Rousseau and Cameron meet Mr Checkhov

The noble savage as characterised by Jean Jacques Rousseau has been repeated in a variety of venues. The 19th century Slavophile movement in Russia idolized the “simple” peasant. Thomas Jefferson repeated that notion with his political writings emphasizing the single family farm as a bedrock of American democracy. Karl Marx distinguished the “proletariat” and their virtues over the decadence of the bourgeoisie. James Cameron’s Avatar is just the last in a long line of works of art to capitalize on this theme. I should say “apparently” when speak of Avatar as I’m basing this on numerous reviews and essays and not a personal viewing of the film, which I yet still intend to accomplish but I think I’m on safe ground making those comparisons. If the sentiments in this film, idolizing the noble savage, being at “one” with nature, and the inherent evils of corporate ethics are shared by much of the left, then there are two problems with this notion.

The first problem is location. Mr Cameron as part of the artistic elite is a card carrying member of the ‘decadent’ (recall that groups reaction to Mr Polanski in the news of late, defending the indefensible) and not a member of the savage simple. In the US in fact, the closest thing that would come to Mr Jefferson’s single family farm as an American representative of the noble savage would be the same rural flyover country which he despises and opposes is in fact where those representative might be found. To put it plainly, the elements he would idolize comprise the political faction he at the same time opposes. Oops.

At the same time, this idolization which is fictional in Avatar, requires fiction for fact is alas not so plain. Mr Checkhov (as quoted in Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia on page 255) unlike so many of the peasant lauding 19th century Russian intellectuals, went out and spent time with those same said peasants. He was not impressed. Quoting from Checkhov’s Peasants:

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. The were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspiscion. Who maintains and make the peasants drunk? The peasant. Who embezzles the village, school, and parish funds and spends it all on drink. The peasant. ….

Therein lies the problem, idolization of the savage waxes a little pale and loses its lustre when it comes in final contact with the actual subject. Those savages are just as fallen and prone to the same flaws as those groups which would idolize them. 

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8 comments

  1. Reminds me of Palin’s “real Americans.”

  2. Boonton says:

    Might it be that the romanticization of the ‘noble savage’ is less about actual ‘savages’ and more about a nagging qualm in the back of many people’s minds that modern life, while necessary and great, carries with it something dehumanizing and dishonest?

  3. Mark says:

    JA,
    Read the last paragraph, I am not romanticising any notion of rural America, unlike Jefferson or by association Cameron.

    Boonton,,
    I’d agree that there are a lot of problems with the culture of late modernity … just that the noble savage …. isn’t more noble either.

  4. Mark,

    I agree completely with your main point. I was just pointing out another more contemporary example of the phenomenon.

  5. Boonton says:

    Technically peasents aren’t ‘noble savages’. They are part of modern civilization. They are simply on the bottom rung of the social ladder. The ‘noble savage’ is a culture that is completely untouched by modern civilization.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I think there are strong parallels between Rousseau’s noble savage and the slavophile movement’s notions of what was laudable in the peasantry at the time … or for that matter Jefferson and his estimation of why the rural community was important to democracy. So, yes, technically they aren’t “noble savages” but … so what? Are you arguing that if they really were “untouched” by modern civilization they’d therefore be really ennobled as a consequence?

  7. Boonton says:

    Checkhov’s disgust with the peasentry would be quite familiar to ‘noble savagites’. Checkhov’s drunken peasent is no different than the Native American who has become an addict to the white man’s ‘firewater’. Both are corrupted by their interaction with modern society. The mythos of the ‘noble savage’ is reinforced by your passage from Checkhov. Likewise Jefferson probably would have found some comonality with ideas that the ‘noble farmer’ is corrupted by the ‘big money’ of bankers and the city centers.

  8. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Historically and anthropologically the notion that the alcohol was introduced externally to the peasantry does not hold water.

    Jefferson might have thought that “big city” influences might corrupt rural America … but again it doesn’t hold with reality. Rural living does not confer virtue. Consider Johnny Appleseed … spreading apple trees and planting such a noble notion, except that the primary reason was to make applejack brandy cheaper and more easily accessible. Wife beating, drunkenness, theft, murder and deceit to not require “big city” bankers to accomplish in America or in peasant Russia.