From Taboo to Totem: Black Man, White Woman, in Caroline Auguste Fischer and Sophie Doin
Little, Roger, The Modern Language Review
The late eighteenth century saw the first literary representations in French of black men having intimate relationships with white women. It is as if the model of Othello and Desdemona were perceived as too psychologically remote after two centuries of trading in black slaves or too dauntingly admirable, in literary terms, to be followed. (1) The fashion of orientalist fantasies, in which a sultan's power over some comely white slave was transmuted into love, had largely satisfied the craving for a heady mixture of the exotic and the erotic during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (2) Sociologically, in the French colonies, close transracial relations were forcefully discouraged at the time, as indeed they were until the end of colonization. A clear distinction was made, however, between connivance at the droit de seigneur being transferred to a master's sexual enjoyment of a female slave and horror at the prospect of a negro, traditionally viewed as an animal endowed with unbridled sexual passions and powers, 'gros phallus braque sur le cercle magique de l'innocence blanche', (3) coupling with a white woman. (4) As Alain Ruscio among others has observed, this latter category went against the very nature of colonization, always viewed as a virile penetration of virgin territory. (5) So it is pre-eminently this category that interests me here, and I propose to investigate and reflect upon two significant cases seen in the relevant context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (6)
The corpus of the period involves largely minor literature, either by writers categorized as such or by others better known from other work. While such a departure from the established canon may appear inappropriate to some, it has the singular merit of showing more clearly than 'high literature' certain stereotypical attitudes of the time towards delicate aspects of human relations where angels fear to tread. That such stereotypes are still current in the popular literature and representations of our own time means that an exposure of their origins throws light on many a still-unquestioned assumption. As the postcolonial discourses of literary criticism, benefiting from the findings of anthropology and fuller and more rapid communications between peoples as well as from the upsurge of interest in 'Black' studies and women's studies, impose a readjustment of viewpoint and a more tolerant reflection on the Other, it is of particular interest to focus on those earlier images that themselves manifest tolerance. The absolutely intolerant remains depressingly unchanged as well as unedifying over the centuries.
In placing this study under the implicit invocation of two psychiatrists, Freud and Fanon, I do not wish to suggest any more, for the present study, than a general indebtedness in my reflections to the concept of 'totemic exogamy' in the former or to the interpretation of relations between 'l'homme de couleur et la Blanche' in the latter. (7) Freud starts from general anthropological considerations already well analysed by J. G. Frazer in Totemism and Exogamy (4 vols (London: Macmillan, 1910)) while Fanon's familiar thesis is based on what he calls the 'complexus psychoexistentiel' (p. 9), in effect a double-bind, suffered by Black and White alike through their interactive but unequal social history. That inequality leads Fanon to argue that 'le Noir veut etre Blanc' (p. 7), and no more so than when with a white person. The process of enwhitenment is presented in a nutshell at the opening of Chapter 3:
De la partie la plus noire de mon ame, a travers la zone hachuree me monte ce desir d'etre tout a coup blanc.
Je ne veux pas etre reconnu comme Noir, mais comme Blanc.
Or--et c'est la une reconnaissance que Hegel n'a pas decrite--qui peut le faire, sinon la Blanche? En m'aimant, elle me prouve que je suis digne d'un amour blanc. On m'aime comme un Blanc.
Je suis un Blanc. …