"Des Dialogues Curieux": Knowledge Production in the Works of Lahontan

By Pinette, Susan | CLIO, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"Des Dialogues Curieux": Knowledge Production in the Works of Lahontan


Pinette, Susan, CLIO


What characterizes Lahontan's texts is less the newness of the facts than the genius with which he presents them (1)

Before interaction with the Americas, European writers established claims to truth with textual appeals to the canon of sacred and ancient texts. The "New World," however, did not exist in this canon; writers therefore required new ways to assert the veracity of their texts. Travel writers, in particular, introduced new techniques of justification. They did not entirely discard canonical epistemology but increasingly relied upon the rhetoric of experience, and more specifically, that of vision. Anthony Pagden names this practice "autopsy," in the original Greek sense of the word meaning "visual perspective." "Autopsy is the appeal to the authority of the eye witness, to the privileged understanding which those present at an event have over all those who have only read or been told about it." (2) This paper aims to show that French early modern travelers to North America participated in these epistemological transformations. It focuses on Baron de Lahontan, who is credited with the invention of the concept of the Noble Savage and the establishment of its paradigm in eighteenth-century French writings on cultural difference. (3) The paper shows that this French writer produced knowledge practices distinct from those described by Pagden. For many critics, including Pagden, textual dependency upon vision authorized colonial chronicles and instigated the shift to the new scientific worldview of Europe. Spanish colonial texts, in this view, stand in for European epistemology as a whole. I argue, however, that Lahontan does not use vision to ground the authority of his writing. Lahontan's truth claim is authorized not by "I saw" but rather by "they say."

Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, Baron de Lahontan, was a bankrupt nobleman who spent a decade in North America as a member of the French army (1683-93). Upon threat of arrest after a quarrel with the French governor in Newfoundland, he fled to Europe and frequented noble society in Germany, Denmark, England, and Holland until his death in Holland in 1715. Publication of his three-volume work on North America began in 1702 with the first two volumes. Nouveaux Voyages de [M.sup.R] le Baron de Lahontan, dans l'Amerique septentrionale (The New Voyages of Baron Lahontan in North America) narrates his time in the French colony and describes new territories he claims to have discovered. The second volume, the Memoires de l'Amerique septentrionale, ou la Suite des voyages de [M.sup.R]. le Baron de Lahontan (Memoirs of North America, or The Continuation of the Voyages of Baron Lahontan), offers an encyclopedic catalog of flora and fauna and extensive ethnographic descriptions of northeastern American Indian tribes. Published in 1703, the third book, the Suplement aux Voyages du Baron de Lahontan, Ou l'on trouve des dialogues curieux entre l'Auteur et Un Sauvage de bon sens qui a voyage (Supplement to the voyages of Baron Lahontan, in which one finds Curious Dialogues Between the Author and a Savage of Good Sense who has Traveled), presents a philosophical dialogue between a European called "Lahontan" (4) and a Huron called Adario, followed by the narration of Lahontan's return to France. (5)

Lahontan's works partook in the vogue of travel relations that swept France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Hazard argues that their popularity can be traced to the epistemological transformations that were occurring in Europe at the time. (6) This "crisis of the European consciousness" that Hazard documents challenged Christian and classical authority. In its place, Enlightenment thinkers developed "conjectural" histories that included the entire modern world. (7) These histories, which documented humanity's progress from "states of nature" to civilization, drew extensively from travel narratives. "The eighteenth century turned to the history of the world's peoples not only to witness the spectacle of religions and customs in all their diversity but to find the key to a temporal flow emancipated from Holy Writ and now indefinitely open to progress. …

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