A Fortnightly Serial.
By Alan Macfarlane.
IV. LOOKING BACK
Here are just a few brief thoughts about how I changed as a person in these thirty years:
FUNDAMENTALLY, WE ALL are animals.
To recognize this is to be aware that much of our emotion and many of our ideas are highly conditioned by our changing bodies. Let me stand back then and survey briefly what the documents, photographs and my intermittent memories tell me about the period when my body was changing most rapidly.
The development of my body in the first five years in India was chronicled by my mother and grandmother so that I can observe when I was weaned, my changing weight, when I could walk and talk. One of the shaping influences of those first five years was illness and pain. I suffered from prickly heat, something which has strangely returned to me in my seventies. I broke my arm when I was four and had to have it re-broken without anesthetics. Above all I suffered from dysentery – life-threatening on one occasion and I was only saved by the new anti-biotics. I also had acidosis so that throughout my life I have been allergic to fatty substances. This caused serious problems at the age of eight to twelve as the boarding school forced me to eat fat on meat and I was sick.
I am not sure whether it was because of intermittent stomach troubles, or mainly genetic, but one feature which heavily impacted my life was that I grew very slowly and at a maximum height of five feet six inches have remained quite small. The shock of how small I was comes home in a group photograph in my tenth year when I was in the front row of boys of my age in the opera Patience, a ‘love sick maiden’. I am conspicuously smaller than all the other boys by several inches. This relative smallness, combined with little body weight and no real speed at running, had a perverse and surprising effect which has shaped my character since.
I might have resigned myself to being no good at sports and games which required speed and strength, to being bullied and dominated by larger boys. Instead I somehow decided that it was a challenge which I would overcome. I decided that determination, courage, doggedness, practice and method could overcome natural inadequacies. So, the account of my progress in games at the Dragon School from my first term aged eight, through to my last reports, speak of my outstanding determination and pluck on the games field. I tried immensely hard, and it paid off.
Despite the absence of any particular advantages, though my body coordination and eye-sight were reasonable, I ended up in this four-hundred-boy school, which set such a high store on games, as the only boy in my year who was awarded his colours in all of the four top school games teams — rugger, football, hockey and cricket. My determination and resilience is also indicated, I think, by the fact that though relatively very small, I never remember being bullied by anyone. I suspect that the bullies recognized that they would not get away with it without a fierce resistance.
This all taught me that mediocrity of talent could be overcome, that ‘anybody can do anything’ if they really throw themselves into it and if they think carefully about their methods and practice assiduously. I found that the difference between human beings are, in nature, marginal and can be overcome.
Although I discovered this early, I soon learnt that there are limitations. It was not always possible at Sedbergh to achieve much in running and I only made the Second XV in rugger (perhaps partly through the aforesaid plucky playing, which worked against me when I was several times injured, breaking a thumb and my nose, in my last year). Even in boxing I was not a great success and however hard I tried, not much good in racket games such as tennis, squash and fives. Yet the early successes buoyed me up and I was able to apply them well beyond my body to my life’s work, the work of the mind as a researcher and teacher, as we shall see.
The other aspect of my first years, which had a considerable effect, was that my bowel movements were irregular. I suffered from serious constipation, I suppose, and even at the age of six or seven remember the difficulties of going to the toilet. This may have been related to the dysentery, but it was to prove a real trial at my boarding preparatory school. For one of my most vivid memories was the terror of washing days, right up to the age of thirteen. I do not remember wetting my bed, but I would often soil my pants. I remember trying to bury my dirty pants at the bottom of the communal laundry basket. I remember the shame when once or twice matrons would kindly enquire was I was still unable to control my body.
The shame associated with my bodily functions, or at least excretion, was to play another part in my memories right through to the end of these thirty years. At Sedbergh, the house toilets had no doors – until you were a prefect. I found it very embarrassing to sit exposed to passing boys so much of my thought was devoted to ways round this problem. It led to serious constipation and to secret visits to the School toilets (off bounds) and off onto the fells to find a convenient wood.
The problem recurred when Gill and I went to a remote mountain village in Nepal for fieldwork. There were no toilets and people went out of the village to relieve themselves. Although we had a bucket for urine, we had to climb for twenty minutes up a steep hillside for defecation – subject to amused remarks and looks by villages.
