Le Bon Sauvage
by Edward Le Prieur
Primitive is a word that has a lot of negative connotation in recent age, the word even lost its true meaning. At its base being associated with ideas that we deem to be uncivilized, savage, inept, or simply ignorant. The opposite is true the original word meant exactly that…late Middle English (in the sense ‘original, not derivative’): from Old French primitif, -ive, from Latin primitivus ‘first of its kind,’ from primus ‘first. We then are no different from our forebears, we gather still around fires and recite poems, and tell stories just as our ancestors did. Were they not considered primitive? Yet they most certainly developed tools, language, created art and music. The idea that we are so far removed from our ancestors is one that is swathed in modern reconstructions of what man used to be, terrified for ourselves to be associated with those primitives…
Indeed we are meant to believe that we are something completely disconnected from our forebears. This idea is constantly imprinted on us from a young age by science, and media, also absurd reconstructions. The word Neanderthal is most commonly combined with ideas of barbaric ignorant savages. We however are most certainly smarter now right? Perhaps it needs to be said that everything we consider that binds us to the modern world, all our contrivances be it computers, modern medicine or science are not part of man inherently however merely creations, extensions of the self. If we were to be laid bare of these luxuries and left to our own devices in nature after some time would we not bare any resemblance to our Palaeolithic ancestors?
The travelogue “Histoire de la Nouvelle-France” (History of New France) published in 1609 by Marc Lescarbot about his expedition to the French exploration of Canada entertains the idea of “le bon sauvage” (the good wild man) discusses the indigenous population of what was to become Canada. Lescarbot remarked that the savages enjoyed the privilege to hunt game, a privilege of the time only granted to hereditary aristocrats in France. It is interesting to note that regardless of how primitive the indigenous population was they still had more freedom. Lescarbot, although being a scholar and associating with men of his own calibre was still not as privileged as these native men in his own society.
The ‘idealized’ idea of the noble savage was one that was expressed throughout the colonization of the Americas. Peoples’ who had not yet been corrupted by civilization or dogmatic religious beliefs and simply existed to exemplify the nature of humanity’s innate spirit. This was in the period of sentimentalism where modern Europeans lacked the lifestyles to still understand that there was a non-inferential moral conduct so absent of choice and consequence was their lives. Clearly there was a sense of guilt about the way people lived. Despite the era of romantic writings of the primitive man, there still is a lot of insight to be gained from these viewpoints in this period.
It’s quite clear that modern Peoples even in the 17th Century saw something genuine and natural in the lives of the indigenous Peoples of the Americas. Something that was lacking from their own civilized existences, powerful in assets, yet powerless when it came to their own nature. Their relation to the natural world and to themselves as man was absent. It’s an absence that is still felt in the modern world, and it’s an absence that can’t be filled by any number of machinations that were possessed three hundred years ago, or even today.
The same noble virtues of natural existence were present in our history as well. The same virtues that European explorers exalted in the Americas as the “noble savage” perhaps he did not know it yet, perhaps he was afraid to applaud his own nature, but those virtues were buried deep inside him. There was an aching in the heart to come back to the natural world. Perhaps some of us are so weak that we would perish in the natural world, still there are some that thrive in nature. Others are still conjoined to the modern world, and would do anything to protect what slowly destroys them, and In spite of this rush to their own oblivion.
So why is it still the word primitive is such a dirty one? Scholars hundreds of years ago saw the virtues of the so-called primitive life. The solution to our metaphysical crisis is in front of the world, yet so many people are blind to it! Or refute our own nature outright as barbaric ignorant of the truth. It frustrates me endlessly how easily our natural aspirations as humans are neglected. We are primitive man still; we should not neglect ourselves any longer. The sooner we begin to regard ourselves and our ancestors in as one and the same, then the sooner we can achieve reconciliation with our true selves, and thus ethereal harmony.