The Noble Savage (by Chagnon)

I think I’ve mostly reached a point where books are “stimulating” rather than life-altering, and that’s good — the idea that another reaffirms or provokes us rather than opposes us or forces us to question ourselves. The account of the Amazonian tribesmen in “The Noble Savage” mostly affirmed what I already suspected — that they were pretty much exactly like us — I mean, in their deceit, self-alienation, hypocrisy, and so on — there but for the grace of police stations and butcher shops go I, so Conrad would say … but it also offered a tantalizing way to reconceive of my own project. The biggest thing, the most conspicuous thing absent from “The Noble Savage” is an account of guilt. The book’s overt political project, leftism bashing, is mostly agreeable to me, but it verges on preaching to the choir. You know there comes a point when you should probably ignore about 90% of intellectuals as not really worth talking to and not really worth the task of serious critique either. Hmm. Well I pause here because — I had originally intended to say that the interesting link that the book afforded me was the link between guilt and violence, between the private and the social. Guilt is a highly personal thing, it is that vague notion of self-awareness that is, basically, what makes leftist intellectuals so unbearable, and what makes, indeed, the natives themselves so unbearable. Those goddamn happy natives. Is it the task, then, of the missionaries or of modern man, to bring guilt to the primitive man, as has been the story in so many cases? In fact, no, because guilt is already the organizing principle of that culture, in the form of violence. (And it is this endemic nature of violence of guilt that makes me pause above.)

There are two things I want to talk about here — (1) a personal anecdote and (2) the Conradian expression, “city of death”.

(1) The most annoying thing about people, and what so irks me about them, is how loud they are, how they always have something to say. They always ahve something to say because they live in a bubble where everything is already figured out — they and their sentimentalism. I must speak of sentimentalism here. Sentimentalism is absolutely not the sort of guilt I refer to here — it is actually simply the inverse but equivalent of that jabbering happiness (you might think about the Apollonian and the Dionysian here). I mean, let’s not make the error of believing that those jabbering idiots are somehow naive. They aren’t naive — they are aware of all those darker forces there too. But they believe that the essentially human is that which occupies that bubble. The sentimental is simply the state of man taken away from that bubble. But guilt is a new world founded on something other than that bubble — we will get to this later.

I react badly to this attitude, I mean, now that I reflect back on it in this context, my behavior makes more sense. I remember that my aunt from China visited me a few months ago, to see the US and such. She was definitely one of my favorite people growing up but as I spent more time with her she began to wear on me. Her fascination with cultures and rituals annoyed me, and it annoyed me how… generously she viewed people. Now, mind, I am aware of that people do things for money, and so is she, I mean, that people are “truely” motivated by greed, selfishness and so on. But even that is still part and parcel of the sentimental attitude — it simply views the “ideal” state of the man as, again, that which is essential, and perhaps even more valuable because of its ephemerality.

I still remember the last little talk I had before she left. She knew about my condition, I mean, my sorry employment, and advised me to change directions in life or something along those lines. That really irked me — I felt like she viewed my condition far too sentimentally, as I was someone stoically living in solitude outside of that bubble and that all I wanted was to get back in, to be accepted. I did something quite consciously in response, I blamed her. I mean, obviously, not for ruining my life or anything, but for not really listening to me. I questioned her about what I just said. I tried to make her feel guilty about something. It didn’t “work”, but thinking about it now, my behavior does sort of make sense.

What I did could be considered a form of “violence” I guess. Violence is the attempt here to make someone see — namely, to aknowledge an intention that was strictly outside of the bubble of sentimentalism, but which was nonetheless still human. That last chat, and that sudden shift in strategy, that sudden performance of mine, was sort of an act of desperation. As Conrad said, I may have been happy with leaving them confused. Well, let me be precise, my basic strategy was to stop talking to her and instead to quiz her on what I was saying. She couldn’t really respond, of course, not many people can. What annoyed me was how I was drawn into that “jabber” I spoke about above. This sort of reminds me of a Keats poem:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That though wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience calmed — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.

I believe this poem was basically Keats’s last words, and here, too, we see the kind of absolute selfishness, but of a self that has — not so much died — but transformed into icy death. The “warm grasping” is exchanged for a kind of haunting which may be related to the “endemic” role of “violence” that I spoke of above.

But I mean, for my aunt, just to finish up that chat, there was a moment when I was “not myself” you could say, but not, on the other hand, simply a kind of happy savage. It was a moment when I tried to channel something else. My points were not all that important, but what I desperately wanted to do was make the point that I wasnot merely talking, merely “jabbering”, not merely something to be warmly embraced. There are a few ways to think about my performance. Maybe this involved the evoking of a kind of holistic intentionality that was sort of embedded in the word itself, the precision of the meaning there. I wanted to make her feel like aintruder perhaps, upon such a realm. This is not, in fact, in the final analysis, perhaps, merely the persuasion towards truely listening to another — since — well, I have this expression, “technicolor sunshine”. I wrote earlier, on Facebook, that “Insight less resembles a portal and more a chesspeices”. Here, insight and sunshine both metaphorize the same sort of thing, but sunsahine connotes an era that lasts, the time of sunshine or the time of daylight. A sunshine of technics, a time when a certain mode of insight dominates — and not merely a time that is reached by stepping through the portal of understanding.

(2) I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulcher. (Heart of Darkness)


Let’s actually return to the violence of the savages, and in particular, to the metaphysical understanding of this violence. Here at this point we will have to, actually, cease paying attention to their own explanations, which are often notoriously bad, notoriously pragmatic. If we were to believe them we would indeed be forced to reach the conclusion that the history of civilization were nothing but the history of criminality in triumph. The way in which violence escapes their apparent control involves the metaphysical stakes of violence which establishes it as some independent element, a life of its own….

Honesty, I have nothing in this regard… I need to read the book a bit more.


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