Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Some happy firelit puma

Panic, he invited them to consider, was the habitual state of mind of primitive peoples, the flood that submerged all but the strongest swimmers. The savage spent his days suspecting and exorcising evil. The echo in the cliff is an enemy, the wind in the grass an approaching sickness, the new-born child clad in mystery and defilement. But it wasn't for us to laugh at the savage for, so to speak, not having found his earth-legs, since our quite recent ancestors had held comets and eclipses to be menacing gestures of the stars. Some primitive suspicions were reasonable, and chief among these the fear that man's ascendancy over the other animals might yet be disputed. Early man sat by the camp fire gnawing his bone and sneered through the dusk at the luminous, envious eyes of the wild beasts that stood in the forest fringes, but he was not easy in his mind about them. Their extreme immobility might be the sign of a tense patience biding its time. Who was to say that some night the position might not be reversed--that it would not be he who stood naked save for his own pelt among the undergrowth watching some happy firelit puma licking the grease of a good meal from its paws? That was the primitive doubt. It's an attitude that one may understand even now, he said, when one faces the spring of one of the larger carnivora; and Ellen thrilled to hear him refer to this as Edinburgh folk refer to a wrestle with the east wind. It's an attitude that was bound to persist, long after the rest of Europe had got going with more modern history, in Spain; where villages were subject on winter's nights to the visitations of wolves and bears, and where the Goths and the Arabs and the Christians and the Berbers proved so extravagantly the wrangling lack of solidarity in the human herd. There had from earliest times existed all round the Mediterranean basin a ceremony by which primitive man gave a concrete ritual expression to this fear: the killing of the bull. They took the bull as the representative of the brutes which were the enemies of man and slew him by a priest's knife and with much decorative circumstances to show that this was no mere butchering of meat. Well, there in Spain it survived. . . . He had spoken confidently and dogmatically, but his eyes asked them appealingly whether they didn't see, as if in his course through the world he had been disappointed by the number of people who never saw.

"That's all very fine," said Mr. Philip, "but they've had time to get over their little fancies. We're in the twentieth century now."

--Rebecca West, The Judge

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