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I’ve talked a lot in the past about my love of Robert E Howard and his love for the the Barbarian, especially through the character of Conan.
What he means by Barbarian is not an ethnic group or even a particular class of individual, but is simply a person unburdened by the the social norms and rules of “polite society.”
If that doesn’t make sense to you, check out The Importance of Being Earnest or An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, or the BBC farce, Keeping Up Appearances, where the humor is based on a how people are forced to act within the gilded cages of polite society. They are not Barbarians.
On the other hand, check out Almost Famous, Farscape, and Firefly to see Barbarians at their best.
Barbarians have Honor
What makes barbarian society possible in the absence of etiquette and mores of polite society is that integrity and reputation are more important than social standing and lineage. If you are a renown liar, it doesn’t matter who your father is or what company you work for.
Cultured society, by definition, adopt certain norms of speech, action, and etiquette. The end result is a subjection of the natural state of an individual to the homogenized whole.
In its worse extreme of a cultured society we get Stepford Wives and 1984.
The Problem with Words
It is hard to talk about these things, because English is biased against me. I mean, a good person never does anything beyond the pale, right?
“Beyond the pale” refers to the people outside of the British controlled area of Ireland. Norman/English conquerors felt that they were better than the Irish, so the notion of Irish culture, language, and people were denigrated. The Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) forbid English people from marrying the local Irish, talking like them, adopting their culture or language, or even riding a horse like them.
The idea of the Irish as barbarian is not the only racist problem with the language, but is a fair example of it.
The word barbarian itself derives from what the Greek thought non-Greeks sounded like when they talked.
I love the word barbarian, but you have to bare in mind that I am referring to something different from the idea of a culture different from my own. I am using the word cultured to mean the sort of cultural fundamentalism that institutes a polite, public image and rituals to reinforce it to mask the inherent hypocrisy such an institution requires.
Are barbarians civilized? Uh, well it depends what you mean by civil or civilized.
To quote Robert E Howard, “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
Violence and Barbarism
One of the reasons I am bending towards the use of the word Wildness as apposed to Barbarian is the association of violence with barbarism. In English, the two words are synonymous.
With all respect to Mr Howard, I don’t think the threat of violence is what marks the difference between cultured people and their uncultured counterparts. I think the difference is born out of respect.
Anarchy and Subculture
The punk and goth movements that I grew up in are modern “urban barbarian” movements. They were both anarchistic, and rejected the accepted culture, not just the pop culture.
**The following represents my person experience, and to hell with all the pop culture stereotypes.**
In high school, I got into punk. For us, it was part rejection of social norms and part an attempt to express our individual identities. It was born out of frustration on many fronts.
We were confrontational, and anyone who saw us dancing at a show or a club could easily be excused for thinking a riot broke out. For us, the violence of the pits was a pressure valve that exorcized our anger in a controlled way.
I am not sure I could explain life like that to an outsider. The encouragement of individualism and honesty is something that I have taken with me my entire life.
In fact, the only person who has ever betrayed me was an average pop culture hipster who tried to fit in, but always read as trying too hard.
Open revulsion was accepted, but insincere politeness was derided and used against people to prove they weren’t trustworthy.
Wildness and Empire
I never thought I would ever quote Thoreau, but that one is just too good.
While I have been singing the praises and virtues of the barbarian, it is important to see their effect on the world. The American Revolution was born in the Colonial Taverns.
So was Thomas Jefferson a paragon of wildness? Some quotes:
“A coward is much more exposed to quarrels than a man of spirit.”
“A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circlue of our felicities.”
“Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”
“Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.”
“On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Okay, so he may not have had a mohawk or listened to the Germs, but I am not asking if he was a punk
Wildness is all about natural, native state of things. If integrity (living honestly), respect (not forcing everyone to copy your patterns of life), liberty, fierceness/relentlessness, and fearlessness as the measure of wildness in a person, I think he makes the grade. He may not have been a party animal, but that is a personal trait, not a requirement.
Thoreau was right (wow, I said that), Wildness builds and conquers empires. Makes you think about the effects of Valley Forge on the army in a different way doesn’t it.