Caliban, the Yahoos, and Huxley’s Savage Essay
The Tempest, Gulliver’s Travels Book IV, and Brave New World all use the notion of the savage as a fictional device to explore theme and judgment. The savage is necessarily “uncivilized”, and therefore raises the question of what we mean by the idea of civilization, what its qualities are, and how valid it is. Prospero struggles to impose a moral and spiritual order on a chaotic world, but everywhere confronts the forces of destruction – not just in Caliban, but in Antonio and Sebastian, for whom conscience does not exist, in Trinculo and Stephano, whose comfort is the bottle, and even in the threatening passion of his prospective son-in-law Ferdinand. Swift’s and Huxley’s methods are different. They are both satirists, and their use of the savage is full of irony aimed at our own world.The Yahoos are a version of us, their appalling behavior easily recognizable, as Gulliver comes to realize, as uncomfortably close to that of the inhabitants of our “civilized world”. Huxley’s Savage stands outside the Brave New World, and he is much closer to us than are Lenina and Bernard. But he steadily loses the moral high ground as the novel develops, appearing increasingly irrational and primitive. His death is tragic but also absurd. His behavior makes us think about our own assumptions of what is virtue and good sense. In all three works, the savage forces us to examine our own ideas, and to understand how fragile and perhaps artificial our version of civilization is.Much has been made in recent years of the image of Caliban as victim of imperialist oppression. As he says, “This island’s mine” (Tempest, I, ii, 333). Prospero came there and took it from him, offering the simple lures of apparent friendship, “Thou strok’st me, and made much of me” (1, ii, 335) and education. It is unlikely that Shakespeare’s contemporaries, in the time of exploration and colonization, would have seen this as a criticism. The point is, as Prospero replies, that cultivation and encouragement did not work on Caliban; he treated him “with human care” (1, ii, 348), and took him to live with him, but his response was the attempted rape of Miranda. All of Prospero’s efforts to civilize him failed, because he is “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick” (IV, 1, 188-9). Caliban is indeed the unreformed – and largely unreformable – state of nature. All of the benefits of civilization are lost on him. He lives entirely by the dictates of his appetite. He would “people … / This isle with Calibans” (I, ii, 353); he will take “no print of goodness” (I, ii, 354) from Miranda’s pity or him; language gives him only the benefit that “I know how to curse” (I, ii, 366). The consequence is that he makes a complete fool of himself with Trinculo because he lacks judgment. Trinculo offers him “celestial liquor” (I, ii, 118) and Caliban calls him “Thou wondrous man” (11, ii, 164) and begs him to “be my god” (11, ii, 149), laughably arguing that his new state of idiotic enslavement to the drunk is “Freedom!” (II, ii, 1 86).What we see in Caliban is not present only in the “savage”, however. What troubles Prospero so much is the destructiveness there is in the human make-up generally. Caliban’s vicious and violent plan to kill Prospero – “Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake / Or cut his wezand with thy knife” (III, ii, 88-9) is no different from Antonio’s “obedient steel, three inches of it” (II, i, 278) for Gonzalo and Alonso. Gonzalo’s dream of a liberal commonwealth where there is “no sovereignty” (II, i, 152) is a nonsense, as the existence of men like Antonio and Sebastian demonstrates. Caliban is part of us, as Prospero knows – “We cannot miss him” (I, ii, 313), and at our happiest moments we must always be on guard against “the foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban” (IV, i, 139-40). Caliban is a finer creature than the human visitors to the island, as his language sometimes shows. The virtue of the state of nature is that he can sense the magic of the “thousand twangling instruments” (iii, ii, 135) and enjoy visions in his dreams. Similarly he is immune to the vulgar temptations of the rubbishy clothes which enchant the messengers of western civilization – “Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash” (IV, i, 224), and the play ends with some signs of hope as Caliban vows to “be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (V, i, 295), though the chances of Antonio and Sebastian reforming are much slimmer.Caliban is part of ourselves, suggests Shakespeare, and for Swift too the Yahoos are indeed all too close to us, so much so that Gulliver finds it difficult to return to his old life after his time with the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms themselves ironically decide that in many ways Gulliver and his fellow civilized men are of less value than the Yahoos, having deprived themselves of their useful beard and claws, and using their “small pittance of reason” only “to aggravate our natural corruptions” (Swift, 307). Gulliver finds the Yahoos the most “disagreeable” (266) animals he has ever encountered, as they attack him and “discharge their excrements on my head” (267). Their eating habits are disgusting and their appearance loathsome; “I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts” (274). His Houyhnhnm master cannot understand how Gulliver has been “taught to imitate a rational creature” (279), for the Yahoos he so closely resembles “had not the least tincture of reason” (287).But the edge of the satire is felt when Gulliver begins to describe “civilized” western life to the Houyhnhnms, and it emerges how the human world lives by deceit, dishonesty, greed, and simple Caliban-like appetite just as much as the Yahoos do. Soldiers are honored “because a soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can” (293). Gulliver boasts of human weaponry by which he has seen his countrymen “blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege” (294), to which the Houyhnhnm can only respond with disgust that a creature claiming reason can behave in this