A big cat or bear is seen pacing restlessly back and forth every time we go to the zoo. The animal in question need not have any worries. All of its needs are fulfilled. Yet it is clear when we watch it that it is not fulfilled.
Even a small child quickly understands that the animal chafes within the bounds of captivity. It would rather be hunting prey and fighting for its life in the wild than sitting in a safe and comfortable cage.
However, even adults rarely relate that pacing tiger or lion to the human experience. Human beings when regarded purely as an animal are bizarrely removed from the animalistic experience. Living in a mass society requires laws and all sorts of enforced restraint on instinctive behavior.
So intense is the repression of organized life that people are eager to imbibe alcohol and other drugs that remove inhibitions at the very first opportunity. Often they have to drug themselves in order for their biological selves to surface.
After a lifetime of indoctrination and a highly structured existence, people everywhere want nothing more than to reduce themselves to the elemental and the savage.
Even in studies in which the drinks have no alcohol, everyone begins to act drunk all the same. It’s all about everyone giving each other permission to let loose for a little while before returning to the grind.
Many idealists have searched for a human utopia and every one has failed miserably. Perhaps people don’t want a utopia.
No story about a utopia or happily ever after has ever been told or listened to. Utopia is inhuman, perfection, death. Yet dystopian stories, the stories of failed utopias sell well to this day.
All manner of human strife makes money while ‘happy’ events receive no such attention. Cynics see this fact as a condemnation of humankind. Another might see it as an affirmation of what is means to be human.
Idealists have looked everywhere for a perfect, or at least a better society, but it simply doesn’t exist. At one time, there were those who believed in a Noble Savage, a human free from the weight of laws, the state, rules, employers, all that complicated dead weight of society.
At about the same time there were those who believed in a Savage Savage who without laws and a state was locked in mortal struggle with every other human being. The debate has gone on ever since. Clearly there is merit to both sides and a point at which they are reconciled.
There is something unquestionably pure and noble about living as the animal we were meant to be. We yearn for the simple existence in which we are guided easily through life by our instinctual programming, like any other animal. We crave an elemental life with an absence of repression, internal conflict, and quandary.
Does this mean a paradise? Quite the contrary. Every ‘primitive’ tribe has been shown to be in constant conflict with neighbors and rife with internal status struggles. It is indeed a savage, tough existence.
Life expectancy is not as high as in civilization. For every male, there is a significant probability of dying a violent death. Proportionately speaking, it is like a never-ending World War II.
Furthermore, I’ve seen artifacts from Polynesian islands studded with the teeth of victims. The word ‘taboo’ itself comes from Polynesian islanders and refers to any number of superstitious, repressive practices that defined their lives.
On these islands with limited resources, the inhabitants are some of the tallest, strongest, most physically powerful people on earth. Clearly there was a high payoff to being the biggest and strongest when there just wasn’t enough resources for everyone.
Yet from within comfortable houses we look to these past barbaric lifestyles with fascination, even as we are endlessly bored by an existence that comes with warning labels on every conceivable surface. Many of us watch action movies full of death and mayhem with rapt attention and are absorbed by sports events that celebrate the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’
We settle for a vicarious experience, but even the most cloistered person must sometimes suspect that the real thing is our birthright. In realizing this birthright, no matter how terrible and savage it might be, there is a redeeming nobility in being in accordance with our true natures.
Should we go back to our roots? Probably not.
Would we want to in our rational minds? No.
Could we? Certainly not.
Yet the matter is critical in understanding humanity as a whole. Surely, a society can repress only to an extent before the animal nature of humanity is confined in an unbearably small space.
Surely, an effective society is one that balances repression with permissible outlets.
Surely the best possible society is one that permits and promotes fulfillment of the human animal insofar as possible while still managing to prevent a Hobbesian nightmare of perpetual, universal warfare.
Does the best possible society err on the side of savagery or repression? A five year old watching a restless, bored tiger at the zoo could quickly answer this question.
Best to take off the safety rails. Someone might fall over and perish every now and then, but a five year old could tell you it is all worth it for those who can drape themselves over that precipice, see the full view, risk themselves, feel the chill, high winds and then walk away having had an adventure. Since we must die sooner or later, why is even the slightest risk of death deemed unacceptable?
While we’re here and alive isn’t it the greater crime to hold us back from truly living in what little time we have? Since our lives are equally long or short when measured against infinity, surely it’s all about what our time contains rather than its duration.
Even duration is of little importance next to our perception of the passage of time. We perceive time as faster when our experience is routine and predictable, long when it is varied and meaningful.
When I traveled through Western Europe, every tourist attraction was pristinely protected, cordoned off, and packaged into an assembly line of visitors. No matter how fantastic, famous, or beautiful the location, one is still restricted and led around like a small child. In some ways, it is only marginally better than the coffee table book. A place can never be quite as large as life under these repressive circumstances.
I’ll never forget the thrill when I went to St. Stephen’s cathedral in Budapest, Hungary and discovered a near absence of restrictions. I was free to leave the beaten path and spent a long while wandering through a system of hollow chambers inside the the church’s vast dome. Still not encountering any signs or guards, I climbed a series of catwalks and ladders until I made it to the very top of that dome. I opened a wooden hatch and climbed out to see a breathtaking view of the city all around me. There were no safety measures at all. I could easily have slipped and slid down the length of that dome to my death below. Yet this danger made the experience more memorable than many a famous museum, cathedral, or palace. I suppose I could have died but what is length of life next to intensity of life? I will die soon enough no matter what kills me.
A zoo animal would live a much harder, shorter life in the wild, but its nature would be fulfilled. Whether, safe or suffering, victorious or defeated, thriving or dying it would be in accordance with its plan. There would be no place for doubt, boredom, or restlessness.
Many modern persons make the mistake of measuring the ‘good’ of life itself by a tally of individual pains and pleasures. Fulfillment of one’s nature is to feel fulfilled whether one experiences individual pain or pleasure events.
Thus, neither the five year old kid nor its parent question for a moment whether a wild animal at the zoo would be better off in the wild. Humans likewise live in repression so long as they are separated from the nobility of their savage and elemental selves.
Surely Levi-Strauss’ evolutionary principle is a matter of common sense:
It should be expected that any species removed from the environment it evolved in will quickly become pathological. The human animal has proven to be no exception.