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Savage anxieties : the invention of Western…

Savage anxieties : the invention of Western civilization

by Robert A. Williams Jr.

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I already knew of Robert Williams for his work on American Indian legal issues and as a contributor to the conceptual framework of settler colonialism. So I was intrigued to find that he was taking on the whole sweep of "Western civ" from an indigenous perspective. And why shouldn't he? Western observers have been making sweeping judgments about indigenous peoples, based on little or no evidence, since 1492.

No, wait, not 1492. More like 900 BCE.

Williams' thesis is that the idea of the savage permeates and helps to shape Western civilization. As in many other areas of human thought, the thing called "civilization" is understood largely through contrast with its opposite, "savagery." The most stimulating aspect of this book is Williams' demonstration of how the elements of "savagery" have a remarkable continuity throughout history, regardless of specific times, places, and peoples.

Among the characteristics of the "savage," he finds:

  • They have no fixed abode, but lead wandering lives.

  • Their life is crude and uncomfortable.

  • They are devoted to passions — lust, rage, vengeance — which they cannot control.

  • They get drunk easily. (Scythians can't hold their liquor like Greeks can.)

  • Female savages are "unsexed" in some way.

  • Most if not all savages are cannibals.

Savages are irredeemably at odds with civilization, and when the two come in contact, savages lose their noble qualities without receiving anything good to compensate for the loss. Just to complicate things, though, savages are also at times associated with the myth of a lost Golden Age, when life was easy and society was innocent.

Williams has an agenda here, and he writes like the advocate he is. I find, though, that sometimes an obvious bias can be an aid to the reader, and Savage Anxieties is a case in point. I prefer a little moralizing to the fake impartiality of historians who assume a god's-eye view of history. And to be clear, Williams is not one of those deterministic revisionists out to install a slighted ethnic group as the fount of all that is good and true in the world. (I'm looking at you, Martin Bernal, Thomas Cahill, Arthur Herman, Ivan Van Sertima, Jack Weatherford, etc., etc.)

Williams is revealingly judgmental about Western society. He finds that already by Roman times there is "an emptiness at the heart of modernity that is likely irremediable" (119). The vows of medieval monastics are "silly" (138). Williams doesn't pause to reflect that such snap judgments are not unlike the routine dismissal of indigenous cultures as "primitive," or the all too common technique of defining them by what they lack in comparison to their conquerors.

Sometimes Williams doesn’t dig deep enough. For example, he assumes that the "Wild Man" myth is a Christian invention, when in fact it goes back much farther, to the Epic of Gilgamesh. In that tale, the great hero-king meets his match in a shaggy nature boy called Enkidu; Gilgamesh and the wild Enkidu each find their fulfillment in the other. This suggests that the Wild Man is a more complex figure than Williams has realized, and folkloric Wild Men must have influenced the preconceptions of many Europeans as they encountered American Indians for the first time. (This video from Switzerland shows a modern example of a domesticated Wild Man ritual dating from European antiquity.) These preconceptions, although they did help interfere with an accurate understanding the native peoples, were not always in perfect sync with the doctrines of popes and archbishops, as Williams assumes.

Williams lacks the formal qualifications to write a synthetic history of the classical and medieval West. His survey of Roman architecture and sculpture rests mainly on photographs and impressions from his personal tour of Rome. I didn't mind that, but I did notice his weak grasp of languages: He repeatedly uses the Greek verb infinitive skythizein ("to drink like a Scythian") as if it were an adjective ("skythizein drunk"), and he assumes that English savage is identical with French sauvage — so a perfume called Eau Sauvage must be about "the noble savage theme," right? — Well, no, not exactly.

His use of that scholarly cliché, "noble savage," is anachronistic, and it doesn't really excuse him to point out that legions of other scholars have made the same error. His effort to make the 19th-century "noble savage" concept identical with the thought of ancient Greeks is not convincing to me: Even as shorthand for an ideological complex, it's way too short.

