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Saturday, August 7, 2021

Human Savagery Is Innate, Permanent, And Inevitable – Wishful Thinking Will Not Make It Go Away

Josef Conrad was fascinated by the primitive savagery in human nature, and in telling the story of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness he describes it.  Kurtz, who goes out to Africa as part of a civilizing mission – not only would he manage an important mining operation  but he would bring Western, enlightened civilization to the primitive tribes of Central Africa.  The longer he lives in the jungle, the more he is attracted by the savagery of its inhabitants who participate in strange, powerful, bloody human sacrifice.  This potent religious offering, he sees, is not simply barbarity – an inchoate, violent expression of an untamed human nature – but a purposeful , spiritual act.   Savagery is not the worst part of the human soul, he concludes, but only an expression of its desire to please, honor, and respect the gods of the jungle.

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A man of two cultures Kurtz cannot help but notice the very secular, political power held by the shamans of the tribe.  They were the ones who invoked the deities, who supplicated them, and who appeased them through the bloody sacrifice of young women; and thanks to this invocatory power, he ruled the tribe.  They were beholden to him as the intercessor between them and the gods, the one on whose authority and immanent power their lives depended.

At first Kurtz is in awe of the sacrifices and of the received power they conferred on the priest who performed them.  Over time he not only subscribed to the primitivism of the rituals, but saw how using and manipulating them, he could be accorded the same respect, obedience, and emotional slavery as the priests.

His vision of an ennobling, inordinately powerful, and politically conferring act goes wrong.  His Western reason, judgement, respect for process, order, and justice cannot be removed or even conveniently put aside.  The rituals he has observed in the jungle and has approved, adopted, and made his own are no more than savagery, expressions of a primitive, unschooled, superstitious existence.  Because he has fallen so completely for this ethos, taken it as an instrument of power without reflection, he realizes that all human beings are capable of such falls from Christian rectitude and are as savage as the natives of the jungle.

“The horror, the horror’, whispered by Kurtz just before his death, was his final acceptance of his untamed, primitive soul and the inescapable barbarity of it.   The wilderness was not just an environment, but something alive, a complete, integral organism both prehistoric and terrifying in which men who, equally primeval  and uncivilized, were reminders of humanity’s savage beginnings.

Perhaps the greatest spectacle of collective and individual savagery the world has ever seen was the bloody civilian slaughter of civilian populations  by the mounted armies of Genghis Khan which burst out of the Asian steppes and conquered lands from Europe to the Far East.  They did it through brutality and intimidation, unmitigated savagery, and universal violence.  Populations cowered at his arrival, decapitated heads of resisters were impaled on spikes, and blood and carnage fouled the streets as his armies advanced.  There was no temperance, no moral reflection, no hesitancy – just unrestrained mercilessness.

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Such barbaric savagery was common in early America.  Jonathan Foreman, writing in The Daily Mail, writing about the Comanches, said:

No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.  There was a ‘demonic immorality’ of Comanche attacks on white settlers, the way in which torture, killings and gang-rapes were routine. ‘The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward.  All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed.
One by one, the children and young women were pegged out naked beside the camp fire, according to a contemporary account. They were skinned, sliced, and horribly mutilated, and finally burned alive by vengeful women determined to wring the last shriek and convulsion from their agonized bodies. Children died screaming under the high plains moon.’

Not only were the Comanche specialists in torture, they were also the most ferocious and successful warriors — indeed, they become known as ‘Lords of the Plains’. They were as imperialist and genocidal as the white settlers who eventually vanquished them.
When they first migrated to the great plains of the American South in the late 18th century from the Rocky Mountains, not only did they achieve dominance over the tribes there, they almost exterminated the Apaches, among the greatest horse warriors in the world.

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Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian provides a fictionalized account of the Glanton mercenary army, paid by Mexican authorities to kill Apaches and to bring back their scalps.  The army was as ruthless, amoral, and brutal as the Comanches led by White Wolf. As McCarthy describes it, bloodletting and inhuman savagery became endemic, and Glanton’s gang killed at will and at random.  Slaughter of Mexican villagers was common, a trifle, a diversion.  Brutality is not just one part of an otherwise civilized nature.  It is the part. 

When Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the village people were running out under the horses' hooves and the horses were plunging and some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging the victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy. There were in the camp a number of Mexican slaves and these ran forth calling out in Spanish and were brained or shot and one of the Delawares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew and humans on fire came shrieking forth like berserkers and the riders hacked them down with their enormous knives and a young woman ran up and embraced the bloodied forefeet of Glanton's warhorse

There is no pity among the mercenaries, no distinction made between combatants and civilian; or between men and women and children.  All are not only fair game, but hunted game, brought down, skewered, disemboweled without care or category.  Brutality has not infected these men. It was always there, an integral part of what it was to be human.  The marauding, scalping raids simply brought it to the surface, legitimized it, gave it full rein.

