On Being Savage

[27 September 2007]

By Marcelo Ballvé

In his journals and letters, the post impressionist painter Paul Gauguin often declared: “I am a savage.” The whole story of Gauguin, as human being and artist, can be summarized by this statement, which encapsulates his curious way of rebelling against European society.

Art leads one down mysterious rabbit-holes. A relatively late starter as a painter, Gauguin became more and more obsessed with the primitive and the exotic as his art career advanced. In 1887, aged 39, Gauguin was writing to his Danish wife from Paris warning her she wouldn’t be seeing very much of him any longer.

“I am going to Panama to live like a savage,” he wrote. “I will still have to suffer from the absence of my family but will no longer have to live this buggerly life which disgusts me.” Dramatic passages like this abound in the anthology of Gauguin texts, The Writings of a Savage (Da Capo, 1996). The intelligently compiled book offers a textured look into Gauguin’s irascible nature and contagious passion.

When he died of syphilis in 1903, Gauguin was still pursuing his romantic dream of a savage life, which had gradually taken him farther and farther away from France—first to Panama and Martinique, then to Tahiti in the Pacific and finally to the more rugged Marquesas, where he lived his final, half-mad years. These were memorably fictionalized in Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence.

The South Seas
Gauguin was one of those artists who understood the falsity of any division between art and life. He wanted to live the way he painted, and paint what he lived. His famous canvases from Tahiti are mystic manifestos on nature, color, and the human body. They reek of the iconic and the mythic. Gauguin accomplished this in part because he had the courage to abandon Paris for the South Pacific. It’s true there was a lot more squalor and pettiness in Gauguin’s island lifestyle than his paintings of lush landscapes and nude native women would have one believe. But it is also true that Gauguin passed from words to action and embodied the 19th Century fantasy of abandoning the trappings of civilization for the savage life.

Gauguin sometimes attributed his distaste for civilization to the fact that Peruvian blood ran in his veins. His grandmother, Flora Tristan, was half-Peruvian, and a historical figure in her own right: she was an early feminist and socialist leader in France. Gauguin had in fact spent part of his early childhood in Peru (his family briefly emigrated there in 1849). Gauguin later claimed a passion embedded deep in the Peruvian side of his nature impelled him to abandon his lucrative job as a stockbroker and his wife and children, for art and the tropics.

At the time, the Pacific and its island worlds were a popular destination for Europeans and Americans wanting adventure and an escape from the 19th and early 20th Century’s rather narrow notions of progress and civilization. Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Somerset Maugham—these men also drank from the waters of primitivism in Polynesia. Whether they saw native culture through a romantic lens or a satirical viewpoint, the result was the same: a continual comparison to the European, industrialized societies they had left behind and a conclusion that civilization perhaps wasn’t all it was supposed to be. Perhaps the natives, with their mythic and traditional cosmologies and customs, had a better handle on some of the problems of existence.

There’s no doubt that just as racism and oppression of non-Western culture was rampant in this same era, the flip-side was an idealization of the primitive and the savage. As a result, Gauguin’s Tahiti is more fantasy than ethnographic sketch; and the portrait of the Marquesas Islands that Melville offers in his first novel, Typee, is a picaresque, comical variation on Rousseau’s clumsy myth of the noble savage. Still, at the very least, the attraction to the primitive helped artists like Gauguin find new material and forms.

Savage Tourism
All of which leads me to ask, where would one go to find the savage today? Where would one go for an immersion-type experience in savagery as conceptualized by a Gauguin or a young Herman Melville sailing on whaling ships? It’s an interesting question to ask now that the exotic has become simply another family of flavors offered on tourism brochures. Tours can deliver you to the Surinamese rainforest, the tribal Papuan highlands and the Pygmy villages of Southern and Central Africa. Not so long ago I received an e-mail from an acquaintance who had just returned from Africa. It contained a photo of him and his wife, pale and giant, cameras dangling from their necks, towering over a mostly naked pygmy at the entrance to a hut.

There is nothing wrong with encounters of this sort, as long as they take place in a respectful environment and are organized around an equitable exchange. It’s just a fact of our current reality: the primitive, the tribal, the savage, these have become commodities and more often than not of doubtful authenticity. Even those travelers who pride themselves on seeking out and finding the “real deal” and boast about their experiences off the beaten track, they are only the pioneers of the next Potemkin village, advance scouts for the inevitable parade of tourists wielding digital cameras to record their safari among the “savages”.

The fact is that in today’s world, in which most native people live not in forests or island but in cities, savagery has become a state of mind more than anything else. In a world that’s nearly devoid of geographical Empty Quarters and Hearts of Darkness, the primitive has become another lifestyle decision or consumer taste, although perhaps one that retains ethical and artistic interest. For example, we are beginning to recognize that the advance of industrialization and consumerism has led to comprehensive ecological degradation and risk of a human apocalypse. Perhaps a little savagery would be in order: more meaningful contact with nature, for example; a scaling back of wasteful or noxious industrial processes.

The Savage Mind
In a recent book, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) David Graeber poses an interesting question: what if modernity is essentially an illusion? “What if … we are not living in a fundamentally different moral, social, or political universe than the Piaroa or Tiv or rural Malagasy?” Graeber is persuasive, arguing the point that this idea is perhaps not as far-fetched as it sounds. We may have big machines and elegantly powerful computers, but are we more or less savage than we once were?

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the legendary French anthropologist, might be called the world’s leading authority on savagery. In the late ‘30s, he lived among Brazil’s Bororo peoples. After this stint of fieldwork Lévi-Strauss devoted himself to research, reading thousands upon thousands of ethnographies on the world’s disappearing native cultures. One of Lévi-Strauss’s most famous works, The Savage Mind, might be described as a cross-cultural manual of tribal philosophy. The book is too complex and scholarly to abbreviate in a few sentences, but the guiding idea is that native thought and analytical systems are as dizzyingly complex and rich in insight as anything European civilization has devised (though Lévi-Strauss acknowledges that Western science is a far more effective predictive and practical instrument).

Lévi-Strauss’s book is useful because it cuts through thick layers of intercultural misunderstandings so that the Western mind can see that tribal mythologies and classification systems are intellectual apparatuses as finely calibrated as our periodic table of the elements, just less abstract. Lévi Strauss calls savage thought the “science of the concrete”. The savage mind is more grounded, more concerned with local fauna, botany, and geography.

Perhaps, we should adopt Gauguin’s motto and instead of claiming to be savage we should simply try to reclaim what remains of healthful savagery within us, below the layers of social and historical conditioning. Which is to say, we should simply reconnect with what it means to be a human creature inhabiting a given spot on this planet. I suspect it has more to do with bathing in the ocean in the morning, or walking a forest path, or playing with an infant, than it does with winning art prizes or making millions. In other words, the savage isn’t across an ocean, but staring us in the mirror.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/on-being-savage/