- Mirror, Mirror
“Why still harp on the primitive,” Victor Li inquires, “when we have been made aware that primitive society was an invention of the modern West?” The answer is, of course, that while primitive peoples are indeed figments of the Western imagination, they are not idle fantasies. The primitive is the Ur other, the absolute contrast to our civilized selves: they are what we are not. They define us as we define them. Primitive society is the mirror image of our current view of our own condition.
Many societies have imaginary others who live in a world turned upside down. And though the primitive is indeed a modern Western invention—created by fossil-hunting Darwinians—he is the descendant of the barbarian and the savage. The role is a very ancient one.
Thucydides remarked in his History of the Peloponnesian War that Homer did not call his heroes Greeks. “He does not even use the term barbarian,” he added, “probably because the Hellenes had not yet been marked off from the rest of the world by one distinctive appellation.”1 A sense of Greek unity was forged only when isolated city-states drew together to face the threat posed by Persia under Darius and his son, Xerxes, in the early years of the fifth century bce. The Greeks then adopted the description “barbarian” for their common enemy. As a twin birth, the new ideas of Greeks and barbarians were inextricably linked. “Greek writing about barbarians is usually an exercise in self-definition,” Edith Hall writes in her study Inventing the Barbarian, “for the barbarian is often portrayed as the opposite of the ideal Greek.”2
Greek writers pretended that barbaroi stammered like idiots, babbled like babies, or grunted like animals—bar bar. The initial mark of the barbarian was a deficiency of language. Another characteristic on which the Greeks insisted was the tyrannical nature of barbarian society, the Persians being the prime examples. “For barbarians, being more servile in character than Hellenes . . . do not rebel against a despotic government,” Aristotle wrote. Indeed, “among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the [End Page 551] poets say, ‘It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians;’ as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.”3
Greek dramatists might play with the image of the barbarian, and confront audiences with the paradoxical figures of the noble barbarian and the barbarous Greek,4 but in general the two stereotypes were fixed in their proper places, each at the furthest possible remove from the other. Even if it was admitted that Greeks had once been barbarians themselves, what mattered was that they had moved far beyond this point of departure. “The old customs are exceedingly simple and barbarous,” Aristotle wrote. “For the Greeks at one time went about armed and bought their women from one another; and all the other ancient customs which still persist anywhere are altogether foolish . . . And in general, men desire the good and not merely what their fathers had.”5
To each nation its own barbarians. The savages of Renaissance Europe were half men, half animals, bastard children of the monsters of the medieval mapmakers, but they also retained aspects of the barbarians of the classical world. Caliban is the most fully realized instance, incapable of freedom, his only profit from language that he can curse. But some philosophers in the seventeenth century began to imagine the savage as a free man who had been betrayed into servitude by fast-talking politicians. He now provided the perfect subject matter for a discourse on freedom and authority. Colonial authorities had their own primitives, who needed schooling in civilization. The Victorian English were also fascinated and appalled by the sexual freedom of savages. Romanticizing German scholars represented Naturvölker as mystics. French philosophers pointed out that primitive people lacked logic. Contemporary romantics regard postcolonial “indigenous peoples” as the ideal Greens.6
Value judgments on the primitive condition depend on what, at any particular time, we may think about civilization. Satisfied with ourselves, we...