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Folk-Lore/Volume 30/The Interpretation of Survivals

The Interpretation of Survivals.

(“Quarterly Review,” April, 1919.)

Dr. Marett’s important article on “The Interpretation of Survivals,” while primarily a review of Sir James Frazer’s Folk-lore in the Old Testament, deals also with the general question of the scope and method of the study of folk-lore. He shows how natural it was, in view of the fact that the folk itself is as it were in a state of survival throughout Europe, to regard the science of folk-lore as simply the study of survivals, a palaeontology of human culture. But he strongly deprecates as one-sided and inadequate the view that folk-lore is but a heap of fossils. He would “treat folk-lore not as so much dead matter, but rather as the outcome of an organic process, namely: of an existing or recently existing folk-life,” wherein change and movement are in evidence everywhere. Hence “psychological, no less than historical, conditions must be taken into account”; the former lending themselves to observation, whereas the latter are mostly matters of inference. The fossil-hunter, however, tends to ignore the live element in the tradition and collective consciousness of the folk, and so is apt to confuse the psychologically crude with the historically ancient—the typologically with the chronologically primitive.

This tendency to overlook conditions at work to-day in favour of causes belonging to the distant past is strengthened by the fallacious assumption that a custom at present resting on no very intelligible motive must have originally had a clear meaning and purpose, and consequently must now be in a state of survival, that is, must have in part lost its meaning and use for those who retain it. But “as in the psychology of the individual some experiences, for instance dreams, are held to be governed from below the threshold of consciousness, so in social psychology it is the modern fashion to postulate ‘a collective unconscious’ whence processes originate that in their surface appearance seem to set the logic of the purposive life at defiance.” Thus “lack of meaning may or may not imply loss of meaning. It may either be the effect of disuse, and so be referable to antecedent historical conditions; or, as the symptom of an imperfect mental integration, it may be assignable to psychological conditions operating here and now.”

In short, the folk-lorist must seek to do equal justice to passing and to permanent conditions. “A surface-view of history as a welter of chance clashings and collocations shows change and decay everywhere. Seeking deeper, however, we come upon tendencies and motives that are, humanly speaking, everlasting.”