20 July 2008

The Parasitic Nature of Primitivism

The World Watch section of Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured a brief description of the pope’s “pilgrimage” to Australia last week.  The headline says it all: Pope Benedict Assails ‘Insatiable Consumption.’

Quoth the pope:

“Reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth, erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption.”(Note 1.)

photo from The New York Times, credit to Paul Miller/European Pressphoto Agency (Note 2.)

There’s nothing new or remarkable about this stale complaint, though the “reluctantly” is particularly brazen considering his eagerness to embrace a cause that could salvage good old Catholic guilt from the clutches of earthly materialism.  We are daily bombarded with intellectual hostility toward the western desire to live happily in full-bellied, disease-free comfort.  We are rebuked for our addiction to oil, our petty consumerism, our wanton destruction of the world’s resources.  

No, it is not the pope’s comment that is interesting.  The thing that caught my eye is the photograph that accompanied the article.  Unfortunately, the picture does not appear to be available online for non-subscribers, so a description must suffice.  

In the photo, Pope Benedict XVI is standing in the hot Australian sun, his virgin-white cassock draped humbly over his stout frame.  He has somewhat turned his back on us, but not quite fully, so we can see his left side and his general aspect.  He holds his hands clasped together in front of him, just below the buttons (which we cannot see) of his blood red mozzetta; this has the effect of making him look like an old woman pulling closed her shawl to ward off a chill.  His head is domed with the traditional white zucchetto, or skull cap, perhaps similar to the one perched atop the head of Barberini, in his role as Pope Urban VIII, as he bravely (if but temporarily) saved humanity from the heliocentrism that stewed in the bowed head of his old friend Galileo.  Because of the angle, it is hard to tell if Pope Benedict chose to wear his impressive gold-embroidered stole for the occasion, or any of the jeweled ornaments that sometimes accompany his costume.  Perhaps he left off these accessories in anticipation of raising an eyebrow or two among the adulating masses as he spoke of “squandering natural resources.”  Besides, additional ornament is unnecessary, as the daintily embroidered cassock bespeaks his advanced rank.

Before the pope, not too far away - say about four or five paces, or roughly the length of a heretic’s body after having been hung for days by his wrists with weights tied to his ankles - dance a half dozen male aborigines.  These are the indigenous natives of Australia.  I assume they are dancing because the caption calls them “aboriginal dancers,” though if the caption had claimed that they were a group of natives frantically trying to remove the soles of their bare feet from scalding pavement, I would have been satisfied with this explanation.   Each dancer is adorned with bright stripes of red and white paint that draws a coarse “” (pi) across his naked chest, a symbol that in this instance is not likely to represent the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, nor anything else that would require counting beyond the number three.  These stripes continue downward past a disconcertingly brief loincloth onto the bare legs, where they terminate in a sort of spotted field of white on the shins.  The dancers hold small tree branches in each hand, which they appear to be shaking like maracas or feather dusters.  Some aboriginal women stand behind the group, moving their arms in somewhat less animated accompaniment to the men.  Barely distinguishable in the photo is a crowd of modern onlookers, waving flags (American and German, among others), and apparently enjoying the show.

The pope is smiling.  

A remarkable feature of the photograph is the contrast provided by the background.  In the distance, past the pope and the aborigines, rises a portion of the Sydney skyline.  It is not even a particularly impressive view, considering how dazzling the city is (see photo below), yet it is enough to emphasize the sharp disconnect between the foreground and the background; which is to say, between the subject of the photograph and its context; which is to say, between primitivism and civilization.  Four or five modern apartment buildings ascend, pillars of concrete and glass, an absurd backdrop to a primitive tribal dance and to the pope’s archaic vestments.

photo of Sydney, Australia from Partnerfotographie (Note 3.)

I am beginning to think that just about any picture of the pope distresses me.  After all, the theme of this essay is similar that of the post I wrote in April when Pope Benedict performed a Catholic ritual at Yankee Stadium.  These scenes are always troubling for the same reason: they demonstrate a jarring and inappropriate juxtaposition of the modern with the medieval.  If the pope and the Australian aborigines were simply dressed up for a costume party or historical reenactment, the scene would elicit a smile.  They are not pretending: thus, the smile gives way to a shiver.

