Late nineteenth and early 20th century intellectual roots
I want to get some notes down on the reasons for certain literary tropes and intellectual beliefs in the late 19th and early 20th century. The difference in how our ancestors thought about the world really smacks you in the face if you read 19th and pre-WWII fiction. This is true from pulp fiction to high fiction—Robert E Howard’s Conan series draws on the same roots as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Nietzche is speaking to an experience that influenced both of them.
If you were a white man who wasn’t lower class in the 19th century, you were a superman. At home, because you received proper nutrition during childhood you were taller, stronger, smarter and healthier than most of the lower class. If you put your mind to it, you were better than them at nearly everything. Overseas, European military forces could wipe out armies ten to a hundred times their size, and take remarkably few casualties while doing so. You had better machines and more understanding of the natural laws that ran the world. Your experience was of being a superman—you were simply better than non-Europeans, and the lower class, either because of the benefits of your society, or because of superior nutrition during the formative years.
The White Man’s Burden and the Heart of Darkness
European civilization was, to you, simply superior. Any who opposed you, you could crush. We can cavill, we can say there are other more important virtues, we can find corner cases and talk about appropriate technology, but at the end of the day Europeans had superior agriculture, industry, science and military force. The experience of being supermen lead to two main responses: one was to say that it was mostly a matter of civilization and that others should be raised to the European level and that it was European’s duty to do this (the White Man’s Burden), the other was to deeply abuse that power. In many cases, it was both—abuse covered up by claiming virtue.
Still, if you look at the history of, say, Hong Kong, what you see is that it starts out with a very low population (a few thousand) and grows very fast—Chinese flock there. Why? Because the Manchu are worse, far, far worse. In Hong Kong if you’re Chinese, you’re a second class citizen, but you do have access to some sort of law which is not entirely corrupt: it is a better place to live, a safer place with more opportunity than China is at the time.
In other places, the Congo being the most notorious, the natives are treated as subhuman, and a huge body of racial theory grows up in the 19th and 20th centuries to justify seeing non-whites as subhumans. That theory allows you to feel that treating them inhumanely is fine, since they aren’t fully human. This can combine with the white man’s burden “white men must do what they can for the inferior races, but that inferiority is biological and can never entirely be overcome” or it can act in opposition to it, if one believes it is a question of civilization. Some see it as the latter, those who know that both Islamic and Chinese civilizations were superior to Western civilization for most of history, but the need to believe oneself superior is deeply human.
The End of Going Native
The Sepoy rebellion is the end of one way of ruling Empire and the beginning of a different way. Before the Sepoy rebellion India is ruled by men who marry native women, have mixed-race children, who learn the language: men who stand between India and the Empire. When that method fails, and fails in very bloody fashion (the wives, the mixed raced children, the friends—or if you wish collaborators are especially targeted by the rebels), the method changes: the British believe that the rebellion happened because the administrators became too close to the Indians, were not harsh enough, did not apply discipline sufficiently. The new imperial service strongly discourages marriages with natives, close friendships, and even learning the language is often viewed with suspicion. Combined with racial theory, which makes them regard mating with non-whites as mating with subhumans, going native declines, and marrying a local will dead-end your career.
This has widespread effects. The Metis rebellion in Canada, for example, is a result of the clash between the new Victorian morality and method of governance and the older method. The Metis are, essentially, the most important people in most of unsettled Canada. The Scots and French who manned the fur trade married local women, their children continued to manage the relationship between white and native, and prospered doing so. The new Victorian administrators, as the West is colonized, regard the Metis as subhuman, in many ways, as worse than the native Americans, since they are the product of miscegenation. Instead of working with them, or through them, as Canada expands in to the West, they cut them out. This results in rebellion, which is crushed (in part because Riel, the leader, refuses to fight the war properly, and cut the rail lines.) This history, of course, is not taught properly in Canadian classrooms, the textbooks make it out as if the Metis rebel for almost no reason at all.
The tragedy, of course, is that if the Metis had been worked with, instead of against, both they and the native Americans would have been better off, and Indian reservations might not, today, be the shame of Canada, 3rd world hovels.
