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How does Man of Aran articulate the primitivist ideal?

How does Man of Aran articulate the primitivist ideal?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by David Ingoldsby. Originally submitted for Visual and Critical Studies at None, with lecturer Kieran Corcoran in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by David Ingoldsby. Originally submitted for Visual and Critical Studies at None, with lecturer Kieran Corcoran in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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03/21/2014

 
How does
Man of Aran
articulatethe primitivist ideal?
Abstract:
 This essay examines how Robert J Flaherty’s 1932 film
Man of Aran
puts forwardthe ideal of primitivism. It begins by considering the two forms of primitivism,hard and soft, defined by Lovejoy and Boas, later taken up by Panofsky, andafter him, by Luke Gibbons .It refers to the hold primitivism had in Ireland of thelate 19
th
and early 20
th
centuries. It refers to the biblical and religious overtonesvisible in the film, which would have been welcomed by the clerical and politicalestablishment of the day. It examines the treatment of woman in the filmthrough the character of the wife, and the way in which the natural world isshown as an extension of the family, and the family as an extension of thenatural world. It deals with the film’s portrayal of life in the Aran Islands as pre-mechanical, as lacking ordinary tools and comforts, and with the emphasis of thefilm on raw strength in the effort to survive in an inhospitable environment. Itdiscusses the fictional nature of the film, clearly in evidence, yet often ignored. Itconsiders
Man of Aran
in the light of the contemporary German Bergfilm, andcontrast how the two strands deal with modernity – accepted in the Bergfilm,ignored and hence implicitly rejected in Flaherty’s work. It considers thefictionalising nature of Flaherty’s films, comparing
Man of Aran
to his earlier
Nanook of the North
, and the nature of the “salvage ethnography” which thefilms portray. It refers to the contempt which Flaherty felt towards the subjects of his films, as evidenced in interviews. Finally, it considers how the primitivism of the film struck a chord in a nation not long independent, and still looking for away of differentiating itself from its former ruler.Page | 1
 
Liam MacGabhann, in a review of Patrick Keenan Heale’s
The Islandman,
wrote in1939 of “the fineness of the old Gaelic life against the sordidness of the city half-life”
1
. This is emblematic of a certain view of the primitive life of the West of Ireland which was displayed in, and justified to its viewers by,
Man of Aran
.Primitivism is defined by Lovejoy and Boas as “the discontent of the civilised withcivilisation […] the belief of men living in a relatively highly evolved and complexcultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or allrespects is a mode desirable life”.
2
They divide this primitivism into two types,which they term hard and soft. Both types look back to a simpler world, and haveparallels with the Judaeo-Christian world view. Soft primitivism looks back to anEdenic time, when man lived without being confined the demands of civilisation,able to do what he pleased when he pleased. The authors make the point thatprimitive societies of this kind have been bound by taboos of great power andcomplexity
3
–increasing the resemblance to Eden, where the simple eating of theforbidden fruit had awful consequences
4
. Hard primitivism looks back to a post-Edenic time, where the sentence of the Lord God “In the sweat of thy face shaltthou eat bread”
5
has taken effect. Life is simple, in a large part because workingfor food takes all the time. The terms hard and soft are made use of by LukeGibbons in his essays "Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema" and "Synge,Country and Western", coming from Lovejoy and Boas by way of Erwin Panofsky
6
.Gibbons puts forward the view that it was the harshness and poverty of thecountryside rather than any ideal of bucolic bliss which attracted Douglas Hyde,Patrick Pearse and Canon Sheehan to the west of Ireland, where they interpretedthe harshness in the light of “an ascetic, elemental Christianity”
7
. In keeping withthis, there is a thread of biblical imagery running through
Man of Aran
. Thedomestic scene with the animals echoes the Nativity
8
, the Son whirling his fishingline at the edge of the cliff before hurling it into the sea recalls the young Davidand his sling
9
, the stone-breaking references the “hammer that breaketh therock in pieces”
from the book of Jeremiah. There are other kinds of primitivism evident in the film: the primitivism of whatMattar describes as a nostalgic, sentimental emulation - the ‘backward glance’
,the primitivism of patriarchalism, as shown by the treatment of the Wife, and the
1
Quoted in Kevin Rockett, "1930s Fictions." In
Cinema and Ireland
, by Kevin Rockett,Luke Gibbons and John Hill, 51-70. London: Routledge, 1988, 67.
2
Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas,
Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity.
Baltimore,MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, 7.
3
Lovejoy and Boas,
Primitivism,
9.
4
 
