Saturday, July 9, 2016

I.R. YBARRA, Prey to the Emptiest Superstitions


Thor Heyerdahl, well known to the general reading public as the author of Kon Tiki and Aku Aku, surprisingly enough had much to say that readers in the modern radical community could well listen to.

In Kon Tiki, his best-known work, he set out to verify the practicalities of his theory that early sea voyages from Polynesia had contributed to the populating of South America. In Aku Aku he visits Easter Island. But the revisiting of his earliest manuscript and expanding it, recounts his youthful period on the island of Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas group in the South Pacific, when he was what we now might call a practicing primitivist. One says “might” because there are so few of them that hardly any have ever before been identified, and certainly the moderns who represent themselves as primitivists from a few posts in big cities or in lectures at universities that they fly to on commercial airlines after financial negotiations conducted over internet connections, are laughably so far from acting on their alleged philosophy that no term for ones who do has ever arisen.

But when young Thor was newly graduated from school in Norway (1936), he and his teenaged wife, Liv, fired with longings to escape from blighted civilization, overcame social and parental disapproval in order to live the life they had come to think of as ideal.

Back to nature? Farewell to civilization? It is one thing to dream of it and another to do it. I tried it. Tried to return to nature.

For this he deserves great respect – respect that the poseurs and high-tech lifestyle advocates and profiteers battening cynically on a kind of industry catering to such dreamers do not deserve.

Once among the natives on Fatu-Hiva, Thor and Liv commence an idyllic existence in which food literally falls from trees that spring up from seedlings in mere days; they live in a house built cooperatively by themselves and helpful islanders; they experience freedom and leisure for thought and exploration, scientific inquiry.

And what went wrong?


Ignorance and strange diseases intruded. Fatu-Hivans with generations of ancestry on the islands were divided into cliques of enemies, many of whom had historically killed – and even eaten – each other, and in the 1930s at least were prey to the emptiest superstitions. In these moist island paradises leprosy and elephantiasis ran rife, sanitation was horrifying, communal diseases and intimate bodily contact in eating and many other activities spread diseases also well-aided by flies and other insects. Thor and Liv develop a ghastly malady of sores on their ankles and legs, probably from what we would today call botfly attacks, although he doesn’t say so; and when these worsen to the point where if not treated Liv may have to undergo an amputation, they have to make difficult journey to Hivaoa, another island in the group, where medical attention can be had.

Their “own” island is so devoid of knowledge and civilization that not even a dentist exists there, and one of the first natives the Norwegians meet is afflicted with a huge “gumboil” – no doubt what we would call an abscess – that has swollen his face to an alarming size. (Thor does manage to cure the fellow of that himself, somehow.)

Then back on Fatu-Hiva after their own disease is cured on Hivaoa, Thor and Liv innocently run afoul of a truly crazy religious division on their part of the island, and become targets of vicious menacing in an atmosphere of outright threats, so they are forced to desert their idyllic home and make the difficult cross over the island’s high peaks to the other side. There they live in harmony for a while with an older man and his quite young consort, but a few erstwhile neighbors finally track them down. That band, led by a home-grown thug, bring on raucous 24/7 saturnalias complete with homemade orange alcohol. Faced with what are clearly (but reticently described by Thor) threats to rape his wife, the two once more are compelled to flee, and getting back across the island’s high backbone again they take refuge near the water’s edge in a cave where they can watch for one of the infrequent small schooners that visit the islands. When they had first traveled to the place it had been a requirement that they purchase round-trip tickets, so now, though close to penniless and missing most possessions they had arrived with, badly scarred by the island disease and the fear and disillusionment, they have, at least, the wherewithal to get back to Europe.

(There, their relationship apparently dissolves; Thor recounts that in a mere phrase or two at the end.)

