«David Freedberg Pathos at Oraibi: What Warburg did not see* On May 1, 1896 Aby Warburg saw the Hemis Kachina dance at Oraibi, the ancient and remote ...»
Pathos at Oraibi: What Warburg did not see*
On May 1, 1896 Aby Warburg saw the Hemis Kachina dance at Oraibi, the ancient and
remote Hopi pueblo on Third Mesa in the wash below Tuba City in Arizona.1 Though
Shongopovi was settled a little earlier, twelfth-century Oraibi is probably the oldest continuously
inhabited place in the United States.2 The date on which Warburg saw the dance is not often
recorded in the voluminous literature on the lecture he gave on the Serpent Ritual some twenty- seven years later – and this is just the least of the many strange omissions and distortions in the history of what has become a landmark in the intellectual history of the twentieth century.3 Warburg’s lecture is fraught with the tension between paganism and classical culture, and with the implications of this tension for the human soul. It is unresolved in its view of the psychic and cultural resonance of the rational versus the irrational. It is full of the then modish preoccupation with the relations between Athens and Alexandria -- that is, between classical civilization and its roots in something wilder and less restrained. Underneath it all lies Warburg’s anxiety about what he felt to be the tragic split between man’s need for distance and his lost and irrecoverable ability to control nature directly.
For all the enthusiasm the lecture has evoked, none of its many commentators have noted * Published as “Pathos a Oraibi: Ciò che Warburg non vide”, in: Claudia Cieri Via and Pietro Montani, eds., ∗ Lo Sguardo di Giano, Aby Warburg fra tempo e memoria, Turin: Nino Aragno, 2004, pp. 569-611.
1 For the date on which Warburg saw the dance, see the entry for May 1, 1896 in his Ricordi, as cited in Cestelli- Guidi and Mann, p. 155 (“Stomach upset. In the morning I saw the Hemis Kachina. Picturesque impression. In the afternoon the clowns, very obscene”).
2 Eg. Waters, pp. 109-112 for a brief account. The sequence is also noted by Scully, p. 303, and expanded on his pp.
305, 309, and 214, in what remains one of the most sensitive treatments of Pueblo dance and architecture available by an outsider.
3 See Gombrich (1986) for the basic context; but now see also, amongst many others, the texts by Forster, Naber, Steinberg, Raulff (the best commentator so far on the ethnographic context of Warburg’s interest in the Pueblo), Michaud and Didi-Hubermann (1999-2000), especially p. 230 and note 59 for a few more comments within the context of Warburg’s work as a whole. For a selection of the many other articles and books on Warburg’s lecture, 2 thefact that Warburg misunderstood a central element in almost all the dances of the Pueblos, and that when he visited the Hopi, he ignored the critical context of the dances he both saw and did not see. The consistent refusal to appreciate where Warburg went wrong, to note what he failed to see, is not only symptomatic of a more general ignorance of Pueblo art and ethnography, but also of the larger ramifications of the whole Anasazi and Pueblo tradition for the relations between nature and art. The story is well known. Two years after completing his dissertation on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, the twenty-nine year old Aby Warburg went from Florence to New York in September 1895, to attend the wedding of his brother Paul to Nina Loeb, the daughter of another German banking family, in New York. Put off by the empty materialism of well-to-do life on the East Coast,4 he went West. Before doing so, he prepared himself for his journey by going to the ethnographic libraries at Harvard and in Washington, and meeting with authorities like Franz Boas and Cyrus Adler, as well as Frank Hamilton Cushing and “most of all” James Mooney. 5 He studied what was then available about the cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi and the ceremonies of their modern descendants, the Pueblo Indians. It is important to remember just how recent were the Wetherill brothers’ discoveries at Mesa Verde in 1888, as well as Nordenskjöld’s publication of the ruins five years later. The years between 1893 and 1895 saw the publication of the critical work by Cushing, the Mindeleff brothers, Mooney, and Jesse Fewkes on the contemporary customs of the Pueblo Indians.6 Warburg see the further references in the bibliography below.