I grew slowly at the Dragon and arrived at Sedbergh still small, my voice unbroken and pre-pubertal. In my second term, aged fourteen, I was aware that my voice was breaking and I was pulled out of the House quartet. I had been able to ejaculate sexually a year or two before, but remember being less virile and advanced than a number of the boys with whom I washed communally at the Dragon at the age of twelve and thirteen. So, puberty came at 14-15 and from then onwards one of the strong drives in my life, as it obviously is for many, was sexual.
At the Dragon School, I had had ‘crushes’ on several other little boys, leading once or twice to a furtive kiss, but nothing else. I had also been attracted to little girls, as my mother noted and I remember. The bi-sexuality continued through Sedbergh. I had crushes on one or two older boys, leading to nothing more than slightly sensuous play and wrestling and a feeling of adoration. When I was at the top of the school, I occasionally felt protective and affectionate towards one or two of the juniors, but don’t remember that this lead to anything more than chat and banter.
My first girlfriends came around the age of seventeen for we were rigorously sheltered. The all-boys boarding school was in the tradition of forbidding any relations with girls during term time. There were not even dances with the local girls’ school and the maids were strictly off limits. In the holidays, as throughout my life, I was mainly surrounded by strong and interesting women — at this time my mother, grandmother and younger sisters. So, I have always found women easy to get on with, perhaps easier than men.
Yet all kinds of sexual thoughts and acts were condemned, not only by the school, but also by the fact that from about for about fifteen, through to my twentieth year, I was going through the most devoutly Christian of my phases. I was an evangelical Protestant, attending religious boys’ camps, reading my bible, keen and puritanical. Sex before marriage was strictly forbidden and all thoughts of sex were ‘unclean’.
This set up one of the large tensions of my growing years. On the one hand I had my ideals, my beliefs, my self-images as a chaste and virginal Christian which precluded all sexual relations until I married. St Paul was my guide with his strict injunctions. On the other hand, sexual desires and the ecstasy of ejaculation haunted me. The result, as with so many of my generation, despite the warnings that all forms of self-stimulation would lead to baldness and premature death, was frequent masturbation. I remember this starting, perhaps partly stimulated by loneliness and misery, in my first terms at Sedbergh and continuing after.
It is difficult to know whether this was a productive tension, teaching me not to judge others harshly since I knew of my own fallibility, or whether it mainly induced guilt and shame and hence impeded me. What seems to be true is that the theme of sexual relations recurred in an intellectualized theme later in my academic career.
When I went to discuss possible topics for my D.Phil. at Oxford, I suggested to Christopher Hill either sexual relations, witchcraft or myth. Keith Thomas, who had already written about seventeenth-century sex, encouraged me to study witchcraft. I studied sexual and marital life in English history in my Master’s thesis at the LSE and later as the subject for my Research Fellowship at King’s, culminating in my book on Marriage and Love. Perhaps even my interest in demography, including contraception and birth control, on which I lectured and wrote, and my fascination with anthropology, which I found greatly liberating in its documentation of many societies without the fierce religious taboos I had been brought up with, is related to this.
SO THE DICTATES of my body have deeply influenced me. I have not been revolted by my body, but it has been, in characteristic western puritan fashion, a battle.
In terms of pushing my body beyond its limits, the feeling of effort and delight at achievement, there have been many moments in those thirty years that stand out. Each of them in their way was both an expression of who I was, and also shaped me as I grew up.
One was at the age of about eight or nine, when I had learnt to ride a bike. My school was down in Broadstone, and to return to our house, half-way up a hill, I had to go up a steep slope. When I revisited the road many years later, it was only an incline, perhaps 1:8, and for fifty yards. Yet for me it was a real challenge. I was determined to cycle up as far as I could. Each time I would push down on the peddles with my small weight, aching and straining.
In this I learnt something I still apply in my work today. My uncle Richard recounts that the way to survive in the Burmese jungles when fighting behind Japanese lines as a Chindit in the Second World War, was to concentrate on the next steep, then the next: don’t look ahead. Look down and achieve your goal bit by bit and suddenly you are at the top of a long, steep, slippery slope with the possibility of a Japanese bullet in the head. The delight as the road levelled out was worth it and the glow of pride. Gradually, as I grew, it became easier.
