Execution, Exodus, or the Enlightenment in Charles Beaumont’s “The Jungle”
Take a dash of thick foliage, toss in a pinch of Sir Richard Burton, add a smidge of a slither or rustle of leaf, and you have Charles Beaumont’s “The Jungle.” Sir Richard Burton, writing in the Victorian Era, said, “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands.” Traveling the depths of the African jungle, Burton unveiled the “old and pagan genealogies” packed with “infidel magician[s]” and a life filled with the “perpetual presence of danger.” This exoticism ignited a fervor for all things “Orient” and became one of the cornerstones of Victorian society. The jungle has, in modern times, also become a complex metaphor based on the scandalous revelations from Burton and others about the dark continent. Charles Beaumont explores this motif in his simply, yet effectively titled short story “The Jungle.”
Born in 1929, Beaumont was less than a year old when the world spun out of control with the market crash. With global politics and economics spiraling downward, his world was dominated by war. In the post-war years, a new society was born. From the 1950s to the 1960s, this new society was going places. Civil rights were roiling through the South. Demands for equality across the social spectrum were increasing. Change was the new norm. The United States was proving to be the very embodiment of the Enlightenment. Now, on to the rest of the world! They were waiting, hungry for those same ideals… right?
John Gray, in his work Enlightenment’s Wake, argues otherwise. We have deceived ourselves, he posits. While the First World enshrines Enlightenment ideals, most of the world does not share this enthusiasm. There are conceptions of “the good,” he points out, that are incommensurable. Diversity of life means diversity of values, and those values are often at odds. How can a society, for example, legalize gay marriage and respect the religious opposition? These values are at such odds that compromise becomes impossible. Gray posits that there are many such “rights” that are incompatible. If the rule of law is supreme, that law must be based on one of these opposing values. But which is it to be? What if a society rejects the Enlightenment ideals in favor of oppositional values?
This theoretical conflict comes to life in the pages of Beaumont’s “The Jungle.” Set in a vague “future,” Beaumont’s vision is one of progress. Humanity, pushed beyond the brink through overpopulation, has resorted to radical solutions in order to “save” itself. “Vast rolling spheres and columns of colored stone” rise from the floor of a once uncontrolled jungle, creating the ultimate temple to modernity. Mountains were leveled and rivers drained or redirected. “Big gray machines” rolled in to build, and build they did. “Millions of tons of hardened stone” replaced the lush, wild landscape. It was, according to Beaumont’s protagonist, the “birth of a city.”
But, as protagonist Richard Austin contemplates, it was also the “death of a world.” This fictitious jungle was already occupied, and those occupants fought bitterly against this “progress.” A Bantu medicine man is the symbol of the native culture. He represents, literally and figuratively, their beliefs and their fears. He is their cultural and spiritual core. As the machines tear into the earth, he gives these interlopers a warning: leave or die. Richard Austin, and his dreams of the perfect city, just laughed.
These natives need civilization. They live in huts of “backward filth” plagued by disease and corruption with almost no modern conveniences. Austin argues that it was his (and others’) moral duty to help even though “their culture had failed to absorb scientific progress.” In other words, the advanced peoples had a duty to bring the Enlightenment to the less enlightened. The natives were not making a choice to reject western values. They simply did not understand. In time, they will begin to see that a “crushed superstition is better than a crushed head.” They will eventually “thank you” for guiding them toward Enlightenment ideals.
By the end of the story, however, like Gray, Beaumont argues against a global embrace of Enlightenment ideals. Bokawah, the Bantu shaman, reminds Austin that the natives told him they would fight. He tells Austin that his towering city of modernity will always belong to the “silent and dead.” He calmly reminds Austin that his people “will never walk through” the city. No matter how strenuously Austin argues, the quiet resolve remains.
The invaders never believed in the “existence of the enemy” because they could not see beyond their rigid adherence not to Enlightenment ideals, but to the concept of the global acceptance of Enlightenment ideals. Austin quite confidently points out that his government is “sending men.” These new warriors will study the problem. The mysterious killer plague will end through the power of science. Medicines will be discovered. The primitive rites and rituals were nothing but fear-mongering. “You will be eliminated,” Austin says confidently. “Your magic sticks aren’t going to scare away five hundred thousand men and women.” The native culture, primitive and useless, will be swept away in the oncoming storm of progress. It was–and is–inevitable Richard Austin assures both the reader and the Bantu medicine man.
Beaumont’s protagonist cannot allow the possibility that anything exists beyond the realm of science and logic. Illustrating Gray’s theory, the natives of this future jungle region have rejected the ideals of the Enlightenment. Their belief in magic is more powerful than science. Their ties to their ancient land are more powerful than the glittering towers of glass and steel.
As Austin walks through the shell of his city, he slowly begins to ask that very question. These people cannot be real. Their beliefs are superstition based on illogic and fear. But there was a plague. Everyone, including Austin’s wife, are dead or dying. The echo of the jungle that once was has crept back into the shadows of this glittering metropolis. But these phantoms are not real. Science must prevail, just as the Enlightenment will prevail. They will see the truth. They will see the value in his city. In the end, the natives do not see. They do not want what Austin and his government have to give. They have, in essence, rejected the West.
Beaumont’s story serves as a framework for our current socio-political climate. The world is getting smaller. It’s all about global now. Multiculturalism and diversity are the norms. But what happens when we discover a people who reject what we have to give? What if they reject the western values of the Enlightenment as the Bantu did when Richard Austin brought those same values? What if, as Richard Austin discovered, they don’t want to adopt western ways?
Is the West prepared to face the realities of “The Jungle?”