The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Primitivism: A doctrine postulating that, although humans are essentially good, they have been (and are still being) corrupted by “civilization.” Primitivism emerged in the eighteenth century as a reaction against rationalistic neoclassicism, remained popular through the subsequent Romantic Period, and has persisted into the present day, though opposed by the doctrine of progress, which asserts that humanity has been improving throughout history thanks to advances in technology, science, art, and knowledge. Primitivists typically espouse a certain “back-to-nature” philosophy that has led to the glorification both of past eras and of past (and present) peoples seen as “natural” in contrast to the largely urban culture that exists today.

Primitivism is commonly divided into two general, though often overlapping, categories — cultural and chronological. Cultural primitivism holds that what is perceived as natural is usually superior to what is perceived as artificial. “Nature” is lauded over “culture,” the simple and the instinctual over the complex and the reasoned. Cultural primitivists thus typically see the practices of tribal groups as superior to the ways of urban civilization. Advocates of chronological primitivism, by contrast, typically emphasize some prior “golden age” of humanity. That is, chronological primitivists usually claim that a particular time, such as classical Greece, was the best in human history and that humanity, having subsequently lost the near-perfection it had attained, has been in decline ever since.

In literary theory, primitivism has manifested itself in the belief, particularly common in eighteenth-century England and France, that the best poetry is produced naturally or instinctively. Primitivists have sought to prove their theory by finding an “innate” talent for poetry in individuals who have had no formal education and among groups remote from civilization as we know it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth-century French writer who popularized primitivist concepts, also popularized the concept of the Noble Savage, the idea that humanity in its unspoiled, primitive state is possessed of superior morality and dignity.

Primitivism has influenced popular culture and works across all of the arts. For example, in nineteenth-century America, pioneers were viewed as Adamic heroes living off the (Edenic) land, and in the late 1960s, so-called flower children advocated escaping the military-industrial complex through drugs and what might be called the primitivism of rock ’n’ roll. More recently, specific movements within the rock ’n’ roll tradition, such as punk and grunge, have stressed directness and raw emotion, thus placing themselves in the larger, primitivistic tradition.

Artists influenced by primitivist thought and expression include Paul Gauguin, a nineteenth-century French artist who went to Tahiti as a “missionary in reverse”; Constantin Brâncus¸i, an early-twentieth-century Romanian artist who sought to capture the expressiveness of prehistoric stone carvings in his work; Henry Moore, a twentieth-century English artist and self-described “primevalist” who created works suggestive of the monoliths of Stonehenge; and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a late-twentieth-century American artist who began as a graffiti artist. Noted writers influenced by primitivism include the nineteenth-century American writer Herman Melville; D. H. Lawrence, an early-twentieth-century English poet and novelist; and twentieth-century American writer William Faulkner.

EXAMPLES: Gauguin’s painting The Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892); Brâncus¸i’s sculpture The Kiss (1908); Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring) (1913), a classical symphonic piece; Lawrence’s novel Women in Love (1920); Faulkner’s short story “The Bear” (1942); the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover of Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock” (1970), which speaks of having to “get back to the land” to set the soul free and which concludes with the line “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden”; John Zerzan’s Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections (2005); James Cameron’s fantasy / science-fiction film Avatar (2009).