A second moment was when, in my first term at the Dragon, aged eight, I was introduced to rugger. I was full-back on an uneven, cold, muddy field. A huge boy (now a friend at King’s College!) hurtled towards me, twice my size and weight and a swift runner. Without hesitation, I threw myself at him and brought him down. The ache in my right arm, where he bruised me for weeks, is still with me now as a phantom memory. Yet it was a turning point. From then on, my tackling, as the teachers wrote in their reports, became a legend in the school and old boys were urged to return to watch me save yet another game by my derring-do!
There were many such grinding moments of pushing myself on at Sedbergh as we matched ourselves against the mountains. This was a preparation for the fifteen months in the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas. There were many moments there, as the book about that time shows, where we almost gave up the physical and emotional struggle and came home. Yet the earlier experiences, taking one day at a time, knowing that you can do it, drove me on and we stayed.
Perhaps the physically most terrible moment was a few months into the period in the fieldwork when, because of various delays in Pokhara, Gill and I did not set out four village until after mid-day. We were carrying quite heavy packs with provisions for the next weeks. After a three-hour walk along the dusty plain we started to scramble up the two thousand feet of path, ending with an almost sheer cliff of over five hundred feet holding on by one’s hands to tufts of grass. It was dark, Gill was even more exhausted than I, so I took over her rucksack as well. We somehow struggled into the village, completely shattered.
Much of this account described the pain and difficulties related to the body. This is what the memory tends to recall. So, let me end with the delights of my body. It has given me infinite pleasures. Out fishing, walking swimming or just lazing I have relished its sensory impressions. I went in my body during those years to so many glorious places. Among them I lived in the holidays over a period of more than twelve years in the beautiful Lakeland valley where William Wordsworth grew as a boy and became a poet. For five years at School and a year when I was writing my second thesis I lived in the lovely Yorkshire Dales with rivers and mountains. At the other extreme were the tranquil beauties of Oxford for ten years, five of them in that most beautiful of garden Colleges, Worcester. Then there was the pleasure of seven years living on the edge of Thomas Hardy’s Dorsetshire countryside. Finally, through my infancy and then in three re-visits I spent time in the bird, butterfly and flower paradise of Assam, and later on fieldwork in one of the most beautiful mountain areas of the world.
Although fighting with, and at times despising, my body, I can ultimately affirm that it has been a wonderful interface with the world, filling me with pleasure through every sense – smell, taste, feel, sound and sight. The glories of gardens, music, love, food, drink, landscapes have all come to me through it. Relatively weak and small as it is, I have been incredibly fortunate to have had such a resilient and basically healthy friend. I have also learnt that the western, Christian, dichotomies of body and soul, body and mind, which my evangelical religion instituted in me are false. The Buddhist acceptance of the body as non-sinful and a vehicle for enlightenment, which I first learnt explicitly in Nepal and was later confirmed in Japan and China, is far more attractive to me now.
Looking back on the education of my body through these years, I have often thought of myself as having a Spartan education. Sparta, as opposed to Athens, emphasized the training of the body through games, sports, physical deprivations, the idea of a ‘sound mind in a sound body’. The truth of this view of my education was brought home to me when I came to study Chinese Confucian education, where there was little emphasis on bodily training, for almost all attention was paid to mind and character.
When I look through my life, I see that I was constantly being trained to wear that ‘stiff upper lip’ of the middle-class British. There was a huge emphasis in all my schools, and even University, on playing energetic games which punished the body. Sedbergh was an extreme even, within British public schools, with its motto, taken from classical disciplinary thought, put it ‘Dura Virum Nutrix‘, a ‘hard nurse of men’. We were to become really tough through cold baths, open windows, running up the mountains in all weathers with our single shirt unbuttoned.
Yet Sedbergh was only the extreme. From my infancy onward, I was encouraged to train my body, to discipline it. This meant attention to all its activities. I had to learn to sit, walk, run, dance, jump, swim in the right way. I had to learn to use implements, from knives and forks to wood-working to fishing rods, in the right and dexterous way. I was taught to carry my body with the right postures, not to belch or fart, to smile and shake hands properly.
