Anyone who rubs shoulders in the worlds of feminism or neopaganism/new age spirituality has probably already confronted and formed some opinion on the...moreAnyone who rubs shoulders in the worlds of feminism or neopaganism/new age spirituality has probably already confronted and formed some opinion on the subject matter of this book. However, I would also recommend it to anyone interested in human prehistory, historical linguistics, anthropology, or social science who may only be peripherally aware of it. If you are involved in any of these fields, you will likely have heard, at least in passing as I had, about the concept of matriarchal prehistory. Especially if you deal less with academics and professionals in these fields and more with people who have gleaned their information from popular culture or publications, or are a critical reader of popular publications yourself, it would behoove you to have the information from this book at hand. At 188 pages without delving into the detailed notes, it is a quick read (I'm not a fast reader and it took me about a day) and well worth the investment. Eller is a good writer in addition to being well-versed in her subject matter (although she is a professor of religion she has done her research on the prehistoric topics that I'm more familiar with very well), and her prose are not dense and easy to read despite the thorough coverage of the subject she gives in such a small space. She is also extremely tactful and sympathetic on delicate topics without undermining her argument, sometimes wryly humorous, but mostly straightforward and matter-of-fact in her presentation.
I think the best thing about Eller's deconstruction of the matriarchal prehistory myth is that she is not content to merely catalog the lack of evidence for matriarchal societies, past or present, in the archaeological and ethnographic record or the absurd lengths those looking for them go to read goddess iconography into every swirl and dot and wavy line found in prehistoric art. That is as easy as shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.* She, however, goes a step further to demonstrate how the very premises upon which feminist matriarchalists (Eller's preferred term for those who believe that human prehistory before about 3000 BC was matriarchal) base their arguments for what creates the conditions of matriarchy are false. The classic explanations include that in hunter-gatherer and subsistence horticultural economies women's activities provided the majority of calories for the community and thus took pride of place, but more importantly, that it was not understood that men had any role in reproduction, thus giving women and the female body a perceived miraculous monopoly on life, causing prehistoric peoples to practice exclusive goddess worship, and consequently privilege and adore real women. Eller shows with cross-cultural examples how each of these assumptions is groundless. There are many societies documented in the historical record and continuing into modern times which practice hunting and gathering and subsistence horticulture and worship goddesses. The ethnographic record even contains record of groups with a shaky grasp on the concept of biological paternity (though Eller gives good reason why any claims that such groups really exist should be taken with a heaping handful of salt). The presence of economic arrangements heavily reliant on women's work, goddess worship, and shallow understanding of reproduction do NOT correlate to improved status of women in observed societies which have them (edit 9/11/13: as this riveting new Indian campaign against abuse starkly demonstrates: http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/india.... By showing that the basis upon which past matriarchy is postulated is fundamentally flawed, Eller goes much farther towards discrediting it than simple demonstration of an absence of evidence would.
She also gives very good reasons why the myth of prehistory matriarchy SHOULD be discredited. All versions of the myth are ultimately based in difference feminism, and emphasize (alleged) absolute biological differences between the characters of men and women as well as prescribing rigid and deterministic definitions of what is feminine versus what is masculine. In addition to its sexism and more or less benign misandry, this also levels or ignores the diversity between cultures and individuals. Some words of feminist matriarchalist writers quoted by Eller could have been imported, unaltered, from the 19th century (incidentally also a time that laid the foundations of some of their theories), which was at times full of rhetoric of the moral superiority of women and the brutishness of men, but was in reality generally oppressive and restricting to all individuals not comfortable with precise pigeonholing. Eller has more sympathy than I can muster for the positive effects on women the myth of prehistoric matriarchy can have.** This book is never the less a powerful argument as to why an imagined past is not a firm foundation on which to build a future of equality.
*Itself obviously symbolic of the primordial cosmic womb.
