Sunday, March 14, 2010

Savage Nobility?

I am unsure how to go about explaining my interest in noble savagery. It’s a bad term. But I feel like it communicates something that I want to be a part of. Something that really means something to me. But without the connotations of colonialism and ignorance of other cultures etc. What I really want it to communicate is that language/reason should be subservient to emotion/experience. Emotion/experience should always come first. I often think that popular opinion believes the inverse; that emotion/experience should obey the rule of language/reason. Bull shittttt.

Historically that is what the term noble savage seems to have meant. That an ‘indigenous,‘ ‘uncivilized person,‘ a ‘savage,’ was capable of embracing civilization and shedding their impulsive and animalistic ways in favor of logical control of the self. What I am seeking is to flip this on its head. I feel like I live an overcivilized world. All this emphasis on language and science and self-control and reason and logic and fuck that. Crying is so much easier. Being furious is so much easier. Feeling is so much easier than thinking. And somehow we have this idea that thinking logically is ‘what we do.’ And let me say right now I do not buy it for a second. I have read a number of books that trace the existence of the West’s logocentric view. The best I have seen so far are by Guy Claxton, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind and The Wayward Mind. Claxton is a British psychologist and a practicing Buddhist. Smart guy, I really like reading him. I’m sure there are other very good ones too.

But anyways, so how is it that we can change the relationship between emotion/experience and language/reason so that we can begin to think of emotion/experience the guiding force? And is that really what I am after? This has perhaps been a vague notion of mine for a little while. Savagery, that is. When I read Angels by Denis Johnson the blurb on the front was very striking, as was the entire book. But the blurb said ‘Mr. Johnson has written a savage and dazzling first novel.’ And now that I think about it, I think this book is actually a convenient avenue for explaining my inclination towards ‘savagery’ in general. I used quotes because I have realized how muddled this term is in my mind right now. Navigating the connotations is interesting.

So sure, I will use my experience of reading Angels as an avenue for addressing this idea of noble savagery. So, I guess first I want to talk about my experience of reading Angels. The story is about a woman who leaves her husband with her two small children, ends up meeting an ex-marine/ex-con and they ‘get into some shit’ involving drugs, rape, multiple robberies including a bank robbery. Essentially, these are American savages. These are people whose lives are governed more by impulse and happenstance, more by sex and violence, more by emotion/experience than by language/reason. The story is quite engrossing. I found it overwhelming in the best way. I had a friend tell me that he didn’t like it because he found nothing to identify with in these characters. That they were too extreme. That their pain, their plight was too unrealistic. Bull shit. I found the story universal. I guess I will draw one conclusion from this story in the form of a question with an obvious answer: What is it that made these people do what they did? Why would behave this way? What could spurn such violence, drug use, and ‘recklessness?’ (I quote this because it is implicitly value laden and I don’t want to give the sense that I disapprove, or I find these characters detestable. I have infinite sympathy for these characters).

So why would these people act this way? In a way considered forbidden by Western views? Ummm, because they are savages? Ah, this is so interesting writing this out because these are views I have been holding for a long time and trying to get them out is interesting. Proving that the O’Connor quote on my first post is indeed somewhat true. Anyways, to ask the question ‘why do they act like savages?’. My friends answer was simple, they are crazy, they are brutal, they are stupid, etc. It would be easy to write off that sort of experience as madness or stupidity. However, this assumes that the nature of human life is civilization, that we exist primarily as beings using our rationality/language to make ‘choices.’ Like little scientists every day deducing the proper path and then implementing our logical plans.

I am proposing that the very nature of life is constant savage compulsion through time. That the nature of human existence is to feel violent and sexual and angry and confused. To react to changing and uncertain circumstances without the benefit of reflection. That living is about doing feeling doing feeling doing feeling and NOT thinking writing thinking writing thinking writing. I am very curious about the connection between science and the idea of choice/responsibility. In what historical moment were people first able to conceptualize something like choice? It would be interesting to see what other sorts of events it coincided with. Does it have something to do with science and logocentrism? Who knows, historical research for the future, no doubt.

One of the major directions that this whole thing leads me to is the different ways of conceptualizing action. The idea that we are beings who primarily use language/reason allows us to conceptualize action in terms of choice, and responsibility. These concepts are soooo very important to our sense of morality in the West. But what if life is not driven by choice/responsibility, but by things like happenstance, impulse, desire? In short, what if life is compelled by emotion/experience far more than it is chosen by language/reason? Well, then, I find myself trying navigate a middle ground in which we need to account for these deterministic factors without totally giving up up on the notion of choice and responsibility. I have often conceptualized the relationship between determinism and free will through imagery, namely the image of a river and the individuals ability to struggle in said river. Fleshing out this idea of the river metaphor will probably be one of my next posts but for now I will only make a few points. By thinking of ourselves as in constant movement through a river accounts for things that I think must be in any account of human freedom and behavior: 1. our constant movement through time 2. the inability to foresee of many crucial events in life 3. the uniqueness of individuals lives 4. the relative nature of all action 5. the limitations that circumstance sets in our lives 6. and the ability to act within predetermined circumstance.