way. Law, that bastion of civilization, employs lawyers “Practised almost from [the] cradle in defending falsehood” (296). In Europe there are great inequalities of wealth, and the world is ransacked to provide for the trivial demands of “the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females” (299), so there is much dishonesty, begging and crime as a result of the effects of injustice and poverty.Similarly there is much illness because “we fed on a thousand things which operated contrary to each other” (300) and visit prostitutes, in turn spawning the incompetent world of medicine. Politicians lie to gain power, and the nobility spend their life in idleness. The Houyhnhnm recognizes the western man’s resemblance to the Yahoos, who “hate one another more than they did any different species of animals” (308), and are always ready to resort to civil war. They are obsessed with the possession of “shining stones” (309), which are of very little use to their owners. They have an “undistinguishing appetite to devour everything that came in their way” (310), like the western materialistic consumer. They give themselves up to the euphoria of intoxication, and suffer diseases contracted “by the nastiness and greediness of that sordid brute” (311. Their type of government is corrupted by favorites, their sexual practices are perverted, and they experience the ills of the civilized man, “spleen, which only siezeth on the lazy, the luxurious, and the rich” (313).The Houyhnhnms live by friendship and benevolence, and cultivate the virtues of decency, morality, temperance and restraint. The failure of the Yahoos is the failure of western man, as Swift sees him. Just the exaggeration of seeing him living in open savagery makes Swift’s point, and Gulliver’s analysis of his own world leads him ultimately to feel self-disgust and a horror at the possibility of returning to England and “relapsing into my old corruptions” (334). There is something desperately nihilistic about the end of Gulliver’s Travels; Swift seems able to offer us only the bloodless Houyhnhnms as a positive.In Brave New World we feel at first far more certain of our ground. The reign of scientific materialism is being satirised by the usual method of taking present-day tendencies several steps further. Now scientific and industrial methods have taken over human life, and liberty, morality, conscience and imagination – key aspects of western tradition – have been sacrificed. We share the Savage’s horror at the factory where “Thirty-three Delta females, long-headed, sandy, with narrow pelvises, and all within 20 millimetres of 1 metre 60 centimetres tall, were cutting screws” (Huxley, 131), the sight of whom makes him vomit. The Savage, again, is us. He comes from outside the Brave New World, has not been subject to the conditioning, and feels love, longing, unhappiness, joy, and all the emotions eradicated by the system.If he is us, though, we might be advised to be careful, because a closer examination of his role shows him – and us – in a less confident light, and indeed alters the direction of Huxley’s satire. Born and raised in the Mexican village, John experiences an extreme version of what western man typically goes though in his upbringing. He is devoted to his mother (unlike Brave New World children) and feels psychological vertigo when his mother gives herself to men. He tries to kill Popé (111), and he is ostracised by the other children because of his mother’s behavior (108). Linda tells him of civilization, but he also hears of mystical and religious views of the world, which inspire and satisfy his imagination. The discovery of Shakespeare gives his traumatic knowledge voice. The girl he loves marries someone else, and the agony of heartbreak teaches him “Time and Death and God” (114). Of course, if he had been brought up in the Brave New World he would not have felt these emotions and so would not have learnt this, so we are forced to wonder whether it really exists, or is simply the product of psychological stress and need. With a traditional morality he sees his desire for Lenina – who would welcome his offers – as shameful – “Pure and vestal modesty…” (120). Brave New World is a horror to him. The feelies are “base…ignoble” (138), and when Lenina finally strips in front of him, which in reality he longs for more than anything else, he strikes her and calls her “Damned whore!” (157).His moral position appears increasingly absurd. Then, hauled up before Mustapha Mond, he argues his case – our case, surely, – into the ground. High art has to go, says Mustapha Mond, because no one would understand tragedy in a world without “social instability” (177). Happiness has none of the glamor of “the over-compensations for misery” (178). Most people are contented in a state of semi-ignorance, and the Cyprus experiment (179) showed the emptiness of the ideal of a highly educated society. Self-denial is no longer a virtue in a society that depends on consumption to operate successfully. And when the Savage claims the right to “God… poetry… real danger… freedom” (192), Mustapha Mond reminds him that he is claiming the “right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer…” (192). The Savage claims that right, and all Mustapha Mond can say is “You’re welcome.” The Savage’s argument has driven him to an absurd position, and the effect on the reader is to recognise that it is the underlying assumptions of western civilization that are being questioned. The Brave New World may horrify us, but what are the genuine claims of our alternative world?In all three works it is the role of the outsider to help to define what we mean by civilization. Shakespeare is aware all through his writing career of the mystery of human evil, asking what can it be that allows Edmund, Goneril and Regan, Macbeth and the insane Othello to act against the bonds of human society and morality. In his last play he dramatises the question with particular clarity. The two satirists make their observations by looking at civilization from a new and surprising viewpoint, and in both cases we find that the savage is troublingly close to ourselves.