Newton, Michael Entries

Savage and civilization

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Michael Newton's Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children was not all I had hoped it would be, which is actually quite fitting. Newton does his level best to tell the stories of children discovered living, either wild in nature, or isolated away from both human society and the natural world. In the process, he gives account after account of disappointments, failures and setbacks among those who attempted to "rescue" and rehabilitate these children. It makes sense, given the constraints on his research, that he himself similarly fails to engage with the children themselves, telling instead the stories of the "normal" people who surrounded them.

My disappointment with Newton's book came primarily from the unevenness with which he discussed the actual children involved in these stories. Too often, probably due to factors outside his control, a chapter would introduce the reader to a specific child's story only to diverge immediately, dwelling for the majority of its pages on the cultural perceptions, dreams, ambitions and philosophical essays written around or about the child by the luminaries (or not-so-luminaries) of the day. Toward the end of the book, Newton reflects:

In most of the cases described in this book it is now impossible to know the veracity of the stories. The evidence is too flimsy and mostly lost; and of course that does not matter in the least. For the deeper point of interest in these stories is what was believed about the children. By becoming objects of speculation, they opened up the fantasies of a nation and, in the stories told around them, we glimpse into our dreams.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with Newton: it is fascinating to examine the cultural reception of these children, to see the ways in which their contemporaries projected their own dreams and desires onto the supposedly blank slates of the "children of nature." In a neoclassical England of the eighteenth century, for example, Daniel Defoe and Dr. John Arbuthnot looked on the "wolf-boy" Peter's lack of socialization as a mark of his less-than-human status, opining that the human soul is only seeded into the body at birth, and must be developed by social intercourse in order to attain full humanity. By contrast, in a France of 1797, scarred by the excesses of the Revolution and awash with Rousseau's glorification of Man-in-a-state-of-nature, the wild boy Victor came to symbolize an untainted, radical innocence at odds with the "corruption" of cultured humanity. And in a proto-Germany saturated with Gothic romances, the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser, locked in a dirt room for twelve years, adopted by a fickle aristocrat, and murdered in a graveyard under mysterious circumstances, captured a cultural hunger for mystery and intrigue in a politically tumultuous time.

After a while, though, I found myself dissatisfied to dwell on what these children meant to other people. Frustratingly, I wanted to know instead who they were, how they experienced their own lives rather than what they came to symbolize for the dominant culture. And that is exactly the thing I will never know, at least without the aid of a fictionalized, imaginative journey. Because most of the wild children of the book never truly acquired language, or, if they did, they found it difficult to apply their language to the period before their discovery and socialization. In the rare cases where the formerly-feral child lived to adulthood, acquired language and could use it to express herself (as with Memmie LeBlanc, discovered outside a French village in 1731), the people interested in publicizing her story often discounted her words in favor of their own interpretations. Invested in the idea of Memmie's "savagery" and ties with instinctual nature, her own biographer discounted Memmie's statements about her past. Instead, Madame Hecquet chose to base a theory of Memmie's origins around the woman's unspoken affinity for an Eskimo doll, even after Memmie expressed doubts that the doll did represent "her people":

[C]rucially, Madame Hecquet chose not to depend on Memmie's words at all. It was not what Memmie said in this scene that bore her authentic self; it was that instinct, that 'natural unaffected sentiment' that made her act by directing her hands and her gaze to the Eskimo puppets alone. Words deceive; nature does not: 'Such, at least, was my reasoning on the distinction she made between them'...Memmie becomes a cipher, a bearer of truth she herself cannot understand.

This type of dynamic develops repeatedly in the various stories of wild children: many times, they attract interest for their potential to prove "normal" peoples' theories (about racial superiority, social development, moral "presence"), which makes for an awkward situation if the evidence or the children themselves start to disagree or disprove those theories instead. And if, rather than proving or disproving anything, the children seem to exist outside the expected framework of inquiry, their caregivers tended either to lose interest, or to attempt to force the facts to line up with their own preconceptions.

Newton does engage with these issues, and writes on them well, but in some cases the direct evidence he's working with is so limited that he has little choice but to devote five pages to the specifics of the child's existence, and forty-five to the press reaction, philosophical climate, debate over whether the child is "human," and so on. In the end I found myself disagreeing with Newton's claim that the lack of evidence "does not matter in the least". To me, it seems to pinpoint instead the critically frustrating core of these stories, which is that the children discussed are human yet unknowable, incommunicable. All we can know is what we (or "our" fore-runners, the normally socialized people of the period) choose to project onto the supposedly blank canvas that the children present. Yet those canvases are not really blank at all; it's just that the reality they represent is too foreign for us to comprehend, so we choose to imagine our own "meaning" onto them.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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