The Illustrated Golden Bough, which the publishers refused to print: introduction the Golden Bough

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The Suppressed Introduction to The Illustrated Golden Bough, which the publishers refused to print:

The Golden Bough is one of those classics which barely anyone reads, but which everyone agrees to revere. Filling thirteen volumes, this lifetime labour of Sir James Frazer is simply too much for most people to cope with. The first person to try and do something about this was Frazer’s own wife, Lilly. In 1924 she published Leaves from the Golden Bough, intended as a children’s book with illustrations, omitting all theory and concentrating on folklore tales. The next year, Frazer himself published a single-volume abridgement of his own work, but it was still over 750 pages in small type. It is this work which I have in turn abridged here. In the course of working with Frazer’s material I discovered the curious historical coincidence that there might have been no Golden Bough without the enlightened financial patronage of Frazer over many years by Sir Robert Mond, FRS (1867-1938), who was the first cousin once removed of my own great-grandfather, and whose connection with Frazer I had never previously suspected.
Sir James Frazer died in 1941. His work had an influence on world culture far exceeding the number of readers of his books. He was the first person to elucidate the phenomenon of totemism and the first modern to take seriously the subject of taboo. Twenty-two years after the publication of the earliest version of The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud published Totem and Taboo. Folklore studies thus began to permeate modern psychology. At a much more enlightened and sophisticated level than that of the sex-obsessed Freud, Carl Jung carried concerns with tradition and the history of belief into psychology with dignity, emphasizing the value of all such material for an understanding of the individual psyche and for elucidating the collective archetypes which he believed to underlie all human experience.
The discoveries which Frazer made about the history and development of belief entered into the sweeping currents of cultural change whirling round the figures of Darwin, Huxley and the founding father of modern anthropology, Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917, author of Primitive Culture, 1871), who were his friends. French scholars were particularly appreciative of Frazer and compared him with Ernest Renan (1823-1892, author of the hugely provocative book The Life of Jesus, which upset the Catholic Church and all fundamentalist Christians). The discoveries of Frazer were spoken of in the same breath with the archaeological discoveries of Arthur Evans on Crete, where he discovered Minoan culture, and of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the supposedly mythical site of Troy and proved that it had really existed. Frazer was thus part of the revolution in Western thinking which freed Western minds from the dogmas of the Bible and enabled Westerners to see that the history of the world was not embodied in a single book, nor was the history of the world’s beliefs a simple dichotomy of Christian versus non-Christian. Frazer also set a good standard in two of his exemplary characteristics: a willingness to change his theories by publicly discarding hypotheses without egotistical hesitation when they were seen to be inadequate, and a total disregard for the petty-minded specializations so characteristic of the mental midgets who often pose as modern scholars.
Frazer took the grand view: he surveyed the whole of the world and the whole of history, and although he was constantly trying to extract meaning from the mass of his findings, he achieved greatness by not really having any particular axes to grind. He was essentially unprejudiced. He needed to be! What I like about reading Frazer is to detect his wry and restrained Scottish humour which flickers like a foxfire round his work, never intruding. How he retained his sense of humour in the face of his depressing findings about the stupidity, credulity, and idiocy of the human race, I’ll never understand.
It has to be said that if one sits down to read Frazer at great length, volume after volume, or even his so-called ‘abridgement’, one gets very depressed. One sees that human beings clearly will believe any old nonsense, and nothing is silly enough or idiotic enough that it will not attract some believers. It was Frazer’s work which made clear for the first time, I suppose, that matters of human belief are important not for their content but for their psychological significance. It is a peculiar arrogance of the human race that it persists in regarding itself as a rational species. All the evidence is to the contrary. But one might as well hold a conversation with a stone wall as try and convince a human being that he or she is essentially an irrational being. Our certainty of human rationality is our ultimate vanity. Of course, most attempts to erect so-called rational systems of thought and to act according to logic are just as futile, since the very concept of rationality is a fallacy when applied to us, and when we seriously attempt it we can get monstrous social aberrations. For instance, it was considered ‘logical’ for the Nazis to exterminate the Jews, - the most rational thing imaginable, - if one accepted certain insane premises.

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