Saturday, September 8, 2012

Herman Melville trolls the politically correct of the nineteenth century (and probably many from the 20th and 2st as well)

I thought this was a particularly well constructed passage:

"Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i. e. what is called savagery. Your true whale-hunter is as much a savage as an Iroquois.  I myself am a savage; owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him. 

Now, one of the peculiar characteristics of the savage in his domestic hours, is his wonderful patience of industry.  An ancient Hawaiian war-club or spear-paddle, in its full multiplicity and elaboration of carving, is as great a trophy of human perseverance as a Latin lexicon.  For, with but a bit of broken sea-shell or a shark's tooth, that miraculous intricacy of wooden net-work has been achieved; and it has cost steady years of steady application.  As with the Hawaiian savage, so with the white sailor-savage. With the same marvellous patience, and with the same single shark's tooth, of his one poor jack-knife, he will carve you a bit of bone sculpture, not quite as workmanlike, but as close packed in its maziness of design, as the Greek savage, Achilles's shield; and full of barbaric spirit and suggestiveness, as the prints of that fine old Dutch savage, Albert Durer."


  1. Frankly, I never really bought the idea that primitive civilizations are but advanced in their own different ways.

    I'll be the first to say that it is often not their fault, being so secluded and cut off, as the Equatorial Guineans or the Pacific Islanders have been.

    But what is there to glorify in the short lifespan, the high infant mortality rates, the prevalence of preventable diseases, and the bare minimum sustenance in which they live? Nothing.

    1. Oh I agree. I just liked how it went from Melville calling Native Americans and Pacific islanders savages and you start by thinking "well, he was a product of his times", then you keep reading and you realize he was just pulling your leg.

      I think he is saying something more about some kind of primitive impulse to create - I don't think he's glorifying underdevelopment or anything like that.

  2. One politically and factually correct nit: The Iroquois were civilized, not savages.

  3. nice quote of Herman Melville . Thanks for sharing this with us.


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