[Marxism] Melville on savagery versus civilization

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 21 07:27:23 MDT 2004

 From chapter 17 of "Typee":

The green and precipitous elevations that stood ranged around the
head of the vale where Marheyo's habitation was situated
effectually precluded all hope of escape in that quarter, even if
I could have stolen away from the thousand eyes of the savages.

But these reflections now seldom obtruded upon me; I gave myself
up to the passing hour, and if ever disagreeable thoughts arose
in my mind, I drove them away.  When I looked around the verdant
recess in which I was buried, and gazed up to the summits of the
lofty eminence that hemmed me in, I was well disposed to think
that I was in the 'Happy Valley', and that beyond those heights
there was naught but a world of care and anxiety.  As I extended
my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the
habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the
disadvantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded
by all the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely
happier, though certainly a less intellectual existence than the
self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves
among the inhospitable wilds of Tierra-del-Fuego, might indeed be
made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical
wants.  But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied,
whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of
pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom are removed so many of
the ills and pains of life--what has he to desire at the hands of
Civilization?  She may 'cultivate his mind--may elevate his
thoughts,'--these I believe are the established phrases--but will
he be the happier?  Let the once smiling and populous Hawiian
islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives,
answer the question.  The missionaries may seek to disguise the
matter as they will, but the facts are incontrovertible; and the
devoutest Christian who visits that group with an unbiased mind,
must go away mournfully asking--'Are these, alas!  the fruits of
twenty-five years of enlightening?'

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though
few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are
unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts,
holds a hundred evils in reserve;--the heart-burnings, the
jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissentions, and the
thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make
up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown
among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches
are cannibals.  Very true; and a rather bad trait in their
character it must be allowed.  But they are such only when they
seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I
ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in
barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised
in enlightened England:--a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found
guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had
his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged cut and
thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters,
was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and
fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of
death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on
our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their
train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white
civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the

His remorseless cruelty is seen in many of the institutions of
our own favoured land.  There is one in particular lately adopted
in one of the States of the Union, which purports to have been
dictated by the most merciful considerations.  To destroy our
malefactors piece-meal, drying up in their veins, drop by drop,
the blood we are too chicken-hearted to shed by a single blow
which would at once put a period to their sufferings, is deemed
to be infinitely preferable to the old-fashioned punishment of
gibbeting--much less annoying to the victim, and more in
accordance with the refined spirit of the age; and yet how feeble
is all language to describe the horrors we inflict upon these
wretches, whom we mason up in the cells of our prisons, and
condemn to perpetual solitude in the very heart of our

But it is needless to multiply the examples of civilized
barbarity; they far exceed in the amount of misery they cause the
crimes which we regard with such abhorrence in our less
enlightened fellow-creatures.

The term 'Savage' is, I conceive, often misapplied, and indeed,
when I consider the vices, cruelties, and enormities of every
kind that spring up in the tainted atmosphere of a feverish
civilization, I am inclined to think that so far as the relative
wickedness of the parties is concerned, four or five Marquesan
Islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be
quite as useful as an equal number of Americans despatched to the
Islands in a similar capacity.

I once heard it given as an instance of the frightful depravity
of a certain tribe in the Pacific that they had no word in their
language to express the idea of virtue.  The assertion was
unfounded; but were it otherwise, it might be met by stating that
their language is almost entirely destitute of terms to express
the delightful ideas conveyed by our endless catalogue of
civilized crimes.

In the altered frame of mind to which I have referred, every
object that presented itself to my notice in the valley struck me
in a new light, and the opportunities I now enjoyed of observing
the manners of its inmates, tended to strengthen my favourable
impressions.  One peculiarity that fixed my admiration was the
perpetual hilarity reigning through the whole extent of the vale.

There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles, or vexations, in
all Typee.  The hours tripped along as gaily as the laughing
couples down a country dance.

There were none of those thousand sources of irritation that the
ingenuity of civilized man has created to mar his own felicity.
There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no protested notes, no
bills payable, no debts of honour in Typee; no unreasonable
tailors and shoemakers perversely bent on being paid; no duns of
any description and battery attorneys, to foment discord, backing
their clients up to a quarrel, and then knocking their heads
together; no poor relations, everlastingly occupying the spare
bed-chamber, and diminishing the elbow room at the family table;
no destitute widows with their children starving on the cold
charities of the world; no beggars; no debtors' prisons; no proud
and hard-hearted nabobs in Typee; or to sum up all in one
word--no Money!  'That root of all evil' was not to be found in
the valley.

full: http://www.online-literature.com/melville/typee/19/


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