Bible, King James Version.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, n.d, Genesis 3:17.
5
KJV, Genesis 3:19.
6
Luke Gibbons, “Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema.” In
Cinema and Ireland
, byKevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill, 194-257. London: Routledge, 1988, 198
7
Luke Gibbons, “Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema.”, 197
8
KJV, Luke 2:7
9
KJV, 1 Samuel 17:49
10
KJV, Jeremiah 23:29
11
Sinéad Garrigan Mattar,
Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival.
Oxford: OUP, 2004,240.
Page | 2
 
primitivism of a society with only the most basic tools. The family lead anexistence in harmony with nature, at one with the animal creation – a pre-lapsarian state. The use of animals stresses this closeness to Nature. In the firstindoor scene, as the cradle is being rocked, we see a dog and a sheep lying in amanger in the cottage, with hens in a suspended basket and scratching on thefloor – a scene which cuts to a view of the power of the sea crashing on therocks, contrasting the two forms of nature, the peaceful against the powerful. Atthe start of the storm during the shark fishing, we again see the domestic scene,the Son asleep with the animals. As he wakes up sensing the storm, so do theanimals, in apparent sympathy. While the Man is breaking stones, there are cutsto watching animals in the field.Patriarchal primitivism is shown the sequences of the Wife at work, which alsohelp emphasize the fictional nature of the film. When she tries helping with thecurragh and net. It is obvious that she is unused to this work. When attemptingto help land the curragh, she clearly doesn’t know what to do, and fumbles withit. She has to be helped when swept off her feet by a wave. She is simplysuperfluous when the curragh is being carried, yet she touches the stern as if trying to look useful. When attempting to retrieve the net, she is again swampedby the sea, and is hauled out by the hair of her head. In more ways than one, sheis out of her depth. When she is at work at which she is competent, it is work of the most menial kind – hauling earth and seaweed and spreading them. Theheroic rock-breaking and battling with the sea are left to the menfolk. The primitive, unmechanised nature of the society is emphasized by the lack of modern amenities and tools. The only artificial light in the house comes fromsaucer oil-lamps, made from sea shells filled with oil with a small wickprotruding. The men wear patched and worn homespun trousers, the womenshawls and layers of petticoats (although in the rock-breaking scene, the Manappears to be wearing machine-knitted socks under his pampooties). Thepampooties are made, as Synge describes, of raw cowhide, which must besoaked every night to prevent hardening
– hence the Son takes his out of abasin of water when he wakes up before the storm sequence. The tools visibleare the simplest possible. The Man uses a hammer to break rocks, a spade tospread the poor soil. However, much of the soil is lifted from crevices by hand,and most of it is spread by hand, by the Wife. Other tools in use are ropes,baskets, nets –the simplest possible technologies. The most technologicallyadvanced tool shown is the harpoon, with its hinged barb. The tools made of ironare imperfect – the harpoon is bent and distorted by the natural force of theshark during the first hunt, and the sledge hammer is not particularly effective atbreaking rocks. The primitivist ideal is most clearly articulated in the stone-breaking sequence. The Man of Aran attempts to break rocks with a sledge-hammer. The music emphasizes the strength of his blows. However, he makeslittle progress. It is not until he abandons his tool and reverts to the mostprimitive method that he achieves any great success. The largest piece of rock isbroken off by him hurling a stone at it from on high, in an action made more
12
John Millington Synge, “The Aran Islands.” In
The Aran Islands, and other works
. Kindleedition, 2009, location 236.
Page | 3

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