Koyaanisqatsi and Montaigne

A few years ago I suddenly noticed that Koyaanisqatsi and Montaigne's Of Cannibals share the same strategy of argumentation. Koyaanisqatsi is all about "a state of life that calls for another way of living," as the title suggests. It is a satire on modernism and modern America (America of the 1970s, at any rate), indignantly using humor and exaggeration by turns to make points as any good satire does. Like a good essay, it approaches its topic with a species of meaningful indirectness. We are (as the other contributions to this node point out) taken from the unspoiled, majestic canyons of the southwest (a Good Thing) through an ascending tempo to the sterile, crowded artificial canyons of our cities, full of antlike commuters (a Bad Thing). So far, so good, and all pretty easily understood.

It is the order of presentation that is interesting and shows how much thought went into this landmark film. By starting with beautiful, slow, majestic images backed by a noble, simple score, Godfrey Reggio sets this nexus of ideas up as the positive soil into which he plants an important idea. He carefully brings in subtly chosen references to Native Americans in order to maximally exploit their reputation as people uncorrupted by the rat race who live in tune with nature by showing their rock art as one with the elemental landscape. Had Reggio shown us actual images of the reservation at this stage, he would have risked spoiling his effect by forcing the viewer to confront the fact that Native Americans, like all decent, three-dimensional human beings, have some unattractive characteristics, and the reservation is not wholly free of squalor. Since he brings them in only by implication through rock art, Reggio leaves us free to concentrate on the positive side of their character.

Everything that follows the initial sequence must inevitably be viewed in its shadow, and by concentrating positive sentiments in that initial sequence Reggio artfully co-opts us into adopting that Native American viewpoint throughout the film. In a sense, we stick ourselves in the shoes of Native American observers and turn ourselves into the film's protagonist, offering our own silent, skeptical commentary on the images of our civilization. However Native Americans enter the film, they are not the true subject of it, but a foil helping to expose the deficiencies of our civilization. The notion of people uncorrupted and unspoiled by contact with civilization, and the sense that they possess a naturally privileged viewpoint in assessing more sophisticated people is an old idea to which Rousseau gave the name "noble savage." Although the term risks being misunderstood because of the negative connotations of "savage" in everyday English, the word is more closely related to the original French sauvage, meaning "wild", in the sense of natural, untamed, or uncorrupted. Reggio, therefore, has exploited the concept of the noble savage in generating negative commentary on American civilization in his audience.

People are culturally trained in the US to feel ashamed about what we did to the Native Americans, and we compensate in a way by re-imagining them as better than ouselves (we might call this Dances with Wolves syndrome). It's easy for Reggio to invoke them as a type of noble savage and make us sympathetic to them as we watch the movie.

Montaigne included his brilliant Of Cannibals in the Essais, published in 1580. It is deservedly a staple in undergraduate humanities courses, and it parallels Koyaanisqatsi in important ways. We are once again introduced to the main topic (problems in European, and specifically French civilization) in an indirect way: through the description of one of the native peoples of Brazil. Although he predates Rousseau by some two centuries, he fully develops the concept of the noble savage:

"Those people are wild, just as we call wild the fruits that Nature has produced by herself and in her normal course; whereas really it is those we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order, that we should rather call wild. The former retain alive and vigorous their genuine, their most useful and natural, virtues and properties, which we have debased in the latter in adapting them to gratify our corrupted taste. And yet for all that, the savor and delicacy of some uncultivated fruits of those countries is quite as excellent, even to our taste, as that of our own. It is not reasonable that art should win the place of honor over our great and powerful mother Nature. We have so overloaded the beauty and richness of her works by our inventions that we have quite smothered her. . . . All our efforts cannot even succeed in reproducing the nest of the tiniest little bird, its contexture, its beauty, and convenience; or even the web of the puny spider. All things, says Plato, are produced by nature, by fortune, or by art; the greatest and most beautiful by one or the other of the first two, the least and most imperfect by the last."

These noble savages practice a form of cannibalism upon their defeated enemies which Montaigne is at pains to portray as noble; and in fact, in his entire description of the ostensibly barbarous customs of these people Montaigne is ironically drawing a comparison with their European counterparts, who inevitably come off the worse. See how he handles the thorny issue of the cannibalism per se:

"I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts, but I am heartily sorry, that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man while he is alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead."

Montaigne thus offers us the knowledge necessary to let us settle into the shoes of these Brazilian noble savages, and to generate commentary on our own society (late 16th century France) by means of his description of their customs. He pushes us with his authorial comments as Reggio will push us in his own way with Native Americans in Koyaanisqatsi. But if that is not enough, at the end of the essay he refers to three of the noble savages who came to Europe and met Charles IX at Rouen. Montaigne purports to tell us their comments on the French court. They were astonished that healthy, strong, grown men should have submitted to be ruled by a child king, and that rich people allowed poor people to go on begging and that the poor did not rise up and kill the rich for making them endure injustice. Montaigne leads us to question the ideas of hereditary monarchy and societally fixed rules of property rights which fly in the face of equity. We don't need to become socialists to see that Montaigne is trying to get his readers to think, and by offering two specimens of what Europeans of his day did without giving it a second thought, he is also prompting his readers to reconsider a great deal more. Europe and France are the subject of the essay; the cannibals are a foil.

When I teach Montaigne I always bring Koyaanisqatsi in to show my students that these ideas are not only alive but current and relevant; and that while the film may contain a heavy-handed message, it is an exciting and new way of approaching a very old problem.

The Montaigne passages are from Donald Frame's translation in the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of World Literature, second edition (2002), volume 3 pages 2646 and 2649, respectively.