The simple divisions of civilized versus primitive or civilization versus wilderness are rarely actually simple.

Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.

Dystopian fiction is often concerned with what can easily be presented as simple dualisms: freedom/restriction, happiness/misery, individual/collective, logic/passion, reason/emotion, civilization/wilderness, and so on.  When I have taught dystopian works, I use these to give students an anchor and rubric for their reading and thinking about the texts.  However, these pairs can also become blinders for analysis of such works, allowing critics, including authors of the works themselves, to over-simplify the complexity of ideas therein into a simple “this or that” option that neglects so many questions of politics, philosophy, and definition.

To my mind, the most glaring examples of this over-simplification are in the spacially-oriented conception of civilization versus wilderness and, by extension, the more complex idea of civilized versus primitive.  In the two posts that will follow, I’m going to take a look at how these concepts are flattened, simplified, and misrepresented in the two defining texts of dystopian literature: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Part 1: Zamyatin’s We and the myth of Rousseau’s “noble savage”

“Painting of Futuristic Buildings and City” by Anton Brezinski (used for the 1993 Penguin Classics edition of We)

I’ll begin with We solely because it is the earlier work (completed ca. 1921).

The brief plot synopsis goes like this (spoilers, obviously):  D-503 is a mathematician in the One State, a rationally-ordered, tightly-restricted, technological city-state that is surrounded by “the green wall,” a glass structure that separates the civilized, sterilized city from the wilderness outside.  “Numbers” (as citizens are called) are taught to think of themselves in terms of the collective (hence the book’s title) and to fear or disavow the irrational or chaotic.  The first person narrative (diary style) follows D-503 journey through his somewhat reluctant rebellion against the One State. This rebellion is in large part instigated by I-330, a woman working with an underground revolutionary group (called the Mephi) comprised of both Numbers and humans who live outside the wall.  Though we learn little about how they live, the humans outside the wall are presumably the decendants of the losers of a war between the country and the city that established One State (the Two Hundred Years War) and appear to D-503 as hairy and possibly subhuman.

Thus, the wild versus civilized division is obviously present and demarcated literally and symbolically by the green wall, even if what we mean by wild and how humans in the wild live aren’t precisely articulated.  The Mephi revolutionary group is driven to overthrow One State because of both discontent among Numbers and what seems to be an altruistic, yet almost conquest-minded, desire to liberate the Numbers on the part of the outsiders.  It is never clear to what extent, if any, One State is oppressing those outside the green wall, and it is hinted that some have sexual relationships with Numbers, which may provide motive enough (so much in dystopian worlds is driven by sex).  All of this is developed just enough to leave room to question the motivations of the enigmatic outsiders participating in the rebellion.

So, while the dualism holds on the large scale, it needs more precise definitions and blurring of some ideas that seem clearly dualistic, but are not.  Most important among these is, what do we mean by wild and uncivilized people?  And this is where the critic may default to a straw man we’ve given uncritical credence for far too long: Rousseau’s solitary and monadic “noble savage” (usually contextualized in an opposition to Hobbes’s state of nature, as if these were the only two possibilities or even remotely realistic).   (Brief note: the term “noble savage” is never used by Rousseau in his Second Discourse or elsewehere, it is initially John Dryden’s term and used much later (in The Conquest of Granada); for a thorough critique of the history of the term, see Ter Ellingson’s The Myth of the Noble Savage.) 

Rather than cite one of the clumsier early critics or a blogger writing on We, I’m going to use an example from Phillip Wegner’s important, and often brilliant, book Imaginary Communities (2002).  Wegner, considering D-503’s crisis through alienation from the collective “We” of One State and his developing into an individual “I” with features (his irrationally hairy hands) that align him with the outsider Mephi, discusses the protagonist’s feeling of being split into two persons (the civilized and the wild) as follows:

The physical identification [his hands] of the torment-ridden D-503 with the Mephi [outsiders] then reveals the existential price of a return to the lost anarchic, premodern world: the sacrifice of the kinds of security and collective identity that the emergence of the State made possible.  Indeed, the Mephi represent the very negation of the concept of society itself, a Rousseauistic retreat to a fictional, isolated monadic existence.  Thus, both the realm of freedom and happiness, the modern city and the premodern countryside, appear, within the structural context of the narrative, as fundamentally limited ethico-political constructs, each lacking the positive elements found in the other. (163, emphasis added)

While Wegner continues in this chapter to write a more nuanced, strong reading that proposes a dialectical synthesis of these divided elements through I-330, the straw man fantasy of the outsiders (whom he blanketly calls “Mephi” even though some of the revolutionary group are Numbers) as “noble savages” remains.  This problem, which I’ll outline more precisely in second, is not by any stretch Wegner’s alone.  His chapter builds on a number of earlier critics who did similar things, and I chose him because his book is the best of the lot.

So, what this type of analysis does is propose a “return” (quotes to highlight the inherent teleological conception of history) to some fictionalized state of nature wherein the individuals exist as individuals outside of the collective identity created by the State.  This is fair enough, I guess, but it goes too far by arguing that this is a negation of society in general.  Collective identity, and society, are not solely functions or products of the State, they are fundamental human traits that predate and, I would argue, will outlast this particular incarnation of human society.  So, to argue from such a statist point of view belies certain prejudices and assumptions on the part of the author that I believe are quite demonstrably false.

Furthermore, the outsider Mephi, Numbers, and especially D-503 are not us; they do not necessarily inhabit a world where the conceptions of a state of nature as outlined by Rousseau (or Hobbes) as thought experiments are held to be such powerful evocations of reality.  Nothing in the text really suggests such a cultural predisposition to look at things in this manner; instead, the state of nature outline by D-503 is largely concerned with irrationalism in non-regulated reproduction, the persistence of vestigial, anachronistic physical traits like his hand hair, and the horror of having free time.  None of his thought is a direct comment on people living outside of a society as self-contained monads; it is, rather, concerned with a lack of rational order in organizing a society.

Beyond this, the Mephi are quite obviously a society (a culturally hybrid one consisting of both those raised in One State and those from beyond the green wall, and also of ethnically diverse backgrounds among the outsiders) with customs and a kind of culture.  According to D-503, there are 300-400 of them present at the “meeting” he attends.  Likewise, nothing about the outsider Mephi denies human society in their existence; while we know little about their society, it is ridiculous to assume they represent, or are, some incarnation of Rousseau’s thought experiment.  To do so is mere projection of our own false pretenses and archaic mythologies.

In all, the tendency to frame the outsiders and Mephi revolution in We in such terms reveals a whole lot more about how narrow our thinking about human society can be.  For all we know, the outsiders live with a complex hierarchical governmental structure or have extended kin networks and exogamic relations with other outside groups.  Reducing these things per our own baggage of political and economic theory only denies the potentials for radical critique that are present in the novel.

Part 2: “Huxley’s Brave New World and the Non-primitive Savage” (forthcoming)

  1. […] led off my last post with a photo of Ishi, perhaps the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, and the caption […]

  2. […] reiterate what I said in the first part of this post . . […]