Monday, 5 November 2018

PP #40 The Noble Savage

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) -- a painter whose legacy is not only disputed today, but increasingly disputed.  An interesting feature of Gauguin's paintings in his 'Pacific phase' was their great beauty on the surface of it, while in the background lurked death, suffering, and cruelty.

In seminary, they taught us like this: Gauguin travelled to Tahiti, hoping to find untrammelled freedom in the ideal of the 'noble savage', but instead he discovered death, suffering, and cruelty.  Therefore it was a false ideal.

The photo reminds me of the art of Paul Gauguin.  I am the boy on the left -- in my own 'Pacific phase' in childhood.  On the surface of it, the photo shows healthy, happy people.  But as in the art of Gauguin, a deformed man crouches in their midst.  I was fearful of him then.

Yet he was in the photo because he was included.  He was loved.  He was cared for.  Is this what Gauguin saw?  Did his fascination with the 'dark side' originate, not in his disillusionment with the ideal, but in the strange goodness of the 'noble savage'?


Martin Cohen said...

I was a bit puzzled by this post. At first, I thought Paul Gaugin was in the picture! Then I wondered who was the 'deformed man'. I'm still not sure about that... but it doesn't seem to matter. The connection to Gaugin seems shall we say, strained, really. And the idea that death lurks in beauty is an old philosophical and artistic trope.. Memento mori, the Latin for: "remember that you will die". Artists used skulls, flowers, or flames "to imply the persistence of time" perhaps too, does Gaugin in his sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Tahiti.

Thomas' post prompted me to read a little more on Gaugin and it seems that he did NOT discover "death, suffering, and cruelty", or at least this was not his most important discovery. I read that he genuinely admired Tahitan culture, and warned against "Protestant hypocrisy", especailly in sexual matters.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Gauguin, it is said, went looking for the noble savage, but didn't find him. The philosopher-theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote that what he found 'turned out to be death and cruelty'.

Or perhaps not. The deformed man in the photo would seem to be a sign of societal health. Death and cruelty is what one would expect to find in Gauguin's paintings, if he painted what he saw.

In spite of motifs of death, suffering, and cruelty in art, Western society has tended to remove any unpleasantness and hide it away. Not so in the Pacific, and in other cultures.

Keith said...

Much of keen interest to take in and ponder here. Despite the expression’s admittedly rich history in cultural anthropology, literature, and philosophy, I’ve always been a tad conflicted about ‘noble savage’. It’s a personal matter, I’m sure — nothing particularly to do with the expression’s use in this post. Fundamentally, I see the separate words ‘noble’ and ‘savage’ as hard-to-reconcile antitheses of each other rather than as contributing to a complementary, tightly bound whole — the latter being what’s obviously intended. Perhaps the expression’s historically dissimilar applications — with different contexts, different meanings, and different (not always benign) motives — point to the difficulty I grapple with. Gauguin notwithstanding. And, of course, today ‘savage’ has rather jarringly outmoded, even if unintended, connotations — beyond the simplified, close-to-nature illusion (delusion?) regarding a lifestyle comfortably romanticized as idyllic largely from afar. I wonder, too, if that by entering the scene, one ever so slightly — and then more and more — alters it.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. Yes, the term 'noble savage' is by now dated, as familiar as it is.

I think that those we once called 'noble savages' have much to be proud about in their cultures, while we tend to reduce them by defining them in terms of wealth and so on, often perpetuating the idea that they are inferior.

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