‘Don’t swim after eating or you’ll get stomach cramps and drown.’

‘Wait an hour after eating before swimming’.

These and more are part of the common folklore, repeated ad nauseam to children in summer as they holiday by the beach. So the kids fidget and annoy each other before finally being allowed to swim again after what seems like an eternity. We have it from parents, teachers, and pretty much everyone.

It’s complete rubbish. You may as well say, don’t ride your bicycle after eating, or don’t run after eating, or don’t do anything energetic after eating. You might get a stomach cramp and crash your bike, trip over, or some other dire outcome. Actually, it is much like the myth of the common cold – that if you get a chill you might catch a cold. Like that myth, this one too is usually impervious to facts.

As for me, I have swum plenty of times on a full stomach. Not even a twitch in my gut when I do so.

When I first began serious long distance cycling, some 25 years ago, I would often turn up at my parents’ place after a long ride. Each time, my father would wax forth about the bicycle he left behind in the Netherlands when he emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s. He had bought it – a Rudge with metric dimensions – ten years before he left and he told me about its gearing, the oil bath for the chain, the long rides he had taken on it. When he emigrated, he gave it to his brother, and claimed – every time – that his brother was still riding it. Being a skeptical sort, especially with tall stories, I was not persuaded. Who would still ride a bicycle 50, even 60, years old? I also wondered why he never rode much in Australia.

So I was stunned when one of my cousins in the Netherlands told me he still has the Rudge and that he still rides it. His father – the uncle to whom my father first gave the bicycle – had given it to him. And just to prove that the Rudge is a myth no longer:

Rudge 01a

Rudge 02a

Note the lever-brake system, the drum brakes, and the locking device.

Rudge 04a

My first degree was in Classics. I studied it in a small department that was, like many Classics departments, it was under threat by university ‘bean counters’, the finance people who felt that classes of two or three students were a waste of money. Fortunately, we had an eccentric (and gay) professor in charge of the department. He pretended he had an English accent, drank way too much, gave lectures in his academic gown and shorts, and rode a bicycle. We called him ‘Godfrey’. But he was an astute politician and knew how to work the university system to ensure the survival of Classics.

We studied ancient Greek and Latin – their languages, literatures, cultures and histories. But it was Greek that was regarded as the basis, the founding culture, and that Latin was presented as secondary, borrowing from the Greeks. Again and again, we were reminded by our lecturers that Greek, and Latin tagging along, is the basis of Western ones such as English. We also studied Sanskrit. Or rather, Godfrey taught some of us Sanskrit. Late at night, four of us would gather for lectures – a gay mathematics teacher, a foreman at the steel works and an ageing hippie. We would chain smoke, drink the cheap sherry that Godfrey provided, laugh at his antics, and learn some Sanskrit. After all, is not Sanskrit one of the classical languages according to the (dubious) Indo-European hypothesis?

The problem for Classics in this university environment was that the discipline was (and continues) to be under threat. We asked: how can they threaten to close down the study of the basis of Western culture? If we forget our origins, will we not be the poorer? But we never questioned why these classical languages and texts – especially the Greek ones – were assumed to be that basis. That was precisely the problem, for the idea that the roots of the West may be found in ancient Greece is pure myth, albeit a convenient one, that dates back a little over two hundred years.

For the rest of the story, you’ll have to make your way to Suzhou for the Renmin University Summer Institute of Christian Culture …

Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, offers the following well-known myth:

In a tribe of hunters or shepherds a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions; and he finds at last that he can in this manner get more cattle and venison, than if he himself went to the field to catch them. From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armourer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or moveable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and with venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house-carpenter. In the same manner a third becomes a smith or a brazier; a fourth, a tanner or dresser of hides or skins, the principal part of the clothing of savages. And thus the certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent of genius he may possess for that particular species of business (Wealth of Nations I.2.2).

For Smith, this perfectly “natural” process is both the origin of the division of labour and reveals the natural propensity for human beings to “truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” (I.2.1). This distinguishes us from the animals, for who ever saw a dog offer a bone as a fair and deliberate exchange with another dog? Smith goes on:

When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man’s wants which the produce of his own labour can supply. He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society (I.4.2).

