Thanksgiving Litany

24 November 2011

Thursday


It is customary in many households across the US to employ Thanksgiving as a pretext for an explicit “counting of one’s blessings,” which may even take the ritualized form of going around the Thanksgiving table, one person at a time (whether before or after the meal — I’m not sure that this makes a difference and may then exemplify the liberty of indifference) — and having each individual present give a recitation of the things for which he or she is grateful to have received.

I have often quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. In what myth are we participating when we engage in a ritualized recitation of the things for which we are thankful? This seems like an easy enough question, but I think it would actually be quite difficult to give an adequate answer to it.

At the risk of sounding nationalistic, here’s the short answer: Thanksgiving rituals are an opportunity to participate in the Myth of America.

Thanksgiving is among the most recent and among our most “American” of holidays. Unlike, say, All Souls Day, with its medieval roots, or Christmas, with its roots in early antiquity, or Easter, with its roots extending well into the prehistoric past of spring fertility rituals celebrated from time immemorial, Thanksgiving has particular roots in early American history — more especially, American history before America was America. Thanksgiving represents for us the prehistory of America, that is to say, the essential elements that constitute the sine qua non of a free, independent, and prosperous republic.

Nota Bene: If you prefer an ideologically tendentious version, you may choose to call American prehistory the conquest and exploitation of North America by white males of European descent, though I must point out at that the perpetrators of said conquest and exploitation all ultimately became creoles, and therefore would not have been welcome at the Thanksgiving tables of their “family of source” in the Old World, if indeed this family of source had had a Thanksgiving table, which in fact they would not have had prior to this American innovation.

When we give an explicit account of the things for which we are thankful, we are participating in a re-enactment of the essential elements — presumably all present at the mythical Thanksgiving table shared alike by Pilgrim fathers and Native Americans — that made American possible, and which will sustain the myth of America into the future. In so far as a myth is a metaphor, we are, we become, these virtuous Pilgrim fathers in our action of thanksgiving, shared across time.

Given the prevalence today of apocalypticism and declension rhetoric, I don’t suppose that many people today are thinking in terms of the myth of America sustained over la longue durée, as in times of recession the myth of prosperity and plenty is more difficult to sustain.

The tendency of Americans to more or less exemplify the view of Henry Ford that history is bunk, tends to magnify every crisis, and each obstacle in the path of progress is seen as unprecedented and perhaps insuperable. Such things are forgivable in a young republic, but we are under no obligation to perpetuate them ourselves.

Fernand Braudel, who more than any historian exemplified the perspective of la longue durée, occasionally makes reference to contemporary events in his enormous three volume work, Civilization and Capitalism. The book was published in 1979, when the economies the most highly developed industrialized nation-states were, like today, stagnant and not particularly hopeful. All of Braudel’s references to the present reflect this then-current “crisis” of capitalism. Not long after, this “crisis” of capitalism passed, market economies grew dramatically not only in scale but also in productivity, and the whole computer and telecommuncations revolution, which we now take for granted, came about.

That Braudel, the quintessential historian of la longue durée, would characterize economic crisis in terms of the stagnancy of the late 1970s points both to the limitations of all anthropic bias, and the fact that tensions within the world are perennial: both the conflicts and the ideals (not to mention the attempts to put ideals into practice) repeatedly recur in novel iterations. The problems of the late 1970s look a lot like the problems of today; these problems can be expected to re-emerge and re-assert themselves throughout the history of industrialized civilization. However, events that submerge and de-emphasize these same problems will also recur throughout the history of industrialized civilization. Such forces that create long term cycles in economics and society were thus of the greatest interest to structuralist historians. If there are few structuralist historians today, that is only because history, too, is subject to cycles, and the structuralist mode of thought can be expected to emerge and submerge repeatedly in intellectual history.

So much for history. What about today — Thanksgiving Day? For what am I thankful on this Thanksgiving Day? What is my Thanksgiving Latourian litany?

I am thankful to live in a world that is so astonishingly interesting that I never fail to be surprised and fascinated by whatever I find. Whether I am considering natural history or human history or narrowly conceived intellectual history, there is always something to pique my interest and to which I could, had I only several lifetimes, devote a lifetime of study. I am as intrigued by the ecology of predation as I am by medieval controversies about the beatific vision or contemporary research in the ontology of formal systems. In contemporary parlance, It’s all good.

While my gratitude for living an an endlessly interesting world may be merely an artifact of anthropic bias, such that I find the world interesting because I am a part of this world, and indeed a consequence of this world, the possibly paradoxical fact of the matter is that any event or discovery that would reveal the limitations of my perspective due to anthropic bias would be of the greatest interest to me — and would thereby make the world an even more interesting place.

All of the discoveries of science, all of the Copernican heritage that has heretofore shown up anthropic bias and revealed the world in all its counter-intuitive splendor — these things are to me among the most fascinating things about the world for which I feel a certain epistemic gratitude. If further investigation of the world should reveal humanity as being even more marginal, and the world as ultimately far larger and more diverse than we expected, and perhaps more than we can comprehend, that would be very interesting indeed, and I can only envy the future for its knowledge of such a world

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Happy Thanksgiving!

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