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Angola (LA) Maximum Security Prison up until recent, modest reforms, was as savage and primitive as Conrad’s jungle. It was an an inversion of society.  While the same rules of human nature apply among inmates – survival, self-interest, and territorialism –  there are no consequences to the violent expressions of it.  Since Angola is a maximum security facility where inmates serve multiple life sentences for murder, there is even more reason to reject whatever socialized patterns of regularized life exist on the outside.  No received wisdom here, no Commandments, no liturgy, no Christian conscience.

It is hard to imagine the brutality of a society without moral consequences.  The inversion is even more twisted, since the guards, faced with the pure, hateful menace of violent inmates who long ago shed the last vestiges of usual morality, also lose theirs: Not only did inmates subject each other to ‘unspeakable rites’, the prison guards were complicit in the amoral mayhem.

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Although one might be quick to dismiss Angola prison as an exception – the violent, amoral men incarcerated there must be an exception – serious philosophers have doubted the essential goodness of human nature. David Brooks wrote a recent article in which he asked, “Why do good people do bad?”; and perhaps more importantly, since we are programmed from birth to be self-protective and aggressive and to expand our perimeters and secure our interests – all of which has led inevitably to violence among people, families, and nations - why doesn’t this happen more often?  Brooks wrote:

John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside. 

As C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors.

Daniel Goldhagen has written (Hitler’s Willing Executioners) about the complicity of the German people in the Nazi holocaust.  Although he is quick to point out that the Nazis were careful to try to hide the actual horror of the camps and the ovens from ordinary citizens, he concludes that they had to know.  There was no way that Jews could disappear with such regularity without some suspicion raised; and no way that such a government-sponsored, universal program of extermination could possibly be hidden.  Regular, church-going, moral Germans were guilty of the sin of omission – they knew about the summary extermination of the Jews and did nothing about it.   Goldhagen appreciates the power of the intimidation of the SS – demonstration against the regime would be met by death – but still cannot condone or forgive the apparently universal acceptance of The Final Solution.

Not only are we all capable of horror, we are equally capable of sitting by while others commit it.  Moreover, and perhaps even more telling, is the fact that we like violence.

The battles of the Aztecs, in addition to classic military strategy, organization, and purpose added a powerful spiritual element.  Soldiers dressed in the skins of animals whose spirits they possessed. felt that when they attacked the enemy, they killed like a panther would; or ripped and tore flesh like an eagle.

The army of Montezuma which pursued the enemy across the Mexican highlands was not just comprised of men, it was made up of powerful animal spirits. It was the panther which killed, the eagle which ripped enemy flesh, and the jaguar which tore at enemy throats. There could be no greater spectacle of battle than that of the great Aztec armies and the wild soldiers dressed in animal skins, talons, and feathers charging across the plains.

Hindu philosophy teaches cycles of destruction and regeneration as the natural order, but the destruction is much more human than the regeneration.  Nietzsche believed that an expression of pure Will – one beyond morality, beyond good and evil – is the only thing that validates our humanity.  The F-16 fighter pilot raining terror from the skies, the panther man ripping the throat out of his enemy, or Genghis Khan, Nietzsche’s perfect Superman rampaging his way through the civilized world, are all very much like us all.

Although we may live in a quiet, orderly, predictable world, there is something violently primitive still in us all; and as much as we talk about peace, community, and diversity, we cannot ignore it.

Our religions have become tame and tepid compared to the animistic and supremely powerful religions of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, where the Zapotecs worshiped thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and violent storms and sacrificed their own to appease their gods.

The world will still have wars.  They will be violent and damaging but they will be tame wars. Acts of human will and expressions of pure power are – for the time being – things of the past.  T.S. Eliot was never more right when he wrote:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

So, what then of those who claim the opposite. Territorialism, war, civil conflict, ethnic rivalry and 10,000 years of violent human history, they say, have nothing to do with a hardwired, questionable nature, but all to do with circumstance and the precarious nature of existence.  Once that precariousness is removed  - when social and economic parity is achieved and there is enough for all – violence will disappear.  There is such a thing as Utopia, and with dedication, perseverance, will, and resources, we can all reach it.

Nothing whatsoever in human history even suggests the viability of this claim.  If anything, the Twentieth Century was one of the most violent, bloody, brutal, and unprogressive of any; and the 21st will undoubtedly follow suit.  There can be little optimism here. 

If the history of violence has never altered; if civil and military conflict are as much a part of human society as collaboration; and if there is a glorious and valorous aspect to war, it will never disappear.  Conrad, McCarthy, and Tolstoy were as right as rain.

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