October 30, 2012

Charles Dickens on The Noble Savage

In Charles Dickens on "Esquimaux," I noted that Dickens had a negative impression of Arctic Natives. Someone on Facebook recently noted that Dickens wrote a more extensive piece on indigenous people. Here's an excerpt:

The Noble SavageTO come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage. It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird's feathers in his head; whether he flattens his hair between two boards, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, or paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage - cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.

Yet it is extraordinary to observe how some people will talk about him, as they talk about the good old times; how they will regret his disappearance, in the course of this world's development, from such and such lands where his absence is a blessed relief and an indispensable preparation for the sowing of the very first seeds of any influence that can exalt humanity; how, even with the evidence of himself before them, they will either be determined to believe, or will suffer themselves to be persuaded into believing, that he is something which their five senses tell them he is not.

There was Mr. Catlin, some few years ago, with his Ojibbeway Indians. Mr. Catlin was an energetic, earnest man, who had lived among more tribes of Indians than I need reckon up here, and who had written a picturesque and glowing book about them. With his party of Indians squatting and spitting on the table before him, or dancing their miserable jigs after their own dreary manner, he called, in all good faith, upon his civilised audience to take notice of their symmetry and grace, their perfect limbs, and the exquisite expression of their pantomime; and his civilised audience, in all good faith, complied and admired. Whereas, as mere animals, they were wretched creatures, very low in the scale and very poorly formed; and as men and women possessing any power of truthful dramatic expression by means of action, they were no better than the chorus at an Italian Opera in England--and would have been worse if such a thing were possible.

Mine are no new views of the noble savage. The greatest writers on natural history found him out long ago. BUFFON knew what he was, and showed why he is the sulky tyrant that he is to his women, and how it happens (Heaven be praised!) that his race is spare in numbers. For evidence of the quality of his moral nature, pass himself for a moment and refer to his 'faithful dog.' Has he ever improved a dog, or attached a dog, since his nobility first ran wild in woods, and was brought down (at a very long shot) by POPE? Or does the animal that is the friend of man, always degenerate in his low society?

It is not the miserable nature of the noble savage that is the new thing; it is the whimpering over him with maudlin admiration, and the affecting to regret him, and the drawing of any comparison of advantage between the blemishes of civilisation and the tenor of his swinish life. There may have been a change now and then in those diseased absurdities, but there is none in him.
Dickens's conclusion:To conclude as I began. My position is, that if we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid. His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense.

We have no greater justification for being cruel to the miserable object, than for being cruel to a WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE or an ISAAC NEWTON; but he passes away before an immeasurably better and higher power than ever ran wild in any earthly woods, and the world will be all the better when his place knows him no more.
Comment:  Wow. Dickens was about as bigoted as his contemporary Mark Twain--another great writer whose work was marred by racism. Now we can say with greater confidence that Dickens's prejudice against Jews, as shown in the character Fagin, was no exception.

True, Dickens didn't want to harm indigenous people himself. But like L. Frank Baum, he basically wished them dead. Nice.

Like many Euro-Americans, his intent was genocidal. Presumably he wouldn't have lifted a finger to stop the people's destruction if he learned about it. This is why the Holocaust and other acts of genocide happen--because the powers that be letting them happen.

For more on Twain, see "Book Indians" in Huck and Tom and Scholar:  Huck and Twain Were Racist.


Hunter C. Eden said...

So a man from the nineteenth century held a very typical nineteenth century view. Why is this such a shock? I'm not defending the inherent racism of Dickens's words, but it's hardly a surprise that he was mired in the false views of his age. Racism, as Samuel Delaney Jr. (and many others besides) have pointed out, is a systemic thing. It's telling that when Dickens met more Jews, he drew back from anti-Semitic stereotypes and even (I believe, though I'm no Dickens scholar) expressed regret at having written Fagin the way he did. Perhaps if he'd met more (or hell, ANY) indigenous people, he wouldn't have held the views he did.

And the fact is, Rob, that when you suggest that Christians are habituated to the idea of cannibalism by the Eucharist (as you did in your "Esquimaux" link), you're being just as prejudiced. That kind of cannibalism isn't cultural--it results from hysteria and desperation. I'm no Christian, but it's hard to take calls for tolerance seriously from a guy who traffics in hoary canards like that (I heard a street preacher call Catholics "bloodthirsty cannibals" for exactly the same reason). If you want to be anti-prejudice--anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-religious discrimination--I would drop the double-standard and treat people as people. Otherwise, I can't see you as anything but a white guy with a crusader complex.

Anonymous said...

19th century Englishmen tended to have a more Hobbesian view of the past, because...Hobbes was describing his present.

Rob said...

Many people had more moderate views of Indians and other indigenous people. Some, like George Catlin (or Ben Franklin, or Helen Hunt Jackson) even had positive views. It's a common fallacy to think everyone in the past had the same prejudiced views.

Anyway, I wouldn't say I was "shocked." I was surprised that Dickens wrote a long essay based on nothing, I guess, but his brief visit to America. At least Twain traveled throughout the West and presumably encountered Indians. Dickens was more ignorant on the subject, yet he wrote as if he was an expert.

Rob said...

Meanwhile, you misunderstood my comments on Dickens and the "Esquimaux." I was satirizing people who make snap judgments about other cultures based on nothing but first impressions. You know, like someone who sees his first Eucharist and wrongly assumes Catholics are cannibals.

Sorry you missed the obvious satire. Read it again and maybe you'll catch it this time. There's no double standard here and therefore no need to change my approach.