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There’s a neat old sci-fi story by James Tiptree Jr. that illustrates the subjective nature of our ideas about the primitive. Journeying to Earth from some far end of the galaxy, an alien lands in the State Department parking lot in the midst of morning rush hour. He strides around downtown Washington in rapture, inhaling bus fumes with gusto and basking in the sound of honking horns. “Fantastic!” he cries. “Oh, how primal. How unspoiled. Such peace!”

Tiptree’s alien isn’t alone in his quest for virgin terrain. Throughout modern history, Westerners have journeyed to parts of the globe they consider “primitive” in order to find inner peace. In Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy, Marianna Torgovnick examines this tendency in a diverse group of people and practices. She looks at various historical and contemporary figures—men ranging from D.H. Lawrence to Robert Bly, women from Georgia O’Keeffe to Dian Fossey—and finds that they share remarkably similar obsessions with, and approaches to, the primitive.

One of the main things they share, though Torgovnick doesn’t take particular note of it, is an uncanny agreement about just what “the primitive” is. Apparently any chunk of unspoiled nature, preferably populated by some indigenous tribe, will do: For Carl Jung, André Gide, and Isak Dinesen it was Africa (not any particular part of Africa, just “Africa”), for orangutan researcher Biruté Galdikas it was Indonesia, and for O’Keeffe and Lawrence it was New Mexico.

This blithe cultural absolutism is pretty much what one would expect, especially from the more historically distant figures. After all, the whole idea of “the primitive” is a creation of Western imperialism, which has tended not to bother much about definitions. For hundreds of years, it’s simply known the primitive when it sees it.

What’s odd is how comfortable Torgovnik is with this transparently problematic concept. Though she acknowledges that it’s “sometimes used in a derogatory sense to mean ‘simple’ or ‘crude,’” we need not worry about that in this book: “That is not how I use the word,” she avers. She cites instead a “rich history of alternative meanings,” all of which dovetail comfortably into a concept that’s at once exotic and comforting:

“‘[T]he primitive’ describes a vast, generalized image, an aggregate of places, things, and experiences associated with various groups and peoples…communal drumming and ecstatic dancing; initiation and other rituals that express respect for the powers of nature and the supernatural….Primitivism is the utopian desire to go back and recover irreducible features of the psyche, body, land, and community—to reinhabit core experiences.”

In other words, it’s perfectly OK if Westerners want to traipse around like Tiptree’s alien, nattering about the sublime unspoiledness of any place that happens to be different from what they’re used to. All that matters is that they get something positive out of it.

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And just what are they supposed to get? Here, Torgovnik is unambiguous: To her mind, the main value of the primitive is its tendency to trigger a sense of “the oceanic.” Defined by Freud as a pre-Oedipal state of unity between child and mother, the idea of “the oceanic” is at the center of Primitive Passions. Torgovnik broadens the concept to include any sort of merging between the self and external things, whether with other people or with nature. “[T]he primitive can be one route in the quest for ecstatic contact with the essence of life,” she writes.

Throughout the book, individuals and movements are defined according to whether and how much they experience these oceanic feelings. New-age thinking and the men’s movement both fall short not just because they’re romanticized pastiches of misunderstood traditions but because they aren’t sufficiently immersive. In the men’s movement, “there is little to contradict the entrepreneurial or bourgeois spirit of life since the Industrial Revolution”—i.e., little that’s truly primitive. The men who join want a sense of connectedness, but “they have trouble relinquishing the borders of masculine consciousness without reacting proactively to get them back.”

To hear Torgovnik tell it, it’s no accident that these men have such difficulty with immersion. The first two sections of her book purport to illustrate “broad divergences in male and female ways of experiencing the primitive…” In section 1, she discusses three men, Gide, Jung, and Lawrence, who had difficulty succumbing to their oceanic impulses. Then in section 2 she turns to various women—including Dinesen, O’Keeffe, and Fossey—who were more open to them. Thus, she says, the genders are fundamentally different in this respect.

The problems with such a conclusion are numerous. On the male side, it seems ludicrous to judge all men based on three cases as atypical as Gide, Jung, and Lawrence. Yet that’s exactly what Torgovnick does; Lawrence, she asserts, “had strong affinities for oceanic nature….His expression of those affinities is part of his greatness; his sublimation of them in sexuality is typical of his gender and his time.”

Torgovnik justifies this sweeping claim by universalizing her three male subjects. “In the early decades of the twentieth century,” she explains, “when a man of means felt anxious about his manhood or health, or maladjusted to the modern world, one prescription dominated. Go to Africa…” But such problems—not to mention their “cure”—could hardly be called mainstream. If the Edwardian male felt anxiety about his manhood, he certainly didn’t confess it, much less embark on a curative vision quest.

As for Africa, the south seas, and other “primitive” cooling-out spots, these were hardly respectable refuges. They were the farthest outposts of imperialism, destinations fit only for misfits and failures. As George Orwell has noted, it was common for younger sons, members of what he calls the “lower-upper-middle class,” and other marginal types to opt for overseas service. There they could “play at being gentlem[e]n,” recreating the society that had no use for them back home. Torgovnik’s three subjects had no such aims, of course, but that made their journeys all the more radical. These men were unusual for their gender and time, not representative of them.

If Torgovnik slights the men in her account, she doesn’t do much better by the women. Not that she doesn’t try. She claims women feel “a special rapport with African peoples and their nonindividualistic, animistic beliefs.” They have an “openness towards oceanic experience…that is utterly at odds with the way male writers…tended to feel…” Whatever one may think about such a generalization, Torgovnick’s examples are hardly inspiring. Dinesen ended up “[a]lone and bereft in Denmark.” O’Keeffe did rather better, but not Fossey. The researcher became an alcoholic and grew increasingly alienated from other humans. By the time of her murder in 1985, she was in a state even Torgovnik describes as one of “solipsistic isolation.”

Here, as elsewhere, Torgovnik insists that it’s isolation that’s the problem, not an excess of the oceanic. She’d do well to read Tiptree’s story. For one thing, it might relieve her of some of her confident gender stereotyping: “James Tiptree” is actually the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon.

But the alien story itself is also instructive. It turns out that Tiptree’s sensitive, bucolic extraterrestrial wants to “merge” with Earth by allowing tens of thousands of babies to be born here—voracious babies who will more or less scour the planet clean of life. Torgovnik seems not to have considered the story’s cautionary point: that often the greatest danger to “primitive,” unspoiled places is those people who would love them to death. CP