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On Making Mirages, Tahitian and Otherwise

ISSUE:  Spring 2001

On Nov. 12, 1764, while sailing in search of the fabled southern continent through the Straits of Magellan toward the Pacific, John Byron and his men suddenly saw what looked like an enormous land mass that continued off into the distance. His disappointment was palpable when the mirage dissipated later in the afternoon and was revealed as nothing but a fog bank. Today, of course, we understand that he simply “saw” something that he had been prepared for and ardently hoped to find. Just as philosophers, scientists, and writers must induce in themselves and their readers what psychologists call a mental set and thus be ready to perceive what must be absorbed in order to understand appropriately, so people of all professions and stripes tend to register what they have been led to expect and, indeed, what they consciously or unconsciously want to see. Alexander Dalrymple and such explorers as Samuel Wallis, James Cook, and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville were well aware that the hope of a southern continent was a major factor in raising the funds that allowed them to continue the voyages of discovery (an 18th-century version of the recent well-timed NASA “discovery” of “life from Mars”). Eighteenth-century writings are replete with myths and mirages that become foundation stones at the base of the Romantic world view. Not that all the representations of Noble Savages and a South Sea paradise were knowingly dishonest. In most cases, when a contrary reality was demonstrably proven, corrections were recorded. In cases like the philosophes and Romantics, however, there was such a heavy philosophical investment in what they wanted to see that it was very difficult to discern the outlines of contrary truth, much less the entire picture. They eventually discarded both mirage and savage, though they retained several factors that remained a constituent part of the Western world view for more than one hundred years.

Consideration of some of the literature that surrounded these illusions offers interesting insights into the function of literature, especially during the late 18th century, when there was so much contrary evidence and when the myths were nonetheless embraced with notable ardor. Marxists like Trotsky and Goldmann have made us aware of the potential of art for changing the course of society. That was almost certainly the hope of such philosophes as Rousseau and Diderot. While the “realities” of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” toward which they chose to move civilization soon turned to smoke, on being confronted with all too indisputable facts, the artistic results of what now seem propaganda allow us to appreciate the way literature reflects the society that gives it birth and to perceive some of the hopes and dreams that animated French people of the late 18th century.

Frequently, evidence against the prevailing mirage co-exists in the sources of the dream. The explorer Bougainville, for example, has frequently been blamed for the creation of the “Tahitian mirage,” though, in fact, his account does not hide many of the problems that clearly distinguish the island from what he calls a “garden of Eden” and a “new Cytherea.” He does not mention, and may not have known about, Tahiti’s infanticide, but he discusses the social inequality, the virtually constant wars, the human sacrifice, the syphilis, and the pilfering. Somehow European readers glossed over such passages detailing problems in paradise without paying attention. The vision that they perceived, conceived, and retained until the early 1800’s was of a beautiful island with a marvelous climate and a Utopian society. As W.H. Pearson points out, the landscape had as well a number of elements with fashionable appeal, “having the romantic wildness of high peaks, vegetated nevertheless to the summits, and the domesticated rusticity of the plains of the coastal fringe.” Europeans believed that life was very easy for the handsome, friendly Polynesians who showed intelligence, sensitivity, and the capability of abstract thinking. Readers were assured, erroneously, that they “not only believe in a Supreme Being but in a future state also.” Bread was literally thought to grow on trees, he says referring to the breadfruit, and the natives helped themselves at will to any of life’s necessities that were produced in abundance. The Tahitians unquestionably had a form of government, though it did not seem very intrusive. Indeed, life was so trouble free that they were able to devote themselves to love. Not only were they generous and hospitable, their women were extraordinarily obliging, and everyone seemed remarkably free of modesty and jealousy. To European readers, who were all too well acquainted with social strictures in the midst of the successive economic crises and wars of 18th-century Europe, it looked in fact as though Bougainville was right to suggest it was an earthly paradise.

