Culture and Personality Among the Forest Bantu

Ellsworth Faris
University of Chicago

The standpoint of this discussion can, perhaps, be made clear if the assumptions are first announced. It is assumed that culture and personality are correlative terms; that to know the culture of a people is to know the types of personalities to be found within it; and that to know the personalities is to understand the culture. These two products of human life are twin-born. Culture is the collective side of personality; personality the subjective aspect of culture. Society with its usages, and personalities with their variations, are but two ways of looking at human life.

It is further assumed that these two concepts are not to be thought of as arranged in a causal sequence. Personalities do not cause culture, nor does culture produce personality. Interaction, interstimulation, interlearning is continuous, and personalities are always affecting culture, and culture is always modifying personality. It would appear that society does not mold the individual, for molding is too passive a term. Individuals do not produce a culture, for collective life has its own laws and its own procedure. Society and the individual, culture and personality: both are useful and necessary abstractions made sometimes at will, forced sometimes upon the students he tries to understand the phenomena before him.

And yet a sequence is assumed, if not causal, at least temporal. All culture can be assumed to arise out of a former culture or some blend or combination of more than one. Similarly, all personal ties are organized from the contact with other personalities and cultural forms. But in any particular instance, in the consideration of any one individual personality, it is here assumed that personality arises subsequently to a specific cultural system. The priority of culture seems to be not only a demonstrable fact; it is a heuristic principle of great utility. The personality is not formed on the basis of innate tendencies; it is organized on the basis of the cultural milieu, appearing to him as coercive, timeless, and omnipotent. Ethnological studies have no more important lesson to teach the sociologist than the lesson of the almost limitless adaptability of the human animal. Given an uncontradicted cultural medium and we can see that the powerful drives of hunger, sex, and even the will to live are as nothing if they run counter to the mores. Confirmation of this is familiar to us all. Voluntary fasting, voluntary celibacy, voluntary mutilation and torture, voluntary suicide—samples abound to show the irresistibility of the cultural model. One can no nore organize his personality independently than he can be born without a mother.


The Congo Bantu of the Equatorial Rain Forest have a culture which has come down to them from a past as distant as our own. At present they are also in contact with a high type of modern capitalistic industry. Two streams of influence converge upon them. The village life with its simple economy, its richness of ritual, and its ordered grades of prestige and influence is one stream. The other is the modern city, objective, impersonal, individualistic, with monetary forces and aims, not to speak of the forms of law and the coercive power of an omnipotent, even if benevolent, despotism. Such a sharp contrast has few parallels in all the world. So sudden an exposure would be difficult to find on a comparable scale in any period. It is hardly too much to say that nowhere in the history of the world has there occurred so great a change over so large an area in so short a time. A numerical detail will aid in bringing the point clearly before you. In 1914 the foreign commerce of the colony, imports and exports, amounted to some 229 millions of francs. Seven years later, in 1921, this amount had more than doubled, 490 millions. In 1929 the figure was 3,480, an increase of 1,400 per cent.

Neither the native nor the traveler sees the graphs and curves of the statistician, but he does see the capital city of the colony transformed from a military post, with a few compounds, near a village of Boo natives, into a modern city of 40,000 population with all the metropolitan institutions: banks and hotels, cinemas and taxicabs, factories and department stores, and two daily papers. Nearly a thousand miles up the river, just on the equator, another city of 20,000 with more banks, department stores, a cathedral, street lights, theater, hospitals, and schools. A thousand miles farther on still another city even larger and more important, while in the southeast Elizabethville rivals the capital in importance, including its daily press. All of this in a little more than a decade of years. Smaller establishments and centers exist, all connected by telegraph, by rail and river, by airplane and motor roads. No native village in the million square miles is unaffected by the influence. All have been profoundly modified.

He who would understand the relation of personality and culture among these forest Bantu must, then, take into account the violently contrasting streams of influence. When West meets East we must draw a parallelogram of forces.

There is, of course, a gradient. Within the city are seen city types and striking modifications. Near the city the influences are strong. In the remote villages it is naturally weakest. But the foreign influence is ubiquitous.

If the original village culture be pictured it presents elements not unfamiliar to students. Small kinship groups, sessile, agricultural, hunting, fishing, with chickens, goats, and dogs. There is weaving, pottery, iron mining, smelting and forging, besides wood-working done by clever carvers.

Isolation, though essentially a negative term, suggests the key to much of their collective life. The dense growth of the Great Forest permits only tortuous and difficult foot trails, and this difficulty of communication effectually prevented any predatory or rapacious group from conquest. The political units are,

( 5) therefore, small. They are hardly political units at all in the modern sense, for the elders of what we may term their gerontochracy seem to have no personal or official authority though possessed of high prestige and great influence. The classic notion, still prevalent in popular writers like H. G. Wells, and revived by McDougall and by the psychoanalysts, who seem to cast their nets in all waters, assumes a strong ruler in the small groups who clubs his way into authority. There is nothing in this save the inaccuracy of the suggestion. An old woman will have more power in her querulous voice than the strongest warrior fully armed. Not strength but age and wisdom are deferred to, and the deference of the younger to the older is everywhere important, even extending to the young in their relations with each other.

The details of their life, the exact methods of cultivating the soil, of working their iron, their pottery, the elaborate "drum" language, the ceremonies, both serious and playful, and the rest of their culture offer material for him who seeks to reconstruct their history. They are of little importance for the present inquiry into the relation of the personality and the culture. What seems to be most relevant can be stated in more general terms, terms which also apply to hundreds of small tribes in many parts of the world. Such descriptive terms turn out to be comparisons, and the most useful comparisons, at least here, are negations. So we may point out certain aspects of these cultures in a series of words hyphenated with the prefix "pre-," meaning "before," or "not yet." Therefore we can say that they are preliterate, prescientific, pre-industrial, and pre-individualistic.

The Phoenician alphabet traveled west and north but did not penetrate these isolated regions. They are preliterate, not because they cannot learn to read and to write but because they had no opportunity. Now when scribes make and preserve books, a profound change comes upon a society, and the whole character of their culture undergoes momentous alterations. Preliterate peoples have not added that increment. And until they do have it, there are certain important ways in which they differ from those who have letters.

The first of these concerns the realm of time and space. A people without a history is like a man without a memory, and no people has a history unless it is written. The time span possible to consciousness hardly transcends the memory of the oldest elder. No writing, no calendar, and no meaning in an arithmetical statement of years, for there are no years. Our fathers a few generations ago could only look back in historical retrospect for 6,000 years, while we now have the modern span of billions. Our most recent acquisition is our distant past. But even 6,000 years is something definite. Preliterate have no years at all. Without writing the normal myopia is unassisted, and the horizon of time is narrowed as in a mist.

It is true also of space. There is the forest, and there is the river, and back in the forest and up and down the river are other peoples, but there is little knowledge and less curiosity. There is neither a word for world nor any felt need of

( 6) one. How much we are indebted to maps and globes and geographical writings would be hard to overstate.

This lack of ordered schemes of things extends beyond the material world of geography into the spiritual world that has to do with a moral order. In this sphere, also, there is no cosmos. There is no fixed system, no definite theology or cosmology. Religious observances and ceremonies there are, as spontaneous as Christmas in America, and myths that explain are told. But it is ethnocentrism to identify these myths with theologies.

Therefore, there are no religious heretics. The rebel in religion is unknown; he is even impossible. How ca a one fight against the prevailing theological system when there is no real system to which one can object? New myths brought from stranger tribes or introduced by foreign wives are as welcome as a well-written foreign novel would be to a civilized people. Who would care to reject an interesting and attractive novelty? And, although their current beliefs and practices seem good, they do not always succeed, so the new is worth trying.