We’re all capitalists at heart, it seems, for we are natural merchants, constantly exchanging things with one another. Smith can be a little long-winded, so let me summarise the remainder of this myth. Once our primitives have all busied themselves with their natural propensity to produce and “truck”, they soon find that others may have enough of whatever is on offer. I might have made plenty of toe ticklers, but now that the tribe or village is full of toe ticklers, I have nowhere to hawk my wares and get what I want. The solution: stockpile items that I am sure everyone will want – salt, sugar, dried cod, dressed leather, sex toys …. So when I want something, I can simply use these items in exchange. At last, one of us happens upon the idea of using precious metals, weighed, then standardized, minted and so on. Eventually, in our wisdom, we come up with credit, or virtual money.

In various forms, this myth has been repeated countless times in economics textbooks, in online forums and in classes on economics. For economists, it is “the most important story ever told” (Graeber, Debt, p. 24). Its narrative from a natural division of labour, through to barter, money and then, in our sophisticated modern era, banking and credit, has become so pervasive that it is regarded as common sense. The problem, as David Graeber shows, is that it is pure fantasy-land (pp. 21-41). Where is this mythical village? Among North American Indians? Asian pastoral nomads? African tribes, Pacific Islanders, Australian aborigines? A small Scottish town of shopkeepers? Often in the same myth it moves from one place to the other. But the simple fact is that it never existed. No such village has ever been found, nor will it be. As Graeber shows in some detail, contrary to the barter-money-credit sequence of the myth, credit may well have preceded money, and barter is a side product, happening only in places that have already come to know money. On that last point, the common “return to barter” account during economically difficult times – in the early Middle Ages or in Russia and eastern Europe in the 1990s or today in Greece and other countries severely affected by the rolling economic crisis that began in 2008 – takes place only within the framework of monetarized economies.

Graeber expresses some frustration at the sheer pervasiveness of Adam Smith’s myth, working overtime to show that it is not original to Smith and that the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against it. One source of his frustration is that a crucial founding myth is not empirically falsifiable. No amounts of “facts” will dent the power of the myth, as Sorel showed so well many years ago (Reflections on Violence). Instead, it is more worthwhile to ask what truth the myth expresses, given that a myth is always split between fiction and a deeper and not always pleasant truth (part of its mixed heritage).

That truth is that Smith, in resuscitating and refining the myth, had a distinct agenda: he wanted to create a new being, “the economy.” The definite article is crucial, for “the” economy was to be distinct entity, with its own rules, its own dynamic that is distinct from politics, the state, and above all religion. What better way to do so than reconstruct a myth in which “the” economy arose as a natural expression of human nature? But why did he wish to create such a being? A new field of study needed an object to study, the discipline of economics. And in order to ensure that this discipline was not bereft of an object of study, “the economy” was created.

It is worth noting that Smith was really completing a process that began with the earlier work of Hobbes and Locke from the seventeenth century. They provide an explicit but incomplete path from the Bible and theology to economics, at times seeking continuities and at others offering a narrative of movement beyond the Bible. Smith’s achievement was to bring the process to a definitive break: economics as both discipline and reality was no longer tied to theology. Or rather, it was sublimated as a moral tension between compassion and self-interest.

In other words, the myth of origin is crucial to the very formation of the discipline of what we would now call classical economics. To dump the myth would mean to dismantle the discipline as now understood. I would prefer another formulation: economics would turn out to be inseparable from social relations, politics, and religion.

Following my earlier post about the mythical status of that common assumption that getting a chill will give you a cold, my mother decided to write to me as follows:

Now I did tell you you’d catch a cold when you met me at the station all wet in the cool evening air! Especially as you were first cycling and warm, and then had to go and walk slowly with your mum. It proves once again that folk wisdom is not to be ignored.

However, it is more likely your immune system was challenged by stress: too much tiling late in the night and getting organised for a time overseas. And a whole lot more I don’t know about. And then the flight and of course your age.

I can now reply with a phrase my mother, the scientist, uses so often, ‘you unscientific clot’. But it also illustrates the sheer power of myth.

