“This fellaheen feeling about life, that timeless gaiety of people not involved in great cultural and civilizational issues.”
Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (1960).
In Arabic, fallaha means to plow, and fellaheen is therefore a collective name for the plowing peasants of Egypt and the Levant. The fellah is a patient, plodding son of the soil, quite unlike the dashing Bedouin that rove the rough wastes of Arabia. There is no reason to suppose that the fellahin are especially given to anything that Kerouac would have recognized as “gaiety,” for most are by habit pious and austere, but the old dharma bum said they were gay because they were “timeless,” and he said they were timeless because he believed they had laid the burden of civilization down.
Kerouac was not interested in Levantine peasants. The fellah was, for him, an emblem of dropping out and letting go. He plowed his field beneath the ruins of a dead civilization that he did not understand, and did not mourn, and was therefore (aside from the working) an inspiration and example to every beatnik, dropout and dharma bum in the moribund West. As a traveler in Palestine described him in 1913:
“Within the shelter of a ruin, perched on a hillock or mountain top and telling the eternal tale of grandeur and decadence, the fellah makes his home and installs his herds.” (1)
What Kerouac meant by the “fellaheen feeling” was this blithe disregard for either the grandeur or the decadence of civilization. In the long cycle of cultural evolution, the fellah stands far beyond the mere reactionary, with his alarms, lamentations and elegies. The fellah is a man entirely of the aftermath. He is not “involved in great cultural and civilizational issues.”
What is more, Kerouac assures us he is inwardly delighted unto gaiety because he is no longer involved.
For as Freud taught, it is a weary business to carry civilization on your back, and more especially in your head. Civilization is a cumbersome knapsack bulging with cruel repressions, painful exactions and dubious compensations. What a relief to lay it down! How gay and lightsome this makes one feel! That was the beatnik gospel. That liberation caused the timeless gaiety of the fellaheen.
A writer who was present at the birth of the Beats wrote:
“Civilization as we know it today turns out to be a kind of elaborate . . . device whereby sexual starvation is foisted upon the young by the bitter old” (2).
This is true, although its arrow of causality points in the wrong direction. I do not submit to being thin because that is the price of starving myself. I submit to starving myself because that is the price of being thin. Until the day comes when that price seems too high and I join the fellaheen, as it were, of the happy and fat.
Sexual starvation is, likewise, a means to the end of “high destinies” (Oswald Spengler’s phrase), and men will submit to some degree of sexual starvation so long as their “longing for high destinies” remains lively and keen. But the day comes when that high destiny fades, the price of continence seems too high, and they will be liberated to join the fellaheen of fornication.
* * * * *
Whether it came to him directly or by hearsay, Kerouac got the symbol of the fellahin from Oswald Spengler. In Decline of the West (vol. 2, chap.6), Spengler proposed a “morphology of peoples” in which a “fella-people” was the third and final stage. You must bear in mind that Spengler uses the word morphology in the old sense of stages of development. As a biologist explained in 1878:
“The work of the morphologist is to trace the germ to the adult . . . to map out each form, passing into succeeding forms. . .” (3)
The basic stages in Spengler’s morphology of peoples were “peoples before, within, and after a Culture.” In other words, primitives, men of Culture, and fellahin. Of this last stage, he wrote:
“That which follows a Culture we may call, from its best-known example, the Egyptians of post-Roman times, fellah-peoples.”
The fellah is, as I said, a man of the aftermath who lives without thinking among the ruins.
Spengler’s middle stage of Culture divides into four sub-stages that he likens to spring, summer, autumn and winter. In the last of these, the lifeless form of the Culture endures as a stiff and ossified “civilization.” The stage of the fellaheen comes after that. The fellaheen do not dominate a Culture in its decadence. They are the residue that lingers when that Culture has fully decayed.
