might be an ancient pagan remnant

A big part of the pleasure of reading Sam Kriss, for me, is the uncertainty over whether, at any given moment, he’s playing it straight or yanking your tail. His latest dispatch, based on a trip to the May Day festivities at Hastings, is replete with such uncertain moments, and thus with my seesawing between nodding along and laughing along, and occasionally doing both at once.

I’m filing this bit in the “playing it straight” folder:

There’s a reason it makes sense to imagine that the Jack in the Green might be an ancient pagan remnant, which is that while you might not have personally read all twelve volumes of JG Frazer’s 1890 masterwork The Golden Bough, it’s sunk down into the water table of our culture. In the same way that everyone’s basically a Jungian now whenever they have to think about their psychology—discovering yourself, getting in touch with your feminine side, blah blah blah—everyone is an instinctive Frazerian when it comes to anthropology. Through books and films and video games, this academic theory has turned into a new kind of folk knowledge. We take it for granted that myth is calcified magic…

But then again, the more I think about it, the more it feels it may be both? Here we have a light mockery of the idea that “myth is calcified magic”, but it’s cheek by jowl in the same paragraph with a claim that “academic theory has turned into a new folk knowledge”. If we accept that science (very broadly conceived) is a paradigm of meaning-making that succeeded a collection a mythic and folkloric forms, then it seems reasonable to imagine that what we might think of as the geological formation of culture precedes in much the same way in either paradigm. Or, more plainly: if academic theory can become infrastructural to everyday culture within a century and change, then surely the rough shapes of far earlier cultural memes might be perceived even further down?

Kriss ends the piece by dismissing any cultural continuity whatsoever, but does so in such a sweeping way that I think (or perhaps just choose to believe?) that this is one of the more mocking parts. Perhaps ultimately, though, it’s exactly that choice—to believe, or not to believe—that makes the cultural difference… and if there’s one thing that both Frazer and the ersatz “traditions” such as Jack in the Green indicate clearly, it’s that there is a desire to believe, and a comfort (or perhaps just a nascent pleasure) to be taken from the belief.

(Or even just from the acting-as-if-one-believes, though I mostly tend to assume that’s a distinction without a difference.)


As a rather less high-brow post-script: back in 2019, before I got my ticket off of Normal Island, my then-partner and I were considering moving to Hastings.

For my part, the appeal of this idea vanished on my first visit to the place itself. Some of the more concrete reasons for this are captured in the first few paragraphs of Kriss’s piece, but he also nails the more abstract reason, too:

It’s nice. Hastings is nice. We’re all supposed to be isolated now: our communities have vanished, there’s an epidemic of loneliness, we’ve replaced the company of other human beings with the act of looking at our phones. But in Hastings, all that stuff is still there. Plenty of places are the same. If you really want it, you can move to a town where there’s still enough community for people to really hate each other.

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