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Our Savage Past : 'After So Many Thousands of Years of Knowing Perfectly Well How a Country : Should Be Managed, We Are So Far From Achieving It'

August 23, 1987|DORIS LESSING | Novelist Doris Lessing's book "Prisons We Choose to Live Inside," from which this is excerpted, will be published in a new edition in October.

THERE WAS ONCE a highly respected farmer who had one of the best dairy herds in the country, and to whom other farmers came from all over the southern half of the continent for advice. This was in the old Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where I grew up. The time was just after the World War II.

I knew this farmer and his family well. The farmer, who was Scotch by origin, decided to import a very special bull from Scotland. This was just before science had discovered how to send potential calves from one continent to another by airmail in small packages. The beast in due course arrived, flown in, naturally, and was welcomed by a reception committee of farmers, friends, experts. A special home was made for the bull. He was a massive, impressive animal, mild as a lamb, it was claimed, and he liked to be tickled at the back of his head with a stick, held safely at a distance from behind the bars of his pen. He had his own keeper, a black boy of about 12. All went well; it was clear the bull would soon become the father of a satisfactory number of calves. He remained an attraction for visitors, who would drive out on a Sunday afternoon to stand about the pen, brooding over this fabulous beast, who looked so powerful and who was so docile. And then he quite inexplicably killed his keeper, the black boy.

Something like a court of justice was held. The boy's relatives demanded, and got, compensation. But that was not the end of it. The farmer decided that the bull must be killed. When this became known, a great many people went to him and pleaded for the magnificent beast's life. After all, it was in the nature of bulls to suddenly go berserk, everyone knew that. The herd boy had been warned, and he must have been careless. Obviously, it would never happen again. To waste all that power, potential and, not to mention, money--what for?

"The bull has killed, the bull is a murderer, and he must be punished. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," said the inexorable farmer, and the bull was duly executed by firing squad and buried.

Now, this farmer was not some ignoramus, or bumpkin. Moreover, like all his kind--the ruling white minority--he spent a good deal of time condemning the blacks who lived all around him for being primitive, backward, pagan and so forth.

But what he had done--this act of condemning an animal to death for wrongdoing--went back into the far past of mankind, so far back we don't know where it began, but certainly it was when man hardly knew how to differentiate between humans and beasts.

I often think about this incident: It represents those happenings that seem to give up more meaning as time goes on. Whenever things seem to be going along quite smoothly, it is as if suddenly some awful primitivism surges up and people revert to barbaric behavior.

This is what I want to talk about: how much we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups. And yet, while sometimes it seems as if we are helpless, we are gathering, and too rapidly to assimilate it, knowledge about ourselves, not only as individuals, but as groups, nations and as members of society.

This is a time when it is frightening to be alive, when it is hard to think of human beings as rational creatures. Everywhere we look we see brutality, stupidity, until it seems that there is nothing else to be seen but that--a descent into barbarism, everywhere, which we are unable to check. But I think that while it is true that there is a general worsening, it is precisely because things are so frightening that we become hypnotized and do not notice--or if we notice, belittle--equally strong forces on the other side, the forces, in short, of reason, sanity and civilization.

There must be people who are muttering, "The woman must be crazy to see anything good in this mess we are in."

This sanity must be looked for in precisely this process of judging our own behavior--as we examine the farmer who executed an animal to make it expiate a crime. Against these enormously powerful primitive instincts, we have this: the ability to observe ourselves from other viewpoints. There is nothing new in the demand that reason should govern human affairs. For instance, in the course of another study, I came upon an Indian book, a good 2,000 years old, a manual for the sensible governing of a state. Its prescriptions are every bit as cool, sensible, rational as anything we could come up with now; nor does it demand any less in the way of justice, even as we understand justice. The reason I am mentioning it at all--it is called the Arthasastra --is that this book that seems so unimaginably old talks of itself as the last in a long line of similar books.

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