Running Amok

On a trip into town where he hoped to fix his shoe, Mr. Henry David Thoreau was arrested. He explained the situation; while on hiatus on Walden Pond, he had escaped various men’s attempts to “constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society,” did not pay his taxes, and in so doing, he had not “recognized the authority of the state.”

Unwilling to pay a fine, Thoreau accepted jail. His response was complacent and calm: “It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run ‘amok’ against society; but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me, it being the desperate party.” And so, to jail he went—but only for a night. Emerson and Thoreau’s family settled his debt, and thus, the next morning, he “obtained his mended shoe, and returned to the woods” perfectly in time for a dinner of huckleberries.

But Thoreau’s civic martyrdom, the root of his essay “Civil Disobedience,” does not typify running “amok.” According to the definition of the phrase, it is the individual and not society who typically acts out. A Malaysian term that entered the English vernacular when western explorers descended on the area, “amok” describes a person who bolts through the streets on a frenzied rampage, “attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.”  After killing family members and strangers alike, the runner often claims a state of exhausted amnesia—ostensibly shocked at his own behavior. Western anthropologist John Carr asserts that in the 19th century, the frequency of these events was such that some Southeast Asian villages even took precautions. They armed themselves with publicly-accessible lance-like weapons.

Yet despite these precautions against the admittedly monstrous behavior of an amok individual, there existed a sort of awe for him, as well. The very word “amok” was first derived from the battle cry of the medieval Malaysian warrior, a socially-exalted figure, and the public often even viewed “amok” runners as political figures, critical voices in a despotic social milieu. As Carr explains, even political leaders took the behavior seriously; they had no choice.  No ruler could ignore the amok’s ability to disrupt social order, to display political disgust. Admittedly extreme, running amok was the “ultimate veto”—one each and every Malay possessed.

Cyborg scholar Donna Haraway can perhaps help explain this social role. Haraway identifies what the Oxford English Dictionary confirms: the words “monster” and “demonstrate” share a telling etymological root. Associated with the Latin root “monere”— to warn, advise, indicate, etc.— Haraway continues: “Monsters signify.”

Signify what? Here Thoreau and Carr share a similar thought: running “amok” — a monstrous demonstration of despair.