This hospitality is all very well when it receives the products of other preliterate societies. But when the book religions enter the arena, the old culture encounters a tragic fate. Whether it be Mohammedan, Catholic, or Protestant, it is a religion of a book. It is a system, dogmatic, absolute, infallible, with all the answers to all the questions which the native culture has asked but could not answer. This explains the quick success of the missionary propaganda and the early death of the native religious culture. For when could uncertainty contend with assurance? He who is quite in doubt as to where his soul may go after death has nothing to say when the book tells so plainly of the eternal fire.

Being preliterate, their culture, is, of course, pre-scientific; which chiefly means that there is in it much of magic. Events cannot be thought to occur according to the law of nature if there be no conception of nature. For nature as a concept only appears after reflection, accumulated and funded in the recorded thoughts of men. Levy-Bruhl's recent book on the natural and the supernatural among primitive people misses just this point, for the preliterates have no conception of the supernatural.

To say that the culture is magical does not mean that all things are held to be animate or endowed with mystic power. There are indeed omens and portents, signs and wonders, ordeals, charms, amulets, talismans—as well as magical ceremonies to insure food, avoid sickness, gain success in war. In the inimical and the helpful, the bizarre and surprising, the magical attitude is seen, but most of their life goes on with the aid of common-sense technique. In most acts they manifest keen, logical, analytic reasoning. It would appear that there was almost as widespread a belief in magic at the court of Louis XIV as today in the Great Forest. There was probably quite as much magic in the Rome of Augustus Caesar as now on the Congo. Magic has no relation or correlation either with intelligence or high civilization. Scientific cultures are non-magical; pre-scientific cultures are magical. Magic appears to be a group of culture com-

(7) -plexes, universal among men until the introduction of dependable methods of scientific control. Man and the forces around him cannot find a neutral relation: either they control him, or he controls them.

And since magic and science are incompatible, they are not to be identified. Magic differs in being uncritical, lacking a method, being devoid of certainty, and incapable of proof. It rests on faith, on tradition, on prestige. It is therefore essentially social or collective, whereas science is pre-eminently individual. So while science gives confidence and certainty, magic dwells alongside of fear. Missionaries who think to overcome magic by religion have little reason to hope for success. Religion as introduced may substitute new taboos for old, provide new spirits to be addressed, but it affects little the older attitudes toward the unseen. It is science that cuts the very root of magic, and when applied science offers control of nature, magic withers and dies.

Pre-industrial the Bantu surely were, though the flood of capitalistic invasion is bringing them suddenly into contact with factories, wheels, and machines. The contrast is obvious, and there is a possibility that the transition may be accomplished with some less degree of demoralization.

It is more significant for personality to understand that the Forest Bantu are pre-individualistic. Unwritten mores in a constant and homogeneous stream of influence define the situations and their conduct. No one is forced to take a stand against popular opinion or to stand alone for the right. No one lives alone, and there are no books to give variant notions. Conflicts and differences occur but friends, or the assembled elders, are at hand to arbitrate, and loneliness as modern men know it has not yet come to them. Civilization is just around the corner from them, but at present this aspect is one of the most striking differences. I am inclined to look here for the most probable explanation of a rather remarkable discovery to be discussed in detail presently: the absence of our well-known forms of insanity.

Generalizations about so-called primitive people occur very widely in the literature of sociology and anthropology. It is temptingly easy to make generalizations: it is very difficult to prove them. In this field it is hardly too much to say that no one has had any scientific warrant for any of the many general statements. But, in spite of this, they exist and continue to be defended.

One thinks of Herbert Spencer, of Levy-Bruhl, of Sigmund Freud, not one of whom has had any real acquaintance with a single one of the thousands of tribes. Spencer's conclusions have been fatally criticized by scholars, but his views are accepted to this day in some degree by missionary, trader, government official, and the man in the street. It is the view that mental inferiority of the personalities is the true explanation of the cultural inferiority of the collective group. They can perceive, he says, but they cannot reason. They have emotional power but no effective stability or power of inhibition. And, most important of all, they lack the power of abstract thought, from which all invention and progress must derive.

