Imaginary Encounters with the New World: Native American Utopias in 18th-Century French Novels

By Ansart, Guillaume | Utopian Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Imaginary Encounters with the New World: Native American Utopias in 18th-Century French Novels


Ansart, Guillaume, Utopian Studies


ONE OF THE FEATURES characteristic of eighteenth-century French fiction is the frequent presence of well-defined short utopian episodes in adventure and/or philosophical novels which are not utopian in their general outlook. Some of these "micro-utopias" are located in the New World and involve real or imaginary Native American peoples. The most well-known, especially outside the circle of scholars of eighteenth-century French literature, is certainly the description of Eldorado in Voltaire's Candide, ou l'optimisme (1759), but other such episodes can be found in Marivaux's Les Aventures de ***, ou les effets surprenants de la sympathie (1713), in Lesage's Les Aventures de M. Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchene, capitaine de flibustiers dans la Nouvelle-France (1732), and abbe Prevost's great philosophical novel, Le Philosophe anglais, ou histoire de Monsieur Cleveland (1731-1739), actually contains two of them.

These utopian vignettes enclosed in novels written for a fairly wide reading public satisfy the minimum criteria of the genre insofar as they depict an alternative collective order existing or developed in isolation from the rest of the world. But they are less interesting for their socio-political content--they are brief and sketchy and, as parts of larger novels, must balance didacticism with action and adventure--than for what they reveal, in very clear and concise form, about European representations of American populations in the first half of the eighteenth century. In particular, they illustrate the fundamental difficulty of interpreting a radically new human and cultural reality, responding in their own way to the epistemological challenges which prompted the first developments of anthropology during the early modern period.

Early modern writers confronted with the task of describing New World populations and their customs faced a series of challenges. First: how does one speak of something so completely new? One solution is to try to bring the unfamiliar as close as possible to what is already known, in other words, to conceptualize the New World in terms of the Old (Western civilization in general, and more particularly Christianity and the cultural heritage of Antiquity). In his excellent study concentrating largely on accounts by travelers to the new continents (Columbus, Oviedo, Las Casas, Bougainville, Humboldt, among others), European Encounters with the New World. From Renaissance to Romanticism, Anthony Pagden aptly calls this strategy the "principle of attachment", which he defines as: "... translating varieties of experience from an alien world into the practices of [one's] own" (21). An early example of this approach in French literature would be Andre Thevet's Les singularites de la France antarctique (1557).

For writers who, to a lesser or greater extent, renounced the use of the principle of attachment, like Jean de Lery, author of Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil (1578), another challenge presented itself. Should American Indian populations be considered as examples of different possibilities in the realm of culture (each with its own specificity), or should they be seen as humanity in its original natural state (whether this state is idealized or not)? Montaigne, for instance, clearly understood the implications of both alternatives. In one of his essays, "Des Cannibales" (1579-80), dealing with Brazilian Indians, he yields to the primitivist temptation, while in another, "Des Coches" (1586-88), he expresses admiration for the specific cultural achievements of the Aztecs and the Incas. Moreover, in both texts, he also makes frequent use of the principle of attachment, building analogies between the New World and the civilizations of Antiquity.

Our corpus of micro-utopias reflects the same fundamental issues. Two different types of basic scenarios prevail in these short narratives. In one of them, the collective robinsonnade type, a lost European traveler encounters a tribe of American Indians, becomes their ruler, and "civilizes" them (such is the case in Marivaux and in the first American utopia in Prevost). …

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