“Savages Who Speak French”: Folklore, Primitivism and Morals in Robert Hertz

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Isnart, Cyril (2006)

Hertz's analysis of the Alpine cult of Saint Besse apparently marks a break from his studies of death, sin and the left to folkloric studies. This analysis helps one to understand the personality of Robert Hertz. His sociological curiosity about folklore reveals his ambiguous position in social sciences at the beginning of the twentieth century. His text appears to be a variation from the Durkheimian norm, but another reading could suggest that Hertz continued and went beyond Durkheimian thought to something between sociology of the modern world and engaged socialism. Through this study, Hertz linked his political ideals, his work in ethnology and his desire for social involvement. The cult of Saint Besse perpetuated as much religious tradition as local identity. The Alpine people were presented in the text as wilful perpetuators of an ideal social order, whose loss for his contemporary city dwellers Hertz feared. The alpine Other, marked by a material and moral backwardness, represented for activist and socialist Hertz one of the paths of balanced social organization that stabilized the identity of a group across time if it fit rather well into the folkloric stereotypes of the beginning of the twentieth century. Finally, by linking events in Herz's life (e.g., the accidental Alpine death of his father), this article suggests that the legend of Saint Besse embodied several recurring motifs in Hertz' career: the accidental deaths of saint and father by falls, the military role of the saint and of Hertz himself.
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