Despite its brevity, this book could have been improved by some omissions. At one point Williams fixes his attention on the obscure, possibly nonexistent "Goliards" without demonstrating any persuasive connection between them and the theme of savagery. Later, in describing the Renaissance revival of the myth of the Golden Age, he feels compelled to toss in an episode from Don Quixote, but gives the unfortunate impression that he is more familiar with the Broadway musical than the 16th-century novel. Williams also clings to a few rhetorical flourishes that weaken his case through overuse. One of these is the repetition of Voltaire's "African madman" insult for Tertullian, the early Christian church leader. Although Williams insists Tertullian "was not crazy," somehow he can't mention his name without also using the "African Madman" label. He even indexes him as "Tertullian ('African Madman')." I really couldn't see the point of this conceit. There are a few other instances like this in the book, and they tended to undermine my confidence in the author.

Still, despite all these criticisms, I found the book engaging and convincing. Savage Anxieties is an amateur effort that punches above its weight. Sometimes it takes an amateur to bring a fresh perspective to a discipline, and I think Williams has opened some ground that others may explore more thoroughly. In bringing indigenous perspectives to bear on Western intellectual history, he does us a service that no classical scholar, to date, has been able to provide. I don't mean to imply that no other scholar has critically examined classical texts regarding ancient indigenous peoples; in fact, Williams cites some of them in his eclectic bibliography. What is new here is that Williams is able to address the subject from another angle, one that does not implicitly treat indigeneity as abnormal or deficient. He also writes with authority on the legal fictions that have been devised since 1492 to legitimize the taking of indigenous land and the mistreatment of indigenous people. How many classical scholars could do that?

So in sum, I find the book stimulating and convincing, and it kept suggesting new connections to other ideas, which is a thing that good books often do. I'm grateful to Robert Williams for his efforts and I hope he keeps it up.
1 vote Muscogulus | Jun 3, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This text reflects the author's capable handling of classic materials -- a bit surprising, given that he is a law professor and thus not working in his field of expertise (although I would have appreciated a better sense of how much he is getting from primary sources, and how much from secondary).. But it is one thing to depict the thread of metaphor used in Western culture for the "savage," and quite another to imply that beyond the specifics this way of treating the "other" is somehow unique. Among tribal societies, for example, it is not uncommon for their name for themselves to translate as "The People," and to regard everyone else as possible cannibals and witches. In other words, all societies characterize those over the next hill in these same derogatory terms that the author wants us to believe is somehow special to European culture. On this point, at least, he is factually in error. A final annoyance for me was that while "anxiety" is used in the title and invoked throughout the book, he never actually develops a theory of what he means by it. He could have approached this from either philosophy (Kirkegaard) or psychology, but instead he uses it as a trashbin concept to hold whatever negative ideas the reader wishes to project into it. Careless, and thus the overall effort is much less than it could have been in more sophisticated hands. ( )
  dono421846 | May 26, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A note about these newly posted non-link reviews.

I got this book via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program this Fall. I'm a bit late with the review (it took me two months from when it came it to get around to reading it), but I'm just squeaking in on the 3-month window for LTER reviews!

I think Robert A. Williams, Jr.'s Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization would have been a very useful study in another author's hands. Unfortunately, Williams is a Law professor, and this eventually plays out like a rambling legal argument in front of a jury, waiting to come in with the “payoff” at the end of this with a pitch for Native American rights (and of course, painting American culture as racist), his main area of activity. Frankly, it's a long way to go from the earliest awakenings of Greek civilization through the whole history of Western culture, just to make a case against the (admittedly shameful) on-going treatment of “indigenous peoples” both in the US and elsewhere. This is where the book leads:

By now we are all too familiar with the stereotypes and imagery of a language of savagery that has been a constant part of the contemporary West's unrelenting wars against terrorism, drugs, crime, undocumented immigrants, and other enemies of civilization. … A language of savagery has become an indispensable part of the culture, ethics, and morality of consumption throughout the West today.

Considering Williams' background in promoting tribalism, and that he has been funded by anti-American financier George Soros, it's no surprise that this is the end point of the argument. But how does he get here? From the introduction:

From its very beginnings in ancient Greece, Western civilization has sought to invent itself through the idea of the savage. We are all familiar with the basic elements of the idea: The savage is a distant, alien, uncivilized being, unaware of either the benefits or burdens of modernity. Lacking in sophisticated institutions of government and religion, ignorant of property and laws, without complex social bonds or familial ties, living in a state of untamed nature, fierce and ennobled at the same time, the savage has always represented an anxious, negating presence in the world, standing perpetually opposed to Western civilization.

