The story of a two-edged sword
About a month ago, I wrote in a post that I had planned to reprint an essay about the "thin veneer of civilization," but I could not locate the book it was in among the several boxes of books I have piled up in this house.
Well, I found the book a few days ago, but decided against reprinting the piece because of its length. It was simply too long. However, today being the forty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of American President John Kennedy and this month being the two-hundred-nineteenth anniversary of the unjustifiable execution of Marie Antoinette, a queen of France, I decided to put down a few thoughts about human nature, civilization and the shallowness of the veneer that shelters us from savagery.
People who enjoy searching for the origins of things have so far determined that the first use of the "thin veneer of civilization" concept was in an 1890 preface to, "The Golden Bough," by Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer:
"The truth seems to be that to this day the peasant remains a pagan and savage at heart; his civilization is merely a thin veneer which the hard knocks of life soon abrade, exposing the solid core of paganism and savagery below."
Not surprisingly, I would be carrying around books such as these (two volumes, initially) since they dealt with mythology and religion.
Jack London, one of my favorite writers and one who is among the least appreciated today, used this concept in an essay entitled, "The Somnambulists," on June 13, 1906. This piece was first published in a newspaper, the Oakland (California) World, on July 3, 1906. Remember the location of this newspaper. Among the things London wrote:
"Civilization (which is part of the circle of his imaginings) has spread a veneer over the surface of the softshelled animal known as man. It is a very thin veneer; but so wonderfully is man constituted that he squirms on his bit of achievement and believes he is garbed in armor-plate."
The phrase appeared in a number of the "Tarzan" novels from the mind of the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs. These novels enjoyed great popularity beginning in the early Twentieth Century. This term was, in fact, part of the cloak often used by Burroughs to describe Tarzan's actions and reactions. Here is one example:
"It was a woman's love which kept Tarzan even to the semblance of civilization -- a condition for which familiarity had bred contempt. He hated the shams and the hypocrisies of it and with the clear vision of an unspoiled mind he had penetrated to the rotten core of the heart of the thing -- the cowardly greed for peace and ease and the safe-guarding of property rights. That the fine things of life -- art, music and literature -- had thriven upon such enervating ideals he strenuously denied, insisting, rather, that they had endured in spite of civilization."
In any event, the absolute tidal waves, coming one after another, of political and social unrest in America and Europe brought the "thin veneer of civilization" concept into my mind again. Actually, concept is not the correct word to use. It is a fact, a reality, an actuality.
Students trash university buildings in California because tuition fees are increased (the epitome of idiocy); in a number of cities around America, participants in the so-called "Occupy Wall Street" movement break laws and clash with police for reasons none of them are able to articulate or clearly define; in Greece and England, rioters burn and loot because of economic problems created by their own greed and selfishness. France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and other European nations are on the verge of financial collapse and civil hysteria.
Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are in the midst of struggling to determine if democratic or autocratic, radical religious states emerge. For all practical purposes, civil war exists in Syria. Pakistan has the bomb; Iran wants the bomb.
Back to Oakland, California, the site where Jack London wrote and published his "thin veneer of civilization" piece. This place has arguably experienced the most violent of the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations. The city has spent millions of dollars because of these demonstrations, businesses have lost millions, and people are more divisive than they were before the demonstrations began.
As London wrote more than one hundred years ago:
"It is the same old animal man, smeared over, it is true, with a veneer, thin and magical, that makes him dream drunken dreams of self-exaltation and to sneer at the flesh and the blood of him beneath the smear. The raw animal crouching within him is like the earthquake monster pent in the crust of the earth. As he persuades himself against the latter till it arouses and shakes down a city, so does he persuade himself against the former until it shakes him out of his dreaming and he stands undisguised, a brute like any other brute."
Or, as the teacher, philosopher and historian extraordinaire, Will Durant, a bit more eloquently wrote:
"Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be
From my point of view, America and other parts of the world are on the verge of burning. The most pathetic part is that American politicians of all persuasions are unable or unwilling to act beyond their own, personal interests and liberal politicians actually are urging the upheaval onward in an attempt to ensure their own, personal political survival. The veneer of civilization has already vanished from them, and their desperation is evident to anyone whose eyes are open.