Savage Aesthetics

One passage in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) has haunted me since I read it. The protagonist is navigating the Thames river and passes through an old style pound lock and wonders why the centuries old technology is still in use. In this pastoral vision of the future, the answer he’s given is this:

‘You see, guest, this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us, and we are now content to use such of its inventions that we find handy, and leaving those alone which we don’t want. I believe, as a matter of fact, that some time ago (I can give you a date) some elaborate machinery was used for the locks, though people did not go so far as to try to make the water run uphill. However, it was troublesome, I suppose, and the simple hatches, and the gates, with a big counterpoising beam, were found to answer every purpose, and were easily mended when wanted with materials always at hand, so here they are, as you see.’

‘Besides, said Dick, ‘this kind of lock is pretty, as you can see; and I can’t help thinking that your machine-lock, winding up like a watch, would have been ugly and would have spoiled the look of the river: and that is surely reason enough for keeping such locks as these. (192, Penguin Classic ed. 1993)

Today, our aesthetic choices might be different. I remember a story not long ago about some of the locks on the Erie Canal still using electrical equipment well over a hundred years old. It looks quite pretty to modern eyes. What makes one technology good and another not worth using? For Morris, it seems, it was a question of looks.


Trying to figure out the clearest take away from Typee (1846), Melville’s narrative about his time among the “savages” of the Marquesa Islands, it’s hard to shake the closing anxiety Melville faced at the prospect of having his face tattooed. This was long before Adolph Loos proclaimed ornament is a crime using tattooing as his benchmark for savagery; indeed, Melville seems to show great admiration of the natives and their technologies (especially food technologies) through the book. But having his face tattooed? That was a bridge too far— he could never return to polite society if he allowed this. His choice to leave centered on aesthetics.

While he lived with the Typee, Melville was frequently in awe of their way of life; in fact, the book represents to me a powerful allegorical (and direct) questioning of the nature and bounds of civilization:

As I extend my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the advantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Terra-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 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 Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer that question. (149, Library of America ed.)

The facile answer regarding civilization and technology (as alluded to here) is that technology frequently can better our lot in life by alleviating our pains and wants; if there’s no need of this, then what other benefits does civilization accrue? Not many, when it comes to the islands of Hawaii, as Melville rightly states. The population was decimated, and was still being decimated at the time that he composed this. In the United States, the same thing was happening to the Native Americans, particularly in California. The “voluptuous natives” of the Pacific Coast were among the most devastated by the encroachment of so-called civilization. Those who needed it least, suffered the most at its hands.

This passage is not an isolated reflection, but to be balanced in discussing the book it is not entirely a political diatribe (one of the only books of Melville’s to be censored and  modified for the US audience), but also a titillating exercise in voyeurism, “a peep” at Polynesian life as the title states:

I happened to pop in on Mehevi three or four times when he was romping—in a most undignified manner for a warrior king—with one of the prettiest little witches in the valley. She lived with an old woman and a young man, in a house near Marheyo’s; and though appearance a mere child herself, had a noble boy about a year old, who bore a marvelous resemblance to Mehevi, whom I should certainly have believed to be the father, where it not that the little fellow had no triangle on his face—but on second thoughts, tattooing is not hereditary. Mehevi, however, was not the only person upon whom the damsel Monotony smiled—the young fellow of fifteen, who permanently resided in the house with her, was decidedly in her good graces. I sometimes beheld both him and the chief making love at the same time. (224)

The explanation that Melville unfolds is that this is a polygamous society where women are allowed to take several husbands. Women’s issues frequently surface in the book, particularly taboos for women. They apparently weren’t allowed to ride in canoes, which Tommo (Melville’s alter ego in the book) fights and manages to overturn for his paramour, Faraway. Note however, the little joke about tattoos not being hereditary. Society, though inherited, doesn’t mark us quite that directly.

The sexual overtones of the book tend, in many critical accounts, overshadow several discussions of technology. For example, Melville’s description of his valet Kory Kory’s efforts to start a fire with a spinning stick is frequently summoned:

At first, Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their sockets with the violence of his exertions. This is the critical stage of the operation; all his previous labors are in vain if he cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant spark is produced. Suddenly he stops, becomes perfectly motionless. His hands still retain their hold of the smaller stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had just pierced through and through some little viper that was wriggling and wriggling to escape from his clutches. The next moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air, the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory almost breathless dismounts form his steed. (135)

I would to defy anyone to watch, for instance, a Massai tribesman perform this procedure and sexualize it the way that Melville, ever the bawdy sailor, has:

This, I think, is primarily Melville the showman doing his best to earn a living as a writer. The real meat of the scene occurs after the lascivious passage:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who  through the instrumentality of a lucifer, performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wits end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without ever troubling their parent, pluck from the branches of every tree around them. (136)

Note the description of Western fire starting as “the instrumentality of a lucifer” rather than a gift from Prometheus, which would apply to both indigenous and Western fire starting. What makes a good technology? A technology that solves our needs, I suspect, would be Melville’s answer. I find it interesting that with the proceeds from Typee, Melville bought a farm of sorts, perhaps so he could pick food from every tree around him.

His cautions against the incursions of imperialism and conversion, particularly conversion:

How little do some of these poor islanders comprehend when they look around them, that no inconsiderable part of their disasters originate in certain tea-party excitements, under the influence of benevolent looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit alms, and old ladies in spectacles, and young ladies in sober russet low gowns, contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, the object of which is to ameliorate the spiritual condition of the Polynesians, but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish their temporal destruction!

Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time shrinking the forms of its unhappy worshipers. (230)

Melville’s resistance to the “tea-party excitements” that surrounded polite western society chafed against Melville (see his reaction to Hungarian fund raisers a few years after), but he was not immune to the potential benefits of “civilization” as he knew it, particularly the benefits of technology. Given his later narratives regarding the whale oil trade, I found it interesting the way he painstakingly described the Polynesian technology for lighting the night:

At this supper we were listed by several of the native tapers, held in the hands of young girls. These tapers are most ingeniously made. There is a nut abounding in the valley, called by the Typees “armor,” closely resembling our common horse-chestnut. The shell is broken, and the contents are extracted whole. Any number of these are strung at pleasure upon the long elastic fibre that traverses the branches of the cocoa-nut tree. Some of these tapers are eight to ten feet in length; but being perfectly flexible, one end is held in a coil while the other is lighted. The nut burns with a fitful bluish flame, and the oil that it contains is exhausted in about ten minutes. As one burns down, the next becomes ignited, and the ashes of the former are knocked into a cocoa-nut shell kept for the purpose. This primitive candle requires continual attention, and must be constantly held in the hand. The person so employed marks the lapse of time by the number of nuts consumed, which is easily learned by counting the bits of tap distributed at regular intervals along the string. (244)

Besides providing light, the apparatus, as designed is also a clock. There’s an obsessiveness about his technological descriptions which is fitting what Morris labeled as “the age of invention.”

Melville’s excitement about technology in Typee is closely matched by his interest in food and tattoos. In the next paragraph, he rails against sushi: “Raw fish! shall I ever forget my sensations when I first saw my island beauty devour one?” But, his aesthetic sense was not offended because she didn’t eat “vulgar-looking fishes: oh no; with her beautiful small hand she would clasp a delicate, little, golden-hued love of a fish, and eat it as elegantly as innocently as though it were a Naples biscuit” (245).  If things are pretty, then they are okay. This jibes with Morris’s attitudes towards technology perfectly: only beautiful technologies— or foods— should be celebrated.

There is of course a lot more to say about the book, but I must press on to its sequel Omoo.

This entry was posted in Books, Craft, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply