One of the oddities of the writer’s life is the utter unpredictability of inspiration. There are times when I sit down at the keyboard knowing what I have to write, and plod my way though the day’s allotment of prose in much the same spirit that a gardener turns the earth in the beds of a big garden; there are times when a project sits there grumbling to itself and has to be coaxed or prodded into taking shape on the page; but there are also times when something grabs hold of me, drags me kicking and screaming to the keyboard, and holds me there with a squamous paw clamped on my shoulder until I’ve finished whatever it is that I’ve suddenly found out that I have to write.
Over the last two months, I’ve had that last experience on a considerably larger scale than usual; to be precise, I’ve just completed the first draft of a 70,000-word novel in eight weeks. Those of my readers and correspondents who’ve been wondering why I’ve been slower than usual to respond to them now know the reason. The working title is Moon Path to Innsmouth; it deals, in the sidelong way for which fiction is so well suited, with quite a number of the issues discussed on this blog; I’m pleased to say that I’ve lined up a publisher, and so in due time the novel will be available to delight the rugose hearts of the Great Old Ones and their eldritch minions everywhere.
None of that would be relevant to the theme of the current series of posts on The Archdruid Report, except that getting the thing written required quite a bit of reference to the weird tales of an earlier era—the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, of course, but also those of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, who both contributed mightily to the fictive mythos that took its name from Lovecraft’s squid-faced devil-god Cthulhu. One Howard story leads to another—or at least it does if you spent your impressionable youth stewing your imagination in a bubbling cauldron of classic fantasy fiction, as I did—and that’s how it happened that I ended up revisiting the final lines of “Beyond the Black River,” part of the saga of Conan of Cimmeria, Howard’s iconic hero:
“‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’”
It’s easy to take that as nothing more than a bit of bluster meant to add color to an adventure story—easy but, I’d suggest, inaccurate. Science fiction has made much of its claim to be a “literature of ideas,” but a strong case can be made that the weird tale as developed by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and their peers has at least as much claim to the same label, and the ideas that feature in a classic weird tale are often a good deal more challenging than those that are the stock in trade of most science fiction: “gee, what happens if I extrapolate this technological trend a little further?” and the like. The authors who published with Weird Tales back in the day, in particular, liked to pose edgy questions about the way that the posturings of our species and its contemporary cultures appeared in the cold light of a cosmos that’s wholly uninterested in our overblown opinion of ourselves.
Thus I think it’s worth giving Conan and his fellow barbarians their due, and treating what we may as well call the Cimmerian hypothesis as a serious proposal about the underlying structure of human history. Let’s start with some basics. What is civilization? What is barbarism? What exactly does it mean to describe one state of human society as natural and another unnatural, and how does that relate to the repeated triumph of barbarism at the end of every civilization?
The word “civilization” has a galaxy of meanings, most of them irrelevant to the present purpose. We can take the original meaning of the word—in late Latin, civilisatio—as a workable starting point; it means “having or establishing settled communities.” A people known to the Romans was civilized if its members lived in civitates, cities or towns. We can generalize this further, and say that a civilization is a form of society in which people live in artificial environments. Is there more to civilization than that? Of course there is, but as I hope to show, most of it unfolds from the distinction just traced out.
A city, after all, is a human environment from which the ordinary workings of nature have been excluded, to as great an extent as the available technology permits. When you go outdoors in a city, nearly all the things you encounter have been put there by human beings; even the trees are where they are because someone decided to put them there, not by way of the normal processes by which trees reproduce their kind and disperse their seeds. Those natural phenomena that do manage to elbow their way into an urban environment—tropical storms, rats, and the like—are interlopers, and treated as such. The gradient between urban and rural settlements can be measured precisely by what fraction of the things that residents encounter is put there by human action, as compared to the fraction that was put there by ordinary natural processes.
What is barbarism? The root meaning here is a good deal less helpful. The Greek word βαρβαροι, barbaroi, originally meant “people who say ‘bar bar bar’” instead of talking intelligibly in Greek. In Roman times that usage got bent around to mean “people outside the Empire,” and thus in due time to “tribes who are too savage to speak Latin, live in cities, or give up without a fight when we decide to steal their land.” Fast forward a century or two, and that definition morphed uncomfortably into “tribes who are too savage to speak Latin, live in cities, or stay peacefully on their side of the border” —enter Alaric’s Visigoths, Genseric’s Vandals, and the ebullient multiethnic horde that marched westwards under the banners of Attila the Hun.
This is also where Conan enters the picture. In crafting his fictional Hyborian Age, which was vaguely located in time betwen the sinking of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history, Howard borrowed freely from various corners of the past, but the Roman experience was an important ingredient—the story cited above, framed by a struggle between the kingdom of Aquilonia and the wild Pictish tribes beyond the Black River, drew noticeably on Roman Britain, though it also took elements from the Old West and elsewhere. The entire concept of a barbarian hero swaggering his way south into the lands of civilization, which Howard introduced to fantasy fiction (and which has been so freely and ineptly plagiarized since his time), has its roots in the late Roman and post-Roman experience, a time when a great many enterprising warriors did just that, and when some, like Conan, became kings.
What sets barbarian societies apart from civilized ones is precisely that a much smaller fraction of the environment barbarians encounter results from human action. When you go outdoors in Cimmeria—if you’re not outdoors to start with, which you probably are—nearly everything you encounter has been put there by nature. There are no towns of any size, just scattered clusters of dwellings in the midst of a mostly unaltered environment. Where your Aquilonian town dweller who steps outside may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by nature, your Cimmerian who shoulders his battle-ax and goes for a stroll may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by human beings.
What’s more, there’s a difference in what we might usefully call the transparency of human constructions. In Cimmeria, if you do manage to get in out of the weather, the stones and timbers of the hovel where you’ve taken shelter are recognizable lumps of rock and pieces of tree; your hosts smell like the pheromone-laden social primates they are; and when their barbarian generosity inspires them to serve you a feast, they send someone out to shoot a deer, hack it into gobbets, and cook the result in some relatively simple manner that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re all chewing on parts of a dead animal. Follow Conan’s route down into the cities of Aquilonia, and you’re in a different world, where paint and plaster, soap and perfume, and fancy cookery, among many other things, obscure nature’s contributions to the human world.
So that’s our first set of distinctions. What makes human societies natural or unnatural? It’s all too easy to sink into a festering swamp of unsubstantiated presuppositions here, since people in every human society think of their own ways of doing things as natural and normal, and everyone else’s ways of doing the same things as unnatural and abnormal. Worse, there’s the pervasive bad habit in industrial Western cultures of lumping all non-Western cultures with relatively simple technologies together as “primitive man”—as though there’s only one of him, sitting there in a feathered war bonnet and a lionskin kilt playing the didgeridoo—in order to flatten out human history into an imaginary straight line of progress that leads from the caves, through us, to the stars.
In point of anthropological fact, the notion of “primitive man” as an allegedly unspoiled child of nature is pure hokum, and generally racist hokum at that. “Primitive” cultures—that is to say, human societies that rely on relatively simple technological suites—differ from one another just as dramatically as they differ from modern Western industrial societies; nor do simpler technological suites correlate with simpler cultural forms. Traditional Australian aboriginal societies, which have extremely simple material technologies, are considered by many anthropologists to have among the most intricate cultures known anywhere, embracing stunningly elaborate systems of knowledge in which cosmology, myth, environmental knowledge, social custom, and scores of other fields normally kept separate in our society are woven together into dizzyingly complex tapestries of knowledge.
What’s more, those tapestries of knowledge have changed and evolved over time. The hokum that underlies that label “primitive man” presupposes, among other things, that societies that use relatively simple technological suites have all been stuck in some kind of time warp since the Neolithic—think of the common habit of speech that claims that hunter-gatherer tribes are “still in the Stone Age” and so forth. Back of that habit of speech is the industrial world’s irrational conviction that all human history is an inevitable march of progress that leads straight to our kind of society, technology, and so forth. That other human societies might evolve in different directions and find their own wholly valid ways of making a home in the universe is anathema to most people in the industrial world these days—even though all the evidence suggests that this way of looking at the history of human culture makes far more sense of the data than does the fantasy of inevitable linear progress toward us.
Thus traditional tribal societies are no more natural than civilizations are, in one important sense of the word “natural;” that is, tribal societies are as complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent as civilizations are. There is, however, one kind of human society that doesn’t share these characteristics—a kind of society that tends to be intellectually and culturally as well as technologically simpler than most, and that recurs in astonishingly similar forms around the world and across time. We’ve talked about it at quite some length in this blog; it’s the distinctive dark age society that emerges in the ruins of every fallen civilization after the barbarian war leaders settle down to become petty kings, the survivors of the civilization’s once-vast population get to work eking out a bare subsistence from the depleted topsoil, and most of the heritage of the wrecked past goes into history’s dumpster.