4 His dissatisfaction has been much recorded, as in Gombrich (1986), pp. 88-89, Naber, p. 89, Steinberg, p. 60, and so on; Also compare Warburg’s statement that “die Leerheit der Zivilization im östlichen Amerika [mich] so abstiess, dass ich eine Flucht zum natürlichen Objekt und zur wissenschaft auf gut Glück dadurch unternahm” and that he thus went down to Washington to consult the library and researches of the Smithsonian. This has been much cited as well, first in Gombrich (1986), p. 88, and then by many others, sometimes with acknowledgement to Gombrich (eg. Raulff, “Nachwort”, p. 65) and sometimes not (eg. Forster (1990), p. 12-13 Forster (1996), p. 6).
The case is typical.
5 Gombrich (1986), p. 88; Naber, pp. 90-91.
6 For a selection of their writings, see also the bibliography below, as well as the very useful if sometimes overwrought survey by Donaldson. I have omitted from this selection the very many excellent articles on the archeology of the Anasazi sites – notably Mesa Verde – by Fewkes. For a very good account of Warburg’s study of 3 made a point of meeting all of them before beginning his journey West. These were the golden years of the incomparable Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology -- incomparable not least because they convey a sense of the excitement of the ethnographic discovery of an ancient culture still surviving in the midst of a growing modern America.
In his Botticelli dissertation of 1893, Warburg set out his view that ancient sculptures and reliefs provided Renaissance artists and advisers with their models for the representation of inner emotion though outward movement -- and in particular through fluttering drapes, garlands and hair.7 For Warburg, such movements, whether on ancient reliefs or in literary descriptions were and always would remain the outward signs of an intensified inner life. How excited, then, the young student of Botticelli, Poliziano, and Alberti must have been to read on the very first page
of Mooney’s The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Rebellion of 1890 the following words:
“The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew messiah, the Christian millennium, and the Hesûnanin of the Indian Ghost dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity”.8 Here, directly transposed to the dance, was a notion very close to Warburg’s heart. It is not so dissimilar from one of Warburg’s favorite mottos, which he took from Part II of Goethe’s Faust: “Es ist ein altes Buch zu blättern; von Harz bis Hellas alles Vettern.” “It is an old story: From Harz to Hellas all are cousins”. The significant difference, of course, is that the non-European, and the apparently more primitive, are now all these writers, as well as those of the remarkable Matilda Coxe Stevenson, see Raulff, “Nachwort”, pp. 67-71. In his lecture, Warburg spoke fondly of the remarkable Frank Cushing, and what he learned from him; see Warburg, Schlangenritual, p. 27. See also Curtis M. Hinsley, “Ethnographic Charisma and Scientific Routine: Cushing and Fewkes in the American Southwest, 1879-1893”, in Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork”, ed.
George W. Stocking, pp. 53-69, Madison: Unversity of Wisconsin Press 7 Sandro Botticellis “Geburt der Venus” und “Frühling”. Eine Untersuchung über die Vorstellungen von der antike in der Italienischen Frührenaissance, Hamburg und Leipzig: Leopold Voss, 1893 (available, like most of the other articles by Warburg cited in this essay, with the exception of the separately published Kreuzlingen lecture, in all the collected editions of Warburg’s writings, from that first edited by Bing and Rougemont in 1932 until the Wuttke edition of 1980 and later; much the most useful edition) and finally the Getty edition of 1999 (Warburg, Renewal (1999), pp. 89-156).
8 Mooney, p. 657.
4 included too.
As has often been pointed out, what Warburg hoped, indeed what he sought to find amongst the Pueblo and Hopi (or Moki as he and others often called them), was the answer to the question: “to what extent can these remnants of pagan cosmology still obtaining amongst the Pueblo Indians help us to understand the evolution from primitive paganism, through the highlydeveloped pagan culture of classical antiquity, down to modern civilized man?”9 Amongst the Pueblo Indians Warburg hoped to encounter modern survivals of practices that would illuminate his study of classical paganism.10 Like so many of the commentators – and tourists – of the time, he felt he had to rush West to examine a group of people who represent a primitive and ancient survival, whose rituals, it was felt, would soon disappear under the inevitable advance of civilization and progress. In this significant respect Warburg was altogether of his time.