It was on Fatu-Hiva that Thor first began to see the connections with South America, and his photographs of ruins and statuary on the island clearly show ancient connection with similar ones on the faraway mainland:

Soon we reached a slope above a small stream. Here the forest seemed more open, where a truly giant tree had fallen and torn down everything in its way … Naked rock in the form of two huge slabs emerged near the upturned root of the tree, partly covered with invading coffee brushes.

Tioti pointed. Look, the fish!

There it was, over six feet long, head, tail, fins and all, clearly outlined on the rock. Not a fossil, but the first petroglyph ever discovered on Fatu-Hiva. The only one of this kind known in any part of Polynesia …. A large number of other figures emerged from beneath the black soil.

 … Elsewhere on the rock were complete human figures with hooked legs and arms, a turtle, nondescript symbols, and something that puzzled me for years: a crescent-shaped ship, with a  curved bottom, a very high bow and stern, a double mast, and rows of oars. The vessels used in the Marquesas group since the arrival of Europeans were dugout canoes and flat rafts, both shaped from trunks or poles, so their bottoms were straight as logs. This crescent-shaped ship looked more like the reed boats of … Peru.

So some ideas of value did emerge from the Heyerdahls’ experience, but these had little to do with the spiritual and philosophical ones they had set out to live.

Here, however, an acknowledgement needs to be belatedly made of another writer and another book. Why Thor doesn’t mention Frederick O’Brien is hard to say, but he had to have known about him. Back in the early years of Thor’s reading, he had access to:

… The world’s largest private collection of books and papers on Polynesia. Bjarne Kroepelien had as a young man spent the happiest year of his life … on Tahiti, and on his return to Europe he began to collect anything published on Polynesia and the Polynesians, no matter where and when it was printed … He let me use his important library …

This was in the 1930s. But in 1919 a book by O’Brien was published by Garden City Publishing Company in New York, called White Shadows in the South Seas. O’Brien, a traveler with few or no scientific pretentions, is also a sort of primitivist, and he recounts his period on Hiva-oa (he spells it with a hyphen) with a trip to Fatu-Hiva. As Heyerdahl does twenty years later, he finds a definite degradation of the native inhabitants caused by contact with Europeans, and, also like Heyerdahl, he regards the natives as a sadly dying race. He speaks of disease and especially leprosy, but unlike Thor and Liv he apparently keeps his clothes on and doesn’t have botflies laying their eggs in his feet. He even stays for a while with the father of a European, Monsieur Francois Grelet, a Swiss who had lived here for more than twenty years. Grelet has become a big landowner on Fatu-Hiva, and O’Brien describes extensively the man and his mode of life. For instance:

Grelet had innumerable books in French and German, all the great authors old and modern; he took the important reviews of Germany and France, and several newspapers. He knew much more than I of history past and present, of the happenings in the great world, art and music and invention, finances and politics. He could … discuss the quality of Caruso’s voice as compared with Jean de Reszke’s. Twenty two years ago he had left everything called civilization, he had never been out of the Marquesas since that time; he lived in a lonely valley in which there was no other man of his tastes and education, and he was content.

In his own book Heyerdahl recounts meeting Willy Grelet, the only one on the island who had grown up with a European father.

His late father was a Swiss who had married a local island girl and whose only friend had been Paul Gauguin, who he hardly ever saw, since they lived on different islands. Willy seemed introverted and lonely, clearly keeping aloof from the rest of the village people. We were to learn that he was a very honest person, even though he loved money, which he gathered wherever he could get it, and he was rich, but saved his earnings as there was nowhere to spend them …

The Heyerdahls stay with Willy for a while. And in another parallel, chapter three of Thor’s book is titled, “White Men, Dark Shadows.”

Willy Grelet assists in the episode of the terrible botfly disease, but there is never any mention of his father’s extensive library. On the other hand, Willy, always desirous of getting more money, after a while quizzes Thor about the famousness in Europe of Paul Gauguin, and, learning that almost anything once owned by Gauguin would fetch a good price, shows up with an old Winchester rifle the artist had kept, and the wooden stock of which he had engraved. Heyerdahl buys it, and a photo of the stock (the action itself is later seized by customs authorities) appears in the book. But though there is no mention of the Grelet library, Heyerdahl still later makes the acquaintance of one Henry Lie on one of the islands, and Lie has an impressive collection of books.