If there’s such a thing as a natural human society, the basic dark age society is probably it, since it emerges when the complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultures of the former civilization and its hostile neighbors have both imploded, and the survivors of the collapse have to put something together in a hurry with nothing but raw human relationships and the constraints of the natural world to guide them. Of course once things settle down the new society begins moving off in its own complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent direction; the dark age societies of post-Mycenean Greece, post-Roman Britain, post-Heian Japan, and their many equivalents have massive similarities, but the new societies that emerged from those cauldrons of cultural rebirth had much less in common with one another than their forbears did.
In Howard’s fictive history, the era of Conan came well before the collapse of Hyborian civilization; he was not himself a dark age warlord, though he doubtless would have done well in that setting. The Pictish tribes whose activities on the Aquilonian frontier inspired the quotation cited earlier in this post weren’t a dark age society, either, though if they’d actually existed, they’d have been well along the arc of transformation that turns the hostile neighbors of a declining civilization into the breeding ground of the warbands that show up on cue to finish things off. The Picts of Howard’s tale, though, were certainly barbarians—that is, they didn’t speak Aquilonian, live in cities, or stay peaceably on their side of the Black River—and they were still around long after the Hyborian civilizations were gone.
That’s one of the details Howard borrowed from history. By and large, human societies that don’t have urban centers tend to last much longer than those that do. In particular, human societies that don’t have urban centers don’t tend to go through the distinctive cycle of decline and fall ending in a dark age that urbanized societies undergo so predictably. There are plenty of factors that might plausibly drive this difference, many of which have been discussed here and elsewhere, but I’ve come to suspect something subtler may be at work here as well. As we’ve seen, a core difference between civilizations and other human societies is that people in civilizations tend to cut themselves off from the immediate experience of nature nature to a much greater extent than the uncivilized do. Does this help explain why civilizations crash and burn so reliably, leaving the barbarians to play drinking games with mead while sitting unsteadily on the smoldering ruins?
As it happens, I think it does.
As we’ve discussed at length in the last three weekly posts here, human intelligence is not the sort of protean, world-transforming superpower with limitless potential it’s been labeled by the more overenthusiastic partisans of human exceptionalism. Rather, it’s an interesting capacity possessed by one species of social primates, and quite possibly shared by some other animal species as well. Like every other biological capacity, it evolved through a process of adaptation to the environment—not, please note, to some abstract concept of the environment, but to the specific stimuli and responses that a social primate gets from the African savanna and its inhabitants, including but not limited to other social primates of the same species. It’s indicative that when our species originally spread out of Africa, it seems to have settled first in those parts of the Old World that had roughly savanna-like ecosystems, and only later worked out the bugs of living in such radically different environments as boreal forests, tropical jungles, and the like.
The interplay between the human brain and the natural environment is considerably more significant than has often been realized. For the last forty years or so, a scholarly discipline called ecopsychology has explored some of the ways that interactions with nature shape the human mind. More recently, in response to the frantic attempts of American parents to isolate their children from a galaxy of largely imaginary risks, psychologists have begun to talk about “nature deficit disorder,” the set of emotional and intellectual dysfunctions that show up reliably in children who have been deprived of the normal human experience of growing up in intimate contact with the natural world.
All of this should have been obvious from first principles. Studies of human and animal behavior alike have shown repeatedly that psychological health depends on receiving certain highly specific stimuli at certain stages in the maturation process. The famous experiments by Henry Harlow, who showed that monkeys raised with a mother-substitute wrapped in terrycloth grew up more or less normal, while those raised with a bare metal mother-substitute turned out psychotic even when all their other needs were met, are among the more famous of these, but there have been many more, and many of them can be shown to affect human capacities in direct and demonstrable ways. Children learn language, for example, only if they’re exposed to speech during a certain age window; lacking the right stimulus at the right time, the capacity to use language shuts down and apparently can’t be restarted again.
In this latter example, exposure to speech is what’s known as a triggering stimulus—something from outside the organism that kickstarts a process that’s already hardwired into the organism, but will not get under way until and unless the trigger appears. There are other kinds of stimuli that play different roles in human and animal development. The maturation of the human mind, in fact, might best be seen as a process in which inputs from the environment play a galaxy of roles, some of them of critical importance. What happens when the natural inputs that were around when human intelligence evolved get shut out of the experiences of maturing humans, and replaced by a very different set of inputs put there by human beings? We’ll discuss that next week, in the second part of this post.
Image: Cover of Weird Tales (May 1934): The feature story is Robert E. Howard’s "Queen of the Black Coast" (a Conan story). Artist: Margaret Brundadge. Via Wikimedia Commons. An e-book of this story is available free at the Gutenberg Project.