it possible that Jesus's call for a return to "things as they were in the beginning" involved a re-creation of very prehistoric and universally-human rites?   Was it a kind of archaism rooted in part in ancient Galilean culture itself?

Hocart emphasizes the communal and "traditional" character of prehistoric human ritual.  It's almost like a tribal "mind-set", or a hive of dancing bees, acting out a collective act of homeopathic magic.  The whole community gathers to ceremonialize the "order of life" itself, as a whole.  What is done by the king now is done because the spirits of the past kings did the same.  I also detect a slight strain of idealization of this in Hocart : a slightly Nietzschean or Spenglerian tendency (the "health" of a society is desiccated by merely "moral" or "intellectual" abstract revisions of the primordial unity - as in Buddhism or the monotheistic religions).  But as I say, this bent in Hocart is so slight as to be almost undetectable.  (Idealizations of "tradition" are less palatable when you consider the downside of mob mentalities and superstitious prejudice, all the forms of "tyranny of the majority".)

It would be very interesting to consider the "promissory" or future-oriented quality of Judaism and Christianity in the light of Hocart.  Here is a faith of the word, of the book : the word of the promise of a future "land of promise", rather than an a-chronous or synchronous celebration of the king's & the land's divine bounty now.  Biblical religion seems rooted so deeply in a withdrawal from Egyptian & Mesopotamian rites of a glorious "now" ; it is a fundamental re-making of that "now" on behalf of a more profound and universal "goodness of life" and world to come.


But I think of poetry itself as somewhat primitive in Hocart's sense.  Poets write poetry from every conceivable motive & mind-set, of course.  Much of it is "culturally determined", of course, by the historical situation & the fads of the day.  For my part, though, I seem to have been impelled by this "cosmic ritual microcosm" array of phenomena.  Maybe I'm what they call a "monist" at heart.  I believe in a "spiritual source" of cosmic Life.  I believe the future order of life on earth will be defined by the "good will" which proceeds from a shared sense of this "common good" : some kind of acknowledgement and thanksgiving for the gift of Life itself.  This is at the root of poetic "making", as far as I'm concerned.  It's in all the elaborate structures of my poems, boring & monotonous & obscure as they might be (for some, anyway, sometimes...)

(p.s. my middle name happens to be : "Hale")

Reminds me of this old "poem about poetry", writ at least 30 years ago :


I give you the parables as I received them -
my mother's voice, the nursery rhymes,
the memorized rhetoric and the anthem
leading us like sheep to death sometimes.

The mystery ringing in our ears,
the noise of the cultivated howl
of ubiquitous unknown lusts and fears,
the music of monkey, wolf and owl.

In silence before music and the word,
a voice already prepared to save
delivers you into a pastoral world,
out of the dank and bestial cave.

A cadence I cannot repeat just right -
the pristine choir of many morning birds,
or the patience of children in the dancing light
performing the ritual of careful words.

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