He argues that without this concept of the “savage” our civilization would never have come to be (and, by that I suppose implying that without the concept, I'd be running around Britain naked with blue tattoos like my Pictish ancestors today). Frankly, I don't find his arguments particularly convincing, as from the start he conflates a general attitude of superiority with material in Homer. He's certainly on base with this:

These … notions helped the Greeks define collectively who they were as a people and what separated and distinguished them apart from those people who inhabited the distant, uncharted parts of the world. To the ancient Greeks, the rest of the world was inhabited for the most part by tribes of savage, uncivilized “barbarians”. … “Barbarian” was an onomatopoeic term that basically translated as “babblers”. It was used generally to refer to people who could not speak the Greek language or who could not speak it well.

Where is the difference in this from any regional group of people defining their ways as opposed to the ways of their neighbors? Is this much different from a Chicagoan referring to a Wisconsin resident as a “cheesehead” or the Japanese calling Koreans “garlic eaters”? He anchors his entire thesis in this, once coupled to descriptions of non-Greek peoples (or non-human monsters) in the Iliad and the Odyssey. For Homer, these flights of fantasy are in the same nature as later map makers penning “here there be monsters” on unknown parts of the world. Williams argues that this was a racist impulse, with these groups being “races” … for example, the well-known mythological human/horse-hybrid Centaurs

Centaurs were long represented in Greek mythology as mountain-dwelling, lawless, hypersexualized creatures, paradigm examples of savage beings, driven by their bestial passions and irrational urges to violate the most sacred laws of civilized humanity.

His “case” is further backed by other creatures from Homer, and how they're defeated/marginalized by the Greek “heroes”, and he bases the rest of the book on this foundation. The very next thing he brings up is “colonization” of the Ionian speakers into the eastern Mediterranean … a familiar bugaboo of non-Western cultures … but, again, here presented as a basic function of the “racist” Greeks.

He next looks at the “golden age” myth in the works of Hesiod, and the beginning of the concept of the noble (non-monstrous) savage. This then works its way to the classic Greek philosophers and the development of “the West's first great imperial civilization”. Like “races”, and “colonization”, “imperial” is another trigger word here, and Williams brings back Homer as a key defining element in the conflicts with the Persian and Scythian cultures. He takes the “savage” concept and pinballs it through a landscape of Greek philosophical expression, and then drops the reader right into Rome. Shifting to using the architecture and sculpture of the Romans, and the writing of Caesar and others:

Tacitus also follows Caesar in adopting the Greeks' organizing principle of the barbarian savage's distance from Rome as determining the degree of cultural divergence from civilized norms and values.

Again, like Homer, the Roman writers tended to “fill in the blank spots” in their writings with fantastic visions … however, when the Roman civilization fell, and the medieval Church came to power, “the theme of the noble savage directly contradicted the biblical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve” and Christian redemption, and this element of the Classical world view was actively suppressed, and “replaced by the biblically derived image of the Wild Man as an unredeemable, irrational, and forsaken enemy to the Christian message of salvation”. The fantasized creatures of the Greeks and Romans were turned to demons by the Church, and “the savage” was linked to being in league with the devil. Rather than being those outside the cultural norm, anything outside of the lines of theological doctrine was now demonic … providing a great impetus to the Crusades, witch hunts, etc., and giving a powerful tool to define any group unwilling to allow missionary incursions as an outright enemy of the faith.

Even into the Renaissance, this view expanded, and Pope Innocent IV's theory of “infidel rights” directed that pagan peoples “could be lawfully conquered, colonized, and converted by Christian princes acting on authority” of the papacy. This, of course, came in quite handy when Columbus opened up a “new world” to European expansion. I wonder how Williams missed the irony of his descriptions of Columbus' early contacts with Caribbean tribal people, whose warnings about other tribes are almost exactly like the “monsters” of Homer … clearly showing that this is not a Western, racist, survival of a Greek attitude, but a common human trait to dehumanize the little-known “other”!

Oddly, the religious underpinnings of expansion and conquest were not set aside during the Renaissance. Even the English had legal justifications built up upon Christian doctrinal foundations:

Infidels … were regarded at law as perpetual enemies … of a Christian kingdom. Thus, they had no rights under English common law: “... for between them, as with devils, whose subject they be, and the Christian, there is perpetual hostility, and can be no peace.”

