Notes on Torgovnick, Chapter 9, “Adventurers”
– Westerners seek the primitive so as to find a home: often having to do with their own needs, not those of the other, and not common needs. Examples: Blair getting to experience a cosmic dream (in the sixties, originally funded by Ringo Starr); Schneebaum among the Asmat, where homosexual practices are allowed. But note that among the Asmat the Blair had been terrified when the prospect of getting killed and eaten had reared its head! They went there to film and make money on the film, but when things got sticky, they wanted an airlift. That is why Blair had more fun in Bali, where he went subsequently and had his cosmic dream. “We had found a home,” he said.
– So “going primitive” means a search for home and origins. We seek in the primitive a time before our troubles arose. In doing so, we construct the primitive as less advanced than we. By saying the primitive is ahistorical we bring it into the circle of our needs. We cannot let it have its own history separate from ours – it has to occupy a place at the beginning of our history – because if we allowed it a separate history, it would not fulfill our desires. Also, the primitive must be available and accessible to us. If not, once again, it cannot meet our needs.
– People particularly interested in finding a home in the primitive tend to be or feel exiled from their own societies (e.g. Schneebaum, a homosexual; Boas, uncomfortable in Germany due to rising anti-Semitism there; Malinowski, caught in Australia due to WWI).
– The Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukács coined the term “transcendental homelessness” as descriptor of the modern condition. Georges Bataille, the 20th French philosopher, wanted to transcend the anxiety of selfhood through cannibalism, human sacrifice, suicide – the obliteration of self in otherness.
– Leaving the city for the jungle in these contexts is very attractive. Yet colonialism and modernization have, paradoxically, brought the city and the jungle into closer and closer contact – and often the jungle is not the “wild” in the sense of being “pure” but is rather the rough underside of “civilization.” To the cities flock destitute primitives, who there become the urban poor. And the jungle becomes a place of “wild” capitalism and exploitation. In this context primitive art objects are more and more important in urban and elite spaces – university galleries, museums, well-heeled houses.
– Western discourse on the primitive is about control and domination, but also about desire, about seeking salve for wounds, and about fear of losing power. And yet not every version of the primitive is the same. “When versions of the primitive show specific historical and cultural variations, they expose different aspects of the West itself. Primitivism is thus not a ‘subtopic’ of modernism or postmodernism: to study primitivism’s manifold presence is to recontextualize modernity.” (193)
STUDY QUESTION: Consider the bolded sentence in relation to La vorágine.