Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar and the Noble Savage

I saw the movie Avatar last weekend and wanted to comment on its “noble savage” theme. The movie is set on Pandora, a moon over 4 light years from Earth. The movie is about the conflict between human colonists on Pandora and the native inhabitants, known as “Na’vi.” The protagonist is a paraplegic human named Jake Sully, whose mission is to gain intelligence on the Na’vi. Jake infiltrates the Na’vi by utilizing an “avatar,” a Na’vi body with a human consciousness. The Na’vi are “tree people,” whose home rests on a large deposit of a valuable mineral. The humans want the Na’vi to relocate; the Na’vi resist. Jake, as a combination human and Na’vi, is caught in the middle of the conflict.

The movie portrays the Na’vi in a sympathetic light compared to the humans. The Na’vi, similar in many ways to Native Americans and other primitive tribes, are seen as “noble savages,” whose idyllic way of life is threatened by greedy, mechanized humans. They are one with nature, able to communicate with animal and plant life on Pandora. Writer/director James Cameron (whose previous credits include the Terminator series and Titanic) isn’t trying for a balanced viewpoint here—everything about the Na’vi is good, while everything about the humans (with the possible exception of scientific research) is bad. This black-and-white viewpoint is similar to Star Wars, except that the conflict in Star Wars was more abstract.

Are actual savages as noble as the ones portrayed in the film? Is there something worthwhile about their way of life that was lost in the era of European/American expansion and colonization? While modern life has many advantages and material comforts, it seems to be missing something spiritually. This spiritual malaise is connected with severe psychological problems in artistic and other sensitive people. As I say in my Triumph of Dullness post, certain central aspects of modern life have caused major problems in sensitive people. These things include artificial magnetic fields in the bedroom, the transportation revolution, and artificial time. Primitive man didn’t have to worry about those things.

I want to focus on one aspect of primitive people that is also emphasized in Avatar, their sense of place. Tribal people have a sense of connectedness to their immediate environment, their home, in a way that modern people can’t understand. The Na’vi have a spiritual connection with their home tree, and abandoning their home is not an option.

Our modern world, replete with casual relationships between humans and their environment, has encouraged a stream of migration and relocation that has gone on for centuries. We took away the Native Americans’ land and pushed them onto reservations. People have emigrated from their homelands to American and other places, and have further relocated within their adopted countries. Many jobs require relocation. We do what we have to do in order to improve our material well being. But does all this migration have a price?

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy says “there’s no place like home,” and longs to get back to Kansas, her home. This indicates that even among modern people there’s some connection to, and longing for, home. No matter how often we have to move, we still long for a place to call home, for a stable location where one can always return to. My human magnetoreception hypothesis provides another argument for remaining at home. People who are sensitive to the geomagnetic field feel best when at (magnetic) home. North of home they feel negative symptoms, and south of home they feel positive symptoms. If they move too far from home, they’ll have severe symptoms, and have difficulty functioning without the aid of drugs.

While we can sympathize with those who are forced out of their homes, it’s also important to look at the other side. Whatever the motivation, whether it be the desire for more living space, or building roads, train tracks, structures, or any other kind of development, growth sometimes requires that some people move out to make way for "progress." If centuries ago we had accepted the currently fashionable idea that Native Americans had a right to their homeland, there would have been no United States. We would never have been able to expand our country, to farm the land, to build railroads and cities, i.e. to build a nation. While there are some people who would rather that the U.S. never have existed, I’m not one of them. While James Cameron can extol the virtues of primitive people, much of the technology he uses in his movie rests on inventions made in the U.S. These inventions would never have come into existence if Americans in the seventeenth through nineteenth century had believed, along with Cameron, that savages were noble, and that the Indians had a right to their land.

In conclusion, let’s give the savages their due, but let’s also give civilized man credit for building a post-industrial world that, while imperfect, has led to advanced technology that many of us would be loath to part from.

1 comment:

  1. Hi harry,

    I am pleased to be your friend and to read your posts. I am much more quiet --probably having less to say or, perhaps, less confidant. I am part native anmerican and take pride in that --in fact, my uncles and father say we are direct descendents of Wovoka. aka Cap'n Jack. There is some sort of sprituality in all of this. I make no claim to know what it means or, if it even matters---I just know there is some subtle force at play on this topic and to discount that would be to disount millions of years of intuitive knowledge.