The difference being, of course, that this had evolved from enabling Rome to grant license to kings, to kingdoms (i.e. governments) being inherently enabled and encouraged to conquer any non-Christian peoples they encountered “Because the way of conquering them is much more easy than of civilizing them by fair means...”.

The Enlightenment did bring a reduction of the religious framing of this approach, but it was replaced by a “scientific” theory in which there were developmental gradations of human culture, and the more primitive would be, naturally, swept away by the more advanced. This view was very firmly established among the founding fathers of the USA, and was the basis on which interaction with the indigenous tribes proceeded, holding “the Indian as a doomed form of human savagery”. Further (from a Canadian legal document):

A civilized nation first discovering a country of uncivilized people or savages held such country as its own until such time as by treaty it was transferred to some other civilized nation. The savages' rights of sovereignty even of ownership were never recognized.

Frankly, it has only been in the past half century that there's been any serious countering of attitudes of this nature (and even more extreme ones) towards non-Western peoples. For an example of where these attitudes might have begun to shift (allowing for a new paradigm to arise in the 60's and beyond), I'd recommend James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise which traces out what happened when this sort of attitude hit Asia, and ended up inventing modern Japan (a case of “the savage” beating “the civilized” at their own game), and thus dramatically changing the world.

Again, there is a lot of very interesting stuff in Savage Anxieties, but I'm thinking the author stretches his basic thesis very thin over parts of this, all pointing to the last sections on activism for indigenous peoples. There is a taint of “Western Civilization = BAD, tribal culture = GOOD” throughout the book, which leaves a bad taste in one's mouth if one is not already on board with the message. While I think this would be far more popular with those who are “in the choir” that Williams is preaching to, there's enough good stuff here as a historical survey to keep up the interest of those who are otherwise convinced. This has only been out since the Fall, so I guess there's at least a chance of finding it at the more expansive brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line guys have it for about a quarter off of cover price, which seems to be your best bet as not enough copies have floated down the the used channel to be at a substantially lower rate there. In conclusion, while I found this intellectually stimulating, it was also somewhat irritating, and I really wish that writing it had been done by a historian rather than an activist.


A link to my "real" review:
BTRIPP's review of Robert A. Williams, Jr.'s Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization (1705 words)
1 vote BTRIPP | Jan 3, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As someone with an interest in Native American History, Williams book is an excellent analysis of the how the western conception of savage impacted the indigenous people of the United States. Western though permeates American thinking so it makes perfect sense that the Europe's obsession with making the distinction between the "savage" and the "civilized", is still relevant today.

My only qualm with the text is that he assumes a certain level of historical knowledge from the readers. I had recently taken a history course specializing in Ancient Greece, so I was able to understand many of the illusions he mentions in the text, but lay readers may not. However, the overall message is still clear.

Williams book is an important step in the process of realizing that our culture is not perfect.
I look forward to seeing what else this author has in store for us.
  andeben | Dec 20, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Savage Anxieties is a fascinating read and part of a much needed reevaluation of viewpoints in history and thus a long look in the contemporary mindset mirror. Well, let me offer a caveat: not a long look. A short look, which was my problem with this book. It was a great introductory/overview of the issue, but I wish it were twice, thrice, or more times longer. Reading it one senses that the author could have explored the topic much more thoroughly and reached some great conclusions. Perhaps that is left for book two.

But much like Bernal's Black Athena series, this is a welcome new opinion and study of our multifaceted, often checkered past. We need the shakeup. No more blinders please. But I beg much more detail and conclusive thought.
  kurvanas | Dec 14, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0230338763, Hardcover)

From one of the world's leading experts on Native American law and indigenous peoples' human rights comes an original and striking intellectual history of the tribe and Western civilization that sheds new light on how we understand ourselves and our contemporary society. Throughout the centuries, conquest, war, and unspeakable acts of violence and dispossession have all been justified by citing civilization's opposition to these differences represented by the tribe. Robert Williams, award winning author, legal scholar, and member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe, proposes a wide-ranging reexamination of the history of the Western world, told from the perspective of civilization's war on tribalism as a way of life. Williams shows us how what we thought we knew about the rise of Western civilization over the tribe is in dire need of reappraisal.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:50 -0400)

Presents an intellectual history of the West's bias against tribalism that explains how acts of war and dispossession have been justified in the name of civilization and have typically victimized tribal groups.

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