All this, I now realize, was about social class. I also realize that this model of an English gentleman’s proper disciplinary training was already largely out of date when I was being inculcated into it. The times were changing and the slouching, relaxed, cosseted (to me) behaviour of those who have come after me throw that kind of disciplinary training into relief.
Yet in understanding who I was and am, due attention needs to be paid to this intense preoccupation with the body, reaching one of its peaks in the insistence on discipline in our army training at Sedbergh. It was all seen as the necessary toughening up for ruling the greatest Empire on earth, an Empire which was evaporating rapidly exactly as I was learning these bodily practices.
BY ‘HEART’, I mean that fuzzy concept of human emotions or feelings, of love, hate, sympathy and empathy, attraction and revulsion and so much else which lies on the nebulous borderline between our bodily senses and our mind.
Looking back on these thirty years, I can see that one of the central themes is the search for ‘love’. Of course, I did not analyse the love which I felt for those closest to me as a baby and child. Nor did I realize that I learnt to love others largely through mirroring the outpouring of love and care I received from my parents and grandparents. I accepted all of this, but growing up within a cocoon of love in my first six years made the shock of my mother’s departure for India when I was six and three quarters all the greater.
What surprises me now is that the two-year absence of my mother and father, though it made me forget even what my mother looked like when she returned, did not shake my belief that I was loved. It did not break the deep tie with her. This was largely due to the love and strength of my grandmother, who had been close to me since birth. My mother and uncles had been left in similar ways, but had been farmed out to strangers or distant relatives, and the autobiographies by my mother and uncle Richard show how this deeply undermined their relationship with their mother, my grandmother. This did not happen with me.
Another difference in our experience was that while my grandmother wrote quite frequently to her children from India, the letters were quite superficial and almost formal. My mother’s letters to me, from the age of six until she returned to England when I was twenty-four, are astonishingly warm, amusing, supportive, regular and loving. I felt my mother was always there at my shoulder – attentive, urging me on, advising me, caring very deeply and suffering as much from the separation as I was. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I kept many of her letters.
The result is that my life was very much shaped by the love of a highly intelligent and deeply loving woman who, in the best of ways, assuaged some of her own disappointments, pain and frustration through watching me become some of the things she had dreamed of. We started as deeply bonded mother and son and ended up as friends and colleagues.
In my first fifteen years, I learnt that my emotional life was incomplete without a person with whom I could share my hopes, dreams, plans, sorrows and triumphs. I learnt the importance of the equal and loved ‘Other’. This was also taught to me in that extraordinarily important element in my formal education devoted to the dissection of romantic love.
When I look at the part in which love poetry, love drama (especially Shakespeare of course), love novels (Jane Austen, Brontes etc) and love as represented in most of the films, musicals, radio and television programmes which were the background of my life, then I see I was soaked in the image of love. It was summarized in the lines from South Pacific which I used to sing:
Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger,
You may see a stranger across a crowded room,
And somehow you know, you know even then,
That somehow you’ll see her again and again.
And ‘once you have found her, never let her go…’
This is precisely, I discovered later, what had happened to my mother when she met my father at the age of eighteen. And I was waiting for it to happen to me.
For a while I revelled in my mother and grandmother’s love. I was increasingly aware that their first allegiances were to their partners. They loved me, but I was number two and I could not, for obvious reasons, make them into my partner for life, ‘the other one’.
So, the second half of these thirty years, particularly from my first love affair at Oxford at the age of nineteen, is saturated in romantic love and the search for the perfect partner. The account is filled with poetry, mooning around, pouring out my heart to my girlfriends.
Of course, this happens to many. Yet few, I suspect, can look back fifty years later at the details of the blending of two hearts through letters in the way that is revealed in these accounts. I have the privilege of seeing the way in which my mother, despite her doubts or perhaps sadness at being replaced, encouraged me in my search for the ‘apple blossom maiden’. Her own love search is well recorded in the first volume of this series (India: Beginnings and Endings, 1939-1946), and mine is an echo of that, carried on over a longer time. My life, read in one way, was a search for love, the fulfilment of myself in another, alongside my search for God and for the meaning of life.
