Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Far from the Madding Civilization: Anarcho-Primitivism and Revolt against Disintegration in Eugene O'Neill's the Hairy Ape

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Far from the Madding Civilization: Anarcho-Primitivism and Revolt against Disintegration in Eugene O'Neill's the Hairy Ape

Article excerpt

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course.

(Matthew Arnold, "The Buried Life")


The Enlightenment promoted a rational thinking that assumed culture and reason could triumphantly resolve the problems and tensions of human communities. The Romantics, however, struggled with the idea that a society oblivious to injustice and dogma was conceivable only through the full exercise of reason, revealing the threats cold rationality posed to nature and to human life. Instead, they put their trust in the intuitive, reflecting long and deep on nature and becoming, in the process, "worshipper[s] of Nature" (2005: 115), as Wordsworth says in "Tintern Abbey". The Romantics acutely drew attention to the disappearance of the natural world into a heartless urbanization and industrialization. Their discontent was with the cultural and social conditions which endorsed the submission of nature to the practical interests of man. Different as they were in their attitudes toward politics, they were united in their view that dominance of industrialism over nature implied man's egoistic sense of superiority. With the radical thrust of their ecological awareness, they fervently underscored the non-hierarchal interdependence of human societies and the natural world. In their poetry, they scrutinized the uncoupling of nature and civilization and returning to primal simplicity through the lens of emotional reflection. In William Wordsworth, for example, individuals find solace and contentment not in progress but in steadfast attachment to their immediate environment and the emotions they attribute to it. For the Romantics, human life was inherently connected with nature and not with industry.

Like English Romanticism, American Transcendentalism rebelled against the rampant materialism that had come in vogue in eighteenth century under the Enlightenment's instrumentalist rationality. In its stress on the innate goodness of the individual and nature, Transcendentalism spoke out against the despoiling effects of industrialization. Transcendentalists adopted a utopian outlook of men as able to transcend the material world by means of their spiritual essence and take part in the divine spirit. Henry David Thoreau, who had already stood against the established institutions with On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), took his rebellious, anarchic views to their peak by withdrawing from the bustle of civilized life and living in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, for two years and two months all alone, the detailed account of which is offered in Walden (1854). Thoreau's insistence on leading a simple life, along with his adoration of nature's intrinsic value, was shared by the fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson who similarly sought to protect the American citizen from the besetting aspects of civilization.

The primitive orientations of nineteenth century are extended in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries through more systematic ecological programs. In the primitivist utopia which these counter-hegemonic projects-most notably anarcho-primitivism- delineate, none of the advanced technologies of the present age would be allowed; in such an idyll, management of one's life would not exceed beyond the employment of simple tools. For anarcho-primitivists, two major crises are at work that make Green and emancipatory action necessary. One is the failure of technology, and the second the isolation or the degeneration of people. The first issue is observable in traffic jams, increasing pollution, and destruction of the natural scene. The second problem is evident in mass unemployment, poverty, cynicism, boredom, and psychosomatic breakdowns. Anarcho-primitivists believe that these consequences flow from the materialist rationality of civilization, and thus it is civilization that should be staunchly opposed. …

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