This is why Spengler says that a fellah people has dropped out of history and returned to life at “the zoological level.” At this level they are, like their primitive forebears, content to feed and sleep and strut and rut, just as the mood takes them. They live a life of what we might call low destinies.
“Life as experienced by primitive and fellahin peoples is just the zoological up and down, a planless happening without goal . . . where occurrences are many but, in the last analysis, devoid of significance.”
By “zoological up and down” Spengler means spasmodic pursuit of the low destinies proposed by our animal appetites, the mundane cycles of hunger and satiety. Such a life is not altogether planless and without goals, but its plans are petty and its goals are low. Men rise from this “zoological level” when they are given a “longing for high destinies,” when they receive a conviction that they have been put on this earth to do more than feed and sleep and strut and rut.
In Spengler’s morphology, a Culture is the spiritual unity of a body of men who share a conviction of “high destiny.” They are moved by something greater than zoological drives. This is how these “destiny-men” transcend zoology and enter into history. And they remain in history until their conviction of high destiny dies in the rigid formulas of an ossified civilization, whereupon they once again sink to the zoological level and become a fellaheen.
The German title of Spengler’s book is Der Untergang des Abendlandes, and the word Untergang can mean sinking as well as downfall. His central argument was, indeed, that the men of the West were sinking back to the zoological level of a fellaheen.
And a beatnik like Jack Kerouac thought this sinking could not happen fast enough.
* * * * *
A “longing for high destinies” does not destroy the longing for low destinies—the longing to live, as St. Paul called it, “in the flesh.” A later age called this longing nostalgie de la boue, or “homesickness for the mud,” and it is yielding to this homesickness that causes the men of a Culture to at last sink to the zoological level of life “in the flesh.” In the words of the great classicist Gilbert Murray:
There seems to be a certain primitive effortlessness level of human life, much the same all the world over . . . . a kind of world-wide swamp above which a few nations have built what seem like permanent and well-weathered dwellings. Others make transient refuges which sink back into the slough. La nostalgie de la boue —‘homesickness for the mud’—is a strong emotion in the human race” (4).
When Murray wrote this line in 1907, Western culture may have seemed like a “permanent and well-weathered dwelling.” Seven years later, it gave every indication of having been a “transient refuge” that was rapidly sinking back into the slough. Four years after that, Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes.
In it, Spengler said there were no permanent dwellings, since the flesh is weak and the call of the mud is strong. And even in the high summer of a Culture, when the longing for the high destiny it proposes is widespread, there will always be a mass of disgruntled under men (untermenschen) who are enthralled by the nostalgie de la boue.
“What the Under-Man wants is, not progress, but regress—regress to more primitive conditions in which he would be at home . . . .” (5)
In the mind of this Under-Man, such a regression to primitive conditions does not entail material privations, for he does not see why swamp-dwellers should not enjoy anesthetics, streaming videos, and all-you-can-eat buffets. As Spengler says, he does not see why there cannot be bread and circuses in the mud.
Spengler tells us that cosmopolitans and pacifists are the “the spiritual leaders of the fellaheen.” Today we call these men multicultural globalists. They seek to lead men, like Moses, out of the bondage of Culture and into the promised land of mud. The cosmopolitan tells them they have no high destiny, unless it be to ensure that all men are equal in their enjoyment of the low destinies of zoological fulfillment. The pacifist tells them that nothing is worth a fight, unless it be a fight to destroy any man who argues that we are put on this earth to do more than feed and sleep and strut and rut.
Their motto is
“Back to the mud, men! Back to the mud!”
While others look upon this melancholy spectacle and say:
“Look at these Fellahin,
Cinders of men, poor over-roasted snipe,
Fuel for their fat masters” (6)
- Philip Baldensperger, The Immovable East: Studies of the People and Customs of Palestine (1913).
- “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy,” Harper’s Magazine (1947)
- “Morphology,”British Medical Journal (1878)
- Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (1907).
- Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man (1922).
- Selden Rodman, Lawrence, the Last Crusade (1937)