Friday, August 28, 2009

195. Utopia, Then and Now

Utopia? Really? I'm not sure. The whole point of my "tedious argument, of insidious intent" (pace, T. S. Eliot) was to establish myself as a hard-nosed realist, bent on distilling the most rigorous possible inferences from careful and critical examination of the evidence, NOT a romantic idealist with fantasies based on outmoded notions of (to coin a phrase) "utopian human potentials" and "quintessential origins," not to mention "Noble Savages" or "Living Fossils." So, if the word "Utopia" is up there in the heading of this post, and if we really have to have a reason for doing what we do, then what I'd give as my reason for using that word is to insert a bit of irony into the proceedings. Nothing more. Well, almost nothing.

If we are now in a position to say something specific about the culture of our most distant ancestors, and I believe that to be the case, then what can we say? The word "egalitarian" keeps coming up. Just about every pygmy and bushmen group has been so described -- and not only egalitarian in some general sense, but specifically characterized by both generational and gender equality. Which is truly remarkable. If it could be demonstrated beyond a doubt that most pygmy and bushmen societies in Africa were truly and completely egalitarian, does that mean their common ancestors, of say 70,000 years ago, would have been egalitarian as well? That seems like a reasonable inference, yes, but the opposition to that sort of thinking has been fierce. Without actually being able to return to that period in a time machine, the skeptics insist, we have no way of knowing for sure.

But we do have a time machine, remember?

It is very hard for me to believe that, listening to a typical performance of Pygmy or Bushmen vocal polyphony, I am not, in an almost terrifyingly literal way, hearing "echoes of our forgotten ancestors." And believe me, I am no Romantic. Faithful transmission of this remarkably joyous and beautiful musical tradition down countless generations from their world to ours is the only logical explanation I can imagine that accounts for its distribution in the world of today, among three different populations (Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies, Bushmen), in three completely separate parts of Africa, whose lineages just happen to occupy the three deepest branches of the human family tree.

Transported tens of thousands of years into the past by the distinctive, unmistakable sound of this music, we can take its hand, so to speak, to be led inexorably from the aesthetic to the social, from musical style to cultural style, from the distinctive organization of sound to the equally distinctive social structure appropriate to the production of that sound.

Does a non-hierarchic, highly integrated, group-oriented, harmonious music, characterized by an equal interplay among all parts, with any participant free to vary his or her part at will, or enter or drop out at will, necessarily reflect a non-hierarchic, highly integrated, group-oriented, harmonious, egalitarian, non-violent society, characterized by individual autonomy? There is no way to tell for sure. Can such a music be produced only by such a society and no other? There is no way to tell for sure.

But when we exercise our own autonomy to step back and think objectively and independently about the matter, with no cynical, neo-puritanical, post-modern ideologue breathing down our neck to warn us of the dire consequences of even considering such outrageously outdated possibilities, then, it seems to me, it becomes very hard to deny the persuasiveness of such a remarkable conjunction of mutually reinforcing evidence.

If the Pygmies and Bushmen of today do indeed consist of non-hierarchical, highly integrated, group- oriented yet unregimented, bands, living harmoniously with one another on an equal basis, with a high degree of individual autonomy, no leaders to coerce and control, sharing all their possessions on an equal basis, with no expectation of reimbursement, then everything we know about their music reinforces what we know about their culture, making it especially difficult to deny that their, and our, ancestors also shared the same values, the same ethos, when the ancestral traditions were being established.

Was the world of the Pygmies and Bushmen indeed a Utopia? Was the world of our ancestors? If not, then what was it? And what can our newly discovered understanding of their world mean for us?

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