Inquiry: Primitive

black and white abstract painting Photo by Steve Johnson on

by LJ Frank

My thoughts started out rather simple enough. I’m driving north on an interstate headed for Canada and I turn on Sirius radio and hear the word “primitive” mentioned in one sentence. I waited. No discussion follows.

As I look at the highway ahead I recall the word primitive, etymologically, as being related to primary or original causes of a disease and later evolved anthropologically into origins, crude, simple and so forth. There’s been a multitude of studies written about it’s meaning and how it evokes different ideas to different people.

On reflection primitive at times possesses a deeply sensual mystique. From the 18th century through the 20th century the word stirred the thoughts and emotions of seekers being both repulsed and drawn to its nature and applicability.

Perhaps as Professor Marianna Torgovnick wrote over two decade ago in her work, Primitive Passions, Men, Women and the Quest for Ecstasy, the search for the primitive is more about us than the primitive. In her brilliant work she leaves few stones unturned so to speak. She probes all the meanings of the term with the idea that “Primitivism is the utopian desire to go back and recover irreducible features of the psyche, body, land, and community – to re-inhabit core experiences.” This is work I highly recommend for the seeker as she literally casts a wide net in uncovering passions characterized as primitive.

Taking a break at a coffee shop, I sip my coffee and involuntarily catch a high pitched conversation at the next table and exhorting an opinion at the expense of another, as one called the other “primitive.” They talked around each other without coming to terms of what their experiences with primitive might entail.

Their conversation reminded me of what Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing wrote in his Politics of Experience when he said something to the effect, “I see you and you see me. I experience you and you experience me. I see your behavior and you see my behavior. But, I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me. Just as you cannot “see” my experience of you…your experience of me is invisible to me and my experience of you is invisible to you.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees, from a relational perspective, it’s difficult to speak of primitive unless we all agree on the same definition or meaning. It’s complex at best.

After experiencing Africa, the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung wrote in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, of “the sight of a child or primitive will arouse certain longings in adult, civilized persons – longing which relate to the unfilled desires and needs of those parts of the personality which have been blotted out of the total picture in favor of the adapted (socialized) persona.” He understood primitive to mean a certain archetype or perhaps primordial image.

I suppose experiencing the primitive also alludes to an inner fear in relation to the world in which we live…the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard suggested in his manuscript on Fear and Trembling, there is the quest for the human attempting to relate or at least regain a relation to himself and the world. His example of the ritual of sacrifice possesses a primitive quality.

Torgovnick quotes the philosopher Martin Buber from his work, Ecstatic Confessions, “We listen to our inmost selves – and do not know which sea we hear murmuring.”

Decades ago, when I ventured across a tiny portion of the Arabian Desert, I recall the Sufi poet, Mahmud Shabistari’s desert wandering – it was primitive and prescient and written in the thirteenth century…The Past Flies Away:

 The past flies away;

coming months and years do not exist:

Only the pinprick of this moment

belongs to us.


We decorate this speck of a moment-time-

by calling it a flowing river or a stream.


But often I find myself alone

in a desert wilderness,

straining to catch the faint echo of

unfamiliar sounds.


In his work on Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints, archaeologist Brian Hayden delves in to the prehistory of religion and the rituals, beliefs and thoughts of primitive man and “what it means to be human.”

As I get back into my car and head to the interstate, more questions dance in my mind. Within the origins of human conscience and consciousness we find the human seeds and roots of the sensual, erotic, spiritual and the intimate human and animal ties to their physical world that birthed them.

The interstate I drive on is a link – the road, the environment, the water, the earth, the air, the sky, my body and mind are all woven together. Perhaps to acknowledge the woven threads of our physical and mental world in all of its diversity and appreciate how we all affect each other – is the colorful and provocative tapestry of the primitive.