Tourist companies made much of the fact that you didn’t even have to go Europe to find ruins and ancient or primitive rituals; primitive culture was still alive and present at home in the Southwest.11 One had to go and visit (or study) it before it disappeared, before it was swamped by civilization and overtaken by progress.12 Warburg was familiar with the work of the Berlin 9 Warburg, (1939), p. 277. The question which Warburg himself posed in his lecture: “Inwieweit gibt diese heidnische Weltanschauung, wie sie bei den Pueblo Indianern noch fortlebt, uns einen Maßstab für die Entwicklung vom primitiven Heiden über den klassisch-heidnischen Menschen zum modernen Menschen?” (Warburg, Schlangenritual, p. 12) for all its rather dubious teleology, does not contain the qualifiers “highly developed” and “civilized” inserted by Mainland and (presumably) Saxl in the 1939 publication of the lecture (Warburg, Serpent ritual. For a more accurate English translation of Warburg’s text, see Steinberg’s edition (with this passage on p.
4). The differences between the text published by Saxl and Mainland and the later ones have not been sufficiently commented upon. They are most significant, especially given the date – 1939 – of what was, after all, the first publication of the lecture.
10 For this general idea, see also Teggart, pp. 94-97. The summary of Warburg’s Berlin lecture in February 1897 puts Warburg’s position in nuce. According to the minute-taker at that meeting, for Warburg the Pueblo Indians represented people at the “primitive stage of the pagan hunters, shepherds, and peasants” (Warburg/Goerke (1897), p. 61.
11 Dilworth, pp. 5, 16, 80, etc. gives some examples, including the enthusiastic Charles Lummis’s “Among the Pueblos it is possible to catch archeology alive!” (p. 103).
12 Cf. Dilworth’s comment that “the explicit ethnographic mission to salvage information about the primitive life of Zunis and Hopis before they ”disappeared” had the effect of making the last two decades of the nineteenth century a kind of “ethnographic present -- the moment when these cultures were last perceived to be culturally intact before the transforming influence of civilization” ( Dilworth, p. 16), as well as the remarkable comments by Theodor 5 ethnologist Bastian – the well-known proponent, then, of the concepts of Elementargedanke and Völkergedanke – who had emphasized that native cultures were disappearing everywhere, and that if the material they provided for the study of primitive man were not immediately collected, it would be lost forever.13 Native American ethnologists like Mooney subscribed to the same conviction; for them the task of anthropology was to describe societies that were soon to be irretrievably lost, yet in their eyes represented the common human past. Warburg’s teacher Hermann Usener had repeatedly insisted on the usefulness of studying surviving primitive religions as a aid to the understanding of Greek and Roman mythology, and believed that the symbolism of ancient paganism might be explained by similar symbolism in still existent primitive societies.14 In addition to all this, the Pueblo Indians offered Warburg the opportunity of exorcising some of his own demons. Already obsessed with the problem of the Laocoon,15 that archetypal classical expression of agony in art, and having just studied the Florentine intermezzi with their central episodes of the battle between Apollo and the giant Python,16 as well as the dance of the demons, he became particularly interested in the Snake Dance of the Hopi. For him, the dance Roosevelt to this effect, following his visit to the Snake Dance in Walpi in 1913 and cited in Dilworth, p. 63.
13 As so often, it was Gombrich who most clearly set out Warburg’s indebtedness to Bastian and his ideas, as well as that of the neglected figure of Tito Vignoli; cf. Gombrich (1986), pp. 89-90 and 285-287.
14 Warburg followed Usener’s courses in Bonn in 1886-87. The topic of Warburg’s relationship with the anthropological and anthropologico-historical thought of his time has been much discussed (by Gombrich, Kany, Sassi and many others), and it is not my aim here to enter into any discussion of the relationship of his own thinking with that of figures such as Wilhelm Wundt and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl or with anthropologizing and psychologizing art historians who attracted him such as August Schmarsow. Cf. now also Didi Hubermann 1999-2000 p. 232 and notes 68 and 69, as well as in several of Didi Hubermann’s other studies of Warburg.
15 On his study of the Laocoon with Reinhard Kekulé von Stradonitz (whose Zur Deutung und Zeibestimmung des Laokoon, Berlin-Stuttgart, Spemann: 1883 Warburg owned), see Gombrich, pp. 37, 46, 57, as well as DidiHubermann (1999-2000), p. 225 and note 42.