His big, one-room bungalow was filled with beds and books … I was puzzled to see that Lie had so many books …

Many years later Heyerdahl revisits Lie’s dwelling place on one of his world travels, and not a sign of his home remains; witnesses say it was destroyed and washed away by a tidal wave.

What is one to make of these failed experiments in isolated living? Clearly, Thor and Liv went about it in far too extravagant a way. In seeking the Garden of Eden they disdained all the better products of civilization, in these two books exemplified by (a) art and literature and (b) medicine. Over-arching both of these is, of course, advanced learning. The primitivists who really were able to live the life were people like Grelet and Henry Lie, who both married native women and dwelt quietly in their primitive paradises, but didn’t let it all go too far – they retained connection with the life and history of mankind, the thought that set them above the ignorant and potentially dangerous islanders.

This seems to be the lesson that the current legion of primitivist writers ignores, even at their best. At their worst, this legion descends to complete fatuousness. A correspondent of mine mentions a recent Anarchist event:

I went to talk to a woman (well, she was pretty and had a few visitors). Turned out she was a primitivist and hoped to give demonstrations on how to ignite a fire with a wooden pestle and mortar. She had several computer-generated booklets on her subject and offered me some. Further, she invited me to join her blog.

I smiled politely.  

Heyerdahl, Thor  Fatu-Hiva – Back to Nature (Doubleday, 1975)
O’Brien, Frederick  White Shadows in the South Seas (1919)



Thor Heyerdahl died in 2002 at the age of 88. The famed ethnologist from Norway led many expeditions in an effort to gather evidence for his theory of cultural diffusion, ideas still not widely taken in anthropological circles. He was obsessed with recreating possible voyages, examining the topics of pre-Columbian contact with peoples of the Western Hemisphere. He was also the subject of a few documentaries and motion pictures (Kon-Tiki in 1950 and The Ra Expeditions in 1971).
Paul Gauguin (he croaked in 1903) was a French artist similarly fascinated with Polynesian culture and what was to become the primitivist way of life, a return to the natural state of things. Gauguin’s work (see inlays above) no doubt gave birth to the avant-garde movements of the 20th century, including Picasso. He hung out with Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renior, and generally led the life artists of our day now manufacture … with standard ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies.

Primitivism is a strange and rather perverse notion humans must and need to get back to something called nature, and that’s usually capitalized. Nature. Bah! Yes, of course, pollution and crowding and modern social ills can be plagues, but primitivists are all wrong. They get almost nothing right, and they’re largely hypocrites to boot. Thoreau was such, as was Kerouac, where they’d CLAIM to’ve gone off to escape it all … only to return to the comfy necessity of the same civilization they poo-poo’d. Today, they’re your standard Hippy, hand-wringing about corporations … all the while typing on their corporate computing device, linked to humanity by their corporate internet service provider, driving in their corporate cars filled with corporate gas – you get the idea. Cancer is natural. Disease is natural. Humans succeed because they rebel AGAINST nature, and not because they give-in to its redness of tooth and claw.  

THE MATCH! The above (with exception of my CURATOR’S NOTES) is republished from the current longest running, independent Anarchist publication in the United States, The Match!, issue 112 (Fall, 2013). Since 1969, The Match! exists solely to criticize authoritarian society and religion in order to argue for the many humane advantages of freedom and rationality. The Match! is not affiliated with any group or organization. The Match! does not have a website, no email address, and you won’t find it in any social media hub. YOU HAVE TO WRITE. That’s correct. You have to send ALL correspondence via post. Issues are now free, so really it’s just the cost of your time, some paper, and a stamp. No one is doing anything like Fred Woodworth (its sole publisher and editor all these years). Easily some of the best reading in the Anarchist world.

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