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Levy-Bruhl argues at length against the whole English school, from Spencer to Frazer, and insists that we have not a question of degree but of kind. Not inferior reasoning power or arguments from poor premises, but pre-logical minds that do not argue at all. "The concepts of primitive minds are not at all like our own." ""They have a different mentality." It is because they depend on memory and have pre-logical mentality that there is no progress.

Freud's statements about primitive life are even more familiar. As among us, it is the custom among them for the children to be born of female mothers and to suck their milk from that mammalian source. This biological necessity is said to cause an inevitable personality conflict. No escape exists from the incestuous longing, and jealousy of one's father, and hatred against his tyrannical presence is made more serious when subjected to censorious repression. Personal experience, therefore, explains both totem and taboo, and the play is the tragedy "Man."

But though generalizations are hard to prove, disproof is easier. Spencer's arguments have been often refuted, and many of his facts questioned. Perhaps it will be fitting only to add regarding abstract thought that stories and proverbs do abound, telling of the nature and effects of love, jealousy, envy, pity, generosity, ingratitude, and injustice, for all of which abstractions and many more there exist words and synonyms. On hearing that a man had been fined unjustly by his employer, one said:

"You may take a necklace from a baby
But not the palm-seed he is playing with."

Levy-Bruhl has also been opposed by those who have written of these matters. Most of the discussion has to do with analogous behavior among modern peoples, among whom it can be shown that fixed ideas exist and collective representations abound. On the field, the statements seem to be without validity. Houses are built, hunts organized, and battles are planned with every attention to logical sequence and due regard to cause and effect. Magical beliefs and practices do not cover the whole of life. To accumulate enough property to provide a bride-price for an advantageous marriage for one's son involves as much careful reasoning and weighing of consequences as the launching of a joint stock company. Hunger, love, and danger are very real, but they have no routine. To meet emergencies requires wit and cleverness, and these are abundantly in evidence. Field notes abound in facts which all tend to show that where the routine is prescribed by tradition the individual person falls back on collective representations, just as the Romans did when they examined the liver of the sacrifice to see if it were auspicious to go to war, or the Russian peasant who did not plant his field till the land was blessed and the weeds cursed by the priest. In 1898 the Spanish ships were sprinkled with holy water to make them safe. But when individual problems arise among the Forest People, there is a premium on ingenuity and cleverness and reasoning power. Wanya, or keen intelligence, is highly praised.

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As to the Freudian's easy solutions, the evidence is all against them. The father is not a tyrant, and never punishes his children. The maternal uncle has a special status and function, but it is difficult to find the concept of authority applicable. The uncle is indulgent to the point of being imposed upon. If Bona wa Nkana, child of my sister, wants my bicycle I shall probably find that he has taken it without asking. If he needs money he does not steal it from me but asks for it and always gets it. In a polygamous society the monopolization of the sexual favors of one's mother by the father can hardly have the same effect as under monogamy. Moreover, divorce and remarriage is very frequent and would add another modifying factor. Whatever the causes, mental abnormality is practically non-existent.

It would seem that the errors of these three writers can all be brought under a common erroneous assumption as to the relation of culture and personality. Spencer and Levy-Bruhl assume that cultural forms are the result of intellectual capacity or mental quality. Freud likewise would account for cultural forms and social disorder by a theory of individual infantile experience. This is a persistent error. The vanishing instinct psychology of McDougall is grounded on the same assumption. Indeed, it would be difficult to account for the low degree of cultural advance if high civilization be due to superior minds. The syllogism is indeed correct: All people with minds equal to ours or like them will produce a high civilization; these people have not produced such a civilization; therefore, they are inferior or different. But if we deny the first premise, the argument falls. Instincts do not produce the institutions. Culture precedes the individual. A low degree of culture may contain many gifted men of the highest endowments.

