New York City is sometimes described as a jungle, where that’s understood as a dense, dark, and foreboding place. “The Jungle” takes place entirely the jungle of New York City, but the city itself is not represented as dark and foreboding. Rather, two of its inhabitants , Alan and Doris Richards, have just returned from Africa. They have brought that jungle with them, at least in the sense that their trip has affected them deeply, as trips to far-off places often do.
The Richards aren’t harking back to a luxurious vacation, but are reflecting on the consequences of their travel to a remote and unfamiliar culture, and to the consequences of their encounter with that culture. Mr. Richards and his company plan to build a hydroelectric project that will have an substantial, and, and to the “natives,” an unwelcome impact. Those natives have let their position be known, to both the Richards, and it is Mrs. Richards who lives in fear of the consequences, not just for the natives, but for the Richards themselves.
To guard against those consequences, Mrs. Richards has amassed a collection of items which are supposed to ward off evil, including a human finger and a lion’s tooth. She’s heeded the concerns of the natives that the hydroeletric project would amount to “wounding the land – making it bleed.” She begs Alan to abandon the project. He rejects the concerns of “ignorant witch-doctors.”
While he dismisses witchcraft in discussion with his wife, he defends it in his boardroom meeting with his New York City colleagues. When they dismiss the possibility as handily as he did with his wife, Mr. Richards exposes their own commitments to a variety of superstitions, from carrying a rabbit’s foot, to the fact that their building doesn’t have a 13th floor.
What follows is a demonstration of the African shamans’ reach. It is swift and it is devastating. Serling concludes: “Some superstitions kept alive by the night of ignorance have their own special power.” Serling would have appreciate this account of superstition from David Hume’s essay, “Superstition and Enthusiasm,” in his Essays, Moral, Political, Literary:
The mind of man is subject to certain unaccountable terrors and apprehensions, proceeding either from the unhappy situation of private or public affairs, from ill health, from a gloomy and melancholy disposition, or from the concurrence of all these circumstances. In such a state of mind, infinite unknown evils are dreaded from unknown agents; and where real objects of terror are wanting, the soul, active to its own prejudice, and fostering its predominant inclination, finds imaginary ones, to whose power and malevolence it sets no limits. As these enemies are entirely invisible and unknown, the methods taken to appease them are equally unaccountable, and consist in ceremonies, observances, mortifications, sacrifices, presents, or in any practice, however absurd or frivolous, which either folly or knavery recommends to a blind and terrified credulity. Weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of superstition.
In “The Jungle” the ignorance that fuels superstition is the ignorance of the “civilized” westerners, who think that the disruption of the way of life of a distant and remote culture will not have significant consequences. When Richards mocks his colleagues superstitions he is making it clear that their actions are as self-interested, capricious, and ill-planned as those of the “natives” whose interests, values, and knowledge they’ve dismissed. The witchcraft that will do them in is of their own devising, and whether it arrives in form of a vicious lion in one’s bedroom, or in some other, more likely form, is immaterial. As Hume says, it’s all traceable to our “weakness, fear [and] ignorance.
David Hume, “Superstition and Enthusiasm” Essays, Moral Political, Literary (Liberty Press, 1987)