This plays against the notebook post about the great mother. I don’t want to conflate the ancient Mediterranean with the more contemporary Polynesian societies, but I think between the two we can glimpse the lineaments of a human potentiality that isn’t reducible to these specific cultural moments. I want to type it out and see where it goes. Notebooking, so don’t put too much weight on this. Similarly, try not to read this romantically, as a utopic form of social life. It isn’t; but it is another form that might inform our future.
I want to start with the famed reports of Polynesian sexuality by the sailors who first encountered it. They sit at the basis of a genre of pulp fantasy and so have come to be treated more as fantasy than reality, but Marshall Sahlins argues that we have good reason to take these early sailors at their word, even if we have to appreciate that they didn’t know what or how to make of the Polynesian women’s attitudes. Sahlins makes a study of the fertile misunderstandings that ensue, but I’ll leave that mostly to the side, because what I want to get at is his suggestion that we can use Polynesia to get at another pattern of culture.
First, the early account:
“David Samwell—surgeon’s mate, Welshman, and minor poet—found ‘the Young Women…in general exceedingly beautiful.’ They ‘used all their arts,’ he said, ‘to entice our people into their Houses, and finding [the sailors] were not to be allured by their blandishments, they endeavored to force them & were so importunate they would absolutely take no denial.'”—Marshall Sahlins, “Supplement to the Voyage of Cook” in Islands of History (2)
It is worth noting that while the pulp trope plays up the masculinity of the hero welcomed into the native woman’s embrace, this account contains a good deal more ambivalence. These men aren’t exactly unwilling, but they aren’t exactly comfortable with the situation, either.
Here is Sahlins talking through this:
“How are we to understand this remarkable expression of eroticism in Hawaii? As a ‘pattern of culture’ it seems worthy of comparison with the multilateralism of Sioux Indians or the quietism of the Hopi—dare one place an ‘Aphrodisian’ alongside the famous ‘Dionysian’ and ‘Apollonian’? Beyond that, the Hawaiian order is appropriately placed in the whole family of cultures, including our own, which prefer to sediment structural relations out of pragmatic actions, rather than determining the actions a priori from the relations.”—Ibid. (9)
The idea of an Aphrodisian society appeals. It sits up against the associations that accrue to Venus and Netzach around both eroticism and fighting, eroticism and conquest. Turn away from the Greco-Roman material toward the older Middle Eastern matrix and you find figures like Inanna. In Jewish mysticism, for all its patriarchy, you will note this is preserved in Kabbalistic identification of Netzach as the Sefirot of victory.
I don’t want to ignore the second part of that quote, either. Sahlins observes that one of the key things we tend to do when we try to understand a society according to a set of principles that form the basis for their actions. Intellectual habits have led us to favor verbal accounts of principles, written or spoken, but in many societies the principles are more silently embodied in the sorts of habits daily life engenders and supports. In these societies, the symbolic realm is rallied in order to amplify rather than justify or explicate, so understanding requires attention to their actions.
This circumscribes how easily we will be able to understand a society on the basis of textual evidence and points toward the silent force of daily life on all things. (This also gets us back to the danger of romanticizing a society based on its symbols, because we don’t necessarily know the daily life that gave meaning to the symbols and guided their deployment.)
Okay, but back to that Aphrodisian society and the joining of sexual and military potency:
“I exemplify by a letter composed in the style of public oratory, in the course of which the author, a chief, sends a threat of war to another chief in the form of a love song….the threat lies in the refrain, ‘The hand that was stretched out and returned tapu shall become noa [i.e., ‘free from tapu, ‘profane’].’ The woman in this way tells her previously rejected suitor that if he tries again he will have better success….So the chief is telling his enemy that although last time he came away unscathed, if he dares return he can expect a warm welcome [(IO): i.e., he will most definitely be ‘touched’]. Maori will get the allusion since from the beginning of mankind sex has been a battle which women, turning the death of the man (detumescence) into the life of the people (the child). Maori say, ‘the genitals of women are killers of men.’ Behind that, too, is the myth of the origin of death wherein the trickster Maui, in a vain attempt to win immortality for mankind, is crushed to death in the vagina of the ancestress-guardian of the underworld.”—Sahlins, “The Anthropology of History” in Islands of History (55) (emphasis mine)
See that structure? The chief is saying to his rival, “I am going to crush you like a woman.” Notice, this isn’t “I’m going to make you a woman” but “I’m going to be a woman and wreck you.” That’s a delightful inversion of what we tend to see in our own culture. More to the point, in the image of the deadly vagina, we see a clear parallel with the headless mother of Çatalhöyük. This figure, like that one, stands for the continuation of life into the future through birth and rebirth, opposing the immortality of individuals in their individuality.