Civilization versus Barbarism

Different civilizations have enriched man’s life as a social animal and one comes across a close link between barbarism and civilization in man’s development and growth. It is important to note that each of the rich civilizations that man witnessed had humble origins or rather it is from the status of uncivilized savages that man has climbed to the rational animal that he is today-a civilized and refined creature. The claim made by the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in his seminal work “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” that “there is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”, assumes significance in this regard. The essay attempts to evaluate and substantiate this claim with special reference to three major literary works, class room discussions and the three specific film screenings.

Joseph Conrad blends the theme of barbarism and civilization effectively in his remarkable novel Heart of Darkness. The novel deals with the journey of the central character Marlow through the African Congo to meet Kurtz, who is regarded as a very civilized and idealistic person by the company delegates. The novel deals with the theme of imperialism and colonization, and the basic assumption that the Whites are much more civilized than the African natives who display barbarous traits acts as one of the key driving forces in the novel. As Mark Antliff and Patricia Leihten suggest, “the Western culture itself was thought to be “overly civilized” and thus in need of rejuvenation through contact with societies in an earlier stage of development” (p. 219). Ethnic and cultural differences have added to the distinction between barbarism and civilization: in Heart of Darkness, one finds Kurtz undergoing drastic personality changes and degenerating himself as a savage who goes on raids in search of ivory and who later “entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including an eloquent pamphlet on civilizing the savages which ends with a scrawled message that says, “Exterminate all the brutes!” (Spark Notes; Heart of Darkness; Plot Overview. Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad. SparkNotes LLC, 2006). Kurtz thus proves himself to be a real imperialist whose weapons are suppression and oppression.

Marlow in the novel is characterised as a great foil to that of the character of Kurtz. The attitude of the men towards the African natives is satirically presented in the novel; they “describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization” and even “the narrator’s attitude is that these men promoted the glory of Great Britain, expanded knowledge of the globe, and contributed to the civilization and enlightenment of the rest of the planet”. (Spark Notes; Heart of Darkness; Part I. Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad. SparkNotes LLC, 2006). Unlike his companions, Marlow does not consider the native Africans as inhuman savages; instead he shows the true spirit of being civilized by admitting that there is a common bond between the Whites and the Africans- that of being part of the same humanity. This is evident when he states: “It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad, p 62-63)( Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Edited by Robert Hampson. Penguin Books: London& New York, 1995). The attempts to consider the natives as primitives and savages stem from the white man’s attitudes of racial superiority and power; this is very well pointed out by Mark Antliff and Patricia Leihten when they observe: ““The term “primitive” then is an inescapably political category, whether used admiringly or pejoratively. Though attitudes of racial superiority based on ethnic and cultural difference have been operative throughout history, the colonial period beginning with Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas focuses the question firmly on the issue of power”(p.231). Thus, one cannot postulate that one group is civilized and the other is primitive and therefore it is clear that the documentation of civilization also include the documentation of barbarism.

The concept of barbarism is closely associated with that of animal instincts where there is not much of rational process. Kafka’s Metamorphosis tells the poignant story of the central character Gregor who is shocked to find himself transformed on one morning when he “woke from troubled dreams” (Wyllie, 2005). The civilized man thus becomes a mere bug and the very question of civilization and barbarism seems meaningless. Gregor is completely helpless and “he could think of no way of bringing peace and order to this chaos.” (Wyllie, 2005). Gregor’s metamorphosis depicts a distinctly modern social and psychological phenomenon: alienation and resulting anguish. At the end Gregor is objectified and he is viewed as a mere object without a human entity. Even his sister who looked after and defended the bug as Gregor finally states: “I don’t want to call this monster my brother…we have to try and get rid of it” (Wyllie, 2005). Thus, Gregor’s sister and the other family members show barbarous traits by not able to cope up with his transformation. The most tragic aspect of Gregor’s transformation is that even though he is physically deformed, he retains his sense of human identity intact. He is able to enjoy the piano played by his sister. Gregor, unlike the other characters in the story, stands as an epitome of human perseverance and he displays remarkable specifications for a civilized creature by covering himself or hiding under the coat so as not to cause alarm to others in the family. He doesn’t change inwardly and he is optimistic that he will be able to pay off the debts of the family. At the end of the novel, just before he dies, he thinks “of his family with emotion and love” (Wyllie, 2005).

David Malouf’s work Remembering Babylon deals with the identity crisis of the central character Gemmy Fairley, “an English castaway who lives among aborigines for 16 years before crossing back into European civilisation”, “ occupying an uncertain cultural space, with no-one able to determine with which culture he should be identified” (Post-Colonial Themes in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. by Nicholas Dunlop. 27 May 1997. The cultural and civilisation difference between the White Europeans and the Black aborigines are best depicted in the novel; and one wonders at the so called developed and civilized White community’s reaction to Gemmy Fairley when he comes back. The White men consider him to be a spy; he is severely beaten up and is driven away. Thus, the novelist shows how the notion of one’s homeland and abroad plays key roles in the assessment of civilization or barbarism. Gemmy Fairley is not regarded as civilized as he belongs to another land and culture and there is no doubt that gemmy fairley undergoes A “journey from the realm of civilization typified by order and ennui to a native culture synonymous with a fecund but chaotic and uncontrolled natural condition” (Mark Antliff and Patricia Leihten p.222).

Having glanced through the three literary works, it is necessary to see how the three movies document both civilization and barbarism. Wild Child by Francois Truffaut which was released in France tells the story of a child who lives in the forest and is totally alien to any sort of civilizations. The child is unable to communicate and lives almost like an animal. Later he is trained by Dr. Itrad (Truffaut) to behave like any civilized normal young child. The film shows how some one the society discarded to be a savage or barbarian can be touched with the rays of true civilization in The Wild Child François Truffaut suggests that “civilization, despite its discontents and its costs, has a value, as do education and rational thought” (The films of François Truffaut. By David Walsh. World Socialist Web Site. 1998-2008. 25 October 1999. Similarly, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser(1974) by Werner Herzog also shows how well barbarism can be converted into civilization. The film represents Kasper Hauser who was in chain for almost 17 years without having contact with any other human being. There is no doubt that such person would prove himself to be an unaccepted person in the society with his crude and primitive ways. But one should also keep in mind the fact that civilization is also about how barbarism is overcome gradually. The film ends on a tragic note with the murder of the hero but the attempts made by Herr Daumer (Walter Ladengast) to transform Kasper captures the attention of the audience and it also points to the fact that the refined society is still barbarous. Aguirre, The Wrath of God by Werner Herzog is another significant movie to be discussed in this regard. The film deals with the imaginatory story of a Spanish Soldier named Lope de Aguirre who goes in pursuit of the city of Gold, El Dorado. The movie depicts the transition of Lope de Aguirre from a valiant soldier to an insane barbarian. He fights with the natives, diseases, and the odds of nature. Unlike the other two movies; the film here shows degeneration from the state of civilization to barbarism.

To conclude, one can undoubtedly agree with Walter Benjamin that “there is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. The ‘civilized’ society very often tries to undermine people as barbarous based on gender, class, cultural or social differences. That is why behind each civilization there is an equally important documentation of barbarism. There is a close relation between civilization and primitivism; however, as Mark Antliff and Patricia Leihten suggest, “The relation is one of contrast, of binary opposition to the “civilized”: the term primitive cannot exist without its attendant opposite, and in fact the two terms act to constitute each other”(p. 217).

Works Cited

Wyllie, David. Metamorphosis Franz Kafka. 2005. Web.

Primitive. By Mark Antliff and Patricia Leihten- Source Provided by the customer

Spark Notes; Heart of Darkness; Plot Overview. Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad. SparkNotes LLC, 2006). Web.

Spark Notes; Heart of Darkness; Part I. Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad. SparkNotes LLC, 2006). Web.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Edited by Robert Hampson. Penguin Books: London& New York, 1995.

Post-Colonial Themes in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. by Nicholas Dunlop. 1997. Web.

The films of François Truffaut. By David Walsh. World Socialist Web Site. 1998-2008. Web.

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