**Whether upon reading this one still sees this myth as potentially empowering even in light of its lack of historical grounding, or as nothing more than a blatant inversion of the excesses of patriarchy facilitated by a masturbatory power fantasy set in magical golden age so simplistically idealized it is an insult to all flesh and blood humans who have actually experienced the backbreaking hardships of life in subsistence economies everywhere for all time, is up to the reader.(less)
In The Jefferson Brothers, Joanne Yeck's original research sheds light on a long-neglected facet of the biography of America's third president: the li...moreIn The Jefferson Brothers, Joanne Yeck's original research sheds light on a long-neglected facet of the biography of America's third president: the life of his younger brother Randolf Jefferson. This book will be of interest both to Jefferson enthusiasts for its insights into Thomas Jefferson's role as an older brother and mentor to the much younger Randolf, and more generally for the conclusions drawn about early American plantation life using the case study of Snowden, the home of Randolf Jefferson in his adult life as a planter, which Yeck makes a convincing case for being a more representative example of rural life in late 18th and early 19th century Virginia than Thomas Jefferson's unique experiment at Monticello. This well-crafted and engaging work of history opens a new window into the family life of one of American history's most remarkable men, as well as the hidden value of those who live on the sidelines of history.(less)
This is an excellent book. At only 207 pages (plus almost 80 of notes) it does not pretend to give an exhaustive survey of the history or anthropology...moreThis is an excellent book. At only 207 pages (plus almost 80 of notes) it does not pretend to give an exhaustive survey of the history or anthropology of the West's relationship with Tibet, but especially for someone not very familiar with that relationship, it is eye-opening. Lopez is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism (as the large number of notes suggests) who trained at the University of Virginia, one of the oldest and best academic centers of Buddhist study in North America. Yet this work is a fast, accessible read aimed for a general audience and occasionally tinged with an understated, wry humor.
As a child I had a copy of Mordicai Gerstein's beautifully illustrated story book The Mountains of Tibet The Mountains of Tibet, but despite pouring many times over its lyrical watercolors, and in later years cultivating a deep interest in many other parts of Asia, I never developed the fascination for Tibet many people apparently have. I think I was about 10 when I realized that Tibet was part of the PPRC, and (ever the staunch atheist) came to the conclusion that were Tibet "freed" in the sense of being delivered back to the Tibetan government in exile, it would be placed under the rule of a theocracy (the situation has of course changed somewhat since then with the Dalai Lama's abdication as a temporal leader), and that if the Tibetans claim to be Buddhists par excellence, shouldn't they recognize the impermanence of all transient states, including their, uh, state? Though I did not grow up to become either a good Chinese communist or an esoteric philosopher, I have always viewed the stereotypical bleeding heart Western response to the Tibetan occupation as at best usually under-informed and emotional, and at worst toxically hypocritical. My engagement with Tibet and the Tibetan problem ended there.
I was dimly aware of course that much romanticism surrounded the plateau. I had no idea of the real extent and sheer fantasy of what has, for most of the modern era, constituted the West's "knowledge" of Tibet. Victorian notions of a barbarous and decadent country run by malicious and despotic priestcraft are no more partial and unbalanced than the idealized visions of a uniformly enlightened nation which holds the key to mankind's spiritual awakening, both of which are ultimately just as grossly patronizing and objectifying to real Tibetans. Without even the need for much commentary, Lopez often simply lets the equally absurd claims of colonialists, missionaries, Theosophists, and New Age spiritualists speak for themselves, evoking feelings of alternate shock and amusement.
One impression the book left particularly strongly on me is how there is essentially NO notion of Tibet to Westerners separate from Tibetan Buddhism. As Lopez points out, Tibet is an Old World country with an unusual history, as until 1950 it was never occupied by a colonial power (and never by a European one), nor forcibly opened to European contact in the 19th century, and undertook no modernization from within. A point could be made, then, that as an essentially medieval society until the mid-twentieth century, it makes no more sense to consider Tibet without Buddhism than it does to discuss medieval Europe without the Church. That as may be, Lopez leaves one with the impression that the West essentially sees "Tibet" not as a piece of geography, nor a nation of people and a culture dispersed and under assault, but as a religion sustained by organic hosts. This creed has been viewed both negatively and positively, but always hyperbolically. He suggests that, in part in an attempt to throw off the stigma of "Lamaism", even in modern scholarship the study of any aspects of Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism that do not fit its image of ultimate spiritual subtly and sophistication (such as folk practices or texts addressing the more earthly and pragmatic concerns of religion) have been severely neglected.
Ultimately he leaves the reader with what I imagine to be his own sense of troubled unease. Unease that even with the best of intentions, the West cannot help Tibet, nor, perhaps, can Tibetans (who in diaspora begin to appropriate the categorizations the West has placed on them) help themselves, if they continue to be viewed through a lense, even a rose-tinted one.(less)