by Brad Nelson
No, we have not suddenly delved into reviews of porno movies. Savage Girls and Wild Boys is not the latest “Girls Gone Wild” video. It’s a riveting and poignant non-fiction book that describes some of the history of feral children.
It’s a surprisingly analytical book about children who have been found roaming wild, often being raised by wolves or bears, and sometimes entirely on their own. I found it to be one of those books that gave me some insight into human nature and human culture. Reading this book is a way to step back from who we are and see human societies from a wider perspective.
You see these children untouched by human culture and truly wild. They cannot speak. They may not wear any clothes. They do not like being confined. They do not like being touched. But they are not necessarily evil, no more so than a wild dog that you would find on the side of the road. Unless abused, it would just be wild but not necessarily viscous. But certainly not tamed (or cultured) in any meaningful way.
After reading “Savage Girls and Wild Boys,” the major questions you might ask yourself are:
1) What makes a human a human?
2) Is language necessary to have an internal experience of being human, of being self-aware, etc?
And this was the big one for me:
3) What exactly does culture add to our lives, and what does it take away?
This book allows one to see human culture in a larger context. Descriptions of the state of these wild children provide an implicit contrast between uncultured humans and culture ones. We take for granted just how many rules, habits, conventions, and notions are passed onto us (and usually to our benefit) by human culture. And in contrast with the wild child, there’s a sense in which we can be seen as having been captured by this culture “for our own good.” And, yes, learning language is a vital gift and is definitely for our own good, as are many other ingrained cultural habits. And yet, there is a terrific story in the book about one boy (Victor) who made a good case for language getting in the way of our experience of the world.
And regarding culture, in general, there are some interesting observations in this book, including the description of an orangutan who was trained to sit at a table at fancy dinner parties (for the upper class gentry, of course) and pour tea with all the care and aplomb of a human. And the author then asks what might be the difference between a human and an orangutan learning the same rote rules, methods, and habits. By such examples we can wonder how much of our own culture is little but a set of outward mannerisms, manners, and conventions. There is some sweet irony in the idea of a man “putting on his monkey suit,” otherwise knows as a tuxedo. Without clothes, we’d look as silly as that orangutan, maybe more.
And yet we see from the example of the wild children how much we need many of those conventions and habits. Sometimes we don too many and civilization brings on a dullness; we lose a sense of who we are…something that is in stark contrast to these wild children. They have many handicaps. And their life is harsh. But there is an aliveness in them that is there even without the effort to romanticize their rather brutal condition.
As children, we tended to chafe at rules. And if we never mature psychologically, we might maintain this childish orientation. The older I get, the more I understand Paul’s admonition of putting away childish things. And yet culture can get implanted like a virus. And we do not have a chance to say “yes” or “no” to it. We are, to some extent, slaves of our culture. And this is surely one reason these feral children have fascinated people.
Surely some have been fascinated by their naive utopian notions of being free from all restraints. But I didn’t get that vibe in this book. The wild children were pathetic, tragic, awful, brutish, and lacking the ability to form close human relationships. And yet in these various tales of wild children, you also see an aliveness that most of us have lost. They remind us of something deep inside ourselves that lurks, not always for the better, for sure. But the act of enculturation can deaden and make us savage in other ways. Not all culture is good. And no wild child could or would think up some of the horrible stuff committed by supposedly “civilized” people.
The wildness of these wild children is not hidden, unlike much of civilization which hides its barbarity under formal rules (“a woman’s right to choose,” for example). Many of these feral children exhibit an honest savagery. It’s oddly refreshing at times compared to us Machiavellian humans. Something noted again and again about such children is their almost utter lack of guile. The overall impressions is that they are neither good nor evil. They are beyond that. They are nature in the raw.
The early part of this book is the real gem. There is a chapter titled “The Child of Europe” that is a tad boring and runs on too long. But those first hundred pages or so are as gem, a real look into a human reality that is truly fascinating. • (1059 views)