03 Jul 2006

Contemporary Rousseauianism Explained

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The traditionalist editorialist of Asia Times, who signs his essays “Spengler,” wonders aloud why falsely idealized fantasies of the primitive have such a strong popular appeal…

Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does popular culture portray primitives as peace-loving folk living in harmony with nature, as opposed to rapacious and brutal civilization? Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which attributes civilization to mere geographical accident, made a best-seller out of a mendacious apology for the failure of primitive society. Wade reports research that refutes Diamond on a dozen counts, but his book never will reach the vast audience that takes comfort in Diamond’s pulp science.

Why is it that the modern public revels in a demonstrably false portrait of primitive life? Hollywood grinds out stories of wise and worthy native Americans, African tribesmen, Brazilian rainforest people and Australian Aborigines, not because Hollywood studio executives hired the wrong sort of anthropologist, but because the public pays for them, the same public whose middle-brow contingent reads Jared Diamond.

Nonetheless the overwhelming consensus in popular culture holds that primitive peoples enjoy a quality – call it authenticity – that moderns lack, and that by rolling in their muck, some of this authenticity will stick to us. Colonial guilt at the extermination of tribal societies does not go very far as an explanation, for the Westerners who were close enough to primitives to exterminate them rarely regretted having done so.

And concludes that the deracinated contemporary worshipper of the Noble Savage is experiencing the transference of his personal nostalgia for his own traditional culture.

An overpowering nostalgia afflicts the American post-Christian, for whom the American journey has neither goal nor purpose. He seeks authenticity in nature and in the dead customs of peoples who were subject to nature, that is, peoples who never learned from the Book of Genesis that the heavenly bodies were lamps and clocks hung in the sky for the benefit of man. Even more: in their mortality, the post-Christian senses his own mortality, for without the Kingdom of God as a goal, American life offers only addictive diversions interrupted by ever-sharper episodes of anxiety.

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