The noble savage as characterised by Jean Jacques Rousseau has been repeated in a variety of venues. The 19th century Slavophile movement in Russia idolized the “simple” peasant. Thomas Jefferson repeated that notion with his political writings emphasizing the single family farm as a bedrock of American democracy. Karl Marx distinguished the “proletariat” and their virtues over the decadence of the bourgeoisie. James Cameron’s Avatar is just the last in a long line of works of art to capitalize on this theme. I should say “apparently” when speak of Avatar as I’m basing this on numerous reviews and essays and not a personal viewing of the film, which I yet still intend to accomplish but I think I’m on safe ground making those comparisons. If the sentiments in this film, idolizing the noble savage, being at “one” with nature, and the inherent evils of corporate ethics are shared by much of the left, then there are two problems with this notion.

The first problem is location. Mr Cameron as part of the artistic elite is a card carrying member of the ‘decadent’ (recall that groups reaction to Mr Polanski in the news of late, defending the indefensible) and not a member of the savage simple. In the US in fact, the closest thing that would come to Mr Jefferson’s single family farm as an American representative of the noble savage would be the same rural flyover country which he despises and opposes is in fact where those representative might be found. To put it plainly, the elements he would idolize comprise the political faction he at the same time opposes. Oops.

At the same time, this idolization which is fictional in Avatar, requires fiction for fact is alas not so plain. Mr Checkhov (as quoted in Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia on page 255) unlike so many of the peasant lauding 19th century Russian intellectuals, went out and spent time with those same said peasants. He was not impressed. Quoting from Checkhov’s Peasants:

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. The were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspiscion. Who maintains and make the peasants drunk? The peasant. Who embezzles the village, school, and parish funds and spends it all on drink. The peasant. ....

Therein lies the problem, idolization of the savage waxes a little pale and loses its lustre when it comes in final contact with the actual subject. Those savages are just as fallen and prone to the same flaws as those groups which would idolize them.

Articles by Mark Olson

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