Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
The mytho-philosophical figure of the wild man is one that Western thought has perpetuated, in various epistemological forms, as an abjected Other whose function has been to provide an imaginative exemplar against which the West defines itself as a civilization. He is invariably the hypothetical manifestation of a body as yet unmarked by codes that would regulate its behaviour within society and the discourses that would render it a productive body of thought. As a literary phenomenon, the wild man frequently finds expression in narratives that pit him in a violent struggle with a heroic representative of civility, from which the latter (with some exceptions) emerges as the victor. It is a narrative that, in part, allegorizes the violent work culture does on a body to render it an intelligible, human(e) subject, neither too wild nor too civilized. That subject is perhaps more specifically a masculine one, since the narrative, in its most radical form, is played out by characters undeniably male. As the narrative depicts their struggle, the most remote of man's ontological extremes are mapped out, the two figures appearing at the furthest reaches of the topology of male experience, the theoretical spaces they inhabit sharing a border they ceaselessly redefine and reassert in the delimitation of what constitutes the proper (hu)man.
But the very proliferation of the wild man in imaginative literature, the autonomy of his mythology, suggests the wildness he represents to be more than a simple negation of normative civilization; he is not merely man in a raw state of nature, having yet to undergo or having utterly lost or repudiated the processes by which he is cultivated/cultivates himself into an accepted member of civilized society. The wild is a product of the very "civilizing processes" that creates viable subjects. Productive in and of itself, the wild is a positive term that exerts its own formative power in opposition to civilization. Romancing the Wild attempts to exploit the power of the wild as expressed in literature inasmuch as those expressions constitute a philosophy critical of "civilized" codes and practices and, ultimately, of the very distinction between wildness and civility. In order to accomplish this, it intertwines a study of both medieval and contemporary texts, since the term "medieval" itself tends naïvely to connote a certain wildness in relation to the accepted civility of today.
In the Middle English romance tradition, there is arguably no knight so chivalric, so courteous, so "civilized" as Sir Gawain. In the body of Gawain romances, our knight is always pitted against adversaries in various states of wild "undress." Sir Gawain and the Green Knight especially offers one of the subtlest wild men in Middle English literature, the Green Knight himself. Using the violent conflict between the two knights as a catalyst, the poem performs a critique of the chivalric subject as depicted in romance narrative. Indeed, through an exploration of the violent exchanges between Gawain and the wild personages he encounters, the performances that constitute his particular brand of masculinity and civility are both revealed and contested. Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film, Apocalypse Now (re-released in 2001 as Apocalypse Now: Redux), and David Fincher's 1999 film, Fight Club each carry out an extraordinarily violent narrative dominated by male characters, depicting in its respective way those men interacting within an inhospitable wilderness (the jungle, the inner city). The action of each film, like that of the Gawain narratives, focuses especially on the opposition between a wild and a "civilized" man, an opposition that becomes less distinct as the action proceeds, ultimately dissolving the boundary between wildness and civility and troubling the coherence of either term.
Anderson, Nick, "Romancing the Wild, or, Sir Gawain, Apocalypse Now, Fight Club, and How I Learned to Stop Being So Civilized" (2002). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 6010.
McMaster University Library