Let me try to bring this whole business back to noble savagery. The noble savage was a concept that is based on a faulty assumption: that people inherently exist as civilized individuals who operate primarily through language/reason. So, therefore, a noble savage was a primitive or ‘inferior’ being who operated more by emotion and impulse than reason. Yet, he attained his ‘nobility’ by learning to overcome these impulses in favor of civilization, language, reason, etc.

As I have said, I think that emotion/experience is far more important to most human lives than language/reason. So then, if what we have typically called ‘savage‘ is essentially the nature of human life, then how are we to think of our ‘civil’ selves? Ummmm. Well, it seems to me that we need to change the definition of what it means to be a noble savage. What I am proposing is not a full blown retreat from civilization. It certainly has all kinds of great things to offer. Comfort, medicine, stability, etc. But how to deal with the persistence of very violent crimes and other things we see as counter to civilization?

As an individual living in the West I feel overwhelmed by words. They seem to be everywhere and shape the way I think about pretty much everything. They are inescapable. They are limited. So the task is to reverse the morality of the term ‘noble savage.’ Savage is a positive word in my mind. It signifies the ability to lose yourself in feeling, to follow your daydreams without concern for their purpose, to love and to hate, to scream and to cry, to run and to hide and to sleep and to fear. All of these things could not be more real and could not be more human/animal. But logocentrism has, in many instances, made these natural feelings seem perverse or bad. It has made us averse to intense swings of emotion. Scared us of ourselves. Of how very much we can love and hate. So, then, the task is to make savagery akin to experiencing life on the level of emotion and experience.

So how to redefine noble? I think it is noble to admit that you can never say everything that you feel or think. To admit that life is driven by compulsion and intense feelings, by circumstances and unreflective action. To admit that we will never be in complete control of ourselves or our lives. It is noble to admit that words and reason are just not good enough. Above all, however, nobility is about not giving up on language and reason, but radically redefining what it is that we are trying to do with them. Rather than using language/reason to suppress or control our emotions we need to use them to get to a space where we are capable of feeling them without words. A rational pursuit that is ultimately about enjoying sensation in its rawest, ineffable form. This reminds me of The Picture of Dorian Gray. At one point Lord Henry speaks of New Hedonism. Forgive any misquotes or w/e, I don’t have the book with me. But at one point Lord Henry says that he wants to found a new theory of pleasure. One that is aimed at enhancing the experience of pleasure itself. How can this be done? How can language be used to embrace things that are inherently ineffable? How to use words to approach the wordless? Well, it is, actually, the only way that it can be done. Language is the only thing we have.

Now for a little imagery. When we use language we are searching for something. Typically it seems to be used in an attempt to control, to understand. This is an endless quest. We will never have a perfect knowledge of the world. We will always be changing out understanding. perhaps refining it, but there will be no end to language’s pursuit of knowledge. Similarly, any use of language that is meant to enhance experience, or to heighten emotional awareness, or to feel more of life, is also an endless quest. Because so long as we are using language we are not actually entering that world of pure experience and emotion. So then, a moment ago I laughed out loud because of an image that struck me. Then I just fleshed it out in words for myself. Given what I said above, about language’s infinite nature, it is interesting to visualize its use as a line that extends infinitely in both directions. At the center is the mind using the language. In one direction is language in pursuit of more knowledge, articulation in search of articulation. In the other direction language is in pursuit of emotion/experience, articulation in pursuit of the ineffable. Ultimately, the latter, is what I want for language. I want it to be placed back into the pursuit of emotion and experience. I want to, and I do, FEEL so much more than I THINK. I think quite a lot. And quite often the more I think, the more it helps me feel.

This writing is incoherent and if you actually read all of this and find it in the least bit interesting that would be pretty fascinating to me. I have expressed these ideas to very few people in depth. And I have never tried to articulate them on paper in a coherent or systematic fashion. This took about an hour and 45 minutes to type this. It was mostly a stream of sorts. Groping my way through my ideas as I went.

But I would like to offer an extremely brief summary:
I want to reverse the connotations of the two terms ‘noble’ and ‘savage’. For me, Savagery is the fundament of life. It is compulsion, inarticulate emotion and wordless experience. And nobility has to do with the way in which language is employed in life. Typically, articulation would be employed to attain more complex articulation. But I think it is noble to use language in the pursuit of the ineffable. I want to use language to pursue something that is fundamentally different than itself, words must chase experiences, articulation must pursue the ineffable. Endlessly.

This is deeply connected to my views on history, fiction, lots of things. I will chase these ideas in later posts hopefully. This feels ridiculous. ITALICS.

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