Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Sex, Sustenance and Salvation: The Wild Man and Woman


(thanks to Richard Beaumont for photographs. Slange)

In the medieval era, we begin to find literary accounts of hairy men and women living outside the village – often tremendously strong, with animal and elemental attributes – as cunning as fox, fierce as a bear, swift as the wind. The women carried pendulous breasts that they slung over their shoulders, the men had vast beards; both were often entirely covered with hair.

As Hayden White points out (White 1972 :25) these shaggy characters live surprisingly close to our own world, just over the hill, in a forest, by a deep pool everyone knows but dares not visit. They are not entirely remote. The distant desert or far off mountain is the place of the more emphatically malignant being – the monster.

These wild people are known for a loose erotic nature, they are not bound by the labour-heavy, chapel-spun existence of the villagers. The wild man and woman are not regarded as consciously being sinful or wicked, rather innocent, their lifestyle is all they have ever known.

To the medieval villager, most clung pretty rigidly to what has been called the three securities:

Sex (enjoyed and given reign within the sanctity of marriage)
Sustenance (you will be provided for within the structures of social, political and economic institutions.)
Salvation (through the church)

From the distant tree-line, the wild couple see this and will have none of it. Stability is not high on the hairy one’s agenda. One day they feast to excess on a haunch of venison, the next it is watercress and rainwater. There is no call to the plough, no cold pew on a Sunday, no combing of little Jed’s tresses. They live just out of earshot of the crowing cockerel, make love in the sun heavy meadow, crawl belly down through the long grass to wrestle the musty stag. They are not blessed by the dainty water of the priest, their manners not pruned for the neighbours. There is no insurance, no after-life, no restraint – at least a restraint that the villagers can detect. To notch up the outrage still further, they are not even regarded as responsible parents. Legend persists that babies drop from the vulva of the wild women onto the forest floor. If the little one survives life in the darkening wood then so be it, if not, so be it.

But they are not Barbarians; they are not bringing apocalypse with them, all will not be put to the sword. They are not the three-eyed giant of the resolute desert. They are not quite evil, even to the thin interpretation of the villagers.

The relationship between village and forest is porous, with the wild ones as unruly mediators, transgressors. They whisk away the occasional sheep or chicken, can outfox the red faced gamekeeper, carry off well fed little children into the emerald boughs. Anything unexplained becomes explained by blaming them. To the villager, everything beyond the tree line is subject to their imaginations. Orgiastic scenes, pagan rituals, the free pillaging of the king's deer, it could all be going on just over the hill. And the exhausted washer-woman, on her way home to thin-lipped Elias and his rough hands, wonders just who is the better off. Not something to repeat at chapel, but she wonders.

So we detect in the locality of the wild people, and their nature furiously imagined by the villagers, a fairly straightforward case of suppression having to have an outlet: if we’re all being good subjects then somebody, or something near, is doing things we barely admit we may love to do. They’re taking a walk on the wild side. All the natural impulses that are being repressed in the village rise like agitated bees and descend onto the frolicking meadows and sweet grass copses. So the wild men and women from this way are still working within the function of the community, they are not utterly other, they are being a good scapegoat.

This is a very simplistic picture of the wild man and woman, ladled heavy with an incomplete christianity. Around the 12th Century, something very interesting happens, the picture becomes an image – it deepens, develops nuance. Folk lore around this time begins to shift emphasis. These seemingly base creatures start to become associated with a certain ethical ground. They start to become wise. They come to represent the preservation of animals, and a strand of knowledge that can only be found beyond the gatekeepers gaze. They are seen as connected to seasonal turns, weather patterns, protecting denizens, genius loki - they are keepers of an earthy magic.

By this time, agricultural advances had begun the slow taming of the vast European forests, the human hand was forging a new shape onto a previously nature dictated landscape. This shape would effect the psyche as well as the soil and silvery waters. It could be that this handling diffused the intense fears that many felt about travel into wilderness. It could also be that it coincided with a revival of classical, Aristotelianism thought, or could be a peasant reaction to heavy handed evangelising, but from this point onwards the wild couple start to grow in sophistication. Within time they will transmute into the ‘noble savage’, a kind of variant of the Robin Hood theme that is there to act as a kind of leafy reminder to civilisation about what they could be losing. So the wild couple become almost eden-esque rather than licentious. Of course neither is the real picture - inherent paradoxes within wildness make it cumbersome for use as a societal polemic.