This again fed directly into my later work, for much of my teaching and research as a historian and anthropologist has been concerned with trying to understand family systems. I have been particularly interested in the central mechanism of ‘the romantic love complex’ as it is known in western, and particularly English, civilization. The central result of this was a long book devoted to this subject, Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840, but parts of a number of my other books also deal with romantic love, its origins, functions, variations and consequences.
This romantic love is, of course, all encompassing and on every level, spiritual, mental, social and sexual. It links to my early ‘crushes’ on other boys and the frustrations of Christian charity. It is a rich seam in my life.
Such love is only a part of what comes under ‘heart’. I mentioned sympathy and empathy, the feeling for the suffering and happiness of others, and this is again something which was very much influenced by my mother. Iris, as her books show, had a deep sympathy for those around her, humans and animals, particularly for the strays, the weak and disadvantaged. This later turned her to Buddhism and an anger at all injustices.
I suspect I picked this up from her and she notes with approval that I did not like to see or cause pain unnecessarily. Although I was prepared to impale worms on hooks and kill trout until the end of these years, that was all. I became a vegetarian at nineteen. I was on the verge of pacifism and I admired the Quakers. I never used my early air-guns to kill birds or animals. I was deeply affected by the misery I saw in Calcutta when I was seventeen and wanted for a long time to find a career which would help me diminish the suffering I had seen there. I was an early volunteer for Oxfam and found it easy and rewarding to become friends with those confined in young men’s prisons (Borstal).
In other words, my heart had been trained to feel the pain and happiness of others, and I have always found that one of life’s greatest pleasures is to relieve the suffering of others, whether it is picking up a struggling worm on the pavement, or helping friends and family in Nepal.
Much of my education was to teach me to be kind. In much of the formal teaching, from Shylock and his desperate plea for humanity, to the cries of William Blake in his poetic defence of trapped creatures, to the painful cry of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, to great novels in which the hero or heroine shone through with kindness, I was taught that a good man or woman was defined by their ‘small unremembered acts of kindness and of love’, as my favourite poet and model, William Wordsworth, put it.
Such charity, as the religious word was, is central to the Christian teaching which infused my life, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, ‘the greatest of these is charity’. Though I learnt that there was also far too much cruelty and intolerance as a side product of all monotheisms, there was also the demonstrable central message of the loving Jesus. This was later reinforced by working in a Buddhist culture in the Himalayas. There was sacrifice and death there, but the people largely lived up to the ideas of Buddhist merit, kind to each other and to all creatures where possible.
So, my heart was not blighted, disappointed, or crushed. I found that love and kindness were usually reciprocated, and if they were not, then I often understood why. I remember teasing and minor bullying of my sisters, but mostly the re-living of those years has given me a sense of a fortunate upbringing where love surrounded me and where I was taught that all humans are alike, that they are mixtures, and that to appeal to the better emotions, to forbear from using power and privilege in order to humiliate or cause pain to others, brings far more happiness than short-run triumphs over others. My heart has been largely an abode of peace and fulfillment and no more so now, after a deep, long, loving, partnership with Sarah of almost fifty years.
AS I LOOK back at those thirty years of development of my spiritual or imaginative life, as an anthropologist of myself, it appears to divide into three major periods, which might be labelled animism and magic, religion and monotheism, relativism and polytheism.
Until about puberty, that is about thirteen, I lived in a basically enchanted world. This is the world which has so brilliantly been described by many British children’s authors and was captured in the books I was read as a child, and started to read for myself from about the age of eight. It was the world of The Meeting Pool, where animals told stories. It was the world of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It was the world of Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Tinker Bell; of Mowgli, Bagheera and Balu; of Ratty, Mole and Badger; of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddle-Duck; of King Arthur and Merlin the magician; of tooth fairies, giants and elves and Father Christmas.
In this world all things were unified, everything was linked to other things. The landscape was alive, with no boundary between humans and animals, between the physical world of woods, trees, rocks, streams and winds, and the spirit world. The landscape was filled with forces, kami as they are called in Japan, but more human-like in my memory.
