Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

32

THE SPINOZISTIC NOVEL
IN FRENCH

The interchange between the Netherlands and France which played so large a part in the formation of Early Enlightenment radical thought was a two-way transmission, not only of works of philosophy and Bible criticism, of scientific theories, theology, and political thought, but also of an entirely new phenomenon, thoroughly characteristic of the new era—the philosophical or deistic travel novel. If the Spinozistic novel in Dutch begins with Philopater in the 1690s, and assumes the guise of a travel romance with Smeeks' Krinke Kesmes (1708), the radical philosophical novel in French began in the late 1670s with two utopian travel stories set in the remote South Pacific, Gabriel de Foigny's La Terre australe connue (1676) and, more especially, the 'dainty', widely read, and notorious Histoire des Sévarambes (1677) by Denis Vairesse d'Alais.1

Vairesse, a Protestant lawyer from Alès and a minor official who played a part in concerting the Anglo-French attack on the United Provinces in 1672, lived for some years (1665–74) in London, knew such eminent Englishmen as Locke and Lord Arlington, and spoke English fluently. His utopian novel depicts a gullible people inhabiting the South Seas who are imbued with a revealed religion, invented by the 'Impostor' Omigas, a parody of Moses and Christ, who 'par diverses ruses et plusieurs faux miracles', including the 'curing' of several persons whom he pays to feign blindness and other infirmities, gains total mastery over this society, based on revelation.2 Indeed, the people were so credulous and completely under the spell of this 'imposteur' that he has no difficulty in convincing them that the Sun—to whom he has taught them to sacrifice—is displeased with his political opponents. Of course, they unhesitatingly banish the latter from their own country for ever.3 However, this devout society, based on unquestioning authority, is starkly contrasted with another Pacific society, that of the Sévarambes, which is based on deism. The latter have no cult and no clergy and believe in an infinite and eternal God who prefers to be adored without prayer, priestly intercession, rituals, and sacrifices, purely through the mind.4 Here the people are not shamelessly abused by false prophets.

1 Weber, Beurtheilung, 133–3; Morhof, Polyhistor, 75; Rosenberg, 'Introduction', 20.

2 "Vairasse", Histoire des Sévarambes, ii, 134–4.

3 Ibid., 140–0.

4 Vernière, Spinoza, 216–67; Funke, Studien, 1, 17.

-591-

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