Mary Douglas ‘If the Dogon…’

What I found immediately striking about the Dogon is the similarity between their contrasting gods Nommo and Yourougou (the ‘Pale Fox’), representing reason/order and enigma/disorder, with Freud’s concepts of the Id and Super-Ego that govern our thoughts and actions (not to mention the uncanny parallels between the Pale Fox’s mythological act of incest and the Oedipus complex).

That the Dogon have gone so far as to classify their different types of ‘speech’ as belonging to either one or the other deity suggests a level of coherence of the driving forces behind human action (and their linguistic conflation of the meanings of ‘speech’ and ‘act’ coupled with the fact that they couldn’t recognise Lee-Whorf’s hypothesis on the differences between language and inchoate thoughts re-enforces this) that merits Douglas’s infectious admiration of the group and justifies her comparison of them with André Breton and the Surrealists, who were greatly influenced by Freud’s ideas and often used psychoanalysis as a way of accessing their subconscious in the creation of their art. But these classifications scream for further investigation! Douglas gets excited over the fact that ‘truth’ is associated with the Fox, and then shares nothing about other forms; for someone who knows nothing at all about the Dogon it would be fascinating to know which other types of ‘speech’ falls into which category.

The article is about  accessing the abstract meaning hidden behind symbols. Douglas compares the Dogon divination practice, surrealist art, Raymond Roussel’s prose techniques (and we could further this by adding psychoanalysis to the list) with the work of British anthropologists who try to find the ‘true’ significance behind rituals and societal structures. It is almost disappointing that she is only using this incredible Dogon cosmology to illustrate British anthropological methods, and it makes an otherwise captivating article fall a bit flat at the end.


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