The fact that the widely held Tahitian myth was not true raises a number of issues. Perhaps most significantly, one has to wonder why a major intellectual like Diderot, whose reputation at the time was based on his important contribution to the Encyclopédie, would write a work designed to play on if not to spread the falsehood. Rousseau is more straightforward. He leaves no doubt that his creation of the noble savage and primitive society in his second Discours sur . . . l’inégalité of 1754, results from his understanding of the human heart and from the results of his own reason. And he concludes that humankind is happiest in an intermediate state between complete barbarism and a developed civilization like that of Europe. In contrast, Diderot mixes truth and fiction without distinction, as though he has found Rousseau’s in-between stage in Tahiti. Like Rousseau, he establishes an example through reason. He begins, however, by representing the contemporary reality of Tahiti. Unlike Rousseau, he does not explain the method of his creation, but rather he leaves the impression that the Supplément is based solidly in the reality of Bougainville’s Voyage and is, thus, true.

The first version of Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville was written in 1771 and revised at least twice, once in 1773 and then again in 1780, four years before his death. During the period when he wrote and rewrote his work, public interest in the Noble Savage enjoyed a paroxysm of enthusiasm and, then, began its decline. Diderot’s first draft may have been the result of an enthusiastic, perhaps careless, first reading of Bougainville, although later revisions do not permit such a facile explanation as inattention, since they merely expand the fiction. It is inconceivable that Diderot was not aware of a considerably less idealized view of the Tahitian reality. At best, one might repeat Gilbert Chinard’s tactful appraisal: “All the while following Bougainville rather closely for some details . . . he did not hesitate to deviate frequently from [the explorer].” Diderot had, of course, no obligation to remain in the candid path of his predecessor; I wish only to suggest that his almost certainly conscious deviations from truth are an indication that he was writing fiction, fiction with a purpose. We do not know his sources for what he knew of Tahiti, though he had certainly read Bougainville. He may or may not have met the Tahitian whom Bougainville brought back with him to France, and while he could have read other accounts of Tahiti, we are simply in the dark. He unquestionably heard about the many other English and French sources that were easily available to him and others among his circle of friends.

There are a number of explanations for the widespread acceptance of the Tahitian mirage. From early in the 18th century, the public was increasingly interested in differentiating human beings from animals. The so-called “natural man” who had not been infected by civilization was particularly fascinating to readers, especially since they had been prepared to believe that such a creature would be good, indeed noble. The myth of the “Noble Savage” was the much earlier invention of priests and missionaries like Las Casas, who were trying to defend the enslaved peoples of newly discovered lands from the all too common inhuman treatment by European masters. It was, as well, a useful tenet subsequently for both philosophes and Romantics.

As pre-Romanticism and Romanticism developed, both scholars and ordinary people joined Rousseau in wondering what made human beings uniquely human, how they differed from animals, whether there was such a thing as natural morality, and whether it could be found, studied, and turned into what Diderot called “a good model for a general system of legislation.” They then turned to the Noble Savage for confirmation of the reasonable and virtuous core that they believed at the heart of humankind. If humanity was basically good and, moreover, had good will, as Noble Savages would make one believe, one could expect to learn from them the lessons needed to replace the corrupt ancien régime with something far superior. From this grew two major presumptions: first that civilization is basically evil, and second that nature is good. A third, increasingly important presumption emerged, and became axiomatic. It had to do with an essentially good human nature.


Naturalists studied “wolf” children and exotic savages who were supposedly free of the corruptions of civilization, and they shared their conclusions with excited audiences. Readers devoured the accounts of missionaries and explorers, as well as legions of novels that recounted the adventures of Frenchmen confronting alien societies, of exotic savages transported to France, and of children raised by animals. By mid-century, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) had been translated into French several times, and then reprinted in dozens of editions. As the 19th century approached, new adaptations and translations appeared and republication continued at an energetic pace that showed no signs of abating in the 1800’s. Romantics held a deep-seated and long-lived fascination for Defoe’s book.

