Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Robert A. Williams, Jr.'s "Savage Anxieties"

Robert A. Williams, Jr. is the E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law and American Indian Studies at The University of Arizona and a member of the Lumbee Indian tribe of North Carolina. He is the author of The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest, Linking Arms Together: North American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, and Like A Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights and the Legal History of Racism in America.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, and reported the following:
My book tells the story of one of the most threatening, evocative and subversive ideas in the history of Western civilization; the idea of the savage. From the time of the ancient Greeks, the West has been provoked, haunted and seduced by two very different-seeming ways of imagining and stereotyping primitive-seeming, non-Westernized tribal peoples as savages; as either irredeemable, irrational brutes, destined to be vanquished by the rise of a superior civilization, or as ennobled exemplars of a true and simpler way of life for a hopelessly decadent and fallen one.

The examples I use to illustrate both the continuities and discontinuities in the ways that this dual-sided myth has been invoked since the birth of Western civilization will be familiar to most readers. I begin the book with the West’s first great works of literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. From these early Greek beginnings, I trace the West’s continuing perpetuation and reinvention of this myth up through the present-day. Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Virgil’s Aeneid, St. Augustine and the early Church Fathers, the Crusades to the Holy Lands, Columbus’ journals, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the 20th century “Hollywood Indian,” and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples all reveal the continuing force and evocative ambivalence of the myth of the savage in the West.

Page 99 of Savage Anxieties examines how the ancient Roman historian, Tacitus (ca. 56 A.D.-120), described the distant barbarian tribes of Europe as extreme examples of both ignoble and noble savagery. In the Germania, he tells us about the Fenni (or Finns) of Scandinavia. Tacitus relates that the Fenni live a very “hard” life, perhaps the hardest of all the barbarian tribes of Europe, since they are at the ends of the earth. They are “astonishingly savage and disgustingly poor,” with no horses or household goods. “They eat wild herbs, dress in skins, and sleep on the ground,” surviving by the hunt. While decrying their primitive way of life, Tacitus, at the same time, employs a readily recognizable set of cultural markers and stereotypes to isolate the nobler virtues of these savages. Though the Fenni have no gods or religion, they “have reached a state that few human beings can attain: for these men are so well content that they do not even need to pray for anything.” (P. 99, Savage Anxieties).

As I explain in the book, Western civilization has used this dual-sided myth of tribal peoples as irreconcilable savages to justify and carry out a 3,000 year-long war against tribalism as a way of life. As I argue, without this myth, Western civilization as a system of shared beliefs and an epoch-shaping force in world history would be impossible to imagine. In fact, without the idea of the savage to provide the mirrored reflection of all that it believes it represents in the world, Western civilization as we know it would not exist.
Learn more about the book and author at Robert A. Williams, Jr.'s website.

--Marshal Zeringue