The Decline Into Barbarism
At the same time as Europeans are expanding to every corner of the world, they are finding magnificent ruins. Monuments like the pyramids, great ruined Mayan cities, brilliant Chinese literature and art, and so on. They become very aware that civilizations rise and fall. In many cases the people who live in the same area as the greatest ruins are very primitive indeed. Combined with racial theory, many come to assume that the collapse of civilization is caused by the declining of racial stock—that the people themselves start becoming more and more “beast like” and thus are unable to maintain high civilization. Some fiction takes it so far as to assume that humans can descend back to being apes.
This combines with the heart of darkness effect of great power, to lead to European enclaves. Even if a man can’t change biologically in one generation (though some theorists think he can) when surrounded by savages, Europeans believe they are more likely to themselves become savages. Women, white women, are a civilizing influence, they believe, and so wives and daughters are brought with colonial enclaves. And indeed, where white men are not alone, but have their women, it is true that less atrocities tend to be committed.
The decline of civilization doesn’t just have to do with dark skinned people though. The British and Americans are deeply enamored by classical Greece and Rome, but they notice that modern Italians and Greeks aren’t much like the people they read of when they read Cicero or Homer or Plato. So even whites aren’t immune to this collapse of civilization, and the search for the causes consumes much of 19th century scholarship and fiction, and underlies the emphasis on discipline and fortitude, for the British become very aware that their supremacy rests on military might, and that that might rests not just on having the best weapons but upon organization and discipline of the troops.
The Noble Savage
Right through the Victorian era, alongside all the racial theories of how inferior the other races are is the myth of the noble savage. This, too, is based on experience. To be sure a milk and meat fed middle or upper class Briton or American is physically superior to the underclass and many of the peasants of the agricultural societies they are conquering but anyone who travels quickly becomes aware that those savages who live on the land and get a good diet, with enough calories of the right kind, are their physical superior. Native Americans from some tribes can carry 500 pound packs for days, something virtually no white man can. Kalahari desert trackers can run for days, and track animals across terrain in which no European can even see tracks. South American Indians and Nepalese mountaineers climb terrain that seems impassable to white men, displaying strength, agility and hardiness that puts almost any European to shame. Australian aborigines likewise perform physical feats that amaze.
You thus have a theory of civilization which posits the pinnacles of humanity being northern Europeans and certain groups of hunter-gatherers and nomadic tribesmen. The noble savages are physically superior and civilization in the “oriental” style enervates them, taking away their primitive virtues. Again, this arises, at its heart, from lived experience.
Freudianism, Oedipus and Electra
Those who are old enough, or who have read widely in early to mid 20th century literature and literary theory understand just how influential Freud was. His theories look absurd to us, but they were a secular religion for millions during much of the 20th century, and those million included amongst them much of the literary and artistic class of the West.
Again, they are based on lived experience—the lived experience of the Viennese middle class in the time of Freud. The first key thing to know is this: living space was precious, people had very small living spaces.
One of the key parts of Freudianism is the assertion of the Oedipal complex (boys want to have sex with their mothers) and the Electra complex (girls with their fathers–strictly speaking Jungian.) In a small space, there is no way to conceal sex from children. The first sounds and possibly sight of sex a boy or girl will have, is sex between their parents. Assuming hetrosexual orientation (the majority of the population), that sex will be associated with opposite sex parent. Add in a bit of operant conditioning (sexual feelings coincident with the parent having sex) and you have the appropriate complex. Freud took this as a universal law, but it was contingent: in Vienna it was probably most people, but in societies without that operant coinditioning (such as our own, where children’s first experience of sex will probably be watching porn on the internet) that loop doesn’t occur nearly so often.
Much of what is distinctive in an age’s literature and intellectual thought is based on the lived experience of the class that does the writing and theorizing, and the experience of their peers. The experience of the middle and upper classes of Europe was of superiority to the lower classes, overwhelming superiority to foreign societies and of the fragility of civilization, seeing and reading of so many great civilizations, who had created great art, literature and monuments which no longer existed. Likewise the noble savage and the obsession with incest were a result of the actual way that the middle class (Freud’s patients) lived in Vienna.
(Obligatory note: because I write about racism, the white man’s burden, sexism, colonialism, or anything else doesn’t mean I approve of it.)