Study Guide

The Luminaries Primitivism

By Eleanor Catton

Primitivism

This was a gold town, after all, new-built between jungle and surf at the southernmost edge of the civilized world, and he had not expected luxury (I.1.7).

On Moody's first evening in Hokitika, he definitely spends a lot of time reflecting on how different his new environment is from England or Scotland. His descriptions and observations make it sound like he felt he was roughing it quite a bit.

It was true that his mental conception of the New Zealand diggings was extremely imprecise, informed chiefly by sketches of the California goldfields—long cabins, flat-bottomed valleys, wagons in the dust—and a dim sense (he did not know from where) that the colony was somehow the shadow of the British Isles, the unformed, savage obverse of the Empire's seat and heart. He had been surprised, upon rounding the heads of the Otago peninsula some two weeks prior, to see mansions on the hill, quays, streets, and plotted gardens—and he was surprised, now, to observe a well-dressed gentleman passing his lucifers to a Chinaman, and then leaning across him to retrieve his glass (I.1.42).

Of course, even while he's finding certain aspects of life in New Zealand primitive, he also seems a bit taken aback by the spots of luxury he's come across in his journey so far, such as the mansions on the hill in Otago and the well-dressed gentleman. It seems like perhaps he was imagining something even more "primitive."

'If you will forgive my pessimism,' he said, 'I believe that Hokitika is about to meet a darker time. This town is at a threshold. Digger law is still the creed of the hills, and here—why, we are but a backwater of Canterbury still, but soon we will be the jewel in her crown. Westland will split, and Hokitika will prosper; but as she rises, she will have to reconcile herself' (I.4.133).

George Shepard, too, sees Hokitika as a place where the "savage and the civil" meet. That's what he means, he goes on to clarify, when he talks about the need for Hokitika to reconcile herself. We guess he and Moody actually see eye to eye on that front.

'You allude to the natives—the Maori tribes?'
Nilssen spoke with a touch of eagerness; he cherished a romantic passion for what he called 'the tribal life.' When the Maori canoes came strong and flashing through the Buller Gorge—he had seen them from a distance—he was quelled in awe. The warriors seemed terrible to him, their women unknowable, their customs fearsome and primitive (I.4.136-137).

When George is talking about the savage and the civil, Nilssen gets all excited because he finds the notion of "the tribal life" and primitivism in general kind of exotic and mysterious. As we mentioned in "Foreignness," it wasn't uncommon for people to find the foreign—or, in this case, "savage" or "primitive"—exciting, if only because it was, you know, different.

But Shepard shook his head at Nilssen's interjection. 'I do not use 'savage' in the native sense,' he said. 'I allude to the land itself. Prospecting is an ugly business: it makes a man start thinking like a thief. And here the conditions are foul enough to make the diggers still more desperate.'
'But the diggings can be made civil.''Perhaps—after the rivers are spent. After the prospectors give way to dams and dredges and company mines—when the forests are felled—perhaps then' (I.4.138-140).

Shepard brings Nilssen down to earth from his ogling of the "savage" Maori quickly, though, saying he's trying to make a serious point about the area and its future. In fact, he corrects Nilssen's notion that the "native" is what's savage, implying that prospecting is what's bringing the savagery to the area. Apparently, the only thing that will cure this savagery is total deforestation…sounds, er, great?

'We are not savages; we are civilized men. I do not consider the law to be deficient; I mean to point out, merely, what happens when the savage meets the civil. Four months ago the men and women in my gaol-house were drunks and petty thieves. Now I see drunks and petty thieves who feel indignant, and entitled, and speak righteously, as if they have been unjustly tried. And they are angry' (I.4.147).

In addition to basically correcting Nilssen's romantic view of savagery, Shepard tries to drive home that there is something unique happening right now because the "savage" and the "civil" are in such close proximity in their neck of the woods. In his view, it's creating new tensions.

'Tunnels and railways,' Nilssen said, 'that's his game, isn't it? Progress, civilization, all of that. Strikes me that your thinking squares quite nicely with Lauderback's campaign' (I.4.161).

In that same conversation, Nilssen and Shepard continue talking about this notion of "civilizing" Hokitika for some time. It seems Shepard thinks the key is to build infrastructure, which is also Lauderback's plan, apparently.

'A homeward bounder is a chance for total reinvention, Mr. Nilssen,' he said at last. 'Find a nugget, and a man can buy his own life. That kind of promise isn't offered in the civil world' (I.4.233).

As Nilssen and Shepard end their conversation on this topic, Nilssen asks Shepard how the issue of Crosbie's fortune fits into all these ideas of the civilized and the savage, and Shepard caps off his thoughts with the observation that the immense promise that the goldfields hold for diggers essentially doesn't (and maybe even can't) exist in the "civil world." Put differently, that notion of being able to totally reboot your life can't happen in the regular old world, we guess.

'Tow-Faray is a noble savage of the first degree & we are fast becoming friends' (I.9.35).

Crosbie Wells writes this in a letter to his half-brother Alistair Lauderback. Even though he and Te Rau seem to have a genuine friendship, Crosbie refers to him as a "noble savage," which is pretty dehumanizing. However, he clearly thinks it's a compliment. Which is about as good a sign of the times as you can get.

'You see, the woman was never savaged by a dog at all. She had been murdered by her own husband—and he'd shot the dog, and slashed her throat himself, to cover it up (II.11.25).

And now for a completely different kind of savagery: This quote comes from Lydia Wells when she's getting everyone ready for the séance. To get everyone in the mood and kind of fluff up her credentials in the spiritual arena, she tells the story of a woman whose murder ended up getting solved through a séance she attended. Initially, the woman's dog had been accused of attacking and killing her, but the séance ended up revealing that her husband had killed her, framing (and killing) the dog afterwards. The example represents yet another example of the truly crummy things human nature is capable of in the novel's universe.

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