- An untitled review of The Growth of Civilization and The Origin of Magic and Religion, by W. J. Perry
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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536 ] An untitled review of The Growth of Civilization1 by W. J. Perry London: Methuen, 1924. Pp. viii + 224. The Origin of Magic and Religion, by W. J. Perry London: Methuen, 1923. Pp. vii + 212. The Criterion: A Quarterly Review, 2 (July 1924) 489-91 The recent theories of Professor Elliot Smith and his disciple, Mr. W. J. Perry, are of interest and importance to every student or practitioner of the arts, as indeed they should be to everyone who would pay any attention to the history and the future of the human race.2 In these two volumes Mr. Perry has made a brief statement of two principal theories and several incidental ones. His two main contentions are that the whole of human culture in every part of the earth is a derivation from that of the Egyptians, and that warfare is a comparatively late development due to the activities of certain warlike races clearly distinguished from the productive and artistic races.3 The warlike races have made no original contributions to culture, and are responsible for the destruction of every ancient civilisation which has disappeared. It is evident that both of these theories are highly contentious , and that no one but a specialist is competent to judge the validity of Mr. Perry’s arguments. To an ordinary observer, it appears that these two theories are independent of each other; and that the first theory, that of Egyptian origins, is much better supported than the second. But it may be merely that the first theory is the less revolutionary and therefore finds easier acceptance. Evidently, Mr. Perry’s work is as much sociology as it is anthropology. That is to say, his work is not so much the accumulation and collocation of material, such as is found in The Golden Bough, as it is the construction of this material into a single edifice: he may be classified with Durkheim and Lévy-Bruhl rather than with Sir James Frazer.4 We find his theory of the original spread of mankind and distribution of culture extremely engaging. Prehistoric migrations, according to Mr. Perry, are due to the search for the essential materials of life: in the first instance, flint and its substitutes. [ 537 An untitled review of the growth of civilization The spread of historic culture is due to the researches of the Egyptian for the materials for their more and more complicated civilisation. The science of irrigation was discovered on the banks of the Nile and introduced elsewhere by the Egyptians, and consecutively by peoples to whom the Egyptians had taught it. By an ingenious presentation of facts, Mr. Perry is able to show that the earliest remains in England are remains of colonies of the Egyptians, or their pupils the Phoenicians. It was one or the otherofthesepeopleswhointroducedtheconstructionofmegalithicmonuments into Britain. Similarly, Mr. Perry gives more than plausible reasons for believing that the civilisations of the Pacific and of Central and South America were directly due to nautical expeditions of the Egyptians, or of various peoples who had learnt Egyptian arts and sciences. Into all of the implications of this fascinating study it is impossible to proceed. But there is one point which has interesting consequences for art. The arts developed incidentally to the search for objects of talismanic properties. The Egyptian who first fashioned gold into a likeness of a cowrie-shell, the Cretan who designed an octopus on his pottery, the Indian who hung a necklace of bear’s-teeth about his neck, were not aiming primarily at decoration, but invoking the assistance of life-giving amulets.5 At what point, we may ask, does the attempt to design and create an object for the sake of beauty become conscious? At what point in civilisation does any conscious distinction between practical or magical utility and aesthetic beauty arise? These questions are not asked or answered by Mr. Perry. But surely the distinction must mark a change in the human mind which is of fundamental importance. And a further question we should be impelled to ask is this: Is it possible and justifiable for art, the creation of beautiful objects and of literature, to persist indefinitely without its primitive purposes : is it possible for the aesthetic object to be a direct object of attention ? These are only a few of the questions suggested by Mr. Perry’s work; which compels more attention, I think, than the work of such abstract philosophers of history as Otto Spengler.6 T. S...