Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 20

On wondering about wonder

Melanesians and the cargo

Garry W. Trompf


I

When I was a young boy, I used to pore over one particular book that my father had given to my eldest brother. It was an attractive little volume entitled The Secrets of Other People’s Jobs, and it was littered with photographs and diagrams as to how the many interesting objects in my own observable world - glasses, pots, cans, ships, airplanes - were put together. 1 In the course of my early education I had occasion to join school excursions to witness for myself some of the processes depicted in that book, although it took twenty years for me to see the inside of something like a cotton mill (a hosiery factory), personal penury as a 26-year-old student in Oxford to see a leather-splitting machine (before which I labored for extra cash as a humble t-poler), and the first time I ever saw tins coming off the production line was at 35 when, as a visiting academic, I had taken my family on a long jaunt from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. It was at the last place that I began thinking very much about my students back at the University of Papua New Guinea, where I had taken one of the first two appointments in Religious Studies in Australia (at a time when Papua and New Guinea were still Australian territories). I took photographs madly, mindful much less of this as my own first experience than of young Melanesians who might take more convincing that tins were actually made on assembly lines, and not in some spiritual location. No factories of the kind were in place for them to visit in Port Moresby or Lae, and many of their families were still given to tales of “the Cargo” - of introduced, “European-style” commodities - being manufactured by ancestors or spirit-beings. On reflection, though, there was an immediate lesson to be learned: that I myself had assumed the very worldly existence of things on the basis of photographs (including, in the course of time, television) and not of stricter empirical encounter; and that my reaction to the experience of this already mentally extrapolated world was more of confirmation than of wonder.

Wonder is the focus of this chapter and it is a subject not without some prior attention. It is intriguing to consider how influential Western theorists who constituted modern notions of “primitivity” handled wonder. I take it as of real fascination, indeed, that the alleged founder of capitalism, the Scotsman Adam Smith (1723-90), a man who showed no little interest in new products and artifices, was perhaps the first to devote a third of a treatise - The History of Astronomy - to the sentiment of wonder. Wonder, by Smith’s definition, is the response to “extraordinary and uncommon objects” (meteors, comets, and eclipses being of obvious singularity among them), and in humanity’s earliest state, “every object of nature…considerable enough to attract his attention” will be enough to imbue

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