The “Primitive”

Posted by jlubans on November 29, 2020

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Caption: Woodcut, 1533, from Bartolommeo Cocles' 'Physiognomonia.'

Funny how things come together, how juxtapositions happen.
I recently finished the 1941 book “Kabloona” by Lewis Galantière and Gontran de Poncins which recounts de Poncins 15-month experience living in the Arctic among the Inuit people.
De Poncins, a European nobleman (1900 -1962), unhappy with “civilization” sought a simpler life; and hoped to find it among the primitive Eskimos (his term) in the far reaches of northern Canada.
As I read his fascinating stories of traveling hundreds of miles by dog sled across frozen seas, eating frozen raw meat and living in snow block igloos at -50F, I was reminded of a NYC business owner’s characterizing one of his workers as, “a primitive”.
While this sounded a bit feudal, it was not, I believe, meant as a derogatory term, but an allusion to the worker’s guilelessness, honesty and loyalty to the business.
He’d learned the business on the job and the owner was trusting him to maintain its high-quality customer service.
But is primitive really what we want in an employee? Perhaps there are other ways of looking at the primitive among us.
Maybe the worker’s boss is deluding himself and while he may not mean the term as an insult, that’s how it winds up being, a feudal stereotype of the “noble savage” instead of a unique individual.
Returning to de Poncins, our ice bound Frenchman, he is repulsed by what he sees at the first Eskimo encampment: eating rotten raw fish, the transactional practice of sleeping with each other’s wives, their ignoring (his) schedule, beating their quintessential sled dogs, and helping themselves to de Poncin’s possessions!
As de Poncins odyssey continues north, further and further from Western influences, he slowly comes to terms with himself and the Inuit’s primitive ways.
The far north Inuit differ significantly from the poorer Inuit in the south.
In the unblemished far north – with bountiful seal and fish harvests - there is less guile and cunning among the Inuit he meets. Promises are more often kept, intentions are clearer, less deceptive.
Yet hardly perfect, dogs get beaten, old people get left on the ice to drift away, some crimes go unpunished, wives are abused, etc.
It is in this harsh land that de Poncins begins to shed the ways of Kabloona, The White Man - an uncomprehending outsider – and become more of an “Inuk: a man, preeminently” self-reliant and with dignity among hardship, not driven by a schedule, and accepting his companions as they are. In other words, it is no longer paramount for him to be in charge. He becomes as “primitive” as they are.
Doing so, de Poncins confronts his own pettiness.
He’s no longer the fussy outsider, someone demanding his schedule be kept, someone digging in his heels when something unplanned come his way. Nor is he any longer willing to freeze rather than share his fuel for the igloo’s warming oil lamp.
Ultimately, he came to respect the largely guileless ways of a Stone Age people albeit 20,000 years “behind” in evolution.
Indeed, to survive in the Arctic they are each an Inuk: a man preeminently. Imagine, in a driving blizzard, the skill and courage required to build a windproof igloo shelter, one that will last as long as the storm or longer. You have but one tool: an Eskimo snow knife.
If de Poncins transformation is “primitive” then we need more of it.
How does that happen in the workplace?
First, leadership must model an unwillingness to gossip or take part in scheming.
Cliques and divisions are shunned.
Of the several places I worked only one was free of divisions; it was the only one without regular turf battles over who was to do what work.
Instead, we were on the same page, with no sniping or undercutting. I suppose we were primitive in our willingness to support each other.
Were we guileless? Probably.
Curiously, the state universities I worked in were more transparent that private schools and less likely to engage in “palace intrigue”.
It was mostly in private schools of a certain size where I got to experience first-hand the back-stabbing “perfumed dagger”.
Was this due to the nature of private institutions being less accountable to outsiders?
I’ve come to believe the more genuinely open an organization the better its health.
And, just like de Poncins transformation something like that transformation has to happen for each of us, so we become a supportive group of people wanting what’s best for the group and not just the individual.

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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

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