Thursday, October 18, 2012

10/18/12. Notes on Jane Harrison

Jane Ellen Harrison’s innovation in Classical scholarship was to propose that the Greek myths originated in religious ritual and magical practice. In her works archaological materials become privileged over literary evidence, such as Hesiod or Homer: her interpretations rely upon the vase paintings and bas-reliefs which decorate her pages.

The table of contents of Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) reveals a procession from chthonic, harvest and purification rituals, to a consideration of the figures of Dionysus and Orpheus, and thus to the development of Orphic mystery religion.  The thesis implied here turns upside down the nineteenth century axiom that the Classical period gave birth to an unprecedented rational spirit in culture, foundation and justification of eventual European supremacy, of which the limpid purity of Greek myth was testimony. And that thesis came to seem moved by new intellectual currents exemplified by Durkheim and Freud, theorists of the irrational whom she later championed.

Jane Harrison was a pioneer in her profession, “the first British female classical scholar to achieve an international reputation.” That she was a woman contributed to the orientation of her vision, I imagine Duncan believed; at the very least, that it placed a kind of “signature” on it, and so assures her a proper place in the pantheon of the H.D. Book. Duncan’s conviction that poetry retains traces of its origin in magic incantations seems to have its source in her theory, or find confirmation there.

Waking in the middle of the night, in my mind's eye I find Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Picasso’s epochal instinctual battleground of an unfinished canvas, in which “primitive” and feminine are juxtaposed—african masks, which suggest ritual use, coming to replace more naturalistic faces on the dancing bodies of a cathartic nightmare…


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