The term noble savage is often attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but the French philosopher never actually used it. But he still—more or less—subscribed to the notion that it is civilization that corrupts human beings and that there’s something freeing about primitivism. We see this idea resurface in Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:
One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness: the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandanavian Vikings—they all shared this need. (I.11)Notice, however, that Nietzsche strips away whatever vestiges of Enlightenment thought were lurking around in Rousseau; his blond beast is definitively not moral, is indeed marked by a complete abandonment of morality in favor of raw power. (Also note that the Nazis who took this passage and used it as an excuse for their idea of the master Aryan race are misreading Nietzsche, who loved the Jewish race and hated the Germans, as evidenced by Ecce Homo.)
Martin Heidegger doesn’t go quite as far as Nietzsche in his return to primitivism, but he is always concerned with the feelings and observations that lie at the very baseline of human consciousness—which explains why he uses the word primordial about eight thousand times in Being and Time. He is also adamant about the need for a connection to one’s body—a rejection of Cartesian dualism.
So it’s no surprise that this theme pops up with some regularity in existentialist fiction. Think of Saul Bellow’s Henderson, who is freed from the nothingness of his comfortable existence by his trip to Africa and his becoming a lion and a “rain king.” Or—less successfully—think of Rabbit Angstrom’s complete immersion into his body, be it for sex or sports or overeating. (Updike, perhaps, was critiquing this idea, though it’s always hard to tell exactly what Updike is critiquing.)
But nowhere is the return to animality more clear than in the short fiction of Franz Kafka, where it’s mixed and contrasted with the life of the writer. I am generally not a big fan of critical readings that make everything in a given work of fiction about writing fiction, but it’s difficult to get around it in Kafka’s case—most of his stories either feature a literal artist or a metaphorical one, and much of his work has something to say on what it is to be a writer in a society that can’t possibly appreciate “real” art.
The animals in Kafka’s work occasionally mark dehumanization—the obvious example is poor Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” who turns into an insect (a better translation would apparently be vermin, as he appears to have more than six legs), a transformation that demonstrates just how dehumanized he always was, with his terrible desk job and ungrateful family. But in its way, his metamorphosis sets him free—he’s no longer forced to go to work and no longer labors under any delusions about what he really is. And when he becomes a bug, his family is forced to go to work, making the whole thing a sort of tragic grace.
Meanwhile, after the protagonist of “The Hunger Artist” starves himself to death in front of an uninterested audience, he is replaced in his circus cage by a panther, a vast improvement on its previous occupant:
Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it; somewhere in its jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want ever to move away.Kafka describes this panther in artistic terms—his roaring is a type of storytelling—but the animal is superior to the man because he harbors no delusions; he is what he is, and he’s okay with that. The human artist, then, could be improved by becoming more like this wild animal, less inhibited, stronger, more noble.
Elsewhere, the mole in “The Burrow” is paranoid and neurotic precisely because he’s so much of a human being, eloquent and fastidious. But his human thoughts and emotion lead him only to a state of anxiety, constantly afraid that someone will be able to enter his perfectly constructed home. One assumes that most moles don’t live in this fear but are something closer to the panther, even if they’re less powerful.
It’s not until “Josephine the Singer” that we find an appropriate combination of the artist and the animal. The titular mouse maintains her mouse-ness but manages to create something so beautiful that no one can possibly resist it. Her singing takes her mouse brethren away from their worried lives—away from their resemblance to humanity—and brings them back to their animal natures, to the point where they cannot even look at her but “bur[y their] face[s] in [their] neighbor’s fur”—a connection both to community and to animality, the best parts of the human and bestial worlds.
It’s this expansion of Nietzschean animalism—rather than the introduction of angst into literature—that is Kafka’s true legacy to writers. It is “Josephine the Singer” that will allow Saul Bellow to bring Henderson the Rain King back to the United States, allow him to become an animal and thereby to connect to his fellow human beings and resume his—much happier—life in the suburbs.