Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I've been thinking about this word savage and the many ways it's used, but I really wanted to post something about it when I came across this photo, which I barely even have words to describe. I mean, that body is so completely what a body should be, and that human is so at one with his environment that it's almost a kind of camouflage image, like the photos one sometimes sees in biology books about a particular moth or lizard that can barely be detected against a leaf or other facet of landscape. Anyway, Dr. Phil's entry nicely parses out the various kinds of savages we have in our world and also points out that savagery is in the eye of the beholder. I also like that Phil brings in the classic words of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.

. Someone living in a state of little or no civilization or thought of as living close to nature; a primitive, brutal, or fierce person. The term derives originally from the Latin silvaticus, "of the woods, wild," from silva, "wood" or "forest."

has been applied by Europe­ans to other Europeans (the Irish, inhab­iting the earliest English frontier, were known as "savages" by the English) or to anyone behaving in a manner Euro­peans have defined as "savage." Most often, however, it is reserved for non­-European peoples. Similarly, many Asians, using their own words (e.g., Japanese Keto, "hairy barbarian") and concepts, have depicted Europeans as inferior beings deficient in manners and morals. Traditional, indigenous peoples around the world, especially upon first encountering Europeans, have held simi­lar unflattering views of their white guests (see Julius E. Lips's The Savage Hits Back, 1966, for an account of the native perspective on Europeans).

There are different European fictions of savagery, stereotypical but not neces­sarily negative. Western civilization has created at least three kinds of savage: (1) The noble savage--blessed, at one with nature, and innocent until the arrival of Europeans. The noble savage, such as the Tahitian of the eighteenth century--­also known as a "soft primitive," a stereotype of abundance and luxury of lifestyle--was held up as a mirror for the European, whose own culture came off looking bad by comparison. (2) The "ignoble savage" was said to be cultur­ally degraded, vicious, and idolatrous; overall, barely human. This convention was popular among European colonialists engaged in acts of dispos­session and subjugation of those per­ceived as inferior, exploitable, or intrac­table--for example, the "red devils" of white American fiction, depicted as given to massacre, scalping, and drunk­enness. Also there was (3) the "roman­tic savage," a devotee of freedom and of his or her race--courageous, emotional, and childlike (e.g., Herman Melville's Queequeg, in
Moby Dick).

“Savagery has been, for the reading public of the last three centuries, a reservoir of unexpected possibilities in human nature; and the savage has had to adorn this or that hypothesis by becoming cruel or noble, licen­tious or chaste, cannibalistic or hu­mane, according to what suited the observer of the theory.” --Bronislaw Malinowski, The Sexual Life of Savages, 1929,537

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