Another error common to the assumptions of the first two of our authors appears to be in the theory of change or progress. They take change to be a datum and progressive improvement to be a law of human society. The whole argument rests on this: Normally intelligent people are constantly moving toward progress and improvement; these people do not progress; therefore they are not normally intelligent. It is a serious question as to the truth of the first of these statements. For it would seem there is nothing in culture that necessarily leads to change. Wherever there is change there is the problem for sociologists. The essential inertia in culture is neglected or unrecognized by many students of society, but seems to be borne out by our data. Crises bring change, but without crises culture reproduces itself true to type. The maelstrom of our modern civilization so abounds in crises that it is not easy to see how other peoples can lack them. Yet, relatively, they do lack them.

A way might be found to bring the argument to a test. If the children and youth of these tribesmen should be subjected to the type of education and experience which is brought to moderns it would soon appear whether the cultural differences are due to personality deficiencies. And fortunately for the argument, at least, this is actually going on in the Great Forest. With what results?

( 10) One can see young men from these villages who are postal clerks, telegraph operators, typists, automobile mechanics, steamer engineers and captains, engineers of electric light installations, operators of calculating machines, and graduates of theological seminaries with courses in philosophy and masters of the Latin tongue. The new culture has produced new personalities.

Two results of the expedition seem almost to deserve to be called discoveries. The first concerns the sociology of race exclusion. Scattered among the Bantus are symbiotic villages of Pygmies who live apart, have commercial relations, assist their Bantu neighbors in their fights with hostile villages, but with whom they have no social intercourse. There is no language barrier, the Pygmy language being adopted from their neighbors. For some reason, there is not very much difference in stature, owing, it may be, to a better food supply. But the social barrier is absolute. No Bantu will visit a Pygmy in his house; eating with a Pygmy is unthinkable; and intermarriage is abominable. So far there is nothing new, and similar conditions could be found in Mississippi or California. But one important difference appeared.

On visiting the Pygmy villages I became impressed with their keenness of intellect, native shrewdness, and essentially high mentality. I was inclined to rate them quite as high as their Bantu neighbors. On venturing to suggest to groups of Bantus this opinion, I was met with unquestioning assent. The common opinion of the Bantus was: The Pygmies are strong and agile physically, rather superior to us mentally, and decidedly more moral. It was a surprise to find rigid exclusion with no rationalization or depreciation. Non-intercourse without race prejudice is surely so rare that it raises a fascinating problem. Perhaps, if one were to guess, the explanation may lie in the absence of any form of competition, but whatever the explanation the fact seemed very striking.

The other discovery was the relative absence of insanity, already mentioned. Four large hospitals were visited, and inquiries were made as to the extent of schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychoses. These hospitals are in or near the cities and draw from large areas. They have been established several years. No records of any such cases existed, nor was there any memory on the part of those of the staff of any such cases. In the villages attempts were made to describe the symptoms to the native, and no comprehension of such disorders was found. There were, indeed, certain stereotyped forms of hysteria among women. Also there were manias due to infectious diseases, but no insanity was revealed. To say that there is no case of our two chief forms of insanity in this region is not possible. But it is true that a careful and persistent inquiry failed to reveal a single case or any record or memory of one. Therefore, it can be asserted that such disorders are very rare and possibly do not occur.

It would be tempting to venture an explanation. Much more work is needed before this would be warranted. But the suggestion that the social life offers the key to the riddle is very attractive. They are pre-individualistic. Sharp competition, feelings of inferiority, the mechanisms of projection and reference, and

( 11) the delusions of persecution belong to a society like ours where the swordfish alone can swim in security. The Bantu always has his friends. It is impossible for them to conceive of a man on the street asking food of strangers. Perhaps the solution of the problem may take some such form as this.

The results of the information obtained on the trip to the field thus bears out the assumptions and hypotheses concerning the relation of culture and personality. It was to be expected. This is what usually happens. To keep one's mind open is so difficult that few of us succeed. Whether what was found was previsaged can be determined only by others less interested. Of the scientist no less than the Christian is it true that we have our treasure in earthen vessels.


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