In White’s essay “The Forms of Wildness” he makes an important distinction between the words primitivism and the word archaism that I want to layout here:

Primitivism: the raising up of any group as yet unbroken to civilisational discipline.

Archaism: the idealisation of real or legendary remote ancestors.

The latter of the two is the more popular, the more constant. It can appeal to both the conservative minded and the ecstatic Winstanleys of this world. It is a harking back, a nostalgia, for a time before time almost, when the world was simply less corrupt. We see this as a constant in both political agendas and the creation of new cults. It pulls on an impulse that many feel - once upon a time life wasn’t so complicated. In a conservative society it can mask revolution as reformation, a reaching back to a golden age, rather than a complete kicking over of the feasting table.

The first is more complicated. It is similar in the sense of its amplification of old world values, but it also suggests that this lost world can still be found amongst the corruption of modernity. It is not about a superior form of human being from some misty era, but an unshackling of ways of being that have become too unwieldy to carry any longer. In short, we have gone down the wrong road. Nature people, past and present, represent a wisdom that we desperately need. The views of nature within the two are very different; for archaism think of Dante’s vico – the terrible mutable forest, or the ‘dark wood’ of Lucretius. It’s all about life feasting on life, claws, steaming entrails, treacherous paths shrouded in mist, vast moving shadows. It’s a macho scene, and only those adept at conflict will survive. It’s heroic. It is viewing wilderness through village eyes, as epic but treacherous.

The primitivist brings more serenity with it, more of the lovers' garden. It is the move from the rapacious screw in a lighting storm to Persian poetry read together under a Linden tree. As White reminds us, this is the place where the virgin tames the unicorn, when the wild couple step forward as wise teachers, not enemies of culture.

By the time of Han Sach’s Lament of the Wild Man about the Unfaithful World (1530) this secondary position is gaining strength. The wild man is occupying the kind of conscience-pricking eco role of the head dressed Native American on a modern day greeting card. Sach’s text encourages a wild learning, that those bogged down by city life would do well to recharge their inner-nobility, to take to the green wood, to see the world afresh. The old association with virility is never quite lost either. From Sachs, it is only fifty years till a true flowering of European primitivism in Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals. By 1719 some of these notions go viral in Daniel Defoe’s The Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe - a book that radiates the charm of a bucolic existence to a citified England.

The two images of the wild couple have never quite been reconciled. If civilisation is elevated from nature, then they are still lecherous, ignorant beast-people; if you draw inspiration from the living world then they are visual clues to wholeness, to spontaneity, to true stewarding of the land. In the former corner stands Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre, waving their gloves in the other is Rosseau and Debuffet.

It appears that once we feel safe, settled, then we quite enjoy a sense of the wild. Once wilderness is not quite the threat it once was, then roll out the sentiment. But when we are truly buffeted by the society changing radicalness of Gerrard Winstanley, or by living cheek to jowl with the dark eyed gypsies, then there is often a reversion to hatred and suspicion. We don’t like change, and a part of being alive to wildness is change. When the wild is no longer wholly in the hands of the romantic poets and forest rangers, when it is up close and personal, then we wonder if much has changed these last few thousand years. To tolerate, even embrace, otherness is a very sophisticated idea. But it’s an idea, despite the upsets and abuse, that has made England the country it is today. We are a swarming nest of immigrants.

It may be that this very changeable notion of wilderness has helped contribute to the climatic change we see today. Wilderness is never more celebrated than by people who live in cities and rarely visit. Its titillation is fed by its absence.

Unfortunately, many who do make it to the wild have a very different agenda – consumption. Change is certainly on the agenda now, real, life altering change. And tied up with that, with all of this, is the notion of an animate earth. That has been a tireless message from all indigenous cultures. That doesn’t mean that they get everything right, doesn’t mean we should all live in yurts and eat carrots and peas, but it points towards a profound, and hopefully fairly rapid, re-orientation to the notion of earth as teacher – because it is certainly calling the shots now.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

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