But more than demonstrating a mere contrast between the primitive and the civilized, the photograph reveals a broader point to anyone who cares to mark it: that the modern celebration of the primitive is inherently parasitical.  Specifically, the orchestration of this bizarre demonstration relies upon the very civilization that it denigrates, a civilization revealed by the buildings in the background.  One does not need an advanced civilization to be primitive, of course, but one does need an advanced civilization to be a primitivist.  That is, to actually advocate a retreat to pre-history implicitly requires the intellectual and material framework that the modern world provides.  It is possible to celebrate the squalor, labor, and disease of primitive life only from the comfort of one’s home.

Of course, this observation is not new; it is a point made crystal clear in the novels and essays of Ayn Rand.

Consider the “scars” that the unfortunate earth had to sustain in order to place the pope in Australia to admire simple savages and to lecture westerners about their thoughtless consumerism and squandering of natural resources.  Presumably, Pope Benedict did not travel from Rome to Sydney in a dugout canoe that he painstakingly fashioned from a felled tree by scraping stones across its length for weeks or months.  More likely, he flew in an airplane, a craft that consumes some five gallons of fuel per mile, fuel that must be extracted from the earth and processed via scientific principles so that it may be burned by an ingeniously-designed engine, which provides thrust for the body of the aircraft that in turn provides lift because of the cleverly devised wing-shape and control surfaces.  All of this - and quite a bit more - was necessary to propel Pope Benedict 38,000 feet above his noble savages (the nobility of which he contemplates with a sigh), in a craft made of advanced materials and sophisticated electronics and traveling near the speed of sound, so that he could sit comfortably in a plush reclining seat perusing his itinerary (that had, just a moment before, emerged from an ink-jet printer on a sheet of high-quality paper that costs less than a penny), nibbling roasted peanuts from a sealed foil bag that had been brought to him by a lovely and polite flight attendant wearing sheer nylon stockings over perfectly toned legs that she manages to maintain with the thrice-weekly assistance of her personal trainer.  Upon the airplane’s landing gear touching down precisely on the tarmac within a few feet of the ideal GPS target coordinates, the pope is ushered into an idling vehicle and spirited (along with a police escort) through the network of magnificently paved and bustling highways, moving in and out of shadows cast by skyscrapers, to the scheduled exhibition of indigenous folk.  And here we finally arrive at the scene of our photograph: the aborigines dancing on a concrete platform cordoned off by fences made of steel posts and bright orange plastic sheets and guarded by armed Swiss guards with walkie-talkies.  

This technology, along with the political freedom achieved with incalculable effort across centuries by Britain and its colonies, leaves Pope Benedict free to laud savages and criticize civilization. 


1.  Pope Benedict Assails ‘Insatiable Consumption,’ Wall Street Journal, Friday, 18 Jul 2008, p. A6.

2.  photo from The New York Times, credit to Paul Miller/European Pressphoto Agency.

3.  photo of Sydney, Australia from Partnerfotographie.


LB said...

Your obsession with sacerdotal vestments and my proclivity to play dress-up help to explain a few things.

Stephen Bourque said...

Ha! Well, I wouldn't read too much into the sacerdotal vestments. However, I admit you played no small part in the description of the lovely stockinged calves. ;)

C. August said...

Brilliant post. I particularly liked your identification of the parasitic nature of primitivism (as opposed to just being a primitive).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

What is so interesting to me is that when primitive people want to develop towards modernity, it is often modern people who decry this as "loss of culture." It is perplexing. Why wouldn't someone want three squares a day, comfortable and reliable transportation and the benefits of modern medicine on the life-span. It seems that the modern people who want to stop this kind of development worship the primitism that they don't really want to practice. Very odd.

Brother Charles said...

Speaking as a Catholic and a priest, these things have always put me a little on edge as well. Sometimes it seems as if the line between an expression of catholicity and a crypto-colonialist spectacle is pretty thin.

I think this is especially true of this pope, who, when it comes to a reflection on culture is much more the eurocentric academic than the phenomenologist that his predecessor was.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, Brother Charles.

It's an interesting point that you make about Pope Benedict XVI being more of a "eurocentric academic" than was Pope John Paul II. I agree with that assessment.

I'm not sure I understood your first comment, i.e. whether you meant catholicity in the sense of all-embracing and universal, or to denote the Roman Catholic church. Either way, my post was not so much focused on the spectacle of the pope addressing the crowd, as it was intended as a concrete illustration of this idea: that the primitivists who adore the "noble savage" presuppose the very benefits of the modern industrial world that they disparage.