‘Close the window or I’ll get a stiff neck and a cold’.

‘Don’t go to bed with wet hair or you’ll get a cold’.

‘Put on something warm so you don’t catch a cold’.

Since I am recovering from a common cold, these and other pieces of everyday wisdom have been circulating in my thick head. I have heard them from ostensibly intelligent people after swimming in the Black Sea when the water was a ‘chilly’ 25 degrees, from people who have imbibed them with their mother’s milk and regurgitate them unthinkingly, from my many wives and fruits of my loins at every conceivable opportunity. And I love trotting them out with an ironic twist whenever the chance arises.

But what’s interesting about this one is how useless dry, rational, scientific ‘facts’ are. No matter how often some specialist tells us that you don’t catch from a chill, from wet hair, from not wearing a scarf, people simply keep telling the same grand old story. No matter how regularly you come across explanations that viruses may enter your body from water droplets, from door handles, from touching someone who has the virus, it makes no difference – ‘don’t get a chill or you’ll catch a cold’ is as safe as ever.

At this quotidian level, it reflects the power of myths, legends, beliefs – and a bloody good thing it is too. So next time someone opens a window for fresh air in winter, tell them, ‘shut that pneumonia hole or I’ll get a stiff neck …’

The debate over repatriation continues on James Harding’s facebook page (see also my earlier post on this). Thrust, parry, counter-thrust and changes of position: if there is an identifiable culture and tradition, then repatriation is perfectly justifiable – artefacts, skeletons etc in Australia, New Zealand etc. But not if there is no identifiably continuous tradition from an ancient society, such as the faded empires of the Middle East. Is Iraq in any way the successor to ancient Babylon, or Turkey of the Medes, or Iran of Persia, or Israel of ancient Israel?

As for the question of money, tourist dollars and so on, Deane Galbraith suggests, somewhat mischievously, that Egypt owes Germany in the Nefertiti case, since she didn’t become the glamorous queen, an object of veneration, until she was secreted away to Berlin. Only then did she become a commodity of the museum economy.

But let’s put the dubious question of continuity aside, as well as the creation of museum commodities. I would suggest that the drive to establish and fill imperial museums in the late 18th and especially 19th centuries had much to do with the recovery of myth. As Bruce Lincoln shows so well, it is from this time that we get the argument that myth expresses a ‘deeper truth’, that it has some historical ‘trace’ and is therefore fundamental for the identity of a people. Up until this time, myth was the stuff of children’s stories, cute accounts that came from the childhood of humanity, but not the concern of serious adults. (We still operate with this bifurcation in the meaning of myth: fiction and deeper truth. It shows up when a knowledgeable wanker says, ‘common people may think that myth means fiction, but we know that it really means a fundamental truth’.)

However, when northern Europe finally began shedding its self-perception as a barbaric backwater, it did at least two things: began to argue that human civilisation began in the north and recovered the various northern myths as expressions of that origin and of the distinct identity of the north. The key idea was the Volk, expressed most clearly in the Aryan hypothesis. The Nazis, for instance, pushed the line that civilisation may well have begun north of the Arctic Circle (as a now dead and bum-grabbing Classics Professor here at Newcastle, Godfrey Tanner, once used to argue on the basis of Sanskrit texts – and yes, he did grab my bum on occasion). When the Aryan hypothesis began to show its unwelcome side – blood and soil and so on – it mutated into the Indo-European hypothesis. Greek, Latin and Sanskrit were all of the same language group, which then fed into the European languages we know today. Even the heights of Indian culture – the Rig Veda etc – were the products of Aryan invaders from the north, who brought intelligence, culture, religion, to the dark-skinned peoples.

What has all this got to do with museums and Nefertiti? Since the cradle of civilisation had moved north, away from the Fertile Crescent, we needed to move all those artifacts to the north as well. Couldn’t have them sitting around in Egypt and Mesopotamia, now could we? They might give the wrong impression that civilisation started there. Since they were really accidents of history, it would be better to put them where real civilisation began, take care of them properly, away from the careless barbarians.