Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Primitivism has a long history. Its beginnings as a distinctive discourse, however, are more widely associated with early-modern encounters between European explorers and the New World. As this early era of exploration developed into a sustained period of global conquest and colonization, primitivist figures began to feature heavily in textual and visual representations of the non-European Other. The term ‘primitivism’ itself is derived from the Latin primitivus, meaning the first or earliest of its kind. As used or evoked by writers from the sixteenth century and beyond, primitivism broadly denotes humankind in a ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘unrefined’ or ‘natural’ state. However, the tensions underlying these understandings suggest a much wider field of signification. For if primitivism connotes notions of ‘purity’, ‘innocence’ and ‘authenticity’, it also suggests anxieties about the ‘wild’, the ‘savage’ and the ‘unnatural’. Ultimately, however, primitivism is as much about the exportation of a Western cultural malaise as it is about representing the culturally primitive other. As Adam Kuper (2005, 23) explains, ‘[T] hey define us, as we define them.’
A key text for identifying critical pathways into the paradoxical discourses of primitivism is Michel de Montaigne's late sixteenth-century essay, ‘On the Cannibals’. Honed in reaction to textual accounts of journeys to the New World, Montaigne's insights reveal in the first instance the role travel writing played in disseminating primitivism's salient meanings. Features of early modern accounts resonate in Montaigne's (1991, 233) description of people he has not encountered yet who he confidently asserts have ‘no acquaintance with writing, no knowledge of numbers, no terms for governor or political superior […] no words for treachery, lying, cheating, avarice, envy’.
This initial eulogization of a society unencumbered by ‘civilization’ fits with uses of the ‘Noble Savage’, a figure into which much of primitivism's imaginary is condensed in the centuries that follow. Ter Ellingson (2001) demonstrates the predominance of this archetype in seventeenth-century French travel accounts depicting North American Indians, and traces its emergence to Marc Lescarbot's analysis of ‘savage’ society published in his 1609 compendium of travel writing, Histoire de la Nouvelle France. Fiction further popularized the fecund figure of the Noble Savage who, alongside related primitivist tropes of unspoiled societies and authentic selves, becomes central to many of the philosophical and sentimental writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see Todorov 1989).