Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Civilization vs. Tarzan

The French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, is frequently hailed as the establishment of inalienable rights and democracy in Europe. It also happened to be one of the bloodier and more terroristic revolutions in history, with thousands summarily executed. And, it also more-or-less led to the "creation" of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor of France in 1804. He is notable for a series of wars, justifiably remembered as the Napoleonic Wars, which led to more years of immeasurable death and destruction. This illustration is of the public "murder" of Marie Antoinette in 1792. Her crime was to be the queen of France, whose extravagant lifestyle proved to be unpopular among the masses of people. She died at age thirty-seven by the guillotine, along with several thousand others whose lives offended the common folk. Such is the way of the world when the "thin veneer of civilization" is stripped away. Is history repeating itself today?

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
savages again."

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.


19 comments:

Kaya said...

Yes, I agree that America and other parts of world are burning.

Very often I ask myself what is happening with us, people, and, Fram, I have every time a different answer.

I read your post and I really didn't know what to say at the beginning.

It's fascinating, it covers so many things but I don't see much of Fram there. Perhaps, only in the last part of the post which touched me deeply.

I don't know what happened to American politicians and politicians around the world. Pure greed for power and not beyond that? Their own personal ambitions?

I talked to a few people about the future of America and they are so optimistic. And I am not because it will take years and years to get out of crisis if ever. It's not only economical crisis it's also crisis of humanity. ( I couldn't find right words in English and I hope you will understand what I mean.)

I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving, Fram. And happy and peaceful.

Your regular friend Kaya.

I begin more and more like the word "regular". It means stability I think.

Wind said...

I need a week (let's not say a liftime) to follow your thoughts in this post.
From Napoleon through Burroughs to Pakistan bomb! Mamma mia! What mind you have! Brilliant!
Really!
I need more time. I like very much this kind of posts on your blog. Not because it is difficult for me to understand (ha ha)or to follow you in this labyrinth of thoughts but it is a sample of your skills in writing and understanding .
I am proud of you, Fram!
Speaking of 'thin veneer of civilization' it was and it always will be like this.
I have to define 'civilization'.
Maybe it is equal to alienation. I will think about. R.E.M explain better than me, in 'the End of The World as we Know It', what's about!
I will come back tomorrow!
Until then , I have to read 'Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles, Austria-France -The Royal Diaries', 'Napoleon: The Immortal Emperor','An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy' , 'The Golden Bough',
Jack London, etc...to be able to have a conversation with you...ha ha.
See you, Fram!

Fram Actual said...

Oh, the post was completely me, from the very first word to the very last word, Kaya. Not that I wrote all the words, but I was presenting what I would argue is absolute truth.

When a person presents a thesis, for lack of a less-formal term, he does not simply say I think this or I believe that. He collects the words of other people whose names should be recognizable to many, if not actually to most, and uses their words to support his position.

As far as what is happening in America and elsewhere, the answer is as clear as day. There is no mystery. James Frazer, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Will Durant just explained it, and have been explaining it for anyone who can read for more than one hundred years now.

There is a cliché: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." Well, that is true in a sense, but the problem is that for every tough person, there are five people, possibly a dozen, who are not tough and who will beg, borrow or steal their way out of personal crisises.

As for people who are optimistic about the future of America, they undoubtedly are the same people whose slogan was eat, drink and spend money like it grows on trees during the 1990s.

Accidents happen, but many of them are preventable, and the only causes of the problems that exist today are precisely those described by Frazer, London, Burroughs and Durant: Civilization is only a thin veneer which begins to peel away from an individual when his personal well being is threatened. Eventually, individuals gather and become a crowd. Before too long, the crowd becomes a mob.

Yes, regular = stability.

I hope your Thanksgiving is good and grand, Kaya.

Fram Actual said...

Well, Wind, sometimes I do not know why I write the things that I do. This is one such occasion. Past books and past ideas and past thoughts lie dormant somewhere inside of me until a spark is ignited and erupts into a single conflagration of words. This time, the spark came in the form of my absolute disgust and revulsion with the American political system and moral leadership throughout the world.

I have said any number of times that I am a religious agnostic, but if ever there were a moment when another Moses is needed to come down from the mountain and to smash the Ten Commandments at the feet of an unworthy people, it is now.

Well, after that sentence, I laugh at myself a bit. The performance by Moses might have worked for a tribal group of a few thousand, but could not accomplish anything in a world of a few billion. The Tower of Babel long ago disappeared.

And, yes, you are correct about the "thin veneer of civilization" when you write: ".... it was and it always will be like this." You do not have to read James Frazer, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Will Durant or Fram. You already know the reality of the story.

The problem is that most people either do not understand it or ignore the actuality of the matter and, either way, are willing not only to live under these conditions but apparently are incapable of recognizing the fact that moral bankruptcy leads to financial bankruptcy which leads to societal collapse.

That is the bottom line of what I was writing about in this case. It appears to me that mankind is incapable of change or that he does not wish to change, that he always will be, as London said, ".... the same old animal man ....," and that he richly deserves a world of madness and mayhem.

The bottom line is that in one sense there are three types of people: Optimists, pessimists and, my type -- realists.

As for Marie Antoinette, yes, read about her. I think she is more interesting than history remembers her.

Wind said...

