NPJ Book Review: Primitive Passions, Men, Women and the Quest for Ecstasy by Marianna Torgovnick

Primitive Passions, Men, Women and the Quest for Ecstasy by Marianna Torgovnick (1997)

“We listen to our inmost selves— And do not know which sea we hear murmuring.”    Martin Buber, Ecstatic Confessions

A few thoughts: In the maze of books published about primitive cultures over the past century, and also about meditating on our state of affairs and the unknown future of our fragile planet, I revisited the author who among other things explores self-transcendence and passion through primitive cultures.

Torgovnick notes with a cautionary voice: The association of primitives with self-transformation and dissolved boundaries between people and things is not – I must be clear about this – completely factual or inevitable.

The author writes: The word “primitive” is sometimes used in a derogatory sense to mean “simple” or “crude,” with evolutionist connotations of authority. That is not how I use the word, which has a rich history of alternative meanings. From that point forward she explores the differences in primitives and the nature of their cultures around the world…studying their spiritual dimensions, community, reverence for all that which exists in nature. The details she offers are fascinating in their ritual and mystical signficance.

It’s intriguing to see how wide the author “casts her net” and consequently studies (from books, periodicals, films, scholarly treatises, etc.) of modern male and female artists, authors and intellectuals who have in turn examined primitive cultures and the variations of the male and female perspective in their own works. In the process questions arise as to the meaning of gender, ethnic identity and spirituality.

This thought provoking and accessible study examines the psychology of the human quest for ecstasy in varied shadings – mysticism, ritual, fear, desire, belief, passion, want and need – throughout nature.