Robinson’s story is closely related to the tales of “wolf children” abandoned in the woods, who were miraculously kept alive by wolves or other animals that were willing to nurse them. Europe as a whole, and France in particular, had long been extremely interested in wild or “wolf” children, supposedly nourished by animals, and capable of sustaining themselves from their youngest years. In 1766 Linaeous cited nine cases of such children, and in 1754 Rousseau’s Discours sur . . .l’inégalité mentioned five. Many of the travel accounts published in the 18th century told similar stories of children that had been raised by animals. The documentation was very scanty— because it was in effect a pack of nonsense—but the public’s fascination was real.

There can be no doubt that 18th-century France was in the throes of disquiet as pre-Romantics began to reflect the often radical changes in perceptions and attitudes. This background sense of flux or, more anguishing, of political, social, and ecclesiastical instability forms a key to understanding Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville. Newlyweds may be blinded to it, says “B,” one of the book’s interlocutors, but he sees “the instability of everything . . .that surrounds them!” Migration, the aborning industrial revolution, and other social transformations have been mentioned as possible causes for this society-wide anguish that so colored Romanticism and its accompanying political, social, and aesthetic revolutions. There were many indications of significant changes, even of a paradigm shift in the perception of social issues. Education, for example, was being up-ended. Paternal teaching in particular was brought into question when after four years of debate, and over the objections of such major figures as Talleyrand and Condorcet, obligatory, public education was instituted by the Revolutionary government in 1796. As Danton put it in a widely cited statement: “Children belong to the Republic before they belong to their parents.” When children lived through the wet-nursing practices at the end of the 18th century—at least 30 percent did not—they were increasingly removed from the home and sent off to school or convent. The Catholic church, which had provided much of the glue that held society together, had weakened considerably, and the aristocracy and the government itself had fallen into disrepute. The government and the church had previously guaranteed the validity of law. As their impact diminished, some suspected that there might be no basis for ethics itself, and ethical standards began to shift. It was an unsettled society with weak foundations, great anxiety, ephemeral pleasures, and only the scraps of joy. Suicide increased to such a degree that in the early 19th century there was talk of an epidemic. People apparently felt lost. Legions of Romantic heroes, well before the “official” beginning of Romanticism, reveal deep-seated insecurity and obsessive self-consciousness. While they had more than a few doubts about the nobility of savages by the early 19th century, they were absolutely certain that civilization was pernicious. People desperately wanted to discover the true essence of humanity. They wanted to uncover the hidden, inner core of human beings stripped of society’s imperatives. Only then could there be a sensible base for a new society that was clearly in the making.

The 18th century hoped to uncover, and study, the “natural” man, perhaps because people were uncertain about their own essence. How different were they from animals? Perhaps they could get a better idea by considering human beings preserved from the iniquities of society. Diderot and his friends were convinced that the French institutions of government had been corrupted and could no longer reflect the needs of humankind. Unlike more naive ideologues, however, before throwing out the old, they wanted to construct a valid system of custom, thought, and law through which the nation could be administered. They could see that religion was needed to strike fear into the hearts of those less sophisticated than themselves who must be coerced into socially acceptable behavior. The thought that man in a state of nature was basically good and that he had evolved an effective system of natural law was very attractive. With alacrity, they discarded the Judeo-Christian concept that human beings were fundamentally sinful.

Eighteenth-century people were surrounded by change. If church and monarchy that had once guaranteed the rule of law had become corrupt, could the law itself be trusted? Diderot’s fictional Tahitian who sounds remarkably like a philosophe wonders what would happen in the midst of a changing world if “there were neither true nor false, neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly.” Who would decide for one or the other? Priests? Judges? If one or the other or both, what would happen if “from one moment to the next, you were obliged to change your ideas and behavior”? Was there a stable core, a base reality that depended on neither church nor king?