As I played my imaginative games with small models of animals and humans, or games as the heroes of these books, I could utter the magic words ‘Let’s Pretend;’ and go off to another realm, go through a portal or entrance (the Wardrobe, platform eight and three quarters, a rabbit hole or mirror) into a parallel world, just as real as this one.
It was not just the stories I was told or was reading or saw in pantomimes or films, but also much of the poetry I began to love from about the age of nine, Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, Tennyson’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’ and small bits of Wordsworth, as well as some Shakespeare plays such as The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream and even Gilbert and Sullivan’s fairies and Fairy Queen in Iolanthe.
My mother strongly encouraged me in this, sending me little stories she had written in her first letters and later encouraging me to read the great literature of magic. My grandmother did not discourage me and my friends and teachers right up to the end of the Dragon school showed no cynicism, no hostility to this childhood imaginary world.
Enchantment is always the word I come back to in order to describe this world. Animism is another, meaning a world where nature is infused with forces, anima or soul, a spiritual power which breaks down the boundary between humans and the natural world.
Another way of putting this is that no part of life was separated from another. My life was holistic and integrated. Play and work, family, economy and power were fused together. Every word and action fitted into a wider frame. It was, in another anthropological term, an ’embedded’ world, where social, economic, political and spiritual were joined. Or, to use another anthropological concept, it was a ‘structural’ world in the French, relational, sense of that word – where everything was a symbol of something else, where moon was to sun, as woman is to man, as stone is to tree, as left is to right.
This was my world in India for five years and then in Oxford and Dorset for another eight years. When we moved to Wordsworth’s valley, Esthwaite Vale, at the age of thirteen, I was still in this enchanted infancy. Gradually I came to learn that Wordsworth himself, at school and wandering through those same hills, was one of the great poets of such enchantment, alongside his great romantic contemporary in the Lakes, Coleridge, and others whom I came to adore – especially Shelley and Keats.
Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’, in fact, became a kind of map for what began to happen from about the age of fourteen, with puberty and then religious confirmation, and what might be roughly called ‘disenchantment’ (Max Weber), or what T.S. Eliot called ‘the dissociation of sensibility’, disembedding, splitting and distancing me from the natural world about me. It was about this process that Wordsworth wrote so brilliantly and I followed in his footsteps, not only in the Lakes, but through his continental tour.
One way of examining this period of less than ten years is through formal religion. My grandparents were fairly luke-warm Protestant Christians. They took me to some services and encouraged me to live by Christian tenets. My mother was a constant seeker for spiritual meaning and I was very influenced by her fascination with spiritual matters, her search for the answer to the ‘Why’ questions, expressed in children’s stories, in poetry and later much discussion between us about religion. Her growing interest in eastern religions was symbolized by her twenty-first birthday present to me, a copy of the great Hindu work, The Bhagavad Gita.
The Dragon School from eight to thirteen, was formally Christian, with short prayers each morning and a Sunday service. Yet it was at the liberal and non-doctrinaire end, unusually having no Chapel and with several openly atheistical masters. So it did not put pressure on me.
The one exception to this relaxed background was my uncle Richard, a bachelor who spent holidays with us and who took me two times to religious boys’ camps on the south coast in this period. This was the junior branch of the Varsities and Public Schools (VPS) evangelical camps which I would later attend into my early twenties. I went some seven times to these camps altogether. I don’ think either my parents or grandparents were very keen on them, but it was a way of breaking up the long holidays when my parents were abroad and my grandparents, already getting older, needed a bit of a break from me (and also perhaps from Richard). It was a harmless form of filling in of time.
So I would spend a week, mostly enjoying myself with games and friendship, but also singing rousing choruses about how Jesus loved us and learning a few biblical quotations. I don’t think any of this impinged on me much, just as the sermons and divinity classes at school influenced me little.
Around the time of my confirmation into the Christian Church, when I was approaching my sixteenth birthday. I began to become a quite ardent, puritanical, Christian. I prayed with feeling, discussed with animation the problems of evil, sin, damnation and salvation. I went to several more boys’ religious camps. Three were from Sedbergh in 1956, 1958 and 1959, and then I went twice from Oxford in my first year. My last religious immersion was at a religious retreat in Devon in the Spring of 1964.
I now yearned for Jesus, pictured as knocking on the door of my heart, to come into me and possess me as I discovered he had done with the great mystics of the past. I began to think I might became a clergyman or missionary.
This devoutness and Pilgrim’s Progress is strongly evident in my volumes on Sedbergh and Oxford Undergraduate life. It continued until my last year as an undergraduate at Oxford, around my twenty-first birthday. It seems to be linked to the painful process of disentangling my enchanted and integrated, animist, world view and myself as an individual from my family. It was part of becoming a ‘rational’ adult able to face my new responsibilities.
I remember that a strong belief at that time, following Wordsworth, was that I should cling on to the integrated, enchanted, world as long as possible. I knew it would slip away, as in many of the children’s stories and poetry I had read and that I would return to the ‘light of common day’. ‘Fled is that vision – do I wake or sleep?’ Yet I was in no hurry, feeling that, once lost, those roots would be difficult to recover. So I made an effort through my undergraduate years to read about magic and fairies, and immerse myself in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis whose books were coming out at that time in the very Oxford I was living in.
Yet as I learnt more about how the world really works from my study of history, about the iron force of economics, the horrors of war and poverty, the cruelty and the pointlessness, I found myself constantly forced to separate parts of my life. In other words, I had to emerge into the disembedded, adult, world which we term ‘modern’, a world where all was grey, the absolute certainties of childhood were gone. I separated life into work and play, sacred and profane, economic, social, religious and political. It was a painful process with a loss of certainty, though for a time I thought that my Protestant Christianity would help me to hold things together.
Yet there was always the nagging feeling that it was the very Protestant Christianity itself which, as I learnt through studying the Reformation and the rise of Science, had caused the disenchantment I was trying to overcome. Furthermore, there seemed terrible contradictions in the Christian message which I could not resolve.
The largest obstacle for me was how a loving, all-powerful, God, could have created such a pain-filled and awful world. I knew it was a mystery and that I should just have faith, but I still sought answers in the way I found reflected in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and particularly ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. I avidly read the theological work of C.S. Lewis — The Screwtape Letters and The Problem of Pain, for instance, but they were not entirely convincing either.
There were two other problems. Although I kept inviting Jesus into my heart, I never really felt that he accepted my invitation. I was never possessed by His love, never enraptured. I saw him as a good, maybe a great and wise, person. Yet he remained an outsider.
The other problem was the intolerance and exclusivity of Christianity — which I now discover it shares with its contending monotheistic brothers, Judaism and Islam. As I thought of the millions in India, China and elsewhere who had never even heard of Christ, and yet my religious mentors and texts said were condemned to eternal Hell fire and damnation, I could not accept that this was fair, or loving. What seemed to me to be an increasingly narrow, arid and puritanical message became less attractive.
So by the age of twenty-one, having lost my enchanted world and my Protestant faith, what was to be done? I now moved into my third stage or phase. My spiritual life in these years conforms to the dialectic: animism and enchantment to about fourteen as ‘thesis’, puritanism and separations for the next seven or so years as ‘antithesis’, and then, from the time of my D.Phil and gradual immersion in anthropology, re-integration in a new world of polytheism, or ‘synthesis’.
I remember reading my first book on social anthropology in my last year as an undergraduate at a religious retreat at Lee Abbey in my second vacation as a postgraduate, in the Spring of 1964. This was The Institutions of Primitive Society, a series of BBC talks by famous anthropologists. It was a turning point for me, for the worlds described within its famous functionalist paradigm, whether ‘primitive’ religion, economics, aesthetics, kinship and politics, were integrated, holistic, undivided, or, as I might call them, ‘enchanted’.
As I read more and started to attend lectures at the Institute of Social Anthropology at Oxford, I discovered that through most of the world and most of history, humans had not been like the Protestant northern Europeans, especially the British. Most people still lived in enchanted worlds, whether in tribal religions or even in the great literate civilizations. Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism in China and Japan, Taoism/Shinto, as I later learnt to call them, were filled with spirit and magic. Even the Roman Catholics in much of Europe retained some of that magical essence.
I was being supervised for my doctorate by Keith Thomas at the time when he was writing his greatest book precisely on this subject, namely Religion and the Decline of Magic. My own more limited work on the history of Witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was exactly on that theme of the disassociation of sensibility, the splitting of mind and emotion, man and nature, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the rise of the scientific world view and the full materialism of capitalist individualism.
So I began to re-link parts of my own world. Although I realized that the advanced scientific, capitalist, individualistic world of England was one where magic seemed to be largely eliminated, just preserved in poetry and certain children’s stories, I began to realize that there was nothing inevitable about this, nor was it the only story.
When I went to ‘become an anthropologist’, from the age of twenty-five, I immersed myself in the alternative integrated worlds of anthropological literature. I soon prepared to visit the kind of tribal world I half-remembered from my Indian infancy on the edge of the eastern Himalayas. Gill and I spent fifteen months in a remote mountain village in the Annapurna mountains with the Gurungs. They had preserved, better than any other ethnic group in the Himalayas, the ancient shamanic traditions of their early years in north-western China.
So I had the privilege of watching a still -living world of witchcraft, magic, animism, stones and trees with godlings, ghosts, forest spirits, strange possession trances and dances. I saw how the agricultural and spiritual worlds were integrated in the way which Sir James Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski and E.E. Evans-Pritchard had described. I saw also how such a shamanic belief was tolerant and elastic.
I had been brought up to believe increasingly that religion was a set of inter-linked features, a bundle which was inevitably tied together. There was a single creator God, a set of prayers and rituals, a strict ethical code laid down by God, a variety of theories to explain the origins of life, its meaning, and destiny, beliefs in the division of Heaven and Hell.
What the Gurung experiences, and later immersion in Japanese and Chinese civilization rounded out, was the realization that religion is not in a separate box from the rest of life, it permeates everything. Also that religion is not necessarily a matter of a single God, but there can be many and varied godlings and spirits. Furthermore, that in much of the world different sets of beliefs and rituals, which I would have thought to be in competition, were actually happy to co-exist.
In the Gurung village, many of my friends were quite happy to start the day with a small offering to the household dead ancestor. Then they might go to do an offering to a small village godling. Later they might attend a Buddhist funeral or a Hindu puja. And the day might end with a shamanic ritual, where the shaman would become possessed and drive away witches. So four or five ‘religions’ could co-exist, and could easily absorb western medical ideas. All over China today, Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism (a philosophy) and Ancestor Worship co-exist for many. Each has its specialities and functions and there is no contest between them.
What is clear from this account is that, perhaps because of the contending influences of my mother and devout uncle, perhaps partly because of the good fortune of living in Wordsworth’s valley, perhaps because of my experience of having feet in Protestant England, Celtic Scotland (through my father and Scottish ancestors) and polytheistic Assam and Nepal, I was always interested in spiritual matters. The tension or contradictions between my childhood magic and this-worldly Protestantism, were painful but perhaps productive and I have found them to be reconcilable in a new synthesis. As I put it jokingly, I lost ‘Religion’ and found ‘Anthropology’, a vocation or a calling into a view of the world as integrated and meaningful.
Certainly, this struggle to find life’s purpose, explanations for the deeper mysteries, to understand why we are as we are and where we are heading, has been a constant theme in my work. It was obviously central to my first two published books on Witchcraft and on the devout puritan clergyman, Ralph Josselin, who I discovered was struggling with exactly the same questions some three hundred years before me, and took me back into the early years of my Protestant faith.
Later I would examine religious themes in parts of many of my books and articles. Alongside me always, until her death in 2007, was my mother, who expressed her search in poetry, children’s stories and in the philosophical musings in And we in dreams which I published posthumously. In the Hebrides she found that re-integration and overcoming of alienation.
In the same way, I have gradually discovered that even our western, materialist, individualistic and scientific world is filled with magic, escapes from the ‘iron cage’ of over-rationality. We don’t call these ‘religion’, but label them beauty (art, music, poetry), romantic love, the natural world, passions and interests (fishing, sports, walking) and literature. Each of them takes me back through the portal into a spiritual world which I knew as a child and in games and stories. We can return to our first undivided childhood.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”
—T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’
Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012.