Well, it was Thanksgiving Day.
Even I don't like this kind of celebration I think that is better for me to go deeper through this "thin veneer of civilization" (I mean the commercial aspect) and to wish you to be happy and healthy.
We don't have this kind of celebration in Romania but starting with December people will get crazy. A lot of traditions but finnaly, commercial staff.
Well, Fram, important is our soul....and I want to thank you for being here with us!

Fram Actual said...

Yes, it was Thanksgiving Day, Daliana, and today is what has become known as Black Friday. The designation is a financial one, but, from my point of view, is an appropriate manifestation of societal decline.

There is nothing wrong with merchants wishing to make money and with consumers trying to secure the best bargains possible for their money, but when society turns a holiday with significant spiritual and traditional meaning into a circus of fools, it becomes obvious people are losing their way in terms of actual, real, meaningful values.

What I told you earlier today about another topic is also relevant here: "This episode is beginning to become funny. Laugh in the face of fate is a good motto for life."

In the meanwhile, I will look for an island where Black Friday does not exist.

Bitch said...

Unfortunately, dear Fram..
In every aspect you are so right.
There is always a beast in Mr. Anthropos.
(If there is such a word?)
Everywhere in the whole world they are
looking , what to hide in their own pockets!!

I am very deep in thoughts but send you all,
to our own clique, a very good Thanksgiving!
May you spend it with Happiness!!!

Fram Actual said...

There was a Nineteenth Century British writer and historian, Sir John Dalberg-Acton, who is famous for these words: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

He also said this, which actually troubles me more when I think about it: "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern."

Sir John does not paint a very bright picture regarding the future of mankind, so I suppose all we can do is to walk along through our lives as best we are able, picking and choosing our friends carefully, and being especially cautious about those with whom we share our hearts.

Thanks, for stopping by, Monika.

Maddalena said...

Hi, Frammy!

Blue will do.

I hope you will like it :-)

M.

Fram Actual said...

Yes, Mag, I am sure that I will like it. Anything blue will do.

Thank you, for the visit.

Anita said...

Hi how do you do..fram..nice postings..i like that wither shade of pale..sad but good..hope all is well with you..here in my place..we have storms for a long long time..and snow..soon christmas..soon spring too..i am countin the months to may..my favourite time..yes..thinks about you but i am not on blog and just a little face book..anita enjoys old movies..like the adventures of jenny..ok my frind..time to sleessssssp.in my cave..see you around..xxxxx

Fram Actual said...

How do I do? Well, I went to the dentist on Thursday and it is supposed to snow on Saturday and I need to escape from the sea of blogs for a while to regain a sense of clarity in my mind, Anita.

Seriously, I am fine, and I hope you are, as well. Thank you, for emerging from your cave for a few moments to visit me. Take care.

Anita said...

Clarity on your mind?..he he..yes the blogs are not as it used to be..before i was so content about it..but now..real world seems more interesting..well i think new things has to be happening..the past is gone..and the future is waiting..soo what you say about real world friend?..ok..take care you too..xxxx..hasta la vista!!

Anita said...

i must say.i feel like a little mouse..peeking out of her cosy little hole.with good music videos..food..lonesome??nooo..not lonesome...but sometimes she have too just look out too see how the weather is..how people is..whats going on outside...ohhh..but now..it is still winther and snow and blizzard..so i think i hibernate a little more..agree..fram..i have enough coconuits to both of us.you should join ahahhaahh!!!ok best kisss now i look at some clint eastwood movies ohh i love his movies speciall a millon dollar baby and many many more!!okk all good things too you!!))

Fram Actual said...

Yes, Anita, my mind needs clarity. I think I will only find it by stepping back from the world for a few days or a few weeks.

Snow is arriving here at this very moment, but there will not be much of it and what there is will disappear tomorrow with the return of the sun.

All good things to you, too.

Anita said...

wel thank you my dear friend...i feel confused to..about love friendship work ..everything..its like a sleep..difficult to wake up..and the days just go passing by...i look at all the happy peaople..couples..and wonder why am i not in a relationship??why not..i mean iam not worse than others..ohh..it is not a good period..nooo..well i drift in my old movies again..and dream of a better life..for me..well take care then..and dont go away totally..your the only online friend i have got!!well have a happy day monsiur!!xxxxx

Fram Actual said...

Well, I do not know if I am so much confused as I am indecisive, Anita.

You have written a very sweet and very thoughtful comment. I do not think I have the sweetness or the thoughtfulness in me at this moment to give you a return comment worthy of your remarks.

So now, mademoiselle, I am about to disappear, but only for two or three weeks. I hope your days between now and then are happy and peaceful.

By the way, I cannot recall any words from you about your son for some time. I hope he is well and enjoying school. Both of you, take care.

Fram Actual said...

P.S. Anita, my favorite Clint Eastwood film is "Pale Rider."

I suppose it could be I just like the word "pale." Well, not really; it is the story that I like in this instance.

Anita said...

fram..thanx for nice comment on my blog..the painter is Werenskjold..a norwegian painter..do not think about my sweet note..life is short..i tell what i feel..tomorrow i may be feel differnert,,who knows..but at least i am honest..about my son..he was almost killed friday in car accident..lucklily he survided with only a slight contusion and very beaten up body..speciall his hip..but howere he is out and about now..and fine i think..it was a real scare for sure..now i have to go out and take some photoes of the snow..it is really beautiful..ok send oss anote before christmas as we know you do fine..

Something special ....