Diderot’s interlocutor, “B,” maintains that there are only three acceptable foundations for morality and law. “Go back through both ancient and modern history across the world, and you will find men subjected to three kinds of law—natural law, civil law, and religious law.” Two elements of this triadic vision seem interchangeable. “Supernatural and divine law grows stronger and is internalized as it is transformed over time into civil and national law. Then, since these civil and national laws are not consecrated, they degenerate into nothing but supernatural and divine precepts.” Unfortunately, these two traditions not only produce contradictions and dishonesty, thus creating evil men and women, but they are both in opposition to nature, especially when the offer of sex is refused. “I don’t know what this thing you call religion is,” says Orou, Diderot’s Tahitian informant, “but one can only think poorly of it, since it prevents you from tasting an innocent pleasure, to which nature, the sovereign mistress, invites each of us.”

If Diderot was correct, we more fully understand another reason why, on the one hand, the French and English avidly followed accounts of “wild children,” and, on the other, why explorers’ and missionaries’ commentaries on indigenous peoples around the world were greeted with excitement. Examples of these strange and wondrous beings were brought back for exhibition to London and Paris. Rousseau had suggested that human beings freed of the stultifying, corrupting layers of civilization would be good and noble in the early stages of civilization. Earlier in the century numerous accounts of the American savage brought considerable discouragement, and educated people were pleased to turn to the new South Sea hope. The excitement faded once again when these Tahitian, Noble Savages revealed themselves to be rather ill-mannered as well. Diderot mentions that Aotourou, the visitor from the South Seas, needed no invitation to throw himself on women, which they found disconcerting. Moreover, and perhaps more seriously, the savage “could never learn to speak our language.” For the French and for their Greek ancestors, an inability to cope with the language of culture indicates barbarity. The Greek etymon of barbarian means “stammerer,” in short someone who could not speak Greek acceptably. In the attempt to find some admirable nobility at the heart of humankind, exogenous savages were as disappointing as indigenous “wolf” children.

Especially for those like Diderot, who were apprised of the depressing indications that a simple solution for man’s evil might not exist in human beings themselves, there was another possibility, a possibility that led the philosophe to write his dialogued Supplément within a year of the 1771 publication of Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde, though it was not published until 1796. “B” exclaims, “[L]ife in nature is so simple, and our societies are such complicated mechanisms. The Tahitian touches on the origin of the world, and Europeans touch on its old age.” Was it possible that nature was not only our “sovereign mistress” but also our legislator? “A,” the other interlocutor, even concludes: “Civil law should be nothing but the expression of natural law.”


In this context, the Tahitian propensity to share their women becomes important, though not only for the titillation Diderot sought in Les Bijoux indiscrets, or as a compensation for his own unhappy marriage. The Supplément suggests that nature is both sovereign and a law giver. In offering their wives and daughters to passing sailors (and of course to the chaplain the author could not resist including), in encouraging the apparently ungoverned sexuality of their pubescent, young people, in exchanging wives among themselves, even in committing incest, Tahitians are merely doing what comes naturally. Several years earlier, in 1770, Bricaire de La Dixmerie’s similarly fictional Tahitian, who writes a letter to explain his feelings about the France he has just visited, expresses horror that in France “[a] girl is dishonored for giving in to the most intense of nature’s instincts.” Looked at through Diderot’s eyes, as a consequence of Tahiti’s promiscuous ways, there are good results: children are being produced and, moreover, rape is very rare. Women and children are valued, the philosophe argues, for they are capable of having offspring, thus adding to the wealth of the community. “Here the bed of a child that suffers is drenched in tears; here sick mothers are cared for; here a fertile woman is valued, as is a nubile girl and an adolescent boy; here people worry about establishing young people, because taking care of them is always augmentation and their loss always diminishment of wealth.” The influence of the physiocrats is obvious, though they would have put more emphasis on land. Turgot, who became Controller General of Finance in 1774, was a firm believer in natural economic law. He had written several major, essays, as well as articles for the Encyclopédie, that reveal the influence of Quesnay and the physiocrats. Diderot may have met Adam Smith who traveled in France in 1764, but, in any case, Diderot’s message in the Supplément is in harmony with The Wealth of Nations (1776). People (or in Smith’s terms “labor”), rather than land or money, are the true basis of a nation’s wealth. In short, Diderot’s Tahitian economics argues that promiscuity leads to riches.

One of the arguments advanced in favor of divorce was that it would increase the birth rate. In the face of a growing body of statistics that indicated the converse, many persistently believed that France’s population was declining. Divorce would allow sterile couples to join with new spouses and, it was assumed, suddenly begin to produce the offspring needed by the country. Novelty might also fan spent fires productively. The system worked very efficiently and well for Diderot’s Tahitians. Women, because they were free, were also free of such “imaginary virtues and vices” as “prudishness, restraint, seemly behavior” that are created when men own women. Depravity, as well, grows from “the tyranny of man, who has turned possession of a woman into [treating her as though she were] property.” Both civil and religious legal systems lead to vice, since in raising barriers between the sexes “which keeps them from reciprocally inviting each other to violate the laws that have been imposed on them and which often cause a contrary effect by exciting their imaginations and irritating their desire.”

Madame de Monbart’s Lettres taïtiennes (1786) turn on the slavery inherent in Western ways. When the French and the English come to the island, even Tahiti is corrupted. Zulica, the novel’s heroine, is actually sold by her fellows to an Englishman who desires her and whom she rejects. While the Englishman eventually repents and acknowledges his brutishness, there is no indication that Zulica’s friends, neighbors, and relatives ever regretted what they had done. As for Zeïr, the man she loves, when he follows nature and desires Mme de Germeuil, the latter makes him swear both to marry her and to forever renounce Zulica.

Law and tradition in civilized culture have loaded the most natural of acts (that is, sexual intercourse) with conditions and formalities. “[H]ow has it come about that an act whose end is so solemn, and to which nature invites us by the most powerful of attractions, that the greatest, the sweetest, the most innocent of pleasures has become the most fecund source of our depravation and our troubles?” Furthermore, rather than being the source of wealth, as in the philosophe’s Tahiti, newborn children under civil and religious law lead to poverty. Civilization poisons nature. The more people are civilized, the more unhappy they will be. What could be more natural than for men and women to be drawn to each other? “[D]o you do evil when you cede to the most august impulsion in nature?”

The issue was ready-made for Diderot to suggest a natural morality where promiscuity was advantageous for society. Since he claims that on Tahiti all work is done in common, all property held by the community, and every child adds to the wealth. He imagines that mothers are paid for each additional child, and, thus, get a bigger share of the community’s produce. The fathers receive every fourth child for their efforts, and both children and the elderly receive a sixth of a portion for their support. Children then become a woman’s dowry, bringing wealth to the new husband, and when he or she is attracted elsewhere, it merely adds to the family fortune. Consequently, even incest is a good, and the chaplain is forced to agree: “I agree that perhaps incest does not in any respect harm nature.”

As mentioned earlier, the Tahitian reality was not so simple. These Noble Savages suffered from a number of diseases, of which syphilis was a significant problem. Somehow Diderot also ignores the typhoons and other natural disasters that often inflicted damage on their island. He pays no attention to the tribal warfare that was so common as to be termed “endemic.” Bricaire’s Tahitian goes further. He does not just praise his own reality, he criticizes the French for their “ceaseless wars” and claims that his own people “are horrified by human blood. They don’t even know how to use arms. War & murder are absolutely unknown among them.” Bougainville, Cook and more recent writers, however, go on to point out that the social structures were far more complicated and rigid than is commonly understood. The Tahitian women available for sexual favors, for example, may have been limited to lower class girls provided to distract the European visitors and thus prevent armed attack and plunder. Cook insists that upper class women were as difficult as their European counterparts. And while Diderot makes a passing reference to cannibalism, as does Bricaire de La Dixmerie, it is in both cases quickly passed over. For Bricaire, it results from fear, that is, from a desire to propitiate the spirits of the dead. Both seem to feel that it has to be mentioned, perhaps, as Claude Rawson suggests, as a means of avoiding a scathing commentary like that of La Pérouse on Rousseau’s second discourse: “I am a thousand times more angry at the philosophes who praise the savages than at the savages themselves.” And Diderot says nothing about the infanticide. In a somewhat overstated passage about infanticide, Banks reveals that Diderot’s construct based on the value of children is rather shaky:

Marriage in these islands is no more than an agreement between man and woman, totally independent of the priest; it is in general, I believe, well kept, unless the parties agree to separate, which is done with as little trouble as they came together. Few people, however, enter this state, but rather choose freedom, though bought at the inhuman expense of murdering their children, whose fate is in that case entirely dependent on the father. If he does not choose to acknowledge both them and the woman, and engage to contribute his part towards their support, he orders the child to be strangled, which is instantly put in execution.

The myth of the Noble Savage was nonetheless still sufficiently healthy to allow Diderot’s configuration. His version of Tahiti provided him with a basis for a new argument for social equality on all levels. It might not be a veritable utopia, but in the Rousseauistic progression from the primitive to the civilized, it was as close as they had been able to discover to a happy, intermediate state of perfection that was more than inhuman barbarity and less than corrupt sophistication. It thus provided important insights into the very nature of humankind. Where Rousseau reasons from his understanding of the human heart, Diderot reasons from a partial view of the contemporary reality of Tahiti. Except for the Tahitian hierarchy that Bougainville explicitly terms “cruel” and which Diderot explicitly contradicts, the Supplément focuses on love outside of marriage and on a state of equality where everything is shared. The rest he wordlessly leaves aside.

The system that Diderot posits, with some support from Bougainville, has great benefit, according to “A” and “B.” Diderot’s interlocutors agree that, while the laws of man and church change and corrupt citizens, as evidenced by the disturbing realities of the pre-revolutionary day, nature remains a constant. Bricaire’s Tahitian also points to the simplicity of the legal system, which was a significant advantage: “No law among us is written, & never was the law transgressed: never did it make discontents.” Tahitians resemble French people, since human beings are cut from the same mold: “At birth, we bring nothing but our resemblance to other human beings, the same needs, the attraction toward the same pleasures, a common aversion for the same pain—that is what constitutes human beings as they are and what should be at the base of a suitable morality.” Men and women are attracted to each other and to sexual congress. That is true everywhere and should then provide a sensible basis for law, but law based on nature.

It was common to refer to animals as a justification for divorce. Most animals do not mate for life, so why should human beings? Madame de Staël’s mother, Madame Necker, in reaction not specifically to Diderot but to the philosophes in general, pointed out that humanity should not be judged on the basis of other species. In nature, “species never mix. Do not then confuse them with human nature, since differences of character are not as invincible as are the resistances raised by animal instinct. The marriage agreement can result, almost universally, in self-control.” When Diderot’s Tahitians follow their inclinations, a couple might come together for a month or two, before moving on to other mates. As Bricaire put it, “It does not seem to us that an inclination of this nature can never change, since all others change.” Should the woman come home pregnant, Diderot claimed, she will be welcomed, since she is adding to the family wealth. The financial system was then organized to support fathers and mothers with numerous children. If others would follow the example, a new civilization based on pleasure would arise, blossom, and bear plenteous fruit. When Mme de Monbart’s passionate Tahitian, Zeïr, vows to marry Mme de Germeuil and, further, to never again seek out Zulica, he quickly realizes that his momentary passion has led him to make a terrible mistake. If only Mme de Germeuil were Tahitian the solution would be simple. “Why was this enchanting woman not born a Tahitian? I could have adored her without abandoning Zulica, and though my soul would have been shared between them, it would have been no less tender for each. Cruel custom, ferocious virtue that forces me either to push a woman I idolize to despair or to abandon the one who lives only for me.”

Mme de Germeuil, of course, will not bend to this “odious sharing.” Other characters do not hesitate to condemn Mme de Germeuil for holding Zeïr to his vows, but they offer no solution for her quandary. Only Zeïr—and perhaps the reader—explicitly understands that sharing, the “natural,” Tahitian way, is the only satisfactory solution.

The anguish at the end of the 18th century was very real, and the public was anxious to discover an immutable reality that could perhaps protect them from constant flux. They considered savages with care, whether enfant sauvage or Tahitian, and they tried to discover what humankind would resemble in the event that it could be relieved of the oppressive burden of civilization. Just as the real Aotourou had all too little resemblance to Diderot’s fictional Orou, the results of novelists’ fanciful Tahiti frequently had little or no relationship to reality. Incredible flights of imagination occur in “science” and in fiction. The abandoned three-year-old twins in Ducray-Duminil’s novel Lolotte et Fanfan (1788) were able to stay alive, for instance, by drinking their fill from an undomesticated but miraculously benign, nanny goat with her own kid. The lack of realism of such a complacent nanny equals, at the very least, the subsequent whale that arrives with a shipwrecked boat on its back. Ducray-Duminil’s creation, however, is little more fanciful than Diderot’s, which the encyclopedist created to demonstrate the potential of the invariable law of nature. People will accept as truth what they want to accept, and the audience in the late 18th century of France was desperate to find a reality that would not change.

Diderot, Bricaire de La Dixmerie, and Mme de Monbart were only three among many who believed that Tahitians’ “simple laws are engraved on the foundations of their souls, and nature represents their legal system,” as Mme de Monbart puts it. “When law is contrary to nature, nature eludes the law, since it is stronger, and makes us culpable.” A natural law had a number of advantages, not the least of which was liberation from feelings of guilt for unfettered sexual activity and, perhaps, the titillation it offered in certain formulations. The myth of the Noble Savage, first created by missionaries to insist on the humanity of those enslaved peoples in the New World, was reconfigured by Rousseau to validate certain opinions he had about man’s nature, and then further revised by Diderot to suggest a new kind of government that would spare us the corruption and injustices of the ancien régime. The reconfigurations were good only so long as reality did not intrude. But the seeds of the myth’s destruction were evident in the accounts of those who had actually seen the reality, and, eventually, reality gained such substance that Romantics were not able to ignore it. Perhaps because of the Polynesians who came back with various explorers and who bore so little resemblance to the myth, more attention was paid to the passages in Cook, Bougainville, La Pérouse, and others that insist on savages that were if not ignoble then far from admirable. Certainly by early in the 19th century, there was little left of the Tahitian mirage. In 1838, for example, an American missionary by the name of Richard Armstrong was to show how little credence in the idealized Noble Savage remained:

In point of morals, the Marquesians must be classed with the lowest of our species. Nothing we have ever beheld in the shape of depravity in other parts of the world will compare for a moment with their shameful and shameless inequities. . . . In attempting to form a correct conception of the Marquesian character, you . . .must imagine a human being, in mere physical qualities equal to any of the race, but in morals, barren of everything that adorns human nature. Unaccountably mean in his dealings, filthy in his habits and conversation, savage in his temper, a cannibal by education, ungrateful for favors, cruel to his enemies, treacherous to his friends.

Belief in the Noble Savage and a morally superior nature did not dissipate immediately. Among others, the title characters of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788) learn their admirable code of conduct from the nature that surrounds them, and Chateaubriand’s Atala and Chactas of 1801 and 1802 long gripped the public’s attention. Nor did the myths fade away absolutely. Resurgent phantoms recur in neo-Romantic creations by Paul Gaugin and Pierre Loti, and several of its constituent elements, particularly the distrust of civilization and the dogged belief that humankind is